The Center of the Action

A summer re-reading of Mancini’s Practical Reflections coupled with a cross-examination of a Rossini biography by Herbert Weinstock led to some interesting discoveries on shifting musical and pedagogical values of the nineteenth century and gave me further indication that the nineteenth century was indeed a period of pedagogical pandemonium.

Weinstock quotes from an essay by Andrea Delle Corte, Fra gorgheggi e melodie di Rossini, Musica I, Florence, 1942. In it, he describes the chaos of the early nineteenth century.

It’s fascinating to contemplate the possibility of Rossini leaving opera composition due to the expanding influence of Romanticism and its effect on singing. Rossini understood the slow and laborious training of the Old School (he had heard the castrati and was himself a singer) – so he may have come to the conclusion that his style of Italianate composition was on the wane. Or, more frankly, he may have been disgusted by the whole affair, as we know he was by the singing of Tamberlik’s infamous high C#, telling the tenor to leave it on the coat rack when he came to visit. (Tamberlik was assured that he could pick it up again on his way out). Rossini detested the do di petto (introduced by Gilbert-Louis Duprez in Guillaume Tell) calling it the “shriek of a strangulated capon.”

The tendency to force the voice represents the culmination of the vocal crisis between 1820 and ‘40, and also an element in the crisis of musical taste imposed by artistic expressions of the fullness of romanticism. In Italy, in France, in Germany, the very cultivators and worshippers of a way of singing which was, above all, delicate, soft, shaded, which had preserved the best part of the singing of the eighteenth century—that is, its substance—these very men observed that one of the strongest of spiritual evolutions was in progress and that the feeling of life and art was promoting manners different from and daily more antithetical to their predecessors. Faced with romanticism, which invaded and transformed everything, Rossini abandoned the field. The singer was one of the many instruments of the new expression. The libretto, the scenography, the melody, the harmony, the orchestration, the dramatic and operatic conception—everything was changing. Impetus, vehemence, pathos, which were pushed—as happened in the corruption that was not long in accompanying and damaging the new ideas—which were pushed to exaggeration, to exasperation, characteristics of the romantic sensibility, were put at the service of the new democratic public that could throng the large theaters. Loud playing and singing became the most banal expedient. In what earlier period had the tenor had occasion, let us say the pretext, to attempt the emission, the launching, the explosion, of high sounds of unprecedented violence, sufficient, as Rossini ironically said, to break glasses and mirrors? An investigation of the factors in the crisis, lighting up the reciprocal accusations of orchestration and singing, the brutality of the effects that pleased and excited the crowd, the adherence of composers to the new mode, and so forth, would be interesting nevertheless. In the end, as we have said, they would be accepted as corruption and at the same time as inescapable necessity.

Rossini had pointed words towards the new style of vocal emission that was developing through the ascendance of Romanticism, turning opera into a blood sport:

The old florid style is replaced by a nervous one, the solemn by shouts, the affecting sentiment by hydrophobic passion. The question is entirely one of lungs. The singer who feels in his soul, and vocal splendor, are forbidden.

I was tickled to read Rossini’s assessment that singing had become a ‘question entirely … of lungs.’ It indicates a kind of singing overtaken by breath, breath, and more breath. More importantly, we can trace the attention of pedagogy shifting from the larynx (as will be seen in the Mancini quote below) to a focus dominated by breath and the proper WAY to breathe.

In the place of an Old Italian school was one erected upon ‘hydrophobic passion,’ wresting the utmost from the vocal instrument, which grappled not only with extended range and volume but with a shortened period of training. It’s important to remember that singers were doing MORE on LESS training in the 19th century. Accounts of ‘uneven voices’ were recorded often in accounts of operatic productions of the period.

If we think today that the idea of singing being ‘a matter of the lungs’ was shared by the Italian belcantists, Mancini had opposing beliefs: in his Practical Reflections from 1774, he placed attention in a different physiological neighborhood – the larynx.


The common people believe that he who has an elevated chest, and can yell loudly, has the qualities to come out a good singer. The strength of the voice depends, it is true, upon the quantity of air which is pressed out from the lungs, depending upon how ample these are; and if the trachea is broad, and the larynx, so the tone of the voice is great, which is born from the pressing out of the air from the cavity of the thorax. It is also true, as the physiologists say, that the two lungs are instruments that contribute to speaking and singing with greater or lesser force as required, in as much as they and the chest are more or less ample and capacious for receiving and expelling the air introduced into them; but at the same time, one must say that it is just as certain that the lungs are not the true organs which form speech and voice. These are formed in the throat and in the mouth by the flowing back and forth of the air in passing through these parts at the time of inspiration and expiration. The air from the lungs works over the larynx in singing in the same manner as it works over the head of the flute, which one leans against the lips to play. It is not the lungs which sing; these do nothing except provide the material, that is, air; in the same way it is not the air that renders the tone of the flute pleasing, but the fingers which give it the diverse modulations. Thus the organs of the voice are the larynx, the glottis, the uvula, the palatal veil, the tongue, the teeth, and the lips, and these are the parts which give the diverse inflections to the voice in singing.

The better these parts are organized, the more beautiful, strong and clear will be the voice. It will open in singing through varied pitches, high and low; it will stop, and it will vibrate through the many inflections, that is, in the various manners in which the air is expressed through the larynx. In speaking these organs are quiet and natural, but in the action of singing they are held to constant toil, and the most fatigue is in the muscles of the larynx: these direct the voice, condensing to produce the high notes and dilating for the low notes. A proof of what I say is to be clearly found in birds. Those birds that have the narrowest and most compact epiglottises are those that sing well: those that have large ones in proportion to their bodies do not sing at all, but simply shriek.

And so I conclude that the elevated chest alone, and the power to shout at high pitches are not qualities sufficient for good results in singing. It is necessary that the organs of the voice be perfect, for if these are imperfect by nature, or through some illness which is not correctable, the singing will always be bad; that child who is directed by a good master has much more hope of good results to the extent that the organs named are well-formed.

For teachers that attempt to solve the large portion of vocal problems through the management of breath, an investigation of the larynx as the locus does have historical precedence and merit. Mancini centered singing in the throat in the eighteenth century, Rossini observed in the nineteenth that it was centered on the lungs.

As more fact-based pedagogy comes to light, it continues to delight me that we find our way back to an understanding that was clearly grasped as late as the eighteenth century but became lost in a mare’s nest of theories, speculation, nincompoopery, shenanigans, mischief, and charlatanism.

Could it be possible in our fact-based pedagogical age we are returning to an empirical knowledge and understanding of the “center of the action” that was grasped as late as 244 years ago by Mancini?

4 thoughts on “The Center of the Action

  1. Hi Justin! This all makes total sense of course, but it also makes me a little nervous, because I have spent so much time trying to *not* think about my larynx (which really means trying to relax all extrinsic muscles, but anyway), which is a huge issue for me. How does one reconcile relaxing the throat but focusing on the larynx at the same time? Perhaps I am over-thinking this — I am still a work in early progress.

    1. So true, Steven. I take a page from Reid’s book that it’s an INDIRECT system. You have to work it indirectly, not directly (as in controlling parts). That seems to be what you are describing in ‘not thinking about your larynx.’ What you are describing sounds more psychological than pedagogical. But here are some quick tips that I’ve taken from Reid about, “What the Singer Should Do.” I’ve found this so useful:

      1. Assume an erect, comfortable position.

      2. Conceptualize the exercise projected solely in terms of a particular arrangement of pitch, intensity, devoid of any qualitative properties associated with “my quality” or a teacher’s aesthetic preference.

      3. a) open the mouth naturally, b) breathe amply without concern for how the breath is inspired, c) think the vowel form and exercise pattern at the same time, and d) allow the tone to emerge out of the thought form.

      4. Sing the phrase on the vibratory impulses initiated with a strong, rhythmic elan.

      5. Listen to the textures of the new qualities that emerge as a product of this discipline and identify with its accompanying sensations – recording each, not as a definitive good, but one among many textural modifications that occur spontaneously and can lead to the discovery of an intrinsically natural tone quality.

      1. Hi Justin. Thank you very much for sharing these brilliant instructions with me. The text reminds me of Clippinger in its common sense. This is exactly what I needed to see today. When I started studying singing earnestly 4 years ago, I honestly thought that people with beautiful singing voices were just born that way and that all of this talk about not focusing effort locally on throat muscles was just something that teachers said in order to create a need for their services! This was not because I thought all teachers were shysters but because what they were saying was not part of my reality: I had never experienced singing without heavy reliance on throat muscles, and I literally could not imagine or understand that there was any other way to sing. Then I went through a period where I intellectually believed it to be true but assumed that my own voice was just defective somehow because singing without huge local effort was still simply not part of my reality. It is only within the last few months that I finally am starting to “get it.” It is hard to describe to people who aren’t interested in singing the extent and the many different levels of the journey a person goes through in order to learn proper singing technique and then how to interpret and perform a song effectively. It is a journey into oneself and where one questions the very nature of physical reality and explores the connections between body, mind and spirit in so many ways. Thanks again. — Steven

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