The Italian vocal tradition - decline and fall

All faults in the emission of vocal tone, may be directly related to the improper use of the breath.


Francesco Lamperti and his son, Giovanni Battista, probably the last of the standard bearers, of the great Italian vocal tradition, attempted to arrest the process of breath abuse in the emission of vocal tone. However, despite Francesco’s appeal - 'I would again urge on the pupil to make a careful study of respiration. As singing is a development of speaking, so is abdominal respiration a development of natural breathing, and cannot be acquired at once.......... Let him always bear in mind this important truth, "He who has the best command over the breath is the best singer." ' – his words were falling on deaf ears.


Giovanni Battista, at a later date, reiterated this wisdom when he observed - 'all bad habits of the throat are merely efforts of protection against the clumsy management of breath.' His subsequent observations are even more revelatory of the malaise that was prevalent even in those times. Namely, that vocal tone was no longer carried on retained breath energy, but driven by uncontrolled explosive breath, into places within the cranial anatomy, generally frontal, where it would not want to go naturally. Consider the following.

'Sing from the head down. NEVER sing from your throat up. You might as well try to lift yourself by your bootstraps'.


       Lamperti, Francesco
       1811 -1892


       Lamperti, Giovanni Battista
       1839 -1910


This 'bootstrap' emission, in particular, was akin to a rapidly spreading disease through the body of the tradition, and led to its ultimate demise.




An oral tradition is most vulnerable when its true representatives suffer depletion in their ranks, and their replacements, either through imperfect knowledge, or for reasons of expediency, fail to meet the exacting standards of their predecessors.


The human singing voice is unique among musical instruments for its ability to sustain a melodic line, and to simultaneously express meaning through language. It is also an instrument that is hidden from view, whilst the impulse for its use is an even greater mystery, remaining in the domain of the sympathetic nerves and ganglia referred to as the solar plexus. For these reasons, it is the most likely to suffer abuse.


In the development of the Italian vocal tradition, its founding fathers based their study on careful and patient observation of the mechanics of the 'natural' voice; a phenomenon described in an earlier chapter. Their observations centred on the nature of cause and effect in the emission of vocal tone. Knowledge was pooled, and from this source there emerged the principles and precepts required for the dissemination of this knowledge. A school of vocalism was born, La Scuola del Respiro e dell’Articolazione; unified in principle and precept, whose boundaries were soon to expand, and to encompass all of the existing Western musical world.




Fundamental to its teaching was the necessity for a complete understanding of the breath process in vocal emission. The control and harnessing of breath energy required for the emission of tone, was achieved through a process referred to as 'la lutte vocale', the vocal struggle; wherein, the respiratory muscles, in striving to retain the air gathered in the lungs, oppose the action of the expiratory muscles, as they expel the air necessary to produce sound. This descriptive and derivative term, cited by Francesco Lamperti in his Treatise on the Art of Singing, is probably the most misunderstood and misapplied, and never more so than in the 20th century, and beyond.


It also highlights the fact, that with the best will in the world, terms such as this, when separated from the oral tradition from which they sprang, lose their meaning, and lead the unknowing down paths of further ignorance. Many pages in books, and now tracts on the internet, have been dedicated to the explanation of this term and its application in voice instruction. Its proliferation on the internet, frequently in misspelt form, and with an accompanying commentary to match the misspelling, is a particularly worrying development, serving only to confound the already confused mind of the student of voice.


Isolating and developing one aspect of what is after all a complex, coordinated, reflexive, yet natural process, yields nothing in the end. It opens the door still further to the vocal quackeries posing as scientific methods, with catastrophic consequences for vocal art. It is reasonable to conclude, that since the appearance of Manuel Garcia’s laryngoscope – for which the medical world will always be grateful – vocal art has faced its greatest challenges. Giovanni Battista Lamperti was well aware of this threat when he observed – 'Not anatomical dissection, nor physiological vivisection, but natural functions of respiration, phonation, hearing, seeing etc ., make the physiological foundation of singing. All else is "excess baggage".'




The fusion of breath and speech, and the coordination of all energies involved in this process, produces vocal tone. The only difference between the speaking voice and the singing one, is the continuity of vibration and the flow of energy. In speech we can stop and reinflect, something we cannot do when executing a continuous melodic line.



Breath proper and breath abuse

The student, as well as the master of the Italian vocal tradition, considered the attainment of this fusion as central to the whole process of tone emission. It began with the correct intake of breath. Namely, the ability to fill both top and bottom of the lungs with air, or as expressed by the Lampertis – to take the breath of a swimmer. The air thus gathered was then retained and maintained in a compressed state – a mental process – and never dissipated. Something which, in the experience of this writer, and based on a sample of students from many parts of the world, appears to be an unknown.


The study then, systematically and painstakingly, revealed the process by which the articulated, ie., the pronounced word, and the breath interact. Francesco Lamperti in his diagrammatic representations of the 'apoggio' ie., the placement of the voice on the breath, clearly shows the interaction between breath and the resultant tone. Breath descends, as tone ascends. Only when these opposing forces attained an equilibrium, was the student deemed to have mastered breath control, and with it, the art of legato singing, in which when one tone literally flows into the other.


The maintenance of this equilibrium throughout vocal emission represented the moment of triumph in 'la lutte vocale.' Put another way, the uttered word is brought down to the point of exhalation of the breath, and carried on that breath as pure tone. The point here being one of direction. Voice is never projected, or driven in any direction, least of all forward. As Giovanni Battista Lamperti puts it – 'the reverberation of the voice is felt as an elastic solid, filling head, throat and(in low tones) chest.......... In other words, you sing "from head to foot".'


The sensation of drinking, or inhaling, during tonal emission, was instilled in the student from the outset, and was the hallmark of true breath control. The deeper these sensations were felt within the muscles of the breathing mechanism, the greater the steadiness and sonority of the resultant tone. It is not an exaggeration to say, that the single most important factor that distinguishes the singer of the past, from that of the present, is precisely the one of breath connection and subsequent tonal direction. The ridiculous commentary on the subject of ‘voice inhalation’, especially on the internet, is simply staggering.


The first symptoms of this malaise ie., the flabby diaphragm, the pushing of loose breath against the vocal cords and the resultant breathy and pinched tone frontally driven ,were already apparent during Lampertis’ time. The malaise has now reached epidemic proportions, with vocal ill-health as one of its major manifestations. The forced, throat- held and pinched quality has intensified, and the last traces of tonal sonority have disappeared. Voices wobble as a matter of course, as the muscles that encase the vocal organ are required to work even more unnaturally.



Vibrato / Tremolo – the scourge of vocal tone

It is beyond comprehension how a pernicious flaw such as this, has been made into a virtue. Although it has been present in vocalism in varying degrees over the last hundred odd years, the quantity of singers now affected by this scourge, is simply overwhelming. Not only is the tone rarely on the note, but also, in many instances, it wanders several semi-tones either side of it.


Herman Klein, whose credentials, both as a major music critic during the twilight years of great vocalism, and later as a voice teacher, are beyond reproach, wrote the following in his essay of 1923, entitled, The Bel Canto – with particular reference to the singing of Mozart –  

'In the old Italian school of singing, nothing used to be more admired and cultivated than an absolutely steady tone. Today even in Italy, a strong vibrato or a quivering tremolo is generally preferred......... Whether a trembling tone can ever furnish a satisfactory medium for the singing of Mozart is another question. We have evidence, both internal and external, that the voice for which Mozart wrote did not suffer from this particular drawback. The sin did not become common until some years after it had started at the Paris Opera in the midway of the last century. Meyerbeer, Auber, and Gounod openly expressed their detestation of it. In alliance either with a strain of pure melody or a declamatory passage, a trembling voice, no matter how pleasing its quality per se, has always sounded disagreeable...... Intelligent use of the method of breathing described above practically obviates all danger of an unsteady tone.' The breathing method to which he refers, is identical to the one described in the previous paragraphs.


A flaw frequently becomes a virtue in the hands of the unscrupulous, when the knowledge and the means by which it can be corrected, are no longer available. Its use is then justified as an expression of taste or preference, or as an embellishment to the music itself. Worse still, is the ignorance of accompanists and conductors who advise singers to employ more ‘vibrato’ in the execution of certain musical passages. Herman Klein cites just a few of the major composers for voice who detested its presence in their music; there were many more. Indeed, it calls into question the whole purpose of musical notation, as well as the composer’s intention, and the effect such distortions have on the appreciation of a given vocal composition.



Articulation and non-articulation

It was inconceivable for any true master of the Italian tradition, to separate the emission of vocal tone from speech utterance. The expression – 'vocal tone is born at the point of speech' - did not simply materialise out of thin air. The Lampertis in particular, stipulated that words which cannot be uttered freely on a given pitch within the compass of a given voice, can never be sung; emphasising yet again, the importance of declamation in singing. It is the fusion of breath and utterance alluded to earlier, that produces vocal tone. When tone has to accommodate words, and words have to be modified to fit the tone, vocal emission becomes a desperate struggle.

One has only to witness the pitiful verbal and sonic exaggerations in pronunciation, not to mention grimaces, and the general incomprehensibility of the sung text, to appreciate the hopelessness of today’s situation.




The quantity of nonsense aired on these topics, simply beggars belief, and only reaffirms the desperate plight of the vocal art.


Open throat

A question frequently asked is, how does one open one’s throat for the purposes of singing? The response is that the throat is always in an open state, and it is only the incorrect coordination between breath and utterance that removes it from its natural open position. In other words, voice study is not about how to open the throat, but how not to close it.


At this point it is necessary to refer back to the Taoist teachings, mentioned in a previous chapter. In defining Tao, or the Way, Lao Tzu states – 'Tao never does, yet through it all things are done.' There is no better starting point for the emission of vocal tone than this.


Giovanni Battista Lamperti observed the following – 'A tone must be self-starting, self-prolonging and self-stopping.' In response to a question from a student –'Why can’t I sing?' - he answers – 'Because you try.' The idea is developed further in his remark that any unnatural use of muscle, other than the one employed in releasing breath energy, will impair the quality of the tone produced, by disturbing its true harmonics. During tonal emission, the throat remains in its 'quiescent' state. Thus,it is the necessity to do something, rather than allowing something to happen, that is prejudicial to the creation of vocal tone. The quantity and inanity of the diatribe that floods the internet in relation to the concept of 'self-starting' etc., is bewildering.


The unnatural use of muscle during tonal emission by the contemporary singer is evident in the general postural discomfort, the unnatural and unnecessary bodily movements, the tensing of neck and shoulders, the frequent downward thrust of the head, the trembling jaws and lips, the arched tongue, and a host of accompanying facial grimaces and gestures. The resultant tone is forced, throaty and strident.


Not only are such manifestations ultimately damaging to the vocal health of the singer, they effectively act as a distraction, and hence a barrier to the appreciation of the music performed.



Vowels and consonants

A key element in the tuition of the Italian school, was the study of the basic vowels, principal of which was the A vowel. This birth-right vowel, ie., the vowel that every baby vocalises on from the moment of its birth, is an open-throated sound, perfectly balanced on the breath, high in decibels, and thus completely natural. The significance of this was not lost on the founding fathers of the school. The A vowel, especially in its pure Italian formant, was the one chosen for vocalisation.


Any modification, or deformation of this vowel, by changing it into a more rounded sound closer to that of an O, was not permitted. Francesco Lamperti, in particular, outlawed the practice, as it adversely affected the open position of the throat, and, in his words – 'though it might give to the voice a more full and rounded quality in a room, would render it smaller and without brilliancy in a theatre.' He further observes that, once the student has mastered the emission of the A vowel, he, or she would easily master the remaining vowels.


The function of the consonant was also an integral part of the study. It is important to remember the derivation of the word consonant, from con = together or with and sonare = to sound, ie., something that is sounded with something; in this instance a vowel. Although it carries no sonic value without a vowel, its avoidance or elision in speech or sung text, makes nonsense of language.


The A vowel used by itself, especially for a beginner struggling to control escaping breath, was regarded as being difficult for purposes of vocalisation. The interpolation of a consonant prefix to minimise breath escape was recommended. For a multitude of reasons, the consonant L being preferred. The subsequent introduction of prefix consonants such as M and N, had a deleterious effect on vocalisation, especially when coupled with the progressive shift toward frontal emission.


What was never permitted, however, was vocalisation on consonants alone. This counter-productive nonsense, whose origins can be traced back to a very eminent singer, and his exclusively personal way of resolving technical difficulties, has become a teaching tool employed by many, for want of a better name, pedagogues. The excruciating noises emanating from private studios and those in musical institutions, blend well with the general cacophony of the age.




The Aesthetic

The quality of the vocal tone created by the application of the above-mentioned principles, was described as chiaroscuro – light and dark. A quality of tone unknown to the contemporary listener. Voices today lying at both extremes. Light being white and throaty, dark being covered and mouthy, or throaty, according to preference.


La voce chiaroscuro is one in which the tone possesses a deep sonority, and yet is open in utterance, with words clearly defined as in natural speech. Conceived on a low breath, it partakes of all the resonating surfaces within the singer’s body, and emerges as a free vibration at the lips. There is no push or pull in the execution of this sound. It is spontaneous and never laboured, as if it were there by the light of nature. For the singer, the sensation is that of singing from 'head to foot', and feeling well grounded. Given all the malpractices and ills that beset contemporary vocalism, the chiaroscuro tone will always remain an impossibility.


The motto adopted by the present school is L’Arte di Chiaroscuro.



Voice types

Reference has already been made to the absurd notion of voice types specific to the needs of a given composer, eg., Verdian, Wagnerian etc. Singers trained in the Italian vocal tradition sang the repertoire. Voices were deemed suitable or unsuitable for a particular work, because of the nature of their vocal material. Vocal categories within the existing voice types were simple affairs. Material was viewed as light, medium or substantial.


Furthermore, the student was not chosen for presence of vocal material alone. Francesco Lamperti regarded as fallacious the observation by a celebrated composer on the qualities necessary to become a singer – 'voce, voce e poi voce'. In his opinion, although vocal material was important, other qualities had equal validity – 'anima' ie, spirit and emotion, 'musical aptitude, correct judgement' and 'memory'.


Most importantly, the nature of the voice was never changed, nor its inherent defects interfered with. Some voices are by nature more nasal, some more guttural, some thinner, some fuller in quality.Yet provided they followed the rules of breath and phonation, their emission ultimately becomes free. The proliferation of voice categories today, the sub-categories within sub-categories syndrome, together with the imitative monotony that is a characteristic of their quality, is a consequence of voice manufacture by template, where cause and effect have long since gone their separate ways.


Still more worrying is the emergence, and now the canonization of that sonic abomination, the falsettist – wrongly designated as counter-tenor, and bearing no resemblance to the haute-contre voice, and the castrato, whose mantle it has tried to steal. Not only is such a voice false in tone, but is also false in the way it has insinuated itself into the period movement of music, and driven yet another nail into the coffin of the Italian vocal tradition.




In the mid 19th century, and for many of the reasons outlined previously, the Italian vocal tradition suffered a schism. Two opposing camps emerged, both in the name of the renowned vocal pedagogues of the time – Francesco Lamperti and Manuel Garcia.


Broadly speaking, the Garcia camp represented the school of the modifiers; that is those who sought to improve on nature, or to modify its more awkward manifestations with quick-fix solutions, which were often predicated on ‘scientific’ propositions. In particular, awkward vowels and consonant vowel combinations that presented difficulties to the singer, underwent modification to ease the singer’s lot. In consequence, the natural formant of the original was lost, resulting in a loss of individuality of the tone itself. The template, conveyor- belt tonal emission, came to characterise the contemporary voice.


The artificial employment of a vocal timbre referred to as, la voix sombre, to artificially deepen tonal quality (the origins of covered tone), were just a few of its 'tricks of the trade'.


The Lamperti camp, on the other hand, remained true to its origins, choosing to work with nature, and not against it. It held fast to the principles and precepts of the Florentine founding fathers, who regarded singing tone as an extension of natural speech. Modifying the constituent parts of this process, namely vowels and consonant vowel combinations, for the sake of a spurious tonal effect, was regarded as destructive to the fundamental premise of naturalness.


Unfortunately for the Lamperti camp, the natural route was the more arduous one. Socio-historical factors were also not its favour. Industrialisation, technological advances and increased dependence on scientific rationalism and scientific methods to explain and resolve problems, made the pursuit of the natural even more difficult. Added to this, were the ever increasing incursions of the scientific methodologists into the vocal domain. Human nature being what it is, the easier 'quick-fix' option gained the upper hand.


However, it was the fragmentation and the weakening of the tradition in the mother country itself, that finally tipped the balance. As frequently happens, the originators of a tradition are not its best preservers. Francesco Lamperti was already making disparaging remarks about Italian students in the mid 19th century, and contrasting their cavalier manner and lack of application to serious study, with that of the modesty, respect and seriousness of the foreign students. Despite the fact that (or perhaps because of it) Italian students were to a large extent so naturally gifted, in Lamperti’s opinion, they were also the least likely to be the future standard bearers of the tradition. This in time proved to be the case. The tradition came to be better preserved in other countries, than in the land of its birth, where its true representatives became a declining minority.


The opposing camp, in the end, fared no better, becoming the victim of its own dialectic. It too began to splinter, as one method succeeded another. A casual browse of the internet, will reveal the size of this fragmentation, and the myriad of its false prophets.


In the final analysis, there were no winners, only losers – the listening public. The technological advances of the 20th century, in particular the development of recorded sound, proclaimed the end of an era, and with it the end of a remarkable oral tradition.


Although recording technology preserved for posterity the voices of many great singers of the past, it ultimately proved to be a double-edged sword. It encouraged imitation of the audible effect, without the understanding of its cause. Singers no longer sang with their natural voices. Instead, they tried to reproduce the tonal effects made by other voices, especially those whose quality they happened to admire. The oral link that underpinned vocal pedagogy was severed, and the teaching fraternity succumbed to the inevitable. Cause and effect ceased to be relevant. The recorded evidence of this transition and its trail of disaster, is there for those who have ears to hear.


Nothing, however, should be regarded as final. Much of human activity is cyclical, and troughs are frequently followed by peaks. Provided the artistic use of the human singing voice does not become an irrelevance, it may be appropriate to invoke the following paraphrase - THE TRADITION IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE TRADITION!



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