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The Old Italian Method.

Distorted, degraded, demoralized; sheltering beneath its plausible respectability presumptions of the grossest sort; a scapegoat compelled to answer for every crime in the vocal catalogue; loaded with the stigma of every possible grade of incompetency; a shield behind which ignorance wards off the thrusts of disappointed hopes; a cloak in which charlatanry and pretense enfolds itself and beguiles the unwary and aspiring student into confidences which are followed by despair and wreck;—all because of a name which, except to the few, comprehends only an indefinite significance, even that being borrowed from the faded glories of a remote past and forced into artificial existence in an unnatural and unfriendly soil. The partially equipped status of the vocal profession is accountable for this in part; not less, however, than the credulity of the average vocal aspirant. Our purpose is to answer clearly the question, so frequently put and vaguely answered, “What is the old Italian method?”—and in so doing to settle, beyond cavil and finally, the necessity at least for further impositions—and to remove the mask of mystery surrounding the subject, which has been its greatest charm. The old Italian method relates strictly to the mode of technically developing the vocal instrument, irrespective of its quality or condition—the process illustrating a sequence absolutely perfect so far as the uses to which voices are to be put can be related to it. In other words, the training afforded by this system held in view the perfect rendering of the music most in vogue when that system was formulated—viz., the Italian opera.

“Irrespective of its quality or condition.” By that is conveyed the truth which so many, unfortunately, overlook. They associate the Italian method with a certain quality of tone, a certain manner of taking a tone, or a certain condition of vocal attainment in some way distinctive. The old Italian method does not begin with tone production or the study of the quality, and has but little to do with the peculiarities of the instrument; it takes the tone as it finds it, in whatsoever condition, and beginning there, subjects it persistently to a prescribed routine, which routine is as fixed and unalterable as a system can be made by the combined experience of master minds covering a period of nearly two centuries. This is indisputable. While many, perhaps most of the old method writers allude, in their inevitable and stereotyped prologues or introductions, to quality, they, knowing well the utter hopelessness of expressing their ideas in type, proceed at once to the business of singing—that is, of training the voice as they find it by the old Italian formula, trusting to that formula to enlarge, strengthen, and qualify the voice for its prospective use, and, while so doing, to eradicate the defects existing in the voice; and, happily, but not strange to relate, the results are consistent and satisfactory. All we find relating to the old Italian method in the writings of those whom we can quote as authority is of no value in the way of suggestions as to how tone formation, pure and simple, should be acquired. Such terms as tone placing, or voice building were not known or rarely indulged in, except as they were alluded to synonymously in the advanced stages of development. As before stated, the system presupposed the tone an established fact, ready to be acted upon, expanded, and matured by the old Italian method. It seems almost superfluous to illustrate, but to avoid any misunderstanding let us compare the tone of a promising and established voice to a perfectly formed and talented child. The old Italian method recognized the voice already existing clearly an entity, characteristic and worthy of development, no less truly than the parents look with pride upon the possibilities of attainment of their perfectly formed and talented child. In either case, the process of culture may comprehend infinite improvement and the incorporation of endless charms and graces not even suggested at the outset; but such amplification would shed luster upon the system by which either the voice or child were developed, bearing no relation whatsoever to the formation of the voice or the gifts of the child. It is to this peculiar power of maturing and enlarging the scope of the instrument that the old Italian method is indebted for its glory and its influence. When properly understood and traditionally followed, this influence is as potent to-day as when so generally and successfully practiced.

Let us now consider the subject from two standpoints: First, what condition was held as the proper one, to which might be applied the old Italian method? and second, how was the old Italian method applied? Referring to the requisite condition, it is clear that the demands of the times during the period in which the system of development known as the old Italian method was perfected were strictly operatic; thus, voices that were ordinary were never considered; no attention was paid to a voice until it was brought into notice by the fact of its exceptional value, indicated by a strongly asserted individuality. It might be in the direction of quality, strength, compass, or elasticity; but in whatever lay its virtue, if it promised well for operatic purposes it was then rigidly disciplined by the old Italian method with that end in view, and was counted successful only in the measure that it met and filled the requirements of the stage. This differs from the custom of the present day in that there have been great advances along the line of preparatory culture. Voices with little of promise in any particular have, by careful treatment, frequently covering a number of years of patient drudgery, been brought to the condition that would have been called by the old Italian masters, promising; they could then be taken and passed through the old Italian system of drill for the stage. That is precisely what should be done to-day. This points clearly to the difference in the influence of the times. Then only voices naturally most excellent were thought worthy of consideration. Now, so many opportunities for the use of voices have served to develop them to a certain point, and so much has been added to the general knowledge of how to establish and perfect vocal resonance as a foundation for advanced study, that were the technicalities of the old Italian method better appreciated as relating to the already established condition, and from that point properly understood and applied, there could be wrought a much higher average of results as well as many more exceptionally fine artists. The error and presumption of the uninformed teachers of the present day lies in their assuming that this work of primarily establishing the voice comes under the head of, or is in any way related to, the system under discussion.

Now let us take up the second clause in our proposition, and explain the application of the old Italian method, its purposes and its results.

The system deals with the voice from the standpoint of its first and greatest artistic requirement—viz., control. This requirement, which so diversifies the vocal power, may be classified into three groups, as follows:

Sustaining, which includes the mezza di voce, the portamento, and the hold in full, half, and echo voice.

Agility, which includes the various scales in all tempos, the vocalises, solfeggio, the embellishments, such as mordenti, grupetti, trill, etc.

Interpretation, in which all of the preceding are applied in songs, recitatives, arias, and cadenzas.

The system is progressive to a degree, based upon and adjusting its difficulties with great exactness to the gradually lessening limitations of the vocal instrument under cultivation. Sustained tones are followed by short scale groups in easy compass, always accompanied by solfeggio exercises and vocalises, built upon intervals which are extended as a study of the scales is advanced. To this from time to time as the voice responds is added special treatment for the various embellishments, the work being rendered practical, as opportunity presents itself, by the introduction of Italian songs and arias of appropriate degrees of difficulty. The modern teacher of singing will scarcely credit the severity or undeviating exactness with which this system is carried out, and it is hardly possible in the present day to find teachers who use either scale groups or vocalises that are at all comparable on the score of difficulty to those identified with the old Italian system. The facility with which singers of that period conquered technical obstacles can only be explained by the care with which they were taught and the great length of time which they were accustomed to devote to perfecting the voice through this method. The ingenuity of the brightest minds was taxed to multiply the rhythmic and melodic difficulties in the study of colorature. One has only to examine the pages of cadenzas, arpeggios, and scales, in every conceivable permutation and written in all modes, to appreciate the value of the system; to cease to wonder at the exceptional brilliancy of the singers of the old school.

Thus, in brief, have we arrived at the peculiar and unquestioned purpose of the work in vocal art so frequently alluded to as the old Italian method. It does not place voices by any traditional rule, but develops them by a system proven more perfect than any or all others, enabling the artist to do all that can be required in the highest grades of art work. It is no chance grouping of melodies, exercises, and scales; the method is carefully worked out and systematically applied, covering all points, revealing to its faithful followers marvels of power, agility, color, warmth,—in fact, according as the voice expands under its molding influence, all that can possibly be granted to the individuality in question. It differs from all other modes of development in the rigidity of its demands and in the supremacy of its results; its penalties for disloyalty are as severe as its emoluments are great to the faithful. Through it many have become famous; without it, lasting fame as a singer is impossible.


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