Importance Of Musical Studies
( Originally Published 1922 )
Let us add that it is quite permissible to lighten and vary the solfeggio studies by the sight-reading of melodies with words, at first selecting very simple ones, such as popular songs. In practicing this exercise of sight-reading, so precious for the singer, it is necessary to proceed as we have already said for the instrumentalist ; first run your eyes over the whole of the words, so as to get some idea of their character and sentiment, look over the melodic contour in the same way, so as not to be surprised by the modulations, changes of time, or any difficulties whatsoever; hen, having once started, go right ahead, keeping good time, without trying to correct any errors committed, and taking care of the shading just as though it was a question of a piece already learnt. When the singer is a harmonist as well, a case of extreme rarity, alas ! he reads the lines of the accompaniment, especially the bass, at the same time as the voice line, and, by this means, his task becomes incomparably easier. But, by an aberration that does no honour to his artistic intelligence, the singing-pupil in France scarcely ever understands what a great advantage it would 'be to him to be an excellent, trained musician. He even seems to glory in his ignorance and to delight in it. For him, music and singing are two absolutely distinct things. Singing appears to him as a noble art beside which music is nothing but a sort of inferior and contemptible art.
I know not where such outlandish ideas can have arisen, but it is certain that they are very deeply seated, and that they shackle the studies of young singers to a ridiculous extent. How often we hear at the Conservatoire, before the full board of examiners, absurd reasonings of this nature : " I did not come here to learn music, I came to learn singing." What would singers think of a comedian who was stubborn enough not to want to learn how to read, and by that Very course prevented his own access to all literary study? That would scarcely be any more stupid. But that does not happen. This is a trait of carelessness and laziness peculiar to the singer, who thinks himself the king of all Creation as soon as he possesses a very strong and roaring voice.
Let us regretfully say however that this organic fatuity does not exist in Germany, where singers, who are infinitely better advised, are not ashamed to study music ; that it is scarcely to be found in Italy, England, Holland, or Belgium; and that it is especially prevalent in France ;—of which fact we have no reason to feel proud.
For a long time, I was in close relations with a charming tenor who was the possessor of a voice of very high range and strong timbre. This, added to the way of writing the tenor in the G clef (that is to say, an octave higher than the real sound pronounced), had given him the conviction that in a duet with a soprano, he was the one who always had the highest note. He made it a matter of amour-propre, and was astonished that in the scores the soprano line was always placed above the tenor. Nobody dared to contradict him, some for the sake of not causing him chagrin and others for fear of putting him in a rage, for he was exceedingly irascible. One day, however, relying on our ancient friendship, I risked an attempt to show him his error. He burst into a violent rage, pretended that I was jesting and wanted to make sport of him, and that he did not need to take lessons from anybody. . . . And we remained embroiled until his death.
Our singing-students are not willing to recognize that this ignorant vanity places them in a condition of real inferiority with regard to their foreign brethren, and that it condemns them, in addition, to remain perpetually under the tutelage of someone,—an accompanist, a tutor, or a singing-master of their theatre, and all because, incapable as they are of reading for themselves and understanding their parts, they must always be piped to like scholars.
It is not till later, in the course of their career, that they perceive the trouble caused by this lack of primary instruction in musical matters, and then, laboriously, clandestinely also, they again take up, and without boasting about it to anyone, the study that their simple braggadocio had led them to disdain at the favourable moment. There is not a single person who can contradict me.
This retrospective, and, for that reason, more difficult, work will be escaped by every young singer who is willing to convince himself from the very be-ginning of his vocal studies, that are to take so little trouble, since they ought never to exceed two hours a day, that it is as necessary for him as for every other musician seriously to study the fundamental principles of the art of which he wants to make himself the interpreter ; he has all the time for it.
Musical art is thus constituted : it comprises producers, who are the composers ; and interpreters, who are the singers and instrumentalists.
In this, it resembles dramatic art, wherefore Lamennais has said : " The actor is to the dramatic poet what the executant is to the composer." These two functions, without which the work of art could not exist and receive life, are indispensable and complement each other, and each has its own beauty. Just as the composer could not do without the interpreter, so the singer and the instrumentalist would have no plausibility if the author were not there to furnish them with matter for interpretation. But in order }that these two agents may comprehend each other and combine their mutual efforts, it is exceedingly necessary for a bond to exist between them, and this bond can be no other than general technique, that which unites all the branches of music and binds together all its constituents.
This is the reason that singers have certainly nothing to fear in pushing their musical instruction as far as possible. By doing so, they will only understand the better the real importance of their functions, and will know how to fulfil them intelligently, without being constantly compelled to have recourse to the help and knowledge of others.
If, while still young, they could succeed in convincing themselves of this truth, that by the study of general technique (solfeggio, theory, and harmony), reinforced by that of the piano, they would conquer their independence and their artistic liberty, they would attain very much higher and quicker results, and notably a more complete development of their own personality.
Too often, the young artists produced by the same school seem to have been turned out of the same mould, they have the same emission of tone, the same style, the same qualities and the same faults. This is be-cause they have had the same masters, the same tutors, the same accompanists, and that in their impotence (which they are forced to recognize in petto) to direct of themselves any of their education as singers by endowing it with a personal originality, they have come to suffer the influence of the school in too constant and too exclusive a manner. With more learning, they might have been more themselves, and on that account infinitely more interesting.
In addition to their vocal and musical studies, those artists who are destined for the theatre should give attention to those that are special to scenic art ; deportment, attitudes, theatrical presence and mimicry ; a Roman emperor should not have the ways of a valet ; —a little tragedy in view of the opera, or the lyrical drama,—a little comedy for the opéra-comique, or other light composition kinds—and then another mat-ter of considerable importance is the study of the repertory.
This new collection of studies requires the intervention of two new teachers : the first, who will teach everything concerning deportment and gesture, above all else should be a man or woman of the stage, and himself possess the habits of the boards. It is not requisite for him to be a musician ; a good comedian will serve very well if be cares to take the trouble to consider the somewhat special exigencies occasioned by words sung and the relative slowness of action put into music. If the attitudes are stiff or awkward, if the movements are lacking in suppleness or elegance, the best thing to do will be to join a dancing-class (there are many classes for dancing and deportment), and for men to frequent the fencing-school. There is nothing like it for acquiring swagger and ease, and for learning how to stand and move about naturally and without pretension ; but this must not displace the teacher of stage-deportment in anything relating to mimetics, bearing and the art of wearing costume.
As for the study of the repertory, we would gladly range ourselves on the side of those who think that there is an advantage in working with a professor, not only of our own sex, but with one whose voice resembles our own as closely as possible and who has held on the stage a position similar to the one we de-sire, and has even had the opportunity of playing the parts, the traditions of which we ask him to transmit to us. These conditions can be nothing but favourable ; but they are far from being indispensable, and it is certain that every artist who has any experience of the stage, whether he be a singer, a leader of the orchestra, tutor, or accompanist, may perfectly conduct and bring to a happy conclusion this study that is as useful as it is interesting.
In order to be able to say that we know a rôle, it is not sufficient to have learned the important airs and the principal points ; it is necessary to have acquired a complete knowledge and comprehension of the character, to know it entirely by heart from beginning to end, including words, music, gestures and attitudes, and to be ready to play it and sing it fully staged after a few full rehearsals. Otherwise our work is in-complete and inefficient, and will have to be done all over again some day.
It is in the course of the study of the repertory that the young lyric artist begins to perceive the extent of the fatigue that the career entails, and understands why his early teachers, on making their first examination, had to take into consideration, in addition to his purely vocal qualities, his conformation, his general health, and in fact everything that might serve to foretell the force of resistance necessary for the exploitation of his organ.
What is fatiguing is not learning to sing, as we have seen; it is not singing; it is the singing of an entire work in the course of one evening, with short entr'actes that scarcely constitute rests, since most of the time is employed in changing the costume; it is having to begin again the next day with the same work, or another one ; it is having to dominate the orchestra, especially the modern orchestra ; it is having to rehearse early in the morning ; it is having constantly to learn and to assimilate new rôles; it is having to travel as they do in artistic tours, when for most of the time they travel during the night, to rehearse at daybreak and play in the evening ; it is singing in concerts, which necessitates fresh rehearsals; it is the obligation of singing at soirées, of being ever in the breach, or quite ready to mount guard there ; it is passing through the most diverse emotions ; it is being the slave of one's engagement, of not having the power to do what one likes with the day and the hour, of being unable to rest and to relax without the aid of a medical certificate ; it is having to play a playful part when one's spirit is in mourning ; it is being forced to sing whether one wants to or not, whether one is well or ill ; finally, it is the career that everybody recognizes as one of the hardest and most burdensome as well as brilliant and full of external attractions. We need to be built of sand and lime to support its fatigue, particularly during the first few years, for we become inured to anything, this as well as anything else. Therefore we can not help smiling at the aberration of certain amateur singers, men and women of the fashionable world, who, how-ever, are not devoid of talent, who naïvely class them-selves with professional artists, and because one evening they may have sung, at a charity concert, a scene or an act from an opera, after much coddling and preparation, accept comparisons to their ad-vantage. " Oh ! indeed, Viscountess, you were wonderful; the opera never gave us a Marguerita that came up to your ankle ! " or, " Mr.__, with astounding fire, leaves far behind him all the artists who have ventured to attempt the part of --, reputed so overwhelming." It would be interesting to see what would become of Mr __,if he had to play and act this part so overwhelming, in its integrity, on the stage, with the orchestra and an ordinary audience ; and what the Viscountess would say if anyone were to propose that she should repeat this little exercise four or five times a week, at the same time adding the four other acts, or by playing a different work every evening.
And how disillusioned would be those pretentious dilettanti of the art of singing if it were given to them to hear themselves turned into ridicule quite as much by the people of their own world, whom they regard as their passionate admirers, as by real artists. And if they only knew how odious they are to the composers whom they weary to death by beseeching them to accompany them in public for the sake of thereby gaining an enthusiastic autograph letter, or a few words of vain flattery, who, sometimes out of simple politeness, sometimes from a sentiment of ironical courtesy, discharge at them a few compliments . . . of double meaning : " Dear Madame, I never heard any-body sing that as you do . . . I have never heard anything like it. . . ."
I do not say this in the least to asperse amateur talent, or to try to belittle its merit in the slightest, for, on the contrary, I am of opinion that there are amateurs of most remarkable talent, and that there may very easily exist some who equal or even surpass professional artists either in virtuosity or in elevation of style.
There are artists and amateurs of every rank, and the qualification " artist " does not imply any idea of superiority any more than that of " amateur " necessarily implies the idea of superficial or negligent studies. Unfortunately there are artists who dishonour this title, just as there are amateurs of high intelligence who possess the genius of interpretation and the most elevated sentiment. These great amateurs ought to be admired, applauded and encouraged, for they powerfully contribute to raise the artistic level ; but care must be taken not to establish a parallel between them and the militant artists whose whole life is consecrated to the worship of the art, who feel their responsibility pledged, and have to conquer or to maintain by their own worth the favour of a public, the great majority of whom are indifferent.
The amateur plays on velvet, for he never presents himself to his audience under the same conditions as the professional artist, though he is pleased to delude himself with that idea. Of the occupation, he knows nothing but the roses, and does not even suspect the endurance, the strength of will and sometimes of courage required by the stage career for him who with each note, step and gesture defends his life and reputation. It is not a question here for him of a vain matter of fashionable and ephemeral petty glory ; one single failure, especially near the start, may compromise the whole future. And to what may a failure be due? To a moment of inadvertence, or distraction, an indisposition, a tired voice resulting from too many rehearsals,—to a thousand causes that do not detract from the worth of the artist in the slightest degree.
I have not to speak here of the numberless mortifications that impede the triumphal career of a singer : the jealousies, the cabals formed to effect the downfall of a manager, but which hit the actor first, the rivalries which, noble as they should be, become base and malignant;all this would carry me far beyond the artistic domain ; but it is none the less true that the singer who launches himself on the stage exposes himself to all these dreadful things and should be warned beforehand.
If to sustain him he did not have the love of his art and the sentiment of his dignity as an artist, to which we may more prosaically add the bait of good engagements, his life, the brilliant side alone of which is seen by the great public, would be nothing but a hell disguised as Paradise.
To these cares of all kinds, must be added the constant preoccupation of the maintenance of his voice, which is not a simple object of luxury for him, far from it.
When we see the almost maternal care which the violinist and 'cellist lavish on their instruments, the minute toilette that they perform even in the tiny corners, lovingly polishing it, carefully swaddling and muffling its neck and strings with a soft woollen material when they take it out into the world ; and when we see the players of an oboe, or clarinet, keeping all, the parts of their outfit in a condition of scrupulous cleanliness and surrounding their reeds with all kinds of precaution and solicitude, we ask ourselves whether it is not worth while giving far greater care to the divine and living instrument, more perfect, but also more susceptible than any, the only one that can never be replaced by any tradesman, should we ever have the misfortune to let it get spoiled.
Every singer understands the utility of these cares which the ignorant public often wrongly regards as an exaggeration, or a Sybaritic practice ; but not all know how to apply them judiciously, and sin sometimes by excess of precaution and sometimes by imprudence. To coddle oneself too much is in its way a mistake, for by that means one renders the organism still more sensitive to inclement weather, and the slightest variations of temperature which nobody can completely guard against, and which then become so much the more dangerous. To brave cold, wind and humidity must be bad for any voice unless it is of an excessively rare robustness and rusticity, and even that often ends by playing the owner an ugly trick.
Everybody must learn to study his own organ, to take account of the degree of resistance or susceptibility that it offers to the perturbative action of external agents, and thus knowing the cause, adopt the preservative hygienic measures that are personally favourable to himself, without troubling to learn whether they would suit his neighbour, or recommending them to him in turn, for there do not exist two voices identically alike, nor two that should be treated exactly in the same way ; which is what we must allow thoroughly to penetrate our minds. Let us add that the imagination often comes into play. It does not therefore follow that because an able singer comes to you and says : " This is what I do," you should think you were doing well by doing the same and taking him as a model. What is excellent for one may be ill suited to another, and vice versa; everybody should employ for this effect the means specially appropriate to his own nature, and only those. Hence arises the necessity for the singer to know himself, as the instrumentalist knows his instrument, since he is his own instrument, or more correctly speaking, he carries his instrument in himself.