How sad is the condition of vocal music in our time!
Writing this is not, as one might expect, some pompous pundit lamenting the somewhat unpolished charm of a hopeful at yet another theatrically televised talentshow, but Madame Emma Seiler, singing teacher and pioneering female scientist in 19th century Leipzig. She wasn’t done with that observation, either.
Mediocre talent is now often sought, and rewarded far beyond its desert. One is often tempted to think that the public at large has wellnigh lost all capacity of judgment, when he witnesses the representation of one of our operas. Let a singer, male or female, only drawl the notes sentimentally one into another, execute a tremulo upon prolonged notes, introduce very often the softest piano and just where it is entirely out of place, growl out the lowest notes in the roughest timbre, and scream out the high notes lustily, and he or she may reckon with certainty upon the greatest applause.
Madame Seiler’s snide comments are on my mind these days, as I’m trying to piece together a history of female contributions to vocal education – and struggling hard not to turn that into a parade of exultingly fiery and sassy ladies, stridently claiming their place in the male world of science and knowledge. This is particularly difficult with my three favourite voice teachers: Nina d’Aubigny, Caroline Prückner and the delightful Madame Seiler. Fighting for girls’ education and good musical taste in equal measure, all three strike me as sharp minds (with the sharp tongues to match), who did not suffer fools in any of the many languages they mastered and had no patience for anything other than utter dedication and excellence. The kind of insufferable women I like to surround myself with, bref.
It’s unlikely they ever met each other, but I like to imagine that I can somehow get them together in the same room. Behind a judges’ table, perhaps, elevating their refined voices to shut up Simon Cowell, whose discourse sounds positively boring and tame next to their elegantly scathing remarks.
A young woman timidly ascends the stage and greets the judges. They look at her kindly but shrewdly, weighing her up. So, when did you first start singing? they ask her. She clears her throat nervously, and declares hat her papa engaged a singing master for her when she was fifteen. He’s Italian! she gains in confidence now, drawing strength from the exellent credentials of her teacher, he introduced me to the real Bel Canto method. The judges turn their heads, looking at each other knowingly. Yes, the old Italian method has many merits, they agree. Meanwhile, Emma turns to Nina and goes on under her breath about all these kids with Italian teachers these days “Without considering in what a sadly superficial way music – and vocal music especially – is now treated in Italy, many have given in to the erroneous idea that any Italian who can sing anything must know how to educate a voice. Thus many incompetent Italians have become popular teachers in other countries”.
But no matter. They ask the girl what she is going to sing. She is performing Casta Diva, she whispers, and is greeted by a delicately arched eyebrow. The girl glances around nervously, but the pianist has already started playing the intro, and so she courageously draws breath (the judges wince when they see her raise her shoulders at this first inhalation) and sings.
She has a pretty voice and the audience, as charmed by her timid manner before as by her passionate display during the performance rewards her with raucous applause. She throws back her head as she belts out the last note, bows to her admirers and then stands up again, overcome with emotion and exertion, straining to catch her breath. Did she just hear someone mutter ‘clavicular breathing’ in a disapproving tone? She lets her shoulders drop but, as the audience is still cheering, decides she must have misheard and takes another bow.
In front of her, the three judges wait patiently for the noise to subside. Nina offers the singer a measured smile. Isn’t it wonderful, she offers, that young girls now receive sufficient education to have musical taste, and ambitions of their own. They are no longer shackled to the kitchen and the nursery. The young girl nods and straightens her back. They have noted her taste and ambition! But, Nina goes on, it is even more important that women of all walks of life should know how to sing, so as to cultivate their children’s voices well. She turns to the girl on stage and assures her that, in time, she will surely be able to be very good at this.
Caroline nods emphatically. Yes, you have a very pretty voice, she repeats. But can I ask…why did you choose this particular piece? The girl throws a sideways glance at the wings. My mother chose it. She says it shows off my dramatic talents.
Mmmm, a theatre mother eh? Caroline turns to her colleagues, expounding on the subject “the theatre mother always overestimates her daughter and her talent, often she overestimates the daughter and underestimates the talent, which is even more injurious to the daughter’s work”.
The girl’s lip is trembling now, as the three judges confer amongst themselves, quite oblivious to her discomfort. Finally, Emma adresses the young woman delicately, assuring her that she would be quite capable of being a repertoire singer, perhaps even a soloist, should she find an adequate female teacher. “As it is impossible for a man to give a female pupil a correct perception of the tones of the head register and of the second series of the falsetto, with its peculiar female timbre, so its is impossible for a woman to singer and teach correctly the deep, sonorous chest tones of the male voice”.
The young singer shuffles off, unsure about all the talk of register and head voices, whilst the judges turn to each other again, congratulating themselves on their wise decision. Once again, they have saved the world from the terrible curse of dilletantism, a young girl from prematurely overstraining her voice, and female education from the low expectations so often found in girls’ schools.