Nellie Melba and Scientific Singing

of 11 /11
May 27, 1988 The New Federalist Page 7 American Almanac The Singer's Birthday Anniversary: Nellie Melba and Scientific Singing by Carol Ruckert Nellie Melba, early in her career. May 19 is the 127th birthday of one of the greatest opera singers of all time, Nellie Melba. Most younger Americans will not recognize her name, but many older citizens remember well this fabulous soprano from the turn of the century. Melba toast and peach Melba were named for her, as were many little girls born between 1880 and 1910.

Embed Size (px)


Nellie Melba's voice was a living example of the validity of the scientific approach to bel canto (beautiful singing).

Transcript of Nellie Melba and Scientific Singing

May 27, 1988 The New Federalist Page 7American AlmanacThe Singer's Birthday Anniversary:Nellie Melba and Scientific Singingby Carol RuckertNellie Melba, early in her career.May 19 is the 127th birthday of one of the greatest opera singers of all time, Nellie Melba. Most younger Americans will not recognize her name, but many older citizens remember well this fabulous soprano from the turn of the century. Melba toast and peach Melba were named for her, as were many little girls born between 1880 and 1910.

The literature on her exceeds that on any other singer, except Enrico Caruso and Jenny Lind. Melba sang at a time when the status of opera, 100 years ago, was so great that no country, however small, was without it in some form or another. In Australia, the country of Melba's birth, the miners in the gold fields of Victoria and the cane-cutters in Northern Queensland enthusiastically attended operas staged in church halls, the Mechanics Institute, or on billiard tables pushed together to make a stage in the local pub or hotel.

Melba was fortunate to have been born at a time when some of the greatest opera composers of history, such as Verdi, were composing and personally casting the roles and directing their operas. She made her first appearance at La Scala on March 15, 1893. During this period she met Verdi, and worked directly with him on productions of Rigoletto, Otello, and Aida.

Leoncavallo was another composer with whom she was associated, and she spent long hours with him working through his new opera, the famous I Pagliacci.

In her writings, she describes spending many hours with Puccini, who "thoroughly explained his ideas of the music; we rehearsed it bit by bit; and my score is full of his pencil markings and annotations."Bel Canto: Beautiful SingingFor almost 40 years, she filled opera halls with her beautiful voice, a voice that was as flexible, light, and powerful at retirement as it was when she began her career. It astonishes most people today to learn that for Melba, and other bel canto singers, no microphone was necessary to reach clearly each and every person in the audience with the beauty and power of the voice.

The bel canto method of voice training is a specifically scientific approach to singing. In an article recently published in the New Federalist's American Almanac, "The Rudiments of Tuning and Registration," Lyndon LaRouche, in describing bel canto, writes: "The simplest example of this is the way in which the soprano voice naturally sings in a different quality of voice, in singing the F of the well-tempered system (at C = 256), as opposed to singing the next half-tone, the F-sharp. This register shift of the soprano on the well-tempered F-sharp is determined by the physiology of the human soprano voice. Singing differently will lead to damaging the singing voice. Thus, bel canto represents another case of man's discovery of natural laws, rather than some artificial custom."

Melba's voice was a living example of the validity of this scientific approach. In her characteristically independent fashion, Melba applied the principle of register shifts rigorously with her own voice, shifting at the F-sharp into the middle register. As LaRouche says, bel canto is not something which is arbitrary, but is the discovery and use of the natural qualities of the human voice's potential for singing. Melba describes in her own writings her discovery of this method. She refers to a period when she was still training in Australia: a growth began to develop on her vocal chords, and she knew then that if she didn't change the way she was singing and placing her voice, she would destroy it. She then determined to reject "conventional teaching" and instead to "observe Nature's laws." During training in Paris with Mathilde Marchesi, who had trained under the elder Garcia of Italy, she learned how to place the registers.Melba and her harpist, Signorina Sassoli.Melba and her voice teacher, Madame Blanche Marchesi (left), in 1887.Question of RegistrationIn her article, "The Care of the Voice," Melba writes, "I especially advise young singers above all things to look after the proper posing of the voice. When I first went to Marchesi, in Paris, without a single vocal lesson I sang as well as I do today, but for one break in my voice. Marchesi corrected that at once, and placed the registers properly. If this had not been done I should have totally lost my voice. Singers will know of themselves where the break lies between their registers, and if the teacher tries to force the voice over the break there is sure to be something wrong. The probable result will be permanent ruin of the vocal organs. Many a voice is thus ruined in the first stages of tuition. It is quite possible to sing as an artist and yet be an exception to the ordinary rule as to the place where the registers change. A natural peculiarity in this respect should not be disregarded, I carry my middle register to F-sharp, half a tone beyond the prescribed limit. If I were a teacher and advocated this in any special case, I should have the whole fraternity abusing me. But I know my own voice."

Melba sang for 38 years, retiring from public singing at the age of 65 after giving her farewell performance at London's Covent Garden on June 8, 1926. The recordings made of her at the time of her retirement still demonstrate a voice of seemingly effortless power and beauty.

A reading of The Melba Method for voice training and singing demonstrates wisdom which today's singers would find very helpful. She writes in The Melba Method that a singer should "sing easily, for it is one of the paradoxes of song that easy singing is good singing, and difficult singing is bad singing."Sing Happily and NaturallyExpanding on this idea,

When the voice is badly used you are making complicated movements of the throat muscles, and many difficulties of your own making have to be surmounted before the voice can be produced out at all. Nature does not ask for that. She asks you to sing, not "try" to sing. To sing happily like the birds, as naturally as you speak.

She reminds singers that they are communicating a message to the listeners:

Think of them. Speak to them, telling them the story contained in the song or aria you are singing. If the singer really thinks of what she has to say, and of the person to whom she is saying it, she will have very little time in which to think of herself, or of whether she can hit this or that note! . . .

When anyone asks you to give them something, there are three courses to be taken; you can refuse to give it and clutch it to yourself; you can fling it at the other with force and rudeness; you can give it graciously and willingly. In these three ways may the voice be used. It may be held in, it may be forced out, it may be given to the audience easily and graciously. Which do you do, and which would you prefer to do? Sing for love, not merely because you have a voice which someone says will make your fortune. Always treat the words and music with respect, for they are not yours. You are merely the vehicle for presenting them to the audience.Respect the ComposerMelba was insistent that the singer communicate what the composer intended in the music. She tells the singer to "show respect to the composer down to the last double dotted demi-semiquaver; by paying attention to, and carrying out, all marks of expression; by studying the shape of each phrase and by handling your voice so as to bring out that shape; and by studying the relation of each phrase to the whole."

Melba studied very closely with many of the great composers of opera. In her writings she discusses the suitability of the voices of various singers to the roles of various characters, and how they have to be cast accordingly. She states in her "Advice on the Art of Singing":

When possible, I always study my role with the composer. . . . If I cannot reach the composer, I study what the music says to me of the meaning of the libretto. I do not go to the scene of the story, study the class of people of which the characters belong, or even read of it from books. I try to get the composer's meaning, rather than to make a conception of my own of what the part ought to be. I work this out in my own mind, not from observation of scene or people.

In his article cited above, LaRouche, describing the purpose of all classical art to be the perfection of man's use of natural beauty, writes,

All classical art, as a whole, and in each of the plastic and non-plastic aspects of art as a whole, has a directed character. The direction, is the perfection of man's use of natural beauty. The result of progress is, that the greater perfection so achieved becomes a higher standard for natural beauty's expression as art. The discoveries which have established this higher standard persist as artistic beauty for generations to come; the enjoyment of such works is the act of reliving the process of discovery, and is thus of the character of durable artistic beauty on that account. At the same time, what is proven to have been a valid discovery in the production of artistic beauty, becomes a principle of natural beauty thereafter.

Melba, in The Melba Method, describes the eternal task of songthat it can never be completed in a lifetime.

That is the beauty and fascination of the art. Once you begin to phrase finely, you will feel more joy in the beautiful finish of a beautiful phrase than that caused by the loudest applause of an immense audience. The latter excites for a moment; the former endures forever.

Musical EducationMelba was a great proponent of using one's mind. She was constantly reprimanding the singer to use her mind: "Think the note, and allow it to come." She said that studying the song before actually singing it "should extend over several hours daily. First of all, the real meaning of the words must be understood and, if it is a foreign language which you do not speak, much time must be spent in translating the words so you know their meaning. The accompaniment must also be studied, and every phrase of the voice part played over time and again before attempting to sing it."

She recommends for children that they be taken to hear great singers, since, although a great deal will be forgotten, "the better part will be unconsciously stowed away in the subconscious mind, to burst forth later in beautiful song through no different process than that by which the little birds stow away the song of the older birds." She stresses the importance of a thorough musical education and notes that her parents insisted that she study piano, organ, and harmonic composition. Melba recommends music of the older Italian composers, who "demand first of all the dulcet tones and limpid fluency, for newer singers." She herself was trained on the pianoforte, violin, organ, and harp. She could play any score through and learned operas by herself so that she could form her own interpretation.

The late Assistant Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Francis Robinson, wrote in the American edition of Herthington's biography Melba:

The quality of musical tone cannot adequately be described. It has been called silvery, but what does that signify? There is one quality which it had and which may be comprehended even by those who did not hear her; it had splendor. The tones glowed with a star-like brilliance. They flamed with a white flame. There is one recording which bears all this out, a record made three years before her first commercial recording. . . . These priceless cylinders [were] buried for a generation, until a letter from Geraldine Farrar made them available to William H. Seltsam of the International Record Collector's Club. . . .

With infinite patience Mr. Seltsam transferred them to discs. The ungodly wheeze and thump of Mapleson's prehistoric machine are still there, but so are Melba's octave jumps, leaping through the murk and fog like a shower of meteors in a winter sky. There is a roar of applause at the end, and more than ever you know why the toast, the rich dessert, a cigar, a lipstick, theaters in Dallas, Texas and a number of other cities, and quite a few little girls born around 1910, were named Melba. It is the thrill, the lump in the throat, that a champion and only a champion, can give you.