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Mrs. Alverson on Vocal Vibrato

60 years of California songIn writing about one of the greatest faults in the teaching of vocal music, I wish to put my most emphatic criticism upon the Tremolo in the voice and condemnation upon those who vitiate the human voice with the most intolerable fault that any one who pretends to sing could practice. In "The Musician" of November, 1908, there was an article on the subject which I read with profound interest … The article entitled "The Singers tremolo and vibrato—their origin and musical value", was written by Lester S. Butter, who says:

"In April, 1795, in Romano, Province of Bergano,was born Rubini, King of tenors. His voice, small in the beginning, developed marvellously in tone volume and the swell and diminish of tones (messe di voce) called by the Italians "vibrato of the voice" was the characteristic of his style.

"This ebbing and flowing undulating wave of sound upon sustained notes was the source from which sprang the modern tremolo and vibrato, which is so much in evidence among singers and so offensive to all really refined musical taste. …

"W.J. Henderson in the Art of the Singer, says of messa di voce, 'It is by the emission of tones swelling and diminishing that we impart to song that wave-like undulation which gives it vitality and and vivacity.' But, when speaking of the rendition of Handelian arias, he … declares it probably hopeless to plead for the abolition of the cheap and vulgar vibrato in the delivery of these old arias, remarking further that there is no account of its use in the writings of the contemporaries of Cafferelli and Farinelli and that master singers of their day were praised for the steadiness of their tones and the perfect smoothness of their style. He asserts also that vibrato is a trick invented after that day and out of place in the music of that period.

"Referring to Rubini, the originator of the fault, he leaves the impression that this singer used the vibrato only occasionally (which may have at first been the fact) and that as a means of heightening the dramatic effect. Grove, however, puts the matter somewhat differently. 'Rubini,' he says, 'was the earliest to use the thrill of the voice known as vibrato (the subsequent abuse of which we are all familiar) at first as a means of emotional effect, afterwards it was to conceal the deterioration of the organ.'

"Imitators brought great discredit upon Rubini and his name is associated with an impure, corrupt vocalization. This with other influences, brought about a sentiment in composers as well as singers favouring vocal declamation, rather than singing in the sense in which that word was understood by the great tenor. In 1852 there was a cloud of imitators and it became so prevalent almost all singers of the day indulged in it.

"Ferri, a baritone who sang at La Scala in 1853, made such effective use of it upon any note as to secure a place in the records of that day as one whose whole song was a bad 'wobble'.

"Even the great Mario, whose voice is described as 'rich Devonshire cream', was afflicted, but usually free from the vice. Clara Novello was greatly admired because she indulged in it with such discrimination, and Campanini, entirely free from the fault, was greeted with enthusiatic pleasure whenever he appeared. …

Mrs. Alverson "In a letter to Dr. S. B. Matthews (Music 1900), L. G. Gottschalk so succintly gives his opinion as to leave no doubt as to his position on the subject: 'Tremolo of the voice is the result of either of the three following causes—diseased vocal organs, old age, or defective breathing, and as such has no excuse for its existence.' This is in agreement with Madam Marchesi in answer to a question in regard to the tremolo. 'The continued vibrato is the worst defect in singing and is a certain sign that a voice has been forced and spoiled. It is the result of the relaxation of the exterior muscles of the larynx which can no longer remain motionless in the position during the emission of the sound. This distressing permanent vibrato proceeds from ignorance or neglect of the register limits.' W. H. Blare gives the warning, 'Do not allow the voice to wobble, or become tremulous. A tremor is dangerous under any circumstances and an ineffectual substitute for sustained, pathetic tone color.' Sir Morrell Mackenzie, M. D., asserts that tremolo is injurious, as tending to beget a depraved habit of singing. It is the worst fault of a singer. …

Very few singers of today are provided with real vocal technic. They learn to scream one note at a time. A short life and a merry one, great glory and great salaries, sacrificing their voices at the demand for big tone. Perhaps they rejoice in a brief season. Afterwards their names are forgotten. …

In the year 1907 I cured twenty-five young people, both girls and boys, of this dreadful habit, which seems to be the death knell of all our California young singers. Every one of them became addicted to this habit through wrong instruction by persons who were not teachers at all in the true sense of the word, not knowing the construction of the voice themselves so as to lead the pupil into the proper channel, having lost their own voices by these methods they were not competent to instruct others. How is it possible for them to guide the young singer when they cannot give a pure tone example themselves for the pupil to follow? Freshness and steadiness are the most valuable properties of a voice, but are also the most delicate and easily injured and quickly lost. When once really impaired they can never be restored.

Margaret Blake Alverson
Sixty Years of California Song
Sunset Publishing, San Francisco, 1913
pp. 172-178

Messa di voce: a vocal technique involving an increase and then a decrease of loudness while sustaining a single tone; the technique was especially important during the 18th century.

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