I have recently read a short article in “The American Organist”
February 2010 issue, and it has caused me to reflect on the idea of moral character as it affects the human voice. The article was actually taken from “The Etude” November 1905 edition, and maybe it bears some reflection on our part. The title of the article is “The Effects of Moral Character Upon the Voice.”
It starts out by stating that “there is a decided tendency of late to observe the mental as well as the physical side of voice culture. Teachers vary all the way from extreme emphasis on the physical to absolute reliance upon will power, the majority taking a medium course between these two methods.” It would come as no surprise to us that the mental (or better stated, the emotional) state of a singer has lots to do with the singer’s ability to control the singing instrument. If one is going through an emotional crisis, chances are that the voice will be affected in some way. I am not talking about one being drained by, let’s say, a death and therefore not able to perform without crying, but more about the situation of a constant emotional event that creates stress and anxiety in a singer. However, what about the actual “moral” character of a singer and how it affects what a singer is able to “communicate” to their audience?
Said a good vocal teacher, speaking of a certain pupil: “Her voice lies to me—every note. I never can make an artist of her!” And again: “Miss A’s voice is like herself, sweet—too sweet. It is cloying, like too much honey. Such amiability, such tranquility, such compliance! If I could only make her lose her temper just once, to make that perfect tone human!” Now that comment is starting to get to the center of the matter I think. Human experience and how it translates into conveying a message to the listener! I suspect we all agree that “technique” has to be solid and so perfect and intact that it will do whatever is needed so as to be in the service of the music. But the history of music performance is full of examples of just the opposite. I am thinking of, for instance, Artur Schnable, a German piano virtuoso that was a Beethoven specialist but often played with plenty of inaccuracies but with a spirit and understanding that made those transgressions from the printed note palatable. How about Artur Rubenstein, who for years was a somewhat sloppy performer and only later in his career decided to do something about it? Yet here is Richard Wagner, a composer of some of the most inspired music of human endeavor; yet I do not think I would have wanted to be this man’s friend because of his moral character. Just read the book “The Darker Side of Genius” to get an idea of what I mean.
“But observe one common virtue in the great singers, namely: sincerity. Signor B—who is far from a model of character, puts more sincerity into one phrase of his aria than a devoted member of the Christian Endeavor puts into an entire repertoire. Artistically considered, these singers are models of conscientiousness. To them, vanity, treachery, debauchery are light matters. To phrase badly, to lack tone color, to ruin a pianissimo—these are crimes!”
The author than goes into a diatribe of making examples of students that have beautiful voices but little moral character, and therefore, regardless of their talent, they seemingly have little to offer. But near the end of the article I think some very revealing things are stated: “We have most of us heard of the three requisites for a successful singer, given by a Parisian teacher: First, Voice. Second, Voice. Third, Voice. Aye! But whence that voice? Does it spring wholly from vocal chords, palate, diaphragm, and chest? No! It is the marvelous mouthpiece of a great nature; as the personal history of great singers will, in the main, testify.”
“We cannot do without common sense and ordinary technical training in the studio. But, adding to that, keen insight into human nature, and an accurate gauging of the effects of character upon the voice, will technique not become a little less of a god? Does it not behoove teachers to study their failures more carefully; to consider that voice timbre is not more important than moral caliber; that the intellect is fed from the springs of morality and righteousness, and the fountain never rises higher than its source?”
I am reminded of Vladimir Horowitz, a figure that I fell in love with and have followed all my life and still idolize. I did indeed love his playing; yes, in part due to his amazing technique and, in his earlier years especially, his total technical control. BUT, he made mistakes often! Yet there was something else behind that playing that held so many of us mesmerized, and ultimately it was not the dazzling technique. It was his sincerity and his voice; his uncanny ability to imbue his performances with a voice that was uniquely his own, built on a moral character and a life filled with experiences beyond belief. The pure technique could not have carried him through his career; in fact, it was that very thing that caused him to leave the concert stage for so long, at the height of his powers.
So…..in the broader scope of things, does moral character have an impact on our voice as a musician? I know this is a stretch, but if you have made it this far having not abandoned me, I would ask you to remember this sentence: “Patrick Henry Hughes plays so that we might hear the music of opportunity and the sound of potential.” Now listen to the clip below, where you will hear that line again near the end, and hopefully
it will carry more meaning for you and a new energy as we go back to school and church and community and work with our singers.
Thank you Carol Reichard for sharing this very moving clip with me.