Academic journal article The American Music Research Center Journal

Forging a Sound Citizenry: Voice Culture and the Embodiment of the Nation, 1880-1920

Academic journal article The American Music Research Center Journal

Forging a Sound Citizenry: Voice Culture and the Embodiment of the Nation, 1880-1920

Article excerpt

In nothing do the Americans more generally offend the cultivated ear than in the use of the voice. The high, shrill, nasal tones of American girls or American women; the careless, slovenly enunciation which one hears from a group of American men, would indicate to a foreigner, accustomed to vocal culture, entire absence of any sort of refinement; for, as a rule, the voice is, more than anything else, the revealer of the presence or absence of culture.1

Writing in 1908, the self-proclaimed "voice master" Richard Cone bemoaned what he heard as the dismal state of the American voice. A voice instructor at the Leland Powers School of the Spoken Word in Boston (one of the nation's leading elocutionary institutions), Cone had labored for several years, slowly perfecting a pedagogical method for elocution based on, as he put it, "the fundamental principles of vocal science."2 This method, Cone believed, would reform the nation's oratorical deficiency: only a modern pedagogy based on scientific principles of vocal mechanics could address the "shrill, nasal tones ... of American girls [and] American women" and the "slovenly enunciation of American men." Yet Cone detested these harsh tones not simply for their inelegance but for what he thought they revealed about the nation's well-being. For Cone, as for many commentators on the voice at the turn of the century, vocal quality disclosed an individual's, or a nation's, character and provided a metric by which social progress might be judged. In this way, the "shrill" and "slovenly" tones of the nation's citizens rendered aural what Cone and others understood as a symptom emerging from within the national body politic; namely, the lack of a refined mode of speaking that betrayed the nation's emergence as an economic and political world power. Culture, for writers such as Cone, was more than the Arnoldian notion of artistic supremacy; culture was performative and relied just as importantly on how a society's achievements were expressed vocally.

Cone's monograph was part of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century social and artistic movement known as "voice culture"-an attempt to refine elocutionary and singing practices in order to produce standard vocal expressions representative of the nation's cultural, economic, and political achievements.3 While the phrase "voice culture" appeared in the United States as early as 1850, when it referred exclusively to elocutionary training in public schools, by the 1880s voice culture implied vocal training and the state of the nation's vocal expressions more generally. In this essay, I focus on singing instruction and the attempts by voice culture practitioners to establish an ideal singing aesthetic capable of representing the nation-state. Singing instructors, while ostensibly concerned with the vocal sound of the body politic as a whole, catered primarily to a burgeoning labor-class of amateur and professional singers seeking success in concert and opera performance. This ambition on the part of would-be professional singers supported an entire industry of private instruction: advertisements for singing instruction, whether by individuals or by musical institutions such as the National Conservatory of Music, were commonplace in newspapers and periodicals throughout the nation, with teachers promoting their expertise in voice culture, musical expression, and artistic singing.4 The archival material I employ here comprises the singing manuals authored by voice culture practitioners, of which over 150 were published between 1880 and 1920. While the majority of the voice culture practitioners I cover in this essay worked in New York City and were associated with the city's major cultural institutions, it is important to note that voice training manuals and essays on voice culture were published throughout the nation, suggesting that the movement was not simply a local phenomenon but rather a nationwide endeavor to cultivate the nation's singing.

While the specific pedagogical practices and aesthetic philosophies of singing varied widely among the movement's adherents, the majority were straightforward instructional texts that included advice on a range of topics, many of which could be found in any manual published today: chapters on vocal hygiene, breathing exercises, diction, resonance, the vocal registers, stage deportment, and singing exercises ranging from spoken dialogue to sung passages. …

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