Subdivisions Of The Voice

It should be remembered that in the old days, from which traditions of

phenomenally high voices have come down to us, musical pitch was lower

than it is now. In those days a tenor, for example, could carry up his

voice in the adjustment for the middle or in phenomenal cases even for

the chest register, instead of changing to the head register, more

easily than can be done now. In fact, nowadays, when a composer calls

r a very high note, it usually is transposed, so that actually the

supposedly high C of Di quella pira nearly always is a B flat.

Probably there has been no general deterioration in voices, popular

opinion to the contrary notwithstanding. Phenomenal voices always have

been rare, and doubtless are no rarer now than at any other period. At

any time any opera house would have been proud of two such tenors as

Caruso and Bonci, or of two such sopranos as Melba and Tetrazzini, while

there is no period in which a Sembrich would not have been a rara

avis. The artist who, seemingly taught by nature, spontaneously

employs the correct registers and sings the most difficult music with

ease and accuracy, always has been an unusually gifted person--a vocal

phenomenon, in fact.

The preceding chapter gave only the main divisions for male and female

voices--alto and soprano for female and baritone and tenor for male.

There are subdivisions of these. Contralto is a subdivision of alto,

mezzo-soprano of soprano; and soprano itself may be dramatic or florid.

Baritone is a division of bass; and tenor is either dramatic or lyric.

Even when one of these subdivisions of voice is able to enter the range

of another, it cannot do the same things with the same ease as the one

which naturally belongs there. An alto of extraordinary range, like

Schumann-Heink, may be able to achieve high soprano in the head

register. It is a valuable accomplishment, insuring ease in singing of

roles that lie in the balance between high alto and mezzo-soprano, but

it does not make the singer a soprano. A dramatic soprano may be able

to sing florid roles, but never with the success of the soprano whose

natural gifts are of the florid order. A Wagner singer rarely succeeds

in the traditional Italian roles, nor a singer of these in Wagner roles.

Lilli Lehmann always insisted that Norma was one of her great roles,

and craved the opportunity to sing it here. At last the opportunity

came, but it is not on record that the public clamored for its

repetition or ranked her Casta diva with her singing of Isolde's

Liebestod. Melba, one of the most exquisite of florid sopranos, once

attempted Bruennhilde in Siegfried. One performance, and her good

judgment came to her rescue. It is to Sembrich's credit that she always

has remained within her genre and for this reason never, so far as I

know, has made a failure. The sign-post that stands at the entrance to

the path leading to vocal success might read as follows: "Find out what

your voice is, and remain strictly within it."

The voice which, because of its great range, best illustrates the

three-register division of the vocal scale, is the soprano. The average

soprano ranges from [Music: C4-A5]; but combining the three types of soprano

voices, the soprano compass is as given in the previous chapter, the

extremes being, of course, exceptional.

Among types of sopranos, the dramatic averages the greatest compass. The

voice is heavier than florid soprano and incapable of being handled with

the same agility. But it contains more low notes and almost as many

high ones, unless in the latter respect one compares it with florid

soprano voices of the phenomenal order. Otherwise, so far as the high

notes are concerned, the difference lies in quality rather than in

compass. The Inflammatus in Rossini's Stabat Mater, which is written

for dramatic soprano, contains the high C, and no one who has heard

Nordica sing it need be told of the noble effect a great dramatic soprano

can produce with it.

It is possible to sing the three highest notes of the chest register of

dramatic soprano with the adjustment for the middle register; and the

higher notes of the middle register with the adjustment for the head

register. This option is not merely a convenience. Its artistic value is

great. In loud phrases those optional notes which naturally lie in the

chest register are delivered most effectively in that register; but in

piano phrases they are more effective when sung with the adjustment of

the middle register. The same thing applies to those optional tones

which naturally lie in the middle register. In loud phrases they are

sung best in their natural register--the middle; in piano phrases, in

the head register. These are two capital illustrations of the value of

the overlapping of registers and the necessity of training a voice to

be equally at home in both registers on all notes that are optional.

Theoretically, the florid soprano produces the three lowest notes of its

range in the chest register; the notes from [Music: F4-F5] in the middle; and

the notes above these in the head register. In practice, however, the

small larynx and the limited cup space found in florid sopranos make it

difficult if not impossible for them to adjust their vocal tracts to the

chest register. The problem is met by bringing the head register as far

down as possible into the middle; and by singing what theoretically

should be chest tones in the middle register. It hardly need be pointed

out that the lower notes of florid sopranos are weak. This accounts for

it. Florid soprano, the voice of the head register, is a voice of

extraordinary agility--the voice of vocal pyrotechnics. To achieve it

Nature appears to have found it necessary to sacrifice the heavier

middle and chest registers which make for dramatic expression; with

dramatic sopranos, on the other hand, to sacrifice the muscular

flexibility which makes for agility. Mezzo-soprano is a voice that lies

within the compass of dramatic soprano, usually extending neither quite

so low nor quite so high, but governed by the same laws.

For altos the ordinary compass is [Music: G3-C5]. A low alto or contralto is

supposed to go down to the E below; while altos of unusual range go

high as [Music: F5]. I even have seen the alto compass in notation run up to

"high" C; but to control this high range an alto would have to be another

Schumann-Heink who has cultivated upper notes in the head register.

The tone-quality of some alto voices approaches so nearly that of the

male voice, especially in the lowest tones of the chest register, that

these altos are known as female baritones. In fact there is no voice in

which register affects tone-quality as plainly as in alto. For in alto

voices the chest register is apt to give tones that are heavy without

corresponding vibrance and sonority, while tones produced in the

adjustment of the head register are apt to be too thin. The middle

register, however, produces in the alto voice a tone that is rich

without being too heavy, so that it avoids undue heaviness on the one

hand and on the other a thinness that is in no way comparable with the

light tones of soprano, but simply a thin and unsatisfactory alto. Alto

tone in the middle register therefore gives the standard tone-quality

for alto voice; and when singing in chest or head register, an alto

should endeavor to relieve the chest notes of their heaviness and the

head notes of their thinness by giving them as much as she can the

quality of tones in the middle register. This can be accomplished by

bringing head tones down to middle and by carrying the middle register

adjustment down into the chest register. But all this is as much a

matter of correct ear and trained will power to make the voice reproduce

the mental audition as it is of physical adjustment.

The great prizes of the operatic stage and concert hall go to the higher

voices--to sopranos, for example, instead of to altos. Yet the proper

training of an alto voice is a most difficult matter because, while the

chest register is the natural singing register of alto, it produces too

"big" a tone--a tone so big as to be heavy and unwieldy. The middle

register in alto really is an assumed position, yet it is the register

in which the standard alto tone is produced. Teachers who either are

ignorant of these facts or disregard them are apt to carry up the

cumbersome chest register until it meets the thin head register,

producing a voice whose low notes are too heavy and tend toward the

uncanny and by no means agreeable female baritone quality, while the

higher notes are thin and undecided in character.

The male voice-range is the same as the female, save that it lies an

octave lower; its mechanism is the same; and its registers are the

result of identical physical functions. Thus, allowing for the octave

difference, the tenor voice and the laws that govern it correspond for

all practical purposes with soprano.

Tenors are lyric and dramatic, a distinction that explains itself. The

lyric tenor is light and flexible. The dramatic tenor is a ringing,

vibrant voice, especially on the high notes. Probably it is the splendor

of these high notes that is responsible for the theory that they are

produced by carrying the chest register upward. In point of fact, a

genuine chest register rarely is employed by tenors. Their easiest,

their natural singing range, is in the middle register, and the tones

which in the notation of the tenor compass are assigned to the chest

register, really are sung in what is more like a downward extension of

the middle register. Just as the larynx of the soprano is not as large

as that of the alto or contralto and is not capable of the open

adjustment required by the chest register, so the larynx of the tenor

is smaller than that of bass or baritone and, like the soprano, less

capable of the open adjustment for chest register. The result is the

same--a perceptible weakness on the lower notes, the great qualities

of the voice lying in the middle and head registers, especially in

the latter.

The lyric tenor is a lighter voice than the dramatic for the same reason

that florid soprano is lighter than dramatic soprano. The cup space

within the larynx is, comparatively speaking, small. Thus, while the

head tones of the dramatic tenor are powerful and vibrant, the lyric

tenor's head tones are lighter and more graceful, but are lacking in

brilliant, resonant dramatic quality. A tenor like Jean de Reszke, who

sang baritone for several years, must have a larynx somewhat larger than

that of a genuine dramatic tenor, and his production of robust tenor

notes in the head register must have required a most artistic series

of adjustments of his voice tract throughout this entire register. But

while it cannot be denied that Jean de Reszke was an artist in the

truest sense of the term, it also cannot be denied that his high voice

just lacked the true vibrant tenor quality and had a suspicion of

baritone in it.

Some tenors who cannot sing unusually high in head register are able to

acquire what is known as falsetto, and even tenors who are not obliged

to resort to falsetto sometimes employ it for special effects. Falsetto

is produced by carrying the adjustment for head register to its extreme

limit. Practically it is the artificial reproduction within the throat

of an adult of the small larynx before the period of mutation. In

singing falsetto the false vocal cords drop down to within a quarter

of an inch of the true cords and even closer, reducing the cup space in

the larynx to its dimensions before mutation. To secure a good quality

of tone in falsetto the singer must have complete control of the cup

space--be able to diminish it not only by allowing the false cords to

drop down almost upon the vocal cords, but also by contracting it

laterally. If he can do this, he can produce some genuinely artistic

effects in falsetto. When a tenor cannot control the muscles that

contract the cup space, his falsetto will be of a poor quality--a

mere "dodge" to add some higher notes to those of his legitimate vocal


There are singers whose control over the registers is so expert that,

when they are called upon to follow a loud, singing, vibrant head tone

with a pp effect on the same note, they can accomplish this by

imperceptibly changing to falsetto. They can glide from head into

falsetto and back again without a break and add the charm of varied

tone-color to natural beauty of voice. This is especially true of

dramatic tenors. If they can vary the naturally full and sonorous

quality of their head tone with an artistic falsetto, they are able to

secure many beautiful effects by an interchange of registers. Whenever

the high tones of a lyric tenor sound thin, it is because high head

tones do not lie naturally within the singer's range and he is obliged

to substitute falsetto for them. "Baritone tenors" usually cannot

achieve their higher notes in head register and are obliged to adopt

falsetto, but as their voices are naturally fuller than those of the

lyric tenor their falsetto is more agreeable.

Falsetto is a remnant of the voice before mutation, the male singer who

can produce falsetto having such control over the larynx that he can

contract the cup space until it reverts to its original boy size. This

accounts for the peculiar quality of the male falsetto--its alloy

of the feminine. Boys sing soprano or alto; and a man's voice must be

naturally high and possess such a genuine tenor quality that nothing can

rob it of its true timbre, to be effective in falsetto. This is why the

average "baritone tenors"--singers who begin as baritones but whose

voices lend themselves to being trained up--rarely are able to penetrate

an ensemble with a clear, ringing high note of genuine tenor quality. A

good tenor falsetto is in fact a reversion to boy-soprano with, however,

the quality of adult high voice predominating to such a degree that it

has the tenor timbre; and in proportion as the high notes of the male

voice result from artificial training instead of from natural capacity,

the boy-soprano timbre will creep in and weaken the tenor quality in

falsetto. Some basses and low baritones can be trained to reach the high

notes of the male vocal compass in falsetto, but as natural facility to

produce these notes is lacking in such voices and their production is

due wholly to artifice, the reversion to the boy quality of voice is so

complete and it predominates to such a degree that these voices are

known as male altos.

Falsetto usually is associated with tenors, but falsetto also can be

employed by women, the results, as with men, depending on whether the

voice is naturally a high one or not. I repeat that with voices which

naturally are high, falsetto is not a "dodge," but a legitimate artistic

effect. Furthermore, singers who in addition to control of the regular

registers have control of falsetto, frequently find physical relief in

passing from head to falsetto and back again.

Basses are of three different kinds. Basso profundo is the lowest bass;

basso cantante is a flexible bass usually unable to sing quite as low

as basso profundo; baritone is the highest bass--a voice midway between

bass and tenor and partaking somewhat of the quality of both. The bass

compass parallels that for contralto and alto at an interval of an

octave and, in their use of the registers, basses and contraltos and

baritones and altos have much in common. As with contralto, the natural

singing register of basses is the chest register. The middle register is

awkward to establish in bass voices, as the size of the larynx gives a

large open cup space which is unsuited to the chest register. Therefore,

with basses, when the capacity of the chest register is exhausted, it

is best for the production of the notes above to make a complete

change of adjustment to head register. Thus in bass the middle register

practically is eliminated.

The high bass or baritone compass is from [Music: G2-F4]. It was seen

that the question of registers with altos and contraltos was a complicated

one, and similar complications exist with baritones. Some baritones can

employ the middle register with ease, so that like certain contraltos

they can sing in three registers--a rather weak chest register, middle

and head (or falsetto) registers. The training of baritones is difficult,

and should be determined by the tendency of the individual baritone

voice--whether it inclines toward bass or toward tenor. For example,

Jean de Reszke was at the beginning of his career the victim of faulty

voice diagnosis. He was pronounced a baritone and trained for baritone

roles, with the result that he suffered from an exaggerated condition

of fatigue after every appearance. Later the probable tenor quality of

his voice was discovered, and when it had been developed along

physiological lines best suited to its real quality, undue fatigue

after using it ceased.

The division of the vocal scale into registers is not an artifice. It

is Nature's method of assisting vocalization, her way of relieving

the strain of the voice. A certain portion of the vocal scale lies

naturally in the chest register. But if this open adjustment is carried

up too far, the tones are strained and eventually ruined. On the other

hand if, at the proper point, the singer passes into the middle

register, the strain is relieved; and the relief experienced is even

greater when passing from middle into head, entirely releasing one set

of muscles and calling an entirely new set into play.

The so-called "breaks" in the voice occur at points where one register

passes into another; and it should be the aim of proper instruction in

voice-culture to eliminate the breaks. They are due to the change in

adjustment which each register calls for. The best method of "blending

the registers"--of smoothing out the breaks--is to bring a higher

register several tones down into the one below and thus bridge over the

passage from one adjustment to another. To do this consciously would

defeat its aim. It must be done in spontaneous response to the mental

conception of the tone or phrase to be emitted. It must become second

nature with the singer, a physiological adjustment in answer to a

psychical concept--a detail, in fact one of the most important details,

in that true physiology of voice-production which also takes psychical

conditions into consideration.