February 1936



" What -the oboe does for an orchestra the American accent not used to excess can do for the sound of conversational chatter that one hears on arriving at a house where a party is in full progress. A whole orchestra of oboes would be as pungent as a roomful of American voices, but judiciously employed the instrument adds a relish which no other can provide. At the Villa Amabile this Sunday afternoon, although the composer had certainly used the oboe generously, the symphony of conversation had a refreshing absence of monotony for anybody accustomed to the gurgling clarinets of an English party or the welter of tenor brass instruments at an exclusively Italian gathering."

I am not sure of the extent to which the clarinet is used in the Continental military band, but in the English military band the clarinet is used in bulk presumably to smooth off the brass, and I have repeatedly observed in these pages that the sound of the violin is naturally antipathetic to the English ear. One or two critics have taken me to task for this contention, but their arguments have been so feeble and their choice of instances so obtuse that I have never bothered to reply to them.

To discover why the English so greatly enjoy the smooth quality of sound emitted by the flute and clarinet would involve a careful investigation of climatic conditions and racial combinations, on which I shall not start in this editorial. The assertion has now been made, and i t is up to those who disagree with such an assertion to controvert it. The same taste which enjoys the flute and clarinet naturally enjoys the organ, and although, as Madame de Lussan points out, the organ does possess " an especially appealing stop called (,lOX humana," no lover of the organ is prepared to allow this stop anything more than the most occasional use. My own feeling is that the (,lOX humana is not a vibrato but a tremolo, and I am inclined to think that the English enjoy a tremolo without realising that they enjoy i t because their ears demand! relief from excessive smoothness of sound. The popularity of the cinema organ, a performance on which is one long orgy of tremolo, bears this out, and i t will have been noticed that a popular audience revels in the performance of a violinist who debases his instrument by an excessive use of quivering fingers, thus evoking a tremolo which utterly destroys the natural vibrato of the violin.

Let me go away for a moment from singing or music and invite you to consider the average English speaking voice. The ideal voice from the English point of view is that of one of the B.B.C. announcers in Portland Place, and i t is significant that the further one moves away from southern England the less that ideal voice is esteemed. A monotony of smoothness is responsible for the loss of all concealed aspirates and the sound of the "1'," although paradoxically i t is a desire for smoothness which allows the southern

Englishman to inflict on us a non-existent" r " when one word ends with a vowel sound and the next word begins with one. It is pathetic to hear from t ime to t ime some southern English voice apologising for a cold in the head, which i ts owner believes to be spoiling his utterance. He need not worry; such a cold in the head merely adds an extra charm to the admired quality in his voice, which to any except southern English ears would suggest that the cold in the head was a permanent condition. This flat, smooth utterance is not too objectionable for the unemotional reading of the news, but when we find eighty per cent. of the B.B.C. actors incapable of imparting any sign of life to their voices the real cause of the failure of radio drama in England becomes apparent. Without tuning in to France or Italy, to Spain or Russia, for variety and vitality of speaking voices we can estimate i ts importance by listening in any evening to German plays or poetry-reading. I have no natural sympathy with the German language, but thanks to the quality of the German voice i t has become far more agreeable to listen to as a mere sound than English, to which I will add Scandinavian. This, though less monotonous and lifeless than English, is still far behind German in those respects.

At one time the voices of Englishwomen preserved to a large extent what the men had lost. Unfortunately the last thirty years have brought about a lamentable decline in the quality of the Englishwoman's speaking voice, and in another twenty years i t is likely to be far worse than i t is now, if we may judge by the voices of the younger actresses. I regret to say that my sister Fay has done an inestimable amount of damage to the speaking voices of her younger contemporaries, who have all imitated either herself or earlier imitators of her without realising that unless they possess the natural vibrato, \vith which Fay is endowed, the result is disastrous. Most of the younger English actresses when heard over the wireless sound like toy foghorns.

The criticism which may be directed against the English speaking voice may be directed even more fiercely against the English singing voice. I was not born soon enough to hear Sims Reeves in his prime, but i t will have been noticed that Mr. Ben Davies, in classing Sims Reeves with the very greatest of singers, particularly mentions his vibrato.

I quote from Groves: " His voice had become a pure high tenor of delicious quality, the tones (,Iibrating and equal throughout, very skilfully managed, and displaying remarkably good. taste . . . his greatest triumph was achieved at the Handel Festival in 1857 . . . when he gave' The enemy said' in Israel in Egypt with such remarkable power, fire, and volume of voice, breadth of style, and evenness of vocalisation, as completely electrified his hearers.