The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
A Short Treatise on Reading Aloud.

by Ernest Legouve
Volume 1, 1890, pg. 618

Translated (with kind permission of Messrs. Hetzel, of Paris) for the "Parents' Review." *

Chapter III.--The Art of Reading from A Technical Point of View.

The Technical part of the art of reading has reference to two things: voice and pronunciation, sounds and words.

The organ of speech resembles to all appearances the organs of sight and of hearing, but it differs from them in one essential, namely, that the operations of sight and hearing are the result of an involuntary act.

It also differs in another point. You cannot see more or less according to your wish, nor can you hear more or less.

This is not the case with the voice. You may speak more of less loudly, more or less fast, you can regulate the volume of sound in the same way that you regulate the sound itself.

A few words will explain this difference.

The organ of speech is nor purely an organ; it is also an instrument, an instrument like the piano. Now, what is the characteristic of a piano? It's keyboard. Of what is the keyboard composed? Of several octaves (six to six and a-half). The six octaves group themselves into three separate kinds of notes: the low notes, the middle notes, the high notes. Lastly, the sound of these notes corresponds to strings of a certain thickness. Well, the voice has its keyboard in the same way as a piano, but contains only two octaves as compared to the six on the piano; three kinds of notes like the piano; thinner strings and thicker strings like the piano; and just in the same way as it is impossible to play the piano without having previously been taught, so is it quite as impossible to inflect your voice correctly without having learnt.

I would even go further than that. On leaving the hands of a good maker a piano is a complete and perfect instrument, and the sound produced by it when touched by an artist is as perfect as it is harmonious. But the little piano given to us by nature rarely attains such perfection. There are missing strings, keys that grates, notes out of tune, so that before becoming a pianist one must be piano maker and tuner as well; that is to say, one must complete, equalise, and tune one's own instrument.

Our three kinds of voice are the bass voice, the medium voice, and the treble voice. They are all three requisite to the art of reading, but the use of them must be and is quite different according to their different degrees of strength. The strongest, most flexible, and most natural of these three voices is the medium or middle voice. The celebrated actor Mole was accustomed to say, "No fame without the middle voice." It is the middle as being the most usual, everyday voice, that expresses all the truest and most natural feelings. The low notes may have greater power, the high notes more brilliancy, but they must only be used in their proper places and, I had nearly said, very rarely. I would compare the high notes to the cavalry in an army corps--to it are reserved the dashing attacks, the brilliant charges, with flourish of trumpets; the bass notes, like the artillery, are reserved for deeds to strength; but the main support of an army, the element which is strategist relies on and uses at all times, is the infantry. Well, the middle voice constitutes our infantry.

therefore the first precept of the art of reading is the supremacy accorded to the middle notes. The high notes are much more fragile, more delicate. If you use them too much, if you play on them too much, they will wear out, and be out of tune; they will become shrill, your little piano will ring flat, and finally the organ itself, the entire organ, will deteriorate. Sometimes the abuse of those high notes reacts even on the thoughts of the speaker. Mr. Berryer once told me he had lost a very good case through having begun his speech in too high a key without being aware of it. The laryngeal fatigue soon reached the temples; from thence it invaded the brain; the intelligence became strained on account of the voice tension, thoughts became confused, and Berryer lost a part of his intellectual faculties, because he did not think of descending from the elevated level to which his voice had climbed in the beginning.

The abuse of the low notes is not less disastrous. It brings monotony, produces blank, sullen, heavy effect. Talma, when young, was much inclined to this failing. His voice, though powerful and touching, was somewhere gloomy, and it was only his artistic training which preserved it from becoming sepulchral. A rather funny story comes to me on this subject.

My father was a very talented reader. A great part of his success at the college de France, where he was a professor, was due to this accomplishment. He interpolated in his lectures fragments from our great ports, and recited them amidst him, raised up for him many envious detractors. On one occasion, a critic said in an article, "Yesterday two scenes from Racine were read by Mr. Legouve in his sepulchral voice." The article fell under the notice of one of his friends, a Mr. Parseval Grandmaison. Like a kind friend, he said to himself, "Legouve will be vexed by that criticism. I will go and see him." He arrived, and found my father stretched out on a sofa, looking decidedly melancholy. "Ah, is that you, my dear Parseval?" "Yes; are you ill, Legouve? You appear out of sorts." "Me! Oh no, there is nothing the matter; a little sore throat. Tell me, my dear Parseval, what do you think of my voice?" "I think it is a very fine on, my friend!" "Yes, yes; but what kind of a voice would you call it? Should you say it was of a brilliant description?" Oh, no! Brilliant is not the word that describes your voice! I should say sonorous." "That's what I think; sonorous." "Undoubtedly, but still perhaps that is not quite the word for it! Solemn would perhaps express it better!" "Well, granted that it is solemn; but surely it is not gloomy?" "Oh no, not gloomy; but still there is a little something"--"Well, but it is not a cavernous voice?" "No, no; but"--"Oh!" cried my father, laughing, "I see that you agree with the abominable critic, and that you consider it a sepulchral one."

The moral of this little anecdote is that, from that day forth, my father applied himself to make less use of his low notes, to blend them judiciously with those of the other two registers, and succeeded in attaining that variety of intonation which is a charm for the audience, as well as a relief to the reader. The judicious blending of the three different registers does not constitute the only exercise for the voice: you must as well, and above all, exercise the voice itself. Exercise the harsh: in fact, exercise acts on the speaking voice in the same way as the art of singing does on the singing voice. It is sometimes said of celebrated artists, Mr. Duprez for instance, that they have "made their voices." The statement is inaccurate: if you have no voice, it is impossible to make one, but it can be entirely altered: you can give it body, brilliancy, grace, not only by the exercises which strengthen the organ itself generally, but by the manner in which you attack the sound. Finally, study will give you notes which originally you did not possess.

One day, when singing the Rondeau out of La Sonnambula, that famous singer, Madame Malibran, ended the air with a shake on the high D, having begun on the lower D, thus comprising a range of three octaves in her phrase. Did she then naturally possess these three octaves? No, but she had acquired them by study. I remember that after the concert, one of us having congratulated her on her high D, she answered gaily, "I have hunted for it long enough! I tried for it everywhere: when I was dressing, when I was doing my hair -- and at last one fine morning, I found it at the bottom of one of my shoes." From which it will be seen that art not only helps us to govern our kingdom but actually extends. it.


The second object of the art of reading is to teach you to breather. One would think that, if there is purely natural action in the world, with which art has nothing to do, it is that of breathing. Breathing is living, and we breathe as unconsciously as we live. But you can only read well if you breathe well, and you cannot breathe well if you have not learnt how to do so. This is one of the rarest talents of a reader. I will explain myself. When you breathe in ordinary life, the air enters and leaves your lungs in an even, steady manner, like the tide of a spring which flows calmly, quietly, and continuously. But would that even current of air be sufficient to thrill your vocal chords? No; they would remain mute like a piano untouched by hands. The air stands in the same relation to the vocal apparatus as the fingers to the piano.

In speaking, the ordinary conditions of breathing are changed. You can only give what you have, and the more you expend the more you have. The little stock of air designed for ordinary unconscious purposes is no longer sufficient in quantity for the breath required by the energetic action of speech; so we must establish and equilibrium between out "have" and our "must have." We must lay in a stock, make an energetic appeal to the source itself, that is, to the atmosphere, so that it may furnish us with the air we require. This appeal is inspiration, or inhalation. Breathing, then, consists of two acts: inspiring, or inhaling, and breathing out, or exhaling. Inhaling is storing up, acquiring; exhaling is expending, giving out your wares.


(middle of page 622)

Typed by joyfulclutter, Apr 2016