Coup de la Glotte

Intending to encapsulate and codify the technique and style of the singers of the first forty years of the nineteenth century, Manuel Garcia based much of his ‘Treatise on the Art of Singing’ on the practice of his sister and his illustrious father. Within the previous decade both had died unexpectedly and early; his father, Manuel Vicente del Popolo Garcia, at 57 in 1832, and Maria Malibran, his sister, at the unbelievably early age of 28, in 1836. Garcia’s treatise rested on the teachings and method of his father, the teacher of both his son and daughter and whose youngest child, who was later to become Pauline Viardot-Garcia, had already started to play for his lessons by the age of eleven. From this small family came one of the most celebrated of all Rossini tenors – Manuel Garcia the elder; his son, the most influential teacher of all; and two of the century’s most illustrious singers – Malibran and Viardot-Garcia.

Garcia senior had trained in Spain and later had studied with Giovanni Anzani, a famous bel canto tenor of the previous generation. So the precepts of the previous century, dominated by the castrati, flowed from his studio. All of the children were taught composition as well as singing, and both daughters followed their father in becoming composers themselves. Manuel Garcia, the younger, seems to have used his compositional talents to write vocal exercises and their accompaniments in his treatise. Part I describes the practice and techniques to become a good singer of the period and Part II, the style and use of the technique in performance. His work was based largely on his father’s and sister’s careers and that of their colleagues and contemporaries during the age of Rossini – the period which has become known as the Age of Bel Canto.

Garcia’s attention to detail included not only breathing and other technical essentials, but also a description of the absolute beginning of the sound, known in Italian as attacco and in German as Ansatz. As he wrote in French, the initiation of the sound came out as the coup de la glotte – ‘shock of the glottis’. Poor Garcia! He can never have imagined the trouble and confusion this innocent phrase was to cause him for the rest of his days.

During the last two decades of his long life, the vogue among voice teachers turned away from the bel canto precepts on which he had been brought up, and veered towards the new, but mistaken, concept of breath pressure theory. This determined that the vocal cords were activated only by a direct air blast from the lungs. In contrast, the ‘bel cantoists’ held that the tone was started by breath already controlled by the so-called ‘vocal struggle’ – la lotta vocale: the expiratory muscles being opposed by the inspiratory, thus allowing the breath flow at the chords to be controlled from the softest and most gentle tone to the strongest and loudest. Thus, the vocal cords never had to withstand forced air from below and therefore were always capable of vibrating freely and without strain.

Because of the breath pressure theories – which continue up to the present day, alas – means were sought to take the strain away from the cords which such a strong air blast placed on them. So the tone was aimed as far away from them as possible: ‘in the ‘masque’; forward; behind the upper teeth; in the sinuses behind the nose; behind the eyes; on to the hard palate; anywhere, provided it was away from the larynx. The fact that vocal tone is generated entirely by the vibrating cords and the resultant sound resonating in the pharynx, was either ignored or disbelieved. The speed of sound (323 mps) was not taken into consideration at all, and the impossibility of aiming sound travelling at such a speed within an instrument only a few inches long was not contemplated.

From this time, Garcia’s phrase, coup de la glotte, began to acquire sinister overtones which distorted and quickly anathematized the original meaning. A major element in this was a misunderstanding of the nuances of the French language, as Garcia’s treatise reached English speaking audiences. Coup literally means ‘shock’, ‘blow’, ‘knock’ in English, and is combined with genitive nouns for varied, specialised meanings. For example: coup de bec – peck; coup de tête – head butt; coup de poing – punch; coup de pied – kick; coup de coude – blow with the elbow or nudge; coup d’épée’ – sword thrust; and also more figurative meanings such as: coup de sifflet – whistle blast; coup de téléphone – telephone call; and coup de foudre – thunderbolt.

As is clear from these latter phrases, the underlying meaning of coup is ‘an instantaneous action’, not an act of force or violence. Looked at from this semantic point of view, therefore, the phrase coup de la glotte does not necessarily presuppose a forceful action, but rather a sudden, clean start at the glottis. Garcia, of course, raised and educated vocally as he was, could never have contemplated anything else.

In the century and a half which separates us from Garcia’s treatise, there has been much confusion and muddle as various theories have flared up and vanished, but during much of this time one enduring warning light has shone out – that the coup de la glotte is dangerous. It has been equated with a violent, unprotected blast of air at the cords, commonly known as the hard attack. However, logic would imply that if the breath is always controlled at the cords, then a hard unprotected attack is impossible.

This is certainly what Garcia believed and a close reading of his section on the ‘Articulation of the Glottis’ shows this to be so. Without a clean start, either piano or forte, no word beginning with a vowel can commence. All vowels must have a precise start, he states. He is scathing on the practice of beginning vocal exercises with a consonant – la, ma, na, pa, etc. and explains that such practices disguise faulty articulation of the glottis. He is equally painstaking and forthright on the physical separation of vowels and consonants in Italian – the one emanating from the throat and the other located wholly in the mouth.

In retrospect, it is easy to see how Garcia’s phrase became misunderstood and misinterpreted as the world changed during his 101 years. A fatal mixture of new ideas and careless translation caused his phrase, straightforward to a Frenchman, to be disbelieved, rejected, and later in the twentieth century, even reviled. Many generations of singers have been taught to recoil from the infamous ‘hard attack’ in horror. Their teachers seem never to have gone to the source and checked on Garcia’s words and meaning; thus confusion on this subject has gone on for over a century.

Teachers and singers in every generation have been aware of the eighteenth century concept of the clean attack of the sound as an essential element in good vocal technique; and yet most have accepted that the coup de la glotte is something to beware of. Few have gone to the trouble to find out that his use of the phrase was a genuine attempt to describe the result that everyone seeks: a precise and exact onset so that the voice speaks immediately, without tension, violence or fuss. The need for such a start is paramount.

One should never forget Garcia’s other memorable phrase – ‘Once the vocal cords become vibratile, all control over them is lost’. If the start of the sound is wrong or unhealthy, so is everything that follows.

© 2006, Neil Howlett