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The fable of Adolphe Nourrit.

STANDING IN THE COURTYARD OF THE HOTEL BARBAJA IN NAPLES, I looked up to the balcony from which the famous nineteenth century tenor Adolphe Nourrit (1802-1839) jumped to his death. In operatic circles, a fable has grown up around Nourrit: he sang his high notes in falsetto; when Duprez began to sing high notes in full voice, Nourrit committed suicide in despair.

The fable raises questions. Why did he jump to his death? How did Nourrit sing? Did he actually sing all of his highest notes with a female imitative quality? Many people have thought of Nourrit's voice as a cross between the vocal qualities of Michael Jackson and Tiny Tim. A close examination of the historical record significantly challenges the often repeated story.

It is impossible to be absolutely certain about the sound of Nourrit's voice. Since we cannot travel back in time with a high quality tape recorder, spectrograph, and electroglottograph, we are forced to rely on the adequacies and inadequacies of written sources. Fortunately, there is a wealth of reviews, scores, letters, and articles that shed light on the sound of the tenor's voice.

What is undisputable is that between 1822 and 1837 Nourrit successfully created twenty- two roles at the Paris Opera. Authorities agree that the 1830s were a time of great transition for the operatic tenor voice. Close examination of the historical record leads the reader to a model of Nourrit's sound which is very similar to the production of modern leggiero tenors. We will look at sources that indicate his use of a wide variety of colors, including full head voice (voce piena in testa), voix blanche (voce finta), voix mixte (voce mista), and falsetto. This wide range of timbres is in marked contrast to the view generally held.


We will begin with an overview of Nourrit's career with special attention to changes in singing styles. Diday and Petrequin's groundbreaking 1840 article on voix sombree will be discussed. Finally, a brief examination of the different types of vocal productions Nourrit could have employed will lead to a reassessment of how he might have sung.


Salle Le Peletier

When Nourrit made his debut at nineteen years of age in September 1821, the new home of the Paris Opera, Salle Le Peletier, had just opened the previous month. It had a capacity of 1,900 and usually used a large orchestra, with an average of eighty-five players. (1) This is significant because of the issue of audibility over a large orchestra in the considerable house. One commentator wrote that singers at the Opera often experienced "a rapid deterioration of their voices because of the huge space and the formidable orchestral forces ... Nourrit alone had the power to succeed in battle with these forces." (2) Clearly, this is contrary to the fable.

Manuel Garcia, the Elder, and Rossini

Nourrit was the most famous male student of Manuel Garcia, the elder. Garcia was said to be the only voice teacher of the time who knew how to develop the chest voice while adding the two upper registers. (3) A recent book-length biography of Nourrit's teacher noted:

In Garcia's teaching, power and flexibility were not seen as incompatible ... the modern notion of a Rossini tenor as a light, flexible voice has nothing in common with what Garcia's interpretation must have been. His [Garcia's] voice had amazing flexibility, but it also had power. He taught his students to have the same. (4)

Such a description sounds like full head voice.

In 1827, Nourrit created the role of Amenophis in Rossini's Moise, which appears to have marked a turning point in the singing style at the Opera. Most of the singers by this time were using an open voiced, sensuous manner inculcated in them by the composer. (5) Gilbert-Louis Duprez's debut at the Opera did not occur until ten years later.

Faculty at the Paris Conservatory

At the end of 1827, Nourrit was named to the Paris Conservatory faculty on the basis of his great successes in performance. At this time, the Paris Conservatory was under the direction of Luigi Cherubini, who guaranteed that the Italian school of singing was the officially sanctioned method there. (6) Later, in 1833, Cherubini composed an opera, Ali-Baba, in which Nourrit created a leading role. This is a further indication of Nourrit's use of an Italian-influenced vocal production.

The roles written with Nourrit's voice in mind offer numerous instances where the writing makes no sense if the tenor had been singing in falsetto. In the interest of brevity, only two examples will be cited.

In Auber's La Muette de Portici (1828), Masaniello, the tenor lead, opens Act IV with an aria that ends with a cadence on [B.sup.[??].sub.4] on the word "puissant." It is difficult to imagine a composer who knew Nourrit's voice expecting the word for "powerful" to be sung in a female imitative quality. Additionally, Rossini's Le Comte Ory (1829) contains an Act II duet that includes a held forte [B.sub.4] for the tenor as the soprano prolongs a [G.sup.#.sub.5]. A composer who knew Nourrit's voice would not have expected it to balance the soprano's forte[G.sup.#.sub.5] if the tenor were in falsetto.

A Revolution in Singing Styles

In 1829, the Revue Musicale wrote that Nourrit was

... the first to understand that something besides declamation was possible at the Opera, and to take a just middle ground between the exaggerated dramatic expression of the old French school and the excessive embellishments of the Italian singers. (7)

A revolution in singing styles was occurring and Nourrit was leading the way.

Nourrit's next creation was the role of Arnold in Guillaume Tell (1829), Rossini's only completely original opera in French. Duprez's famous C5 struck Rossini "like the squawk of a capon whose throat is being cut." Rossini said: "Nourrit sang it in head voice and that is how it should be sung." (8) It is difficult to imagine Rossini's Italian ear preferring a female imitative sound.

The trio for Arnold, Tell, and Walter is an emotional high point of the opera. This ensemble includes a [C.sup.#.sub.5] that Nourrit sang effortlessly and Duprez simply omitted. In reference to this pitch, a contemporary reviewer wrote, "Nourrit launched a high C# that made the entire hall vibrate." (9) We don't usually think of a falsetto pitch having that kind of an effect. Later in the nineteenth century a commentator wrote,

By 1831 the revolution in French singing was an accomplished fact. Full assimilation of Rossini's style led to such improvement in vocal technique at the Opera that it was said the French singers interpreted the music of the Italian master as if they came from La Scala. (10)

Manuel Garcia, the younger, a friend and associate of Nourrit, asserted in 1841 that "the lowered and fixed position of the larynx has been known to him since 1832, and since that time he has not stopped propagating that fact by teaching it to all his students." (11) Garcia's statement corroborates the belief that a revolution in singing styles occurred at the Opera years before the arrival of Duprez. From 1831 to 1836, Nourrit created leading roles in eight operas, including Robert le Diable, La Juive, and Les Huguenots.

Duprez Hired, Henry Chorley

On or about October 1, 1836, Gilbert-Louis Duprez was appointed co-first tenor at the Opera. Nourrit sang Guillaume Tell with Duprez in the audience on October 5. Nourrit said he had never sung the role so well. Then on October 10, during a performance of La Muette, with Duprez again in the audience, Nourrit suddenly went hoarse.

These October 1836 performances, immediately after Duprez had been contracted, were the only times Henry Chorley, the famous nineteenth century English critic, heard Nourrit. He described Nourrit's voice as "nasal in its falsetto." Generations have literally taken his word, "falsetto," to be the complete truth on Nourrit's production. (12)

While Chorley wrote, "When I heard Nourrit, too, his best days had long passed," he also wrote, "every note of the music [was] ringing in my ears as if I was listening to Falcon, Nourrit, and Levasseur." He referred to Nourrit's "clear and metallic voice" and "His [Nourrit's] own nasal and brilliant falsetto di testa." Few of us refer to pure falsetto as ringing, clear, or brilliant.

Chorley is not the most objective source regarding the tenor's voice. The critic indulged in some macho posturing as he expressed doubts about Nourrit's "manliness." His admiration for Duprez was often excessive.

Chorley was mistaken regarding a basic detail about the upper range of the roles Nourrit created. He wrote, "The repertory of parts, too, which Duprez was called upon to undertake, had ... phrases constantly pushed not merely to the heights--but to the pinnacles, as it were--of the extreme falsetto."12 Falsetto frequently extends to [G.sub.5], but the highest note Nourrit ever sang in public was [D.sub.5]. Given that Chorley did not accurately grasp this basic piece of information concerning the range of Nourrit's roles, it is logical to question his opinion about an issue as slippery as the tone quality of Nourrit's voice.

Nevertheless, Chorley supported the belief that Nourrit was part of the revolution in singing styles of the 1830s when he quoted La Revue des Deux Mondes: "He [Nourrit] marked the transition from the old recitative of the French to the cavatina of the Italians, from Laine to Rubini." Even Chorley acknowledged that Nourrit led the way in bringing Italian singing to Paris. (13)

Resignation from the Opera

On October 14, 1836, Nourrit resigned from the Opera. His Paris Opera farewell performance was on April 1, 1837. At this point one reviewer wrote:

The voice of Nourrit has changed since his debut: in losing something of its silver purity, some if its youthful freshness, it has gained some loud, brilliant head voice notes. His sport has been to sing higher and higher, with more and more spirit, capable of very opposed shades, he often reached the highest degree of pathos. (14)

On August 3, 1837 Nourrit was in Lyons performing Schubert lieder in a public recital with Liszt at the piano. Then Nourrit sang Guillaume Tell, getting glowing reviews that praised his vocal efficiency, power, and stamina.

The artist saves his forces in order to give them appropriate life. Such energy, such power when a situation requires the depiction of a violent passion, he projects impressions in tumultuous waves that fill and torment the heart. In these moments, Nourrit allows his voice all of its expansion [developpement] and everyone knows what effect it produces. (15)

Stamina above the staff on loud notes is characteristic of the formant tuning of full head voice.

While on a performing tour in Toulouse, Nourrit's liver disease flared up and he was forced to return home. On his return, while listening to Duprez at the Opera, on November 22, 1837, he was struck by an idea. He would go to Italy to succeed Giovanni Battista Rubini (1795-1854) upon his retirement.

The Suicide

Sadly, Nourrit committed suicide early on the morning of March 8, 1839. Generations have viewed his suicide in terms of the registration of his voice; however, Nourrit's widow paid for an autopsy which disclosed that the tenor suffered from advanced liver disease, including an enlarged liver and heart. Toward the end of his life he suffered from jaundice, chronic dysentery, chronic fever, and extreme weight loss. (16) Obviously, he was very ill. Henry Pleasants's biography suggests that Nourrit had an "organic basis for mental depression and suicide due to gastrointestinal and liver disease" and/or "major depressive disorder with recurrent melancholic features." (17) This is a partial answer to one of our initial questions, "Why did he jump?" He seems to have jumped to his death, at least in part, because of the physical and psychological effects of his advanced liver disease.


While Nourrit is our focus, some attention must be given to voix sombree, associated with Gilbert-Louis Duprez. His sensational ut in poitrine (ut [do] in chest) was, without question, very different from how Nourrit sang. It was so distinctive that two physicians, Diday and Petrequin, reported on voix sombree in the Gazette Medicale de Paris, 16 May 1840. They described it as: "A new type of singing voice ... just as chest and falsetto are types." (18)

This 1840 article clarified what made voix sombree so noteworthy: its volume and its tone color. Its high volume was said to be the result of a very strong flow of air; its dark tone color was due to a stabilized larynx. The lack of ability to sing softly in voix sombree made this production sound like what is termed early and heavy cover by some pedagogues.

Diday and Petrequin expressed concern about the vocal health of singers who used this new, forceful, dark type of singing voice in its pure form. "Voix sombree without mix will have a very short duration ... while listening recently to a famous tenor [Duprez is implied], we saw the first sign of the truth of our assertions and the inevitable loss of his voix sombree." (19) Since Nourrit left Paris in December 1837 and traveled to Italy with the express intention of learning this new technique, obviously, he did not use it from 1822-37.


Sombree Mixte, Rubini, and Chiaroscuro

Diday and Petrequin coined the term sombree mixte to describe a type of intermediate production between voix sombree and voix blanche. They stated, "This procedure is instinctively and commonly used by singers." (20) Singers were encouraged to employ sombree mixte most of the time and to avoid pure voix sombree even in pieces that required forceful singing. In this way, one could "maintain the integrity of the vocal organ," that is, sing with efficiency and stamina. Sombree mixte seemed to be the authors' term for voce piena in testa, or full head voice.

Diday and Petrequin held up Rubini as the ideal for sombree mixte. Rubini was the acknowledged king of tenors of the day; many considered his vocal production ideal. The authors made it clear that Rubini was doing one thing and Duprez another. Nourrit's wife, Adele, wrote, "It is nothing new that the development of the chest voice extinguishes the head voice and the half-voice. Rubini almost never uses the chest voice." (21) Nourrit's voice was often compared to Rubini's. Nourrit's primary biographer, Quicherat, wrote: "The union of sweetness and power in the voice is a precious and rare quality in a singer. Nourrit shared this quality with Rubini." (22)

Full head voice includes a chiaroscuro quality. In 1836, a reviewer described Nourrit's voice as having this color, which is characteristic of full head voice with formant tuning: "His voice released those pitches which have brightness with enough sweetness and strength at once." (23)

Voix Blanche

While the center of attention of Diday and Petrequin's article was the new technique of voix sombree, the authors also described the old technique, voix blanche. This approach involved elevating the larynx as the pitch ascended. The authors cited nimbleness and the ability to sing softly on high notes without going flat as assets of this type of production.

Voix blanche is "a timbre characterized by a certain sweetness and plaintiveness." (24) It is referred to as voce finta by the Italian school and has sometimes has been mistaken for falsetto. That may explain Chorley's falsetto comments above. Given the transitional function of Nourrit's singing, it seems very likely that the tenor sometimes employed this old method of vocal production. However, since it can rarely be used above [A.sub.4], voix blanche was not available for the highest notes that Nourrit so often sang loudly.

Voix Mixte

The very term voix mixte is confusing because it implies a mixed register, which Garcia, the younger, and others have considered physically impossible. Voix mixte, referred to as voce mista by the Italian school, is a somewhat soft phonation. Garcia, the younger, suggested "weak glottal closure, a low larynx, and a relaxed pharynx with as little muscular engagement as possible" for this production. (25)

"Voix mixte" turns up frequently throughout the reviews and letters in reference to Nourrit. It seems certain he sometimes used voix mixte, with its stabilized laryngeal position, when a soft production was indicated.


Falsetto has been defined as "the imitative sound of the female voice by the male." (26) Prior to the rise of the countertenor in the twentieth century, a man singing solo in falsetto for any extended period of time was for comic effect. Since most of Nourrit's characters were noble and heroic, the use of falsetto would have been inappropriate for these roles.

The upper limit of falsetto is [G.sub.5]. (27) If Nourrit's audience accepted a falsetto registration, why did composers stop at [D.sub.5]? If the tenor had sung all his high notes in falsetto, it would seem that at least one composer might have taken him closer to the [F.sub.5] that Bellini wrote for Rubini in I Puritani. Diday and Petrequin contrasted voix sombree to voix blanche. Writing in 1840, only three years after Nourrit's farewell performance, they did not contrast voix sombree to falsetto.

Generations have understood Duprez to have said that Nourrit sang all his high notes in falsetto when he wrote that Nourrit's "voice had the quality of what used to be called an haute-contre." (28) The haute-contre was the high-lying tenor voice for which Lully, Rameau, and Gluck had composed. However, today authorities agree that "the haute-contre in eighteenth century French music was sung falsetto only by rare exception." (29) Furthermore, while the haute-contre has frequently been thought of as a high and light voice, close examination of the historical evidence challenges that belief. (30) Duprez may have meant the sound that an hautecontre actually had. Many have taken his statement to mean a countertenor, female imitative sound.

The record indicates that Nourrit used falsetto occasionally, like the haute-contre singers. Quicherat wrote: "Nourrit used falsetto [fausset] with all the artistry he had ... and in the amount called for by the situation." (31)

Even Scale

According to many contemporary commentators, Nourrit's voice was characterized by an even scale.

All of the notes of this voice are pure, equal and placed; never shocking with varied ones, never weak or defective sounds; whether Nourrit gives the a, the b, the high c, or sings in his middle voice, you are sure that his voice's notes will be of the same family, beautiful, that is to say, in expression, vigor and sonority. (32)


Before his book-length study of the tenor, Henry Pleasants wrote, "Nourrit's was an agreeable, strong, expressive voice, capable of a brilliant, though not full-voiced high C and resourcefully employed in diminuendo, voix-mixte, voix de tete and falsetto." (33) In the final stages of his Nourrit biography, Mr. Pleasants kindly wrote to me, "I find myself in agreement with your observations and conclusions, most particularly and importantly with what you have to say about strength and audibility of his top notes. Of the tenors we have heard, I would suggest that Gedda or Kraus comes closest." (34) If he were writing today, Pleasants might have suggested Juan Diego Florez.

So we are back where we started, in the courtyard of the Hotel Barbaja. The fable about Nourrit's voice needs to be revised. Nourrit's suicide was at least partially due to his advanced liver disease with its profound physical and psychological effects. On the basis of the volume of his notes above the passaggio, Nourrit probably sang some of the time with formant tuning, voce piena in testa. In addition, Nourrit probably employed a wide range of qualities including voix mixte, voix blanche, and, yes, falsetto.


(1.) David Charlton, "The Opera," in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. 3 (London: Macmillan Reference Limited, 1992), 866.

(2.) Francois-Joseph Fetis, Biographie universelle des musicians, Premiere edition, 1841, cited in Louis Quicherat, Adolphe Nourrit: Sa vie, son talent, son caractere, sa correspondence, Vol. 2 (Paris: Librarie de L. Hachette et Cie,1867), 538. All translations from French by the present author.

(3.) Leon Escudier and Marie-Pierre Escudier, Etudes biographiques sur les chanteurs contemporains (Paris: Just Tessier, 1840), 36; cited in James Radomski, Manuel Garcia (1775-1832): Chronicle of the Life of a bel canto Tenor at the Dawn of Romanticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 272.

(4.) Radomski, 273.

(5.) Herbert Weinstock, Rossini: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968; repr. New York: Limelight, 1987), 156.

(6.) James Stark, Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 4.

(7.) La Revue Musicale 4 (1829): 332; quoted in William L Crosten, French Grand Opera: An Art and a Business (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), 41.

(8.) Henry Pleasants, The Great Singers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), 167.

(9.) M. Gustave Benedit, "Le Menestrel" (May 10, 1863), reproduced from Le Semaphore de Marseille (25 May 1837); cited in Quicherat, 322.

(10.) Arsene Houssaye, Les confessions (Paris, 1885); quoted in William Crosten, French Grand Opera (New York: King's Crown Press, 1948), 40.

(11.) Manuel Garcia, A Complete Treatise On the Art of Singing, Part 1, translated and edited by Donald Paschke (New York: Da Capo Press, 1984), xxxii.

(12.) Henry F. Chorley, Music and Manners in France and Germany (London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1844), 62-67, 205.

(13.) Ibid., 148.

(14.) Le Courrier Francais (April 3, 1837); cited in Quicherat, 486.

(15.) Revue du Lyonnais (September 1837): 239; cited in Quicherat, 294.

(16.) Quicherat, Nourrit, Vol. 1, 492-3.

(17.) Henry Pleasants, The Great Tenor Tragedy: The Last Days of Adolphe Nourrit As Told (Mostly) by Himself (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1995), 135-8.

(18.) Y. R. Diday and Petrequin, "Memoire sur une nouvelle espece de voix chantee," Gazette Medicale de Paris, Tome 8, 1840 (16 May 1840): 307-314. Translations by the present author. All of the Diday and Petrequin following quotations are from this source.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Pleasants, Nourrit, 105.

(22.) Quicherat, Nourrit, 2, 279.

(23.) Bruxelles, Mercure belge, journal de Commerce, etc. (10 june 1836); cited in Quicherat, Nourrit, 2, 474.

(24.) Richard Miller, Training Tenor Voices (New York: Schirmer Books, 1993), 65-67.

(25.) Stark, 74.

(26.) Miller, 3.

(27.) Donald G. Miller, "Registers in Singing" (Thesis, University of Groningen, the Netherlands: private printing by the author, 2000), 59.

(28.) Gilbert Duprez, Souvenirs d'un chanteur (Paris: Ancienne Maison Michel Levy Freres, 1880), 137.

(29.) Neal Zaslaw, "The Enigma of the Haute-contre," Musical Times 115 (1974): 940-41.

(30.) Mary Cyr, "On Performing 18th Century Haute-contre Roles," Musical Times 118 (1977): 292.

(31.) Quicherat, Nourrit, 2, 289.

(32.) M. Benedit, Le Semaphore de Marseille (25 May 1837); cited in Quicherat, Nourrit, 2, 309.

(33.) Pleasants, The Great Singers, 164.

(34.) Henry Pleasants, letter to author, June 12, 1993.

Evan Walker, tenor, is Voice Teacher and Chair of the Theatre/Music Department at Carver Center for Arts and Technology, a selective magnet high school outside Baltimore. Many of Evan's Carver Center students have been NATS adjudication prize winners. In 2006-07, his solo performances included Mozart's C Minor Mass, Mozart's Solemn Vespers, Dubois' Seven Last Words,an all-Mozart recital, and a recital of American art song, featuring living composers.

Evan's operatic performances have ranged from Arithmetic (L'Enfant) to Camille (Merry Widow). In reference to his Ralph (Pinafore), the Baltimore Sunpraised his "magnificent operatic tenor." Recent performances have included creating the role of Dimmesdale in Douglas Yetter's contemporary operatic setting of The Scarlet Letter.

Evan earned his DMA in Voice Performance at Peabody Conservatory, where his lecture/recital featured arias from roles created by Adolphe Nourrit. His primary teachers have been Wayne Conner, Ruth Drucker, and Thomas Grubb. Postdoctoral studies have included Certification in Vocology from the University of Iowa, the NATS Intern Program, a sabbatical trip to Paris, Richard Miller's IVPP, and the Vienna-based 2006 National Endowment for the Humanities "Mozart's Worlds" Institute.

Dr. Walker is a contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera and The New Grove II.
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Author:Walker, Evan
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Previous Article:Letters to the editor.
Next Article:Voice science and vocal art, Part two: motor learning theory.

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