A Celebration of Women Writers

"Vocal Art." by Mme. Thora Kunigunde Bjorn.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 740-742.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 740] 




The voice is spiritual; therefore it holds the absolute position as the leading principle, which becomes, in consequence, the vocal center. This principle expresses itself distinctly and invariably through the vocal glottis.

Why we can find the key to the natural voice in this part of our natural organism is, because the ligaments and tissues of the glottis in the larynx are alone capable of the friction which determines pure vibration. Because, secondly, these edges are provided with the motor fibers which furnish them capacity for stretching or lengthening, identical with the pitch or range. Because, thirdly, the same glottis can become sustained as open or respiratory by other fibrous muscles which, when understood, do not need to disturb or interfere with the two other functions. In all and every known method of singing, one and often two of these principles become obscure, insufficient or changed. The spiritual voice means perfect control for expression of the soul, mind and body, which, vocally defined, is pure vibration, respiration and resonance. So, of course, methods are experimental, because they deal with observation from effects, for it is a very easy thing to compel a determinate form in singing through the study of Italian, French or promiscuous original ideas. These become, indeed, quite consistent and uniform as to results, so as to deceive most listeners, in mistakes, the great labor and wonderful art which have made so much out of these effects for the perfect cause itself, the natural voice par excellence. And on the other hand, we can not leave the voice untrained until we understand its nature. We once in a while hear people speak of the freaks of nature, but those who really discover any natural law can never find anything but absolute order and unchangeable results from the same process. Nobody denies that we have to deal with the most subtle observation in regard to the human voice, which would, in my own case, have caused nothing but fear, doubt and hesitation, but for the purpose of my endeavoring to present the true vocal principle for universal use; for, to my thinking, only that which can be of universal use and pleasure has any established and recognizable order. Therefore we can lay the ever increasing vocal mistakes to the fact that vocal art has been experimental and initiatory from the first, and has so remained, and is so today, in spite of all we have done; and it will remain as unsatisfactory unless a good part of the public decide for an acceptance of entirely new premises of observation.

We are not used to associate the voice with the idea of having a distinct law for its vibrations, and it might be suggested that, if this be found controllable, it would [Page 741]  sound mechanical or monotonous. No more likely than that the law of harmony, which is founded on the twelve fundamental tones, though the result of this is listened to in ever varying effects, ergo our conclusion must be that the unclassical is, at the best, a loss of time.

The second point of my subject is the natural respiration, which means both inspiration and expiration. What is natural should be no effort, and the methods of taking, holding or losing breath means nothing less than strain, effort and insufficiency. To my thinking, the artificial singing and effort of unnatural ways of breathing is the reason we have so little genuine expression. How can one look for a realization of what we conceive to be ideal singing when there is nothing but difficulty in doing what–well, what is unnatural? It would take as long as a Wagner opera to dwell upon the various expressions and agonies of so many singers, before and after the breath has become controllable, but I think these present know by sight and sound the truth in this matter. I thought first of proving the value of true respiration by vocally giving the contrast of all the different ways in which the air is taken, held or sustained, but the dragon is so many-headed and would leave me exhausted and unfit to proceed farther, so I will be satisfied with illustrating a few of these. I think my audience will be able to judge by the sounds whether my statement may be credited, that the breath for the tone forms in a decided channel. The breath, which is in constant respiration while singing, is moving in the vocal channel, which belongs to the principle of vibration, and constitute the nostrils, nasal-chamber, head-passages, soft palate, pharynx, tongue, epiglottis, vocal glottis and trachea, in connection with the lower portion of the pharynx, which combine with the œsophagus. This current is up and down. The slower and softer motion is from back forward. The air through the nostrils becomes inspirational through the uvula, and can be expirational as well in the mouth through the lower soft palate. We can perceive the fibrous and more delicate muscles absorb air on the sides around the main channel for strength or action. The vibrations react on the membrane with which certain and various muscles are invested. The action and the reaction thus form resonance in all directions, still this could not be done fully and satisfactorily without the assistance of the muscles themselves.

The lungs not being inflated, expanded, nor muscular for the sake of being expelled or held but by their natural capacity for natural work, deep expression should compel their strength where they are most sufficient, not least, and this is necessary above all so as not to interfere with the emotional parts of the lungs and free circulation. The Italians depend on clavicles and chest, which we do also, and we add the spine, which preserves ease and again assists the diaphragm, leaving the stomach free, while all are remaining natural, not raised or depressed. As the lower neck and upper chest are considered immutable, and are so nearly, the knowledge of one who has had patience and courage to investigate the nature and functions of these very parts will no doubt be appreciated by the results derived from this study. The lower neck and upper chest contain the respiratory glottis and trachea, the dividing line from the frontal bronchia to the posterior roots of the lungs. Thus the intimate connection between the full but curved length of the main channel for respiration, the vertebra through its center, and the nerve center, direct through the spinal cord and the various other leading nerves, probably forming an oblong circle through the directing center from the medulla oblongata, or lower brain.

Vibrations–not "vibratos"–are the law of the perfect voice, and these occur on an up and down line on the fibrous sides of larynx and pharynx; these absorb and cause the coarser vibrations, and are derived from the incoming and rising air. The finer and absolutely musical vibrations occur only through the impressions of the more purified air passing through or touching the sensitive membrane, though the ligaments act with one and all the others through successive changes. The articulating muscles have usually no vibratory, much less resonant, capacity, therefore the voice with so-called distinct articulation becomes so monotonous. Alas! it is all so monotonous. Where are the expression changes we dream of for the delight of our souls? where is [Page 742]  the coloring? In "coloratour" perhaps. Well, how can we expect to have beauty, strength and ease on theories of diaphragmatic breathing, which kills natural respiration; on theories of forming tones where they are not indicated by a single natural reason, to be taught that the breath makes the tone, and then expelling the breath, which stops the incoming air? Rubenstein has made the statement that the human voice is a less perfect instrument than any string instrument. As a rule he is certainly right. I am just bringing conviction to a good many people that we have looked on the wrong side in training it, in judging it, in merely hearing it. In fact, what is it, what should it be?

In the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago the outcome was, I believe, love, truth, unity, form and color may vary; but love, which vibrates through the human voice, must be felt; and truth, which is expressed through the classic ideal as purity, must be observable. Then we shall hear the voice, made by no hands, superior to all other imitations of it; then methods and false foundations shall vanish; then the clashing of dissonances in the realm of harmony will be transformed into an earnest and successful endeavor to work out good and beauty through knowledge of Divine laws.

[Page 740] 

Mme. Thora Kunigunde Bjorn was born in Christiania, Norway. Her parents were Consul and Fru Arentz. She was educated mainly in Copenhagen, Denmark. She has traveled in the northern countries of Europe, and came as a widow to this country. Her special work has been in the interest of vocal and instrumental music. Her principal literary works are articles on the voice in several magazines. As a child she played the piano and studied with Ole Bull; Niels Wilhelm Gade became interested in her voice, through her singing she was offered the position as vocal teacher at Vassar College but accepted and retained such a position at Miss Porter's School, Farmington, for several years. In religious faith she is a Protestant. Her postoffice address is No. 2 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Mass.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Kelly McDonald.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom