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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

The Affective use of Timbre According to Garcia and Demonstrated by Fernando de Lucia (1902)

‘A few trials will suffice to prove that every shade of passion, however slight, will effect in a peculiar way the physical condition, capacity, formation, and rigidity of the vocal instrument. This tube incessantly changes, and, like a mold, gives a peculiar stamp to every sound which it emits. Owing to its wondrous elasticity, it also depicts external objects, as may be observed even in simple conversation; for instance, if the intention be to represent anything extensive, hollow, or slender, the voice produces, by a moulding movement, sounds of a corresponding descriptive character. The timbres are one of the chief features of a true sentiment; the choice of them cannot be neglected without committing absurdities. They frequently reveal an inward feeling which our words disguise or even contradict.’

Garcia helpfully provides an extensive collection of sentiments accompanied by a description of the appropriate sound quality:

  • ‘… in prayer, fear, and tenderness, the voice should be touching, and slightly covered. In tenderness now and then, the noise of the breath may be introduced…’

  • Imprecation, threatening, or severe command, give to the voice a character of roundness, roughness, and hauteur…’

  • Martial or religious enthusiasm rounds the voice, and makes it clear and brilliant…’

  • Muttered threats, deep grief, and intense despair, require a deep, hollow timbre…’

  • Terror and mystery deaden the sounds, rendering them sombre and hoarse…’

  • In the prostration which follows strong excitement, the voice comes out dull, because the breath cannot be held, and thus obscures the sounds…This flat character of voice is the opposite of that brilliant metalic timbre which suits the expression of vigorous sentiments…’

  • ‘The soft and affectionate character assumed by the voice when expressing love, partakes more of the clear than dull timbre…’

  • Joy requires a lively, brilliant, and light timbre…’

  • ‘In laughter, the voice is acute, suddenly interrupted, and convulsive…’

  • Sarcasm or raillery renders the organ metallic and shrill…’

  • Threats of grief and despair, when bursting forth, are expressed by open, piercing, heart-rending sounds…’

‘...From our preceding observations, many important results may be deduced:

1st. Sounds that have no brilliancy serve to express poignant sentiments which cause prostration of the vocal organs; such as tenderness, timidity, fear, confusion, terror, &c. Those, on the other hand, which posses their full brilliancy, best express sentiments exciting to the energy of the organs; such as animation, joy, anger, rage, pride, &c.

2ndly. The two opposite timbres pursue an exactly similar course to that of the passions. They start from an intermediate point, where the expression of the softer sentiments is placed, and thence move in an opposite direction. The timbres attain their greatest exaggeration, when the passions themselves reach their utmost limits. Lively or terrible passions, that burst out with violence, require open timbres; while serious sentiments, whether elevated or concentrated, demand dull or covered timbres.’



Manuel García, Garcia’s New Treatise on the Art of Singing. A Compendious Method of Instruction, with Examples and Exercises for the Cultivation of the Voice (Boston: O. Ditson, 1870).

While it’s somewhat hard to associate these written descriptions with the sounds of singing, some clues can be found in the earliest recordings of the twentieth century.

The following rendition of ‘il Fior’ (‘la fleur que tu m'avais jetée’) from Carmen is sung by Fernando de Lucia, and was released in 1902. Although objective judgements of timbre are difficult to make in recordings of this nature, indeed I found several transfers which differ quite dramatically in terms of playback speed, the main point of interest is in comparing the wide timbral contrast demonstrated throughout the performance.

In order to make this clearer, I’ve created a small table which analyses each line according to my perception of its timbre. Alongside this, I’ve suggested a comparable sentiment from the Garcia passage I shared above, as well as the accompanying instruction for how to perform this sentiment.

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