The birth of the tenor myth

The birth of the tenor myth

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Title: Panthéon Charivarique: Gilbert-Louis Duprez.

Author : BENJAMIN (-)

Creation date : 1838

Date shown: 1838

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Charivari Journal page

Storage place: National Library of France (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo National Library of France

Picture reference: Music Prints IFN-07720696 img 17

Panthéon Charivarique: Gilbert-Louis Duprez.

© Photo National Library of France

Publication date: December 2005

Historical context

The first half of the 19th century saw a real enthusiasm for music in general and the art of singing in particular. The fashion of musical entertainment is no longer just for an elite society, but is a fact of the time, as illustrated by this engraving published in the newspaper The Charivari. In this context, the solo singers acquire an incomparable prestige, at a period of golden age for the performers.

Image Analysis

This caricature by Gilbert-Louis Duprez, the most famous tenor of the 19th century, illustrates a musical event that had an extraordinary impact at the time. It evokes the representation of the famous Guillaume Tell de Rossini which was performed on April 17, 1837 and saw Duprez's opera debut as Arnold. Welcomed with enthusiasm and considered, when it premiered on August 3, 1829, as the first romantic opera on the French scene, the work was nevertheless on the decline, performed less and less and more and more mutilated. But she was going to have a new career thanks to Duprez and his famous "ut breast ", a real revolution in the art of singing. Indeed, wanting to characterize the emotional peak of his musical phrase, Duprez launched this sound with an expressive power hitherto unheard of and, accompanying it with extravagant body language, had an immense effect on the audience. The singer seems seized on the spot, in the middle of his air of bravery, one hand on his heart, the other thrown in a declamatory gesture. The quatrain that illustrates the image pays homage to the performer: "Duprez opens for you here the gulf from which springs, a torrent of harmony flowing in great waves. The mouth in him is not what we had [sic] fact huge, if the pencil could also paint talent. “Along with this praise, the artist wanted to convey with humor all the intensity of the physical effort provided by the singer to produce this note: his chest is bulging, his eyes wide open, his gaping mouth, the whole expressing a forced emission.


This image is very representative of the values ​​of its time. It bears witness to all the debate around romantic expressiveness and illustrates the passionate excesses of artists, ready to make all possible technical errors for aesthetic purposes. Virtuoso singing is then at its peak and vocal prodigy is the rule. Theut chest becomes the emblem of the heroic tenor. It is no longer a question of emitting that high-pitched note in the head voice, as was customary before, but of artificially producing a full and powerful sound which requires from the singer an extremely violent effort and which Rossini described as " capon slaughtered ”. The composer had also initially intended this role for Adolphe Nourrit, tenor with a clear and extended voice who, in the tradition of the French haute-contre a la française inherited from the 18th century, practiced a soft and light song. Duprez on the contrary imposed that evening a broad and heroic song, based on vehemence and volume, and thus represents the first modern tenor. Inventor of theut chest and a new expressive style, Duprez fully embodies the values ​​of romanticism from a musical point of view. From that day on, the tenor of poetic grace, à la Nourrit, was banned from the Grand Opera, and Duprez became the ideal interpreter of romanticism. Thanks to him, Guillaume Tell remained in the repertoire for a long time. If he was not the first to use this technique, he had the opportunity to use it in a favorable historical context, at a time when the theatrical world was looking for ever more powerful vocal sounds, and an ever more intense expressive string. . The myth of the tenor was born.

  • caricature
  • music
  • opera
  • Rossini (Gioacchino)
  • stardom


Damien COLAS, Rossini, the opera of light, Paris, Gallimard, coll. "Discoveries", 1992. Joël-Marie FAUQUET (dir.), Dictionary of music in France in the 19th century, Paris, Fayard, 2003.

To cite this article

Catherine AUTHIER, "The birth of the tenor myth"

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