Go back to article: Something in the Air: Dr Carter Moffat’s Ammoniaphone and the Victorian Science of Singing

The origins of the Italian ‘Cradle of Song’

The central premise of Moffat’s Ammoniaphone – that, in the words of the Magazine of Music, ‘balmy Italian air’ could be used to ‘make Saxon croakers sing like southern nightingales’ – was ‘delusively simple’, and ‘in itself a temptation to the scoffer’ (1885a, p 34). It nonetheless capitalised upon the widely perceived superiority of Italian vocal tones as a musical ideal within the operatic profession. According to the Victorian meteorologist Thomas Gilbert Bowick, Italy had ‘longed been famed as the cradle of song and the birthplace of many of our sweetest singers and grandest musicians’ (Bowick, 1884, p 76).[2] The great superiority ‘both in execution and numbers of the singers of the Schools of Italy over the rest of Europe’ was explicitly noted in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana; Or, Universal Dictionary of Knowledge in 1845 (although, like many others, the author noted that this had been somewhat in decline in recent decades) and it was a sentiment that was echoed across the musical and general press (Gwilt, 1845, p 712). As Richard Taruskin has shown in his detailed study of music in the nineteenth century, since the rise of German instrumental music, ‘Italian musicians were happy to divide the musical world into spheres of influence: the vocal, where their superiority was unassailable (and which they regarded as the higher sphere as it was one that the human organism could produce “naturally”, without mediation), and the instrumental)’ to which the German musicians were welcome (Taruskin, 2009, p 618). Italy was regarded, above all, as a nation redolent in melodic charm. With a marked preference for melody and rhythm over harmony, the Italians, declared the Hungarian baritone Albert Bach in a lecture at the Edinburgh Music Hall in 1882, were ‘before other nations endowed with a lively sense of form and colour, of symmetry and beauty, and especially, with a sense of beautiful sound’ (Bach, 1883, p 224). The renowned Hungarian composer and virtuoso musician Franz Liszt had also reputedly noted that just ‘as esprit is said to hover about the streets in Paris, so in Italy happily invented melodies are, so to speak, in the air; they insinuate themselves incidentally, and pleasingly coax the ear’ (Bach, 1883, p 226). Music and the bountiful Italian atmosphere were equally synonymous in other cultural forms, as Phyllis Weliver’s compelling discussion of the influence of climate on racial development, language, and musical semiotics in the works of the English novelist George Meredith has demonstrated (Weliver, 2006, pp 83–109). In his ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ (1855), the English poet Robert Browning similarly presented Italy as a dynamic, lively, and artistic nation where, when the poem’s speaker opens his window, the very air is infused with ‘a sweep of lute strings, laughs, and whifts of song’ (Browning, 2007, p 630). The association between the nation of Italy and the heights of musical beauty was undoubtedly profound in the popular consciousness, and the Italian air was understood to resonate with the beautiful melodies of its people. The precise location of that musical talent, however, be it atmospheric, meteorological, cultural, social, or biological, was a matter for ongoing debate.

Moffat was convinced that there was something peculiar to the air of Italy that accounted for the superiority of Italian vocal tones, and his views were enthusiastically endorsed by Bowick, a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society who wrote in his essay of 1884 that in Italy, the ‘balmy perfume-laden air, the lovely autumnal tints of grassy slopes, the foliage of the olive and the broad palmate leaf of the vine all combine in appealing to the student of Nature, of Science, and of Art.’ The Ammoniaphone was, for Bowick at least, the material embodiment of that inspirational atmosphere, and one had simply to inhale its essence so that, ‘by means of [Moffat’s] Chemical Science we are brought into a Fairy land of which no one knows the extent’ (Bowick, 1884, p 79). Its effects were, in this paradigm, akin to magic in their defiance of biologically imposed limitations. The fact that the application for a patent for the Ammoniaphone was made by ‘Robert Carter Moffat, chemist, and Thomas Gilbert Bowick, manufacturer’ did, of course, rather undercut the value of his praise, and many musicians, scientists and medical professionals with an interest in music remained highly sceptical (Browne, 1884, p 21). In November 1884, the editors of the Tonic Sol-Fa Reporter noted that several correspondents had already written to solicit the magazine’s opinion on the Ammoniaphone, and ‘we can only say that we tried it the other day, and that the inhalation had not the slightest effect on our voice’ (1884a, p 383). One surgeon’s letter to the editor of the Lancet in February 1884 raised two objections to Moffat’s theory: first, that English pupils studying in Italy did not experience the remarkable effects which Moffat claimed for Italian air, and secondly, that Italian vocalists in England did not lose their vocal superiority when removed from the influence of their supposedly ‘musical atmosphere’ (White, 1884, p 327). Dr Andrew Wilson, quoting this letter in his magazine Health, noted that ‘this looks like sensible criticism, and suggests that, after all, race-peculiarity, and not peroxide of hydrogen, lies at the root of Italian purity of song’ (Williams, 1884, p 405). The editors of the Magazine of Music concurred that beyond the vocal mechanism itself lay the Italian tendency to song, which was a geographical and a ‘racial phenomenon’ that required the broader analysis of a ‘mass of carefully collated facts’ by a sociologist like Herbert Spencer, and could not be explained by ‘mere analysis of atmospheres’ (1885a, p 34).

By referencing Spencer here, the magazine’s editors are deliberately seeking to undercut the notion that superior singing is merely the result of atmospheric influences by alluding to increasingly popular Victorian debates about the origins and the evolution of music, and thus implying that there are rather more complex biological and sociological factors at work than can be captured in a simple metal tube. In contrast to Charles Darwin’s earlier claims that human ancestors had uttered musical sounds before they had acquired powers of articulate speech, Herbert Spencer’s controversial 1857 article, ‘The Origin and Function of Music’, had rigorously set forth the principle that music’s origins lay in speech, and more specially, in the primitive language of human emotions. Spencer’s central premise was that ‘there is a physiological relation between feeling and vocal sounds; that all the modifications of voice expressive of feeling are the direct results of this physiological relationship’ (Spencer, 1857, p 49). That is, vocal sounds originally occurred through the agency of the human muscles as they contracted and relaxed in accordance with the sensations of pleasure or pain, releasing sounds whose pitch, timbre, and intervals varied in response to the emotional experiences that prompted them.[3] According to Spencer, then, music was an extension of natural physiological phenomena, and less evolved races therefore produced less evolved and far more basic music:

That music is a product of civilisation is manifest: for though some of the lowest savages have their dance-chants, these are of a kind scarcely to be signified by the title musical: at most they supply but the vaguest rudiment of music so properly called. (Spencer, 1857, p 69)

Employing Spencer’s argument in response to Moffat’s claims provided a strident rebuttal of the very conception of the Ammoniaphone. A simple chemical formula for the improvement of the voice could not bestow the kind of lyrical impulse and highly evolved aesthetic sensitivity required to produce great music. Albert Bach later elaborated upon this concept in his lectures in Edinburgh, declaring that ‘Orientals sing no better when they live in our climate. They are wanting in culture and taste, otherwise they might sing with as clear and beautiful a tone as the Italian’ (Bach, 1883, p 207). He went on to draw a comparison between the infant-like, rudimentary singing of ‘uncivilised people’ and the ‘taste for music’ which is evidenced in early childhood before the ‘power of attention to words’. ‘Men in an uncivilised state’, Bach insisted, ‘do not sing as civilised Europeans do: even in the best climate they will roar’ (Bach, 1883, p 209). It was therefore of the utmost importance that the singer continually strive after intellectual refinement through the study of classical works and intercourse with people of great culture and character, for ‘the vocal organ, the larynx, cannot express anything not already realised in the mind’ (Bach, 1883, p 214).

In Bach’s paradigm, a cultured voice, as opposed to the utterances of that organ in its natural state, was the result of sophisticated intellectual impulses aided by the imagination. Climate, however, was generally understood to affect the richness and softness of the vocal tones of those already civilised, intellectual and emotionally mature European peoples in various ways. Mild climates allowed men and women to spend a greater amount of time outdoors, where, as the American minister and educator Theodore Emanuel Schmauk argued in his 1890 study of The Voice in Speech and Song, their voices were not liable to be damaged by raw and excessively cold external atmospheres or the corresponding overheated and dry interiors. In such an environment, they might constantly exercise their vocal cords and perfect their vocal tones. In Schmauk’s view, the warm air of the Mediterranean, rather than the chemicals contained within it, was a major contributor both to the national character and lifestyle:

The influence of climate, through personality, upon the voice, is somewhat similar to the influences of climate, through the personality of the composer, upon the tones of melody. In warm climates we may expect the voice to be expressive of languor and love, of sweet and tender melancholy. In cold climates we may look for notes of storm, and ruggedness and battle and conquest. In temperate climes, there should be life and grace. The Frenchman’s tones should be short, piquant, airy and gay. The German’s, broad, slow, reverential. The Italian’s, voluptuous and melodic. The Englishman’s, positive, stubborn, formal. (Schmauk, 1890, pp 99–100)

Albert Bach, too, similarly theorised that the warm climate and extended periods of time outdoors encouraged Italians to open their mouths more frequently and more widely than, for example, many inhabitants of England and Scotland, where cold, damp air induced a habitual closure of the mouth and rendered the tone of the voice close and obscure. A warm environment also, Bach noted, naturally influenced choices of food and drink, allowing Italians to live on a mainly vegetarian diet without the need for strong drink (which was damaging to the vocal cords) to artificially excite warmth. Moreover, the Italian climate created rich soil ‘yielding everything in great profusion with but little labour, that materially contributes towards the formation of the national character’ by fostering the supposedly famous dolce far niente, the ‘sweet doing-nothing’, of the Italian race who, free from the exhausting demands typically made of the labourer in northern climes, might readily conceive the notion that they ‘may exist for something better than for spending his life in constant drudgery and a kind of torment’ (Bach, 1883, pp 220–221). Such freedoms while surrounded by the ‘serene deep-blue sky, the magnificent charming tints of the landscape, the striking outlines of her mountain-ranges […] and her lovely luxuriant valleys’, which were understood to everywhere surround the Italian citizen, must necessarily exercise a beneficent influence upon both body and mind, thereby fostering that elated and passionate engagement with life that Bach believed defined the Italian character (Bach, 1883, p 222). Ultimately, Bach declared, due to the good fortune of residing within a temperate climate and enchanting landscape, ‘people so demonstrative as the Italians have at most hours of the day something at heart that would fain be out’ (Bach, 1883, p 222). Music offered an ideal medium for which to release this passion.

Interestingly, in 1885, as part of their marketing campaign, the Medical Battery Company published a song by Alfred Benjamin Allen and Percy G Moccata entitled ‘The Lost Voice: A Refrain on Dr Carter Moffat’s Ammoniaphone’, which drew upon these same associations between Italy, music, a passionate engagement with life, and the need to express that passion. In this song, a lovesick young man has lost his voice and is therefore unable to tell his beloved that his heart belongs to her. There is, however, some cause for hope:

Ah! Well for him and for the fair,
He’d heard that pure Italian air
Might be inhal’d, imparting tone
Thro’ Moffat’s fam’d Ammoniaphone! (Allen and Moccata, 1885, p 4)

The young man purchases the device and upon using it, he regains his voice and immediately proposes to the young woman ‘in such tones’ that she immediately accepts his suit. The song then crescendos to a jubilant final refrain:

Ten thousand times be bless’d the sage,
Great benefactor of the age!
Restorer of his vocal tone:
Inventor of th’ Ammoniaphone! (Allen and Moccata, 1885, pp 6–7)

It seems that not only did the Ammoniaphone provide a simple means of achieving the tones of an Italian opera singer, but, in the context of this advertising, it was also a potential source of requited love and of that passionate, demonstrative personality supposedly characteristic of the warm-blooded Italian race. The Ammoniaphone transformed that personality and its associated lifestyle into an easily attainable scientific and medical commodity. Good health and sonorous voices were simply products to be purchased like any other. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170702/002