Baroque Authenticity and the Modern Singer

If castrati existed today, there would be no arguments about authentic performance style: modern castrati would be expected to sing baroque music exactly like the castrati of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that would be that. The problem for nearly all modern singers is that contemporary values and expectations are inferior to those of the past, and this can result in performances which, although they often carry the banner of ‘authenticity‘, do not accurately reflect the standards of the baroque period. It is unfortunate that modern audiences are often subjected to sopranos whose voices are uneven in quality throughout the range; whose chest registers remain undeveloped; whose top notes sound thin and shrill; and whose attempts to trill result in an indecisive wobbling between two pitches, without ever successfully landing on either of them. None of these ‘lacunae’ would have been accepted in the past; moreover, they would have been unacceptable in any professional performance.

We have plenty of evidence of what was expected from singers in the Middle and Late Baroque through the writings of Tosi, Mancini, and Manfredini, all of whom wrote in the eighteenth century referring to the past. In the seventeenth century written evidence is scarcer, but there is ample material of the standards of the period in the description of the training schedule for castrati in the conservatoires in Naples and more particularly, in the career of Baldassare Ferri who was born in 1610, and must have received his training before 1630. The echo of his superb quality resonated for the next two centuries, with its final accolade in Manuel Garcia’s great treatise of 1842.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, Bontempi left a precise description of the regime set down for the pupils of the Naples training establishments. This included an hour of practice of difficult passage work and another singing into a mirror under the watchful eye of a maestro, in order to correct any faults of movement of the face and body. These two hours of singing were supplemented by the study of literature, counterpoint, composition – and harpsichord practice. Ferri’s fame has endured because of his ability to sing up and down over two octaves of a chromatic scale, with both major and minor trills on each note, perfectly in tune – and all in one breath! A feat probably unparalleled in almost four centuries. This vocal tour-de-force shows that the training of singers and the standard of singing had already reached an astonishingly high level by 1630.

The half century before had seen the transformation of the gifted singer of madrigals and intermedi into the professional who acted and sang on stage: to this period belong the well documented careers of Vittoria Archilei and the Caccini family. At the other end of the century, Pistocchi initiated his famous school in Bologna which produced so many of the stars of the next epoch; in the process laying down a standard for the following one hundred and fifty years; a standard which still resonates occasionally in our own time, amidst the muddle of theory and counter-theory handed down to us by the twentieth century.

Except for Archilei, Caccini and Manfredini, all the names already mentioned are those of castrati. Their theory and practice dominated the vocal world until 1840, culminating in the so-called bel canto era of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. But by the time of Rossini’s death in the 1860’s, the world of the castrati had become a distant memory and was to fade away into a half-remembered echo thereafter, drowned by the roar of verismo and expressionism.

Although the castrati were a wholly Italian phenomenon, dominating both church – because of the Papal ban on female singers – and stage – because they could sing at the pitch of womens’ voices; it would be quite wrong to imagine that Italy was their only sphere of influence. Germany very rapidly succumbed to their fascination: every princely, ducal and archiepiscopal court vying with the others to employ the very best castrati they could afford as an integral and essential part of their musical establishment.

With Catherine di Medici’s advent as queen of France came not only cooks, but a caravan of artists of all types: painters, sculptors, actors, mimes and musicians. These included a wig-maker who was to dominate music in France during his lifetime – Jean Baptiste Lully, originally Giovanni Battista Lulli. He brought the sophistication of Italian music to the French court, but not the castrati; their presence and artificial sound apparently offending the masculine ardour of the nobility beyond recall. They did not obtain a foothold in France until Napoleon – whose native Corsican culture, of course, was Italian. England had to wait for its first castrato experience until the 1660s, when two castrati – one was possibly Ferri himself – visited London. Both Pepys and Evelyn recorded the occasion and commented favourably on the skill of the singers, although rendered somewhat bemused by the concept of female sounds issuing from a man’s body.

The musical worlds of Italy and Germany made solid and firm contact at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The Landgraf of Hesse-Kassel sent more than one of his entourage of musicians for study in Italy in the earliest years of the century; and in 1609 he gave permission for Heinrich Schütz to journey to Venice for study with Giovanni Gabrieli. He stayed for four years, and in that time absorbed all that was new in the music of Italy. Soon after his return, the Elector of Saxony exercised his senior position and poached him from Kassel to his court in Dresden; here he spent the rest of his life as Kappelmeister. In 1628/9 he was granted leave to go once more to Venice; this time his mentor was none other than Monteverdi. From him he learnt the stile concitato and the ability to write music, which expressed the human psychology behind the words. The same resolve, interestingly, is one of the pillars of castrato-taught technique, and remains an aim of good singers to this day.

In later life Schütz became the most respected and revered composer in Germany, influencing musicians far and wide. Latterly, he shared the Kapellmeister’s duties at Dresden with no less than four Italians, one of whom was Giovanni Bontempi (composer, historian and soprano castrato), already noted as the chronicler of training in Neapolitan conservatoires. After 1640 every German court had its resident castrato singer as part of its musical entourage and inevitably their precepts and training became widely known. This was due, in no small measure, to Schütz whose influence and fame radiated throughout Germany and whose knowledge of musical Italy and its precepts were second to none. By the early years of the next century, Germany had become opera-mad and Italian, and Italian-trained singers, male and female, were employed everywhere. It would have been impossible for any native musician to avoid all knowledge of their practices and aims.

After the initial shock of the castrato voice on English sensibility had worn off, visiting castrati became very popular. By the time of Handel’s arrival from Italy, the excellence of Italian trained singers in England was well established. They were very soon to become pre-eminent. London would transform into one of the most important centres of Italian opera, where all the greatest singers of the day could be heard. The list of singers who were employed by Handel over the next two decades and by his eventual rival company – the Opera of the Nobility – reads like a roll of honour. Every singer of note, of all voice types, male and female, appeared on the London stage during this extraordinary period, in operas by Handel, Hasse and Porpora, the greatest composers of Italian opera of the time.

The years spent in Italy, before coming to England, had acquainted Handel with the finest singers and honed his taste to such a degree that, from then on, he would only accept the best for his operas. Later, when English sensibility had rejected opera in favour of oratorio, he used a mixture of Italian and native soloists at first; settling on English singers only, when it became clear that audiences and critics would not stand for the mangling of their native tongue by foreigners. Nevertheless, it seems inconceivable that such a perfectionist would lower his standards willingly. English singers, by this time, must have absorbed the principles of Italian technique and style, exposed as they had been to twenty years of the best examples. In addition, Italians had been teaching in England for some time: these included the castrato Pierfrancesco Tosi, the author of probably the most important eighteenth century book on the training of singers. He had originally settled in London to teach in 1693, and died in 1732. In the years after Handel’s death, there were castrati teaching in London, Bath and Dublin; and in Edinburgh, Domenico Corri, the last pupil of Porpora. Rauzzini, in Bath, became the teacher of Nancy Storace, Michael Kelly and John Braham – all of them stars in premieres by Mozart and Weber.

In Italy the goals of castrato training affected all areas of musical activity: church, chamber and stage, for more than two hundred years. However, in Protestant countries, the primary influence was on opera – a wholly Italian art form; the church could not be directly influenced in the same way, largely because of the absence of castrati. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that church musicians were unaware of musical events at the ducal and princely courts. A number of them had experience of working alongside castrati, as freelance musicians moved from job to job – Bach among them. In Germany therefore, it would seem probable that the training of boy’s voices was strongly leant in the Italian direction, as the influence was of such long standing. The use of low boy’s voices, whether natural, breaking or sinking, to sing the alto line together with counter-tenors, presupposes a thorough knowledge of the chest register and the principles, at least, of uniting it with the head register. On the other hand, in England, where most cultural influences came from France and not Italy, the cathedral music tradition, where the two top lines are sung by boys and male falsettists and the chest register is largely ignored, remained unaffected. The marked difference between the training of boy’s voices in England and on the Continent, which I surmise was established then, remains to this day.

What then are the principles and aims of the Italian school of vocal training established during the period when the castrati reigned supreme? The training consisted of three elements: emission, agility and style; all three coalescing into a performance art-form which dominated vocal music for over two centuries and acted as a catalyst for a myriad of developments in instruments, composition and orchestral playing.

Emission – the foundation and first part of the discipline – created the sound, the tone upon which everything else depended. Posture, the carriage of the body – before, during and after singing – was the pillar on which the breath, the life-blood of the voice, was supported and yet made free. The start of training for every pupil, before uttering a note, was to stand in a ‘noble attitude’ – Tosi’s words – upright, straight-backed and with the chest elevated, thereby enabling the lower ribs to expand with the in-breath; automatically the lower abdomen will tuck in, creating a column of support for the inflated lungs. The ideal appearance of the singer should be one of consummate ease at all times, totally disguising the muscular effort. All unnecessary movements of the head, face, mouth and torso were absolutely forbidden; this was the reason which lay behind the hour of practice before a mirror, already encountered in the Neapolitan schools.

After standing correctly, the initiation of the sound begins. The attack, the onset, the first utterance of sound, had to be without violence, scooping or slurring; also, clean and in tune. The vowels, the carriers of vocal tone, must be clear, correctly shaped and justly differentiated from each other; the resultant tone – resonant, neither throaty nor nasal. All this was achieved by practice on solfeggi, using the note names in Italian as syllables – this exercised the vowels and helped to coordinate the resonance. Coincident with the foregoing work, the registers were fully developed – both chest and head – and then joined seamlessly; so that passing from one to the other would be without a jolt and thus completely undetectable. Tosi stresses this point with great fervour. Finally, the voice should be even throughout, from top to bottom; and it should be exercised both in piano and forte, crescendo and diminuendo, by means of regular practice of messa di voce: the placing of the voice – a key discipline.

Agility – the ability to sing musical patterns accurately and fast – had been in existence since the very beginning of western vocal culture. In the baroque period it became, together with emotional expression of the text, one of the foundation pillars of the technique. By making a detailed and exhaustive study of every possible variation of musical shape, the voice was rendered flexible and strong: thus giving it the potential for every kind of expressive delivery. This part of the training included articulation, the ornaments and most importantly – the trill.

Articulation came in four different forms : legato, marcato, staccato and lastly – aspirato. The most important of these was, and still is, the first. All music not otherwise designated was to be sung legato: throughout the baroque period this type of articulation was referred to as portamento di voce, or con portamento. In this style, one note is carried to the next without an audible break, making a seamless melodic line of sound. The physiological spin-off from this is that the voice is continuously and firmly on the breath. Marcato is produced similarly, except that each note is uttered with a separate pulse of breath whilst maintaining the legato. In the staccato mode, the notes are detached from each other and are made as short as possible. The fourth type of articulation was confined to repeated notes only: in aspirato the notes are again separated, but each one is prefaced by a small controlled escape of breath – as in laughter: ha! ha! etc. This could be of particular interest to choirmasters, especially those whose choirs laugh repeatedly in florid music!

Closely associated with the legato was the slur – the up-slur, scivolo; the down-slur, strascino – nowadays referred to as a portamento. This was a special study in which the voice was dragged through the intervening pitches between notes an interval apart. It was usually confined to accented syllables only: its sparing and appropriate use was an infallible indication of good taste.

The trill was an essential and indispensible part of the training. Not only could short trills decorate a melodic line in appropriate places, but by the eighteenth century it, prefaced by a messa di voce, had become a compulsory element in the performance of free cadenzas. In Caccini’s time it had another name – gruppo: the rapid repetition of two notes, a tone or semitone apart. Then, trillo meant an ornament in which a single note was reiterated many times, usually at cadences. By about 1660, this had become old-fashioned and out of favour and the word trillo from then on, was applied to what had been the gruppo. Interestingly, the turn – gruppetto, (little gruppo), retained the older name and thereby revealed its correct execution: the initiation of the turn is the first beat of a trill. Other vocal ornaments which stem from trill action are the mordent and its derivatives. The study of the trill prevented the larynx from becoming fixed and helped to keep the voice supple and loose: preventing any tendency to stiffness and rigidity which might befall because of the ubiquity of the legato – which clearly requires the constant application of the breath to the voice and vice versa.

The free cadenza at the conclusion of an aria was a convention which had become common, if not completely standard, by Handel’s time. As the eighteenth century progressed, it became more and more obligatory, even formulaic. It started with a messa di voce followed by a passage of agility and concluded at the final cadence with a trill. The central part of the best cadenzas was composed of musical figures based on the music of the aria already sung; that of the worst was solely designed to dazzle – to show off the vocal prowess of the performer only. The idea of vocal display has a long history, starting with the lunghi giri (long windings) – a sarcastic and pejorative remark of Caccini’s, who disliked them intensely – introduced at the end of the sixteenth century at the beginning of the solo song era. The pre-eminence of the word and its meaning lay at the heart of Caccini’s dislike.

Until the introduction of the da capo aria by the close of the seventeenth century, what was thought to be unnecessary vocal embellishment tended to come second to the emotional expression of the meaning of the text. The new fashion altered the delicate balance between the two elements. From then on, the possibility that a singer’s ego could overpower the sense was always a danger. However, it is clear, from both Tosi and Mancini, that such excess was frowned on by good judges and it was an error of taste avoided by the best performers.

The best performers, of course, were professionals, whether castrati, complete men, or females. Their audiences were composed of the nobility and those aspiring to it. It should not be forgotten that, with the exception of Protestant church music, most music written from Scarlatti to Haydn was composed for professional singers, all of them trained in the same way, to the same high ideals. It would be surprising to find that the male soloists in Bach’s cantatas were complete amateurs. If they were, they were exceptional. The music written for them has the same sort of difficulty as the professional music of the period – long breaths, great agility and wide range; and the singers who sang it must have undergone a similar training. As for the boys who sang soprano and alto, their vocal education would have come from their choirmasters who, as already inferred, were imbued with the aims and tenets of Italian vocal training, either by osmosis or by direct contact with the musici working as musicians in nearby courts. When Bach married his second wife, Anna Magdalena, she was already a professional court singer. He would have been in contact at the courts of Weimar and Cöthen with musicians of other nationalities who, without doubt, would have brought the tenets of Italian vocal training to his attention. In any case, it seems unlikely that such an avidly searching musician would not have known of them already. In 1731 he journeyed to Dresden to hear an opera by Hasse. There he probably would have heard Hasse’s wife, Faustina Bordoni, a stellar singer in her own and any other time. Her agility, accuracy and taste made her a paragon even among the amazing singers of the age – an age which included Farinelli, Caffarelli and Senesino! Although Bach, in his own time, was criticised for writing old-fashioned music, there can be no doubt that the style of his writing for voice satisfied all the contemporary criteria.

For nearly one hundred years, the da capo aria dominated vocal music; the variations in the melodic line in the repeated section became the supreme test area for a singer’s technique, fantasy, imagination and, ultimately, artistic integrity. The severest critics railed against the inappropriate use of vocal embellishment and its misuse solely as a vehicle for display. The Italian term for these embellishments – abbellimenti, decorations, beautiful improvements – describes precisely the effect they were intended to create. A castrato’s musical education – composition, counterpoint and keyboard – prepared him well for a career in which he had to invent appropriate variations on a melody spontaneously. Ideally, they should express both the text and the musical idiom – and they should both delight and surprise. These variations, combined with contrasting dynamics, perfect enunciation and pronunciation, a seamless legato and, above all, singing in tune, became the criteria of excellence for a singer. Beyond all this was style.

Obviously it would be unreasonable to expect every singer of the baroque era to have been of the highest quality. There must have been bad and mediocre performers as well as the illustrious names which have come down to us. Better voices and better techniques separated the wood from the chaff – the competent from the incompetent. However, the most important factors in the retrospective and critical gaze of all of the authorities during the whole of the baroque period are style and its wayward sister – taste: to be ranked among the greatest, one must have possessed both attributes.

The components of a good style are largely of a technical nature: a long breath-span; a firm and secure legato; total breath-control, including messa di voce; a judicious use of portamento; control of timbre and dynamics; correct and accurate delivery of ornaments; a firm and rapid trill; and last, but by no means least – good intonation. All these elements were regarded as essential for a singer intending to be recognised as a serious artist in the baroque period. This was a summation of professional competence. Beyond these skills, which guaranteed mastery of the material, lay imagination and individual flair. Recitative and variation of melody were two areas where these attributes could come to the fore. In the first, precise enunciation, musical and appropriate use of the appoggiatura, combined with control of speed of delivery and colour, highlighted the difference between the gifted and the journeyman performer, just as it does today.

The art and practice of melody variation, however, was a speciality of the baroque singer; it was a central part of the training which aimed at performance. A student was taught to vary a melody by scale passages of all types; by the addition of ornaments to suit the melody’s expressive mood; and to alter the rhythm with anticipation and syncope. This, however, was not a licence to alter the character of a piece, nor to compose. Any alteration had to be faithful to the music and its expressive atmosphere; it should neither mask nor distort the original – but enhance and delight. A singer’s good taste was revealed by the aptness of his variations and his appropriate choice of vocal colour to match the meaning. This fundamental variety of taste must be distinguished from the transient and ephemeral moods of fashion, which occur in all periods and only last for a decade or so. True good taste was always faithful to the music and the meaning of the text. Its purpose was to reveal beauty and, by its appropriateness, to reinforce depth of expression.

Authentic singing of baroque repertoire should not and cannot attempt to imitate the castrati; they are gone and are likely never to return. Their aims, their training and their standards, however, can be aspired to. It should not be forgotten that their world was inhabited by a vast company of male and female singers of all voice types, who held their own, sang opposite and, in some cases, rivalled the best of the castrati. The music written for the basses, Boschi and Montagnana; the tenors Borosini and Pio Fabbri; the sopranos, Durastanti, Cuzzoni, Strada and Bordoni; has tested good singers for nearly three hundred years. Moreover, some of the music expressly written for their castrato contemporaries – Farinelli, Caffarelli, Bernacchi, among many – has remained nigh unperformable for as long. Modern singers who aim for authenticity of performance of baroque repertoire must surely take notice of the awesome technical standards of the past, which enabled those artists to conquer the music’s difficulties with ease, to charm and hold their audiences in thrall.

Today many of the singers, who specialise in baroque repertoire, turn to it because the physical and technical requirements of the nineteenth century, particularly the bel canto repertoire of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, and that of Verdi and Wagner seem, to them, beyond the scope of their voices. Thus, the crowded world of the baroque is peopled by the small-voiced. This, in itself, would not be important, if these singers followed the technical path beaten by their seventeenth and eighteenth forerunners, but they do not. How many have even voices throughout the range, as firm and resonant at the bottom as the top? How many have a long span, capable of sustaining runs without taking a second breath? How many can really trill, so that both notes are equally strong and in tune? How many can alter vocal colour at will, to match the words and meaning with appropriate expression? These are the questions which should be asked and answered if vocal performance of baroque repertoire is to aspire to the standards set by instrumentalists. Their ‘authentic’ instruments are copies of the museum-dwelling originals, faithfully made in modern workshops. For singers, this route is impossible to follow: they, and their teachers, must construct and create their instruments from their own bodies, muscles and ligaments. The gift of a natural beauty of tone is not enough. Voices fit to sing the baroque repertoire must be strong enough to be heard easily in large spaces, as were the castrati and their male and female contemporaries. They must also be as technically skilled, in order to realise all the expressions of meaning and taste which the repertoire demands. In authentic terms, baroque vocal music is much better served in the contemporary opera house: there the voices are strong and agile, in the main, and in consequence are much closer to the voices for which the music was written.

Establishments which run courses in Early or Baroque Music alongside instrumental teaching with the same aims, in the name of authenticity, cannot ignore the written evidence of vocal training in the baroque period; nor the evidence latent in the music itself, individually written for generations of extraordinary artists. ‘Authentic’ singing of this music must pay as much attention to the building of the instrument as the instrumentalists. No longer can it be left to light- voiced singers with pretty voices, whose delivery, though quick and facile, is often without true precision, nuance and depth of expression. Vocal performance of the baroque repertoire must be restored to something approaching its former glory: strong, resonant, agile voices capable of conveying deep feeling and encompassing a wide range of musical skill and subtlety. If the purpose of ‘authenticity’ is to create performances as close as possible, in our time, to those heard by the original listeners: then the voices used must do their best to recreate the standards of the past, in every way. Simply to sing the music with the correct ornaments and graces is not enough – that is only to pay lip-service. Style must march hand in hand with substance, in order that the glories of the baroque can be made audible to the audiences of today.

© 2010, Neil Howlett