Bel Canto for Modern Singers

Every teacher, on meeting a pupil, has to make decisions on what could be taught, what should be taught and what can be taught. These problems have confronted teachers of singing for four hundred years, and have been solved at every time by a judgement based on experience and also reference to the background knowledge available at the time. As the years have passed so have the knowledge, and theories, multiplied. The later nineteenth century and the twentieth were a particularly prolific period for a thick cloud of ideas about singing; all of interest, but only a few of any lasting value. The research of recent years has been mostly concentrated on the application of electronic measuring apparatus to improving singing techniques by measuring a variety of vibrations produced by recordings of famous singers or vocal guinea pigs. This last seems to me to be a supreme example of putting the cart before the horse. The criterion for judging the aesthetic of singing must surely start with the sound.

There are, as most would agree, a small group of essentials without which any sort of professional career is impossible; and the first one, and probably the most fundamental, is singing in tune. The reasons for singing out of tune are usually technical – impairment of hearing is rare among singers; those whose hearing is defective are unlikely to want to sing for a living or for pleasure. The reasons for singing out of tune are many and include: faulty registration, faulty support, faulty placing, illness, tiredness or lack of physical endeavour. Any one of these will cause unsteadiness of pitch, and a combination is sure to. Of all the list of vocal errors, singing out of tune is the most unforgiveable. No matter what period is chosen from the past, it has always remained anathema; that is as true today as it ever was.

The bel canto period stretches from the early seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth. The period 1800-1850 was the first to be so-called, but in reality, the teaching at this time was based on the precepts which had held sway for the preceding two hundred years. These aims have never fallen out of fashion and are still valid today. In fact, the glorious flowering of Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti owed everything to the technical standards put in place by those masters of the vocal art: the castrati. So, for that matter, did the two giants of the nineteenth century: Verdi and Wagner who, although creating new directions for voices to take, expected their singers to be trained in the method which dominated the past. For two hundred years, the castrati dominated singing; in truth, both they and their training created the model for all voices, male and female. All music in Italy, or in countries influenced by Italian music, was composed for castrati or for singers trained by them, or those affected by their ideals. In fact, it is probably true to say that all solo vocal music written in Italy, Germany and Spain between 1600 and 1840 was composed with the training of castrati in mind, if not for castrati themselves. Even in those countries without their direct influence, notably France where the idea of castration for artistic purposes was regarded with distaste; and England, where the first popularization of the castrato voice didn’t arrive until the operas of Handel; both countries, eventually, succumbed to the precepts and aims of the castratos’ training.

In all of this long period of two hundred years, we owe our knowledge of this training to remarkably few documents; but, above all, we have the music whose difficulty still tests us and gives singers technical problems which must be solved. Even so, there still remains a considerable body of vocal music written expressly for virtuosi which remains unperformed – and for the most part un-performable – because of its supreme difficulty.

We owe most of our knowledge of the castrato training to the observations of Bontempi in the seventeenth century and the treatises of Tosi and Mancini in the eighteenth. The first gives a detailed description of the curriculum of training, and both the others lay down the skills a singer is expected to master. However, neither goes into detail how these skills were to be achieved, but rather lay out a list of technical items a competent singer must learn. For singing primers we must wait till the next century.

The important primers of the nineteenth century are those of Celoni, the earliest in 1817, followed by those of Nava, Lablache and Garcia in the 1840’s. These all preach the same fundamentals as set out in the treatises of Tosi and Mancini, but they do it by musical examples and exercises, graded from easy to difficult. What is most noticeable in all of them is how every subject is approached from its fundamentals, and how the subjects themselves lead to the next as competence grows. Before all else is the insistence on good posture: standing erect with the chest lifted in the ‘noble posture’ of the previous century, thus freeing the lower part of the ribcage to expand to its maximum. The first exercises in all of them are of long sustained sounds, being the foundation of everything that follows. The aim of creating a voice which is firm and sonorous is probably the most important principle in bel canto training. Every skill which is acquired later is based on a voice both strong and well developed.

‘Firmness’ is the word used by Celoni to explain this principle, closely followed by the concept of ‘Smoothness’ to describe the use of messa di voce exercises, with the intention of insuring that the voice has an ability to crescendo and diminuendo and sing both piano and forte from the very beginning. Closely allied to this are exercises for equalising and blending the registers in the passaggio. Thus plasticity of voice is tackled at once. The concepts of firmness and smoothness create the basic voice – the instrument in fact – the material on which the singer can learn to play and acquire the technical skills necessary to conquer all musical difficulties and, eventually, to develop the expressiveness which separates the human voice from any other instrument.

Only after the foregoing foundation, does bel canto training turn its attention to the study of portamento, agility and related subjects such as the trill, appoggiatura and mordent. Portamento has often been confused with the earlier term ‘con portamento’ which equates with the more modern term legato. Nevertheless, the two are closely linked, both demanding a continuous stream of sound and unbroken application of the breath. Agility is approached from slow to fast, easy to difficult. Great speed, often thought of as the epitome of bel canto singing, is only acquired in the final stages of development. Much more important, in the bel canto tradition, is accuracy and the ability to move the voice fast with full tone. Training for the trill follows the same pattern as for agility: first the voice is moved slowly between the two notes to ensure regularity and accurate tuning, and only when this has been achieved is the trill speeded up. The mordent and gruppetto follow naturally from the trill, because both utilise the action of the trill to begin; the same applies to the family of baroque decorations which stem from them.

There is an aspect of bel canto training which today only really applies to baroque music: the art of diminution or decorating a melody. This study is essential for specialists whose repertoire makes it necessary to vary a melody on its repetition. Every modern singer should be aware of its general details even if they don’t sing baroque music; and, most importantly, everyone should be aware of the rules of taste which govern it. However, anybody who wishes to devote their interest or career to music of the baroque or pre-baroque would be well advised to make a detailed study of the sources, in order to ensure that performance is correctly in period. For decoration of melody in the early nineteenth century, and for the execution of free cadenzas, the best guides are Laura Cinti-Damoreaux, Manuel Garcia del Popolo and his daughter Pauline Viardot.

© 2015 Neil Howlett