Bel canto

Last updated

Bel canto (Italian for "beautiful singing" or "beautiful song", pronounced  [ˌbɛl ˈkanto] )—with several similar constructions (bellezze del canto, bell'arte del canto)—is a term with several meanings that relate to Italian singing. [1]

Contents

The phrase was not associated with a "school" of singing until the middle of the 19th century, when writers in the early 1860s used it nostalgically to describe a manner of singing that had begun to wane around 1830. [2] Nonetheless, "neither musical nor general dictionaries saw fit to attempt [a] definition [of bel canto] until after 1900". The term remains vague and ambiguous in the 21st century and is often used to evoke a lost singing tradition. [3]

History of the term and its various definitions

The bel canto-era composer Gioachino Rossini: portrait painted circa 1815 by Vincenzo Camuccini Rossini-portrait-0.jpg
The bel canto–era composer Gioachino Rossini: portrait painted circa 1815 by Vincenzo Camuccini

As generally understood today, the term bel canto refers to the Italian-originated vocal style that prevailed throughout most of Europe during the 18th century and early 19th centuries. Late 19th- and 20th-century sources "would lead us to believe that bel canto was restricted to beauty and evenness of tone, legato phrasing, and skill in executing highly florid passages, but contemporary documents [those of the late 18th and early 19th centuries] describe a multifaceted manner of performance far beyond these confines." [4] The main features of the bel canto style were: [4]

The Harvard Dictionary of Music by Willi Apel says that bel canto denotes "the Italian vocal technique of the 18th century, with its emphasis on beauty of sound and brilliancy of performance rather than dramatic expression or romantic emotion. In spite of the repeated reactions against bel canto (or its abuses, such as display for its own sake; Gluck, Wagner) and the frequent exaggeration of its virtuoso element (coloratura), it must be considered as a highly artistic technique and the only proper one for Italian opera and for Mozart. Its early development is closely bound up with that of the Italian opera seria (A. Scarlatti, N. Porpora, N. Jommelli, J. A. Hasse, N. Piccinni)." [5]

Bel canto in the 18th and early 19th centuries

Since the bel canto style flourished in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the music of Handel and his contemporaries, as well as that of Mozart and Rossini, benefits from an application of bel canto principles. Operas received the most dramatic use of the techniques, but the bel canto style applies equally to oratorio, though in a somewhat less flamboyant way. The da capo arias these works contained provided challenges for singers, as the repeat of the opening section prevented the story line from progressing. Nonetheless, singers needed to keep the emotional drama moving forward, and so they used the principles of bel canto to help them render the repeated material in a new emotional guise. They also incorporated embellishments of all sorts (Domenico Corri said da capo arias were invented for that purpose [The Singer's Preceptor, vol. 1, p. 3]), but not every singer was equipped to do this, some writers, notably Domenico Corri himself, suggesting that singing without ornamentation was an acceptable practice (see The Singer's Preceptor, vol. 1, p. 3). Singers regularly embellished both arias and recitatives, but did so by tailoring their embellishments to the prevailing sentiments of the piece. [6]

Two famous 18th-century teachers of the style were Antonio Bernacchi (1685–1756) and Nicola Porpora (1686–1768), but many others existed. A number of these teachers were castrati. Singer/author John Potter declares in his book Tenor: History of a Voice that:

For much of the 18th century castrati defined the art of singing; it was the loss of their irrecoverable skills that in time created the myth of bel canto, a way of singing and conceptualizing singing that was entirely different from anything that the world had heard before or would hear again. [7]

Bel canto in 19th-century Italy and France

In another application, the term bel canto is sometimes attached to Italian operas written by Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) and Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848). These composers wrote bravura works for the stage during what musicologists sometimes call the "bel canto era". But the style of singing had started to change around 1830, Michael Balfe writing of the new method of teaching that was required for the music of Bellini and Donizetti (A New Universal Method of Singing, 1857, p. iii), [8] and so the operas of Bellini and Donizetti actually were the vehicles for a new era of singing. The last important opera role for a castrato was written in 1824 by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791–1864). [9]

The phrase "bel canto" was not commonly used until the latter part of the 19th century, when it was set in opposition to the development of a weightier, more powerful style of speech-inflected singing associated with German opera and, above all, Richard Wagner's revolutionary music dramas. Wagner (1813–1883) decried the Italian singing model, alleging that it was concerned merely with "whether that G or A will come out roundly". He advocated a new, Germanic school of singing that would draw "the spiritually energetic and profoundly passionate into the orbit of its matchless Expression." [10]

French musicians and composers never embraced the more florid extremes of the 18th-century Italian bel canto style. They disliked the castrato voice and because they placed a premium on the clear enunciation of the texts of their vocal music, they objected to the sung word being obscured by excessive fioritura.

Hand-written note by contralto Marietta Alboni about the decay of bel canto in the late 19th century. The French text reads: "The art of singing is going, and it will only revert with the sole real music of the future: that of Rossini. Paris, 8 February 1881." (signature) Manoscritto Alboni.jpg
Hand-written note by contralto Marietta Alboni about the decay of bel canto in the late 19th century. The French text reads: "The art of singing is going, and it will only revert with the sole real music of the future: that of Rossini. Paris, 8 February 1881." (signature)

The popularity of the bel canto style as espoused by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini faded in Italy during the mid-19th century. It was overtaken by a heavier, more ardent, less embroidered approach to singing that was necessary to perform the innovative works of Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) with maximum dramatic impact. Tenors, for instance, began to inflate their tone and deliver the high C (and even the high D) directly from the chest rather than resorting to a suave head voice/falsetto as they had done previously – sacrificing vocal agility in the process. Sopranos and baritones reacted in a similar fashion to their tenor colleagues when confronted with Verdi's drama-filled compositions. They subjected the mechanics of their voice production to greater pressures and cultivated the exciting upper part of their respective ranges at the expense of their mellow but less penetrant lower notes. Initially at least, the singing techniques of 19th-century contraltos and basses were less affected by the musical innovations of Verdi, which were built upon by his successors Amilcare Ponchielli (1834–1886) and Arrigo Boito (1842–1918).

Bel canto and its detractors

One reason for the eclipse of the old Italian singing model was the growing influence within the music world of bel canto's detractors, who considered it to be outmoded and condemned it as vocalization devoid of content. To others, however, bel canto became the vanished art of elegant, refined, sweet-toned musical utterance. Rossini lamented in a conversation that took place in Paris in 1858 that: "Alas for us, we have lost our bel canto". [11] Similarly, the so-called German style was as derided as much as it was heralded. In the introduction to a collection of songs by Italian masters published in 1887 in Berlin under the title Il bel canto, Franz Sieber wrote: "In our time, when the most offensive shrieking under the extenuating device of 'dramatic singing' has spread everywhere, when the ignorant masses appear much more interested in how loud rather than how beautiful the singing is, a collection of songs will perhaps be welcome which – as the title purports – may assist in restoring bel canto to its rightful place." [9]

In the late-19th century and early-20th century, the term "bel canto" was resurrected by singing teachers in Italy, among whom the retired Verdi baritone Antonio Cotogni (1831–1918) was a pre-eminent figure. Cotogni and his followers invoked it against an unprecedentedly vehement and vibrato-laden style of vocalism that singers increasingly used after around 1890 to meet the impassioned demands of verismo writing by composers such as Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857–1919), Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945) and Umberto Giordano (1867–1948), as well as the auditory challenges posed by the non-Italianate stage works of Richard Strauss (1864–1949) and other late-romantic/early-modern era composers, with their strenuous and angular vocal lines and frequently dense orchestral textures.

During the 1890s, the directors of the Bayreuth Festival initiated a particularly forceful style of Wagnerian singing that was totally at odds with the Italian ideals of bel canto. Called "Sprechgesang" by its proponents (and dubbed the "Bayreuth bark" by some opponents), the new Wagnerian style prioritized articulation of the individual words of the composer's libretti over legato delivery. This text-based, anti-legato approach to vocalism spread across the German-speaking parts of Europe prior to World War I.

As a result of these many factors, the concept of bel canto became shrouded in mystique and confused by a plethora of individual notions and interpretations. To complicate matters further, German musicology in the early 20th century invented its own historical application for "bel canto", using the term to denote the simple lyricism that came to the fore in Venetian opera and the Roman cantata during the 1630s and '40s (the era of composers Antonio Cesti, Giacomo Carissimi and Luigi Rossi) as a reaction against the earlier, text-dominated stile rappresentativo. [1] Unfortunately, this anachronistic use of the term bel canto was given wide circulation in Robert Haas's Die Musik des Barocks [12] and, later, in Manfred Bukofzer's Music in the Baroque Era. [13] Since the singing style of later 17th-century Italy did not differ in any marked way from that of the 18th century and early 19th century, a connection can be drawn; but, according to Jander, most musicologists agree that the term is best limited to its mid-19th-century use, designating a style of singing that emphasized beauty of tone and technical expertise in the delivery of music that was either highly florid or featured long, flowing and difficult-to-sustain passages of cantilena  [ it ]. [9]

The bel canto revival

In the 1950s, the phrase "bel canto revival" was coined to refer to a renewed interest in the operas of Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini. These composers had begun to go out of fashion during the latter years of the 19th century and their works, while never completely disappearing from the performance repertoire, were staged infrequently during the first half of the 20th century, when the operas of Wagner, Verdi and Puccini held sway. That situation changed significantly after World War II with the advent of a group of enterprising orchestral conductors and the emergence of a fresh generation of singers such as Montserrat Caballé, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills and Marilyn Horne, who had acquired bel canto techniques. These artists breathed new life into Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini's stage compositions, treating them seriously as music and re-popularizing them throughout Europe and America. [14] Today, some of the world's most frequently performed operas, such as Rossini's The Barber of Seville and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor , are from the bel canto era. [15]

Many 18th-century operas that require adroit bel canto skills have also experienced post-war revivals, ranging from lesser-known Mozart and Haydn to extensive Baroque works by Handel, Vivaldi and others.

The bel canto teaching legacy

Mathilde Marchesi (1821-1913), a leading Paris-based teacher of bel canto sopranos Matilde Marchesi 1895.jpg
Mathilde Marchesi (1821–1913), a leading Paris-based teacher of bel canto sopranos

Musicologists occasionally apply the label "bel canto technique" to the arsenal of virtuosic vocal accomplishments and concepts imparted by singing teachers to their students during the late 18th century and the early 19th century. Many of these teachers were castrati.

"All [their] pedagogical works follow the same structure, beginning with exercises on single notes and eventually progressing to scales and improvised embellishments" writes Potter [16] who continues, "The really creative ornamentation required for cadenzas, involving models and formulae that could generate newly improvised material, came towards the end of the process."

Today's pervasive idea that singers should refrain from improvising and always adhere strictly to the letter of a composer's published score is a comparatively recent phenomenon, promulgated during the first decades of the 20th century by dictatorial conductors such as Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957), who championed the dramatic operas of Verdi and Wagner and believed in keeping performers on a tight interpretive leash. This is noted by both Potter (page 77) and Michael Scott. [17]

Potter notes, however, that as the 19th century unfurled:

The general tendency ... was for singers not to have been taught by castrati (there were few of them left) and for serious study to start later, often at one of the new conservatories rather than with a private teacher. The traditional techniques and pedagogy were still acknowledged, but the teaching was generally in the hands of tenors and baritones who were by then at least once removed from the tradition itself.

Early 19th-century teachers described the voice as being made up of three registers. The chest register was the lowest of the three and the head register the highest, with the passaggio in between. These registers needed to be smoothly blended and fully equalized before a trainee singer could acquire total command of his or her natural instrument, and the surest way to achieve this outcome was for the trainee to practise vocal exercises assiduously. bel canto–era teachers were great believers in the benefits of vocalise and solfeggio. They strove to strengthen the respiratory muscles of their pupils and equip them with such time-honoured vocal attributes as "purity of tone, perfection of legato, phrasing informed by eloquent portamento, and exquisitely turned ornaments", as noted in the introduction to Volume 2 of Scott's The Record of Singing .

Major refinements occurred to the existing system of voice classification during the 19th century as the international operatic repertoire diversified, split into distinctive nationalist schools and expanded in size. Whole new categories of singers such as mezzo-soprano and Wagnerian bass-baritone arose towards the end of the 19th century, as did such new sub-categories as lyric coloratura soprano, dramatic soprano and spinto soprano, and various grades of tenor, stretching from lyric through spinto to heroic. These classificatory changes have had a lasting effect how singing teachers designate voices and opera house managements cast productions.

There was, however, no across-the-board uniformity among 19th-century bel canto adherents in passing on their knowledge and instructing students. Each had their own training regimes and pet notions. Fundamentally, though, they all subscribed to the same set of bel canto precepts, and the exercises that they devised to enhance breath support, dexterity, range, and technical control remain valuable and, indeed, some teachers still use them. [1]

Manuel García (1805–1906), author of the influential treatise L'Art du Chant, was the most prominent of the group of pedagogues that perpetuated bel-canto principles in teachings and writings during the second half of the 19th century. His like-minded younger sister, Pauline Viardot (1821–1910), was also an important teacher of voice, as were Viardot's contemporaries Mathilde Marchesi, Camille Everardi, Julius Stockhausen, Carlo Pedrotti, Venceslao Persichini, Giovanni Sbriglia, Melchiorre Vidal and Francesco Lamperti (together with Francesco's son Giovanni Battista Lamperti). The voices of a number of their former students can be heard on acoustic recordings made in the first two decades of the 20th century and re-issued since on LP and CD. Some examples on disc of historically and artistically significant 19th-century singers whose vocal styles and techniques exemplify bel canto ideals include the following:

Sir Charles Santley (born 1834), Gustav Walter (born 1834), Adelina Patti (born 1843), Marianne Brandt (born 1842), Lilli Lehmann (born 1848), Jean Lassalle (born 1847), Victor Maurel (born 1848), Marcella Sembrich (born 1858), Lillian Nordica (born 1857), Emma Calvé (born 1858), Nellie Melba (born 1861), Francesco Tamagno (born 1850), Francesco Marconi (born 1853), Léon Escalais (born 1859), Mattia Battistini (born 1856), Mario Ancona (born 1860), Pol Plançon (born 1851), and Antonio Magini-Coletti and Francesco Navarini (both born 1855).

Quotations

Related Research Articles

Opera Artform combining sung text and musical score in a theatrical setting

Opera is a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, but is distinct from musical theatre. Such a "work" is typically a collaboration between a composer and a librettist and incorporates a number of the performing arts, such as acting, scenery, costume, and sometimes dance or ballet. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble, which since the early 19th century has been led by a conductor.

Saverio Mercadante Italian composer

Giuseppe Saverio Raffaele Mercadante was an Italian composer, particularly of operas. While Mercadante may not have retained the international celebrity of Gaetano Donizetti or Gioachino Rossini beyond his own lifetime, he composed as prolific a number of works as either; and his development of operatic structures, melodic styles and orchestration contributed significantly to the foundations upon which Giuseppe Verdi built his dramatic technique.

A tenor is a type of classical male singing voice whose vocal range lies between the countertenor and baritone voice types. It is one of the highest of the male voice types. The tenor's vocal range extends up to C5. The low extreme for tenors is roughly A2 (two As below middle C). At the highest extreme, some tenors can sing up to the second F above middle C (F5). The tenor voice type is generally divided into the leggero tenor, lyric tenor, spinto tenor, dramatic tenor, heldentenor, and tenor buffo or spieltenor.

A baritone is a type of classical male singing voice whose vocal range lies between the bass and the tenor voice-types. The term originates from the Greek βαρύτονος (barýtonos), meaning "heavy sounding". Composers typically write music for this voice in the range from the second F below middle C to the F above middle C (i.e. F2–F4) in choral music, and from the second G below middle C to the G above middle C (G2 to G4) in operatic music, but the range can extend at either end. Subtypes of baritone include the baryton-Martin baritone (light baritone), lyric baritone, Kavalierbariton, Verdi baritone, dramatic baritone, baryton-noble baritone, and the bass-baritone.

A contralto is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type.

A mezzo-soprano or mezzo (, ; Italian pronunciation: [ˈmɛddzo soˈpraːno] meaning "half soprano") is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range lies between the soprano and the contralto voice types. The mezzo-soprano's vocal range usually extends from the A below middle C to the A two octaves above (i.e. A3–A5 in scientific pitch notation, where middle C = C4; 220–880 Hz). In the lower and upper extremes, some mezzo-sopranos may extend down to the F below middle C (F3, 175 Hz) and as high as "high C" (C6, 1047 Hz). The mezzo-soprano voice type is generally divided into the coloratura, lyric, and dramatic mezzo-soprano.

Cavatina

Cavatina is a musical term, originally meaning a short song of simple character, without a second strain or any repetition of the air. It is now frequently applied to any simple, melodious air, as distinguished from brilliant arias or recitatives, many of which are part of a larger movement or scena in oratorio or opera.

Leyla Gencer Turkish soprano

Ayşe Leyla Gencer was a Turkish operatic soprano.

Giuseppina Strepponi Italian singer

Clelia Maria Josepha (Giuseppina) Strepponi was a nineteenth-century Italian operatic soprano of great renown and the second wife of composer Giuseppe Verdi.

A coloratura soprano is a type of operatic soprano voice that specializes in music that is distinguished by agile runs, leaps and trills.

The tenore contraltino is a specialized form of the tenor voice found in Italian opera around the beginning of the 19th century, mainly in the Rossini repertoire, which rapidly evolved into the modern 'Romantic' tenor. It is sometimes referred to as tenor altino in English books.

Juan Diego Flórez Peruvian opera singer

Juan Diego Flórez Salom is a Peruvian operatic tenor, particularly known for his roles in bel canto operas. On June 4, 2007, he received his country's highest decoration, the Knight Grand Cross in the Order of the Sun of Peru.

Giovanni Battista Rubini Italian opera singer

Giovanni Battista Rubini was an Italian tenor, as famous in his time as Enrico Caruso in a later day. His ringing and expressive coloratura dexterity in the highest register of his voice, the tenorino, inspired the writing of operatic roles which today are almost impossible to cast. As a singer Rubini was the major early exponent of the Romantic style of the bel canto era of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti.

Edward Zambara was a Canadian-American bass-baritone singer and leading music educator.

Gilbert Duprez French tenor, singing teacher and minor composer

Gilbert-Louis Duprez was a French tenor, singing teacher and minor composer who famously pioneered the delivery of the operatic high C from the chest. He also created the role of Edgardo in the popular bel canto-era opera Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835.

Soprano sfogato is a contralto or mezzo-soprano who is capable—by sheer industry or natural talent—of extending their upper range and being able to encompass the coloratura soprano tessitura. An upwardly extended "natural" soprano is sometimes called soprano assoluta.

Salvatore Fisichella Italian operatic tenor

Salvatore Fisichella is an Italian operatic tenor known for his roles in bel canto operas, especially those of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. He has been recognized for the ease and vocal brilliance of his singing, and for having sung more of the leading roles in Bellini's operas than any other 20th century tenor.

Falsettone is a term used in modern Italian musicology to describe a vocal technique used by male opera singers in the past, in which the fluty sounds typical of falsetto singing are amplified by using the same singing technique used in the modal voice register. The result is a bright, powerful tone, often very high-pitched, although the sound is still different from and more feminine than what is produced by the modal voice. The term falsettone is also used for the mixed vocal register that can be achieved using this technique.

A critical edition of an opera has been defined by American musicologist Philip Gossett as "an edition that bases itself wherever possible on the very finest and most accurate sources for an opera. That means that it must study the entire performance history of a work."

Robert Toft is a Canadian music researcher and vocal coach best known for his books on the history of singing and for his work with singers interested in historically informed approaches to performing vocal music written between 1500 and 1830.

References

Notes

  1. 1 2 3 Stark 2003, p. ? [ page needed ]
  2. Toft, Bel Canto: A Performer's Guide, pp. 3–4
  3. Duey 1951, p. [ page needed ].
  4. 1 2 Toft, Bel Canto: A Performer's Guide, 2013, p. 4
  5. Apel, Willi, Harvard Dictionary of Music , Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged, Cambridge Massachusetts, Belknap Press, 2000, p. 88.
  6. Toft, Bel Canto: A Performer's Guide, pp. 140, 163
  7. Potter 2009, p. 31
  8. Toft, Bel Canto: A Performer's Guide, p. 92
  9. 1 2 3 Jander 1998, pp. 380–81
  10. Fischer, J. M. (1993). "Sprechgesang oder Belcanto". Grosse Stimmen: 229–91.
  11. Osborne 1994, p. 1
  12. Robert Haas: Die Musik des Barocks (1928), p. ? [ page needed ]
  13. Bukofzer 1947, p. ? [ page needed ]
  14. "Opera: Back to Bel Canto", Time magazine, 20 January 1967
  15. Opera statistics on operabase.com
  16. Potter 2009, p. 47
  17. Scott 1971, pp. 135–36
  18. Marafioti 1922, p. 51
  19. 1 2 Ffrangcon-Davies 1907 , p. 16
  20. Ffrangcon-Davies 1907, p. 14–15.
  21. Rogers 1893, p. 33
  22. Newham 1999, p. 55
  23. Taylor 1917, p. 344

Sources

Further reading

Articles

Digitized material

Video