Cultivated by castrati, the pharyngeal voice or voce faringea was a tool that was used in uniting the chest and head registers of the voice. Other classic texts on singing used several other names for it as well. Isaac Nathan referred to it as the ‘feigned voice’:
I am aware that the falsetto is considered a feigned voice – but the quality of the sound to which I allude is not that which is produced in the throat, and already distinguished under the name falsetto; nor is it the voce di testa.
Misurgia Vocalis, 1836
Nathan posited that the voice needed to be joined by ‘il ponticello’ or the ‘little bridge’, and that this “cannot be achieved without the aid of the feigned voice, which may be justly considered the only medium or vehicle by which the falsetto can be carried into the voce di petto.”
Pierfrancesco Tosi writing in 1743 says the following:
Whoever would be curious to discover the feigned Voice of one who has the Art to disguise it, let him take Notice, that the artist sounds the Vowel i, or e, with more Strength and less Fatigue than the vowel a, on the high Notes.
Edgar Herbert-Caesari postulated in his 20th century books that the ‘feigned voice’ described by these authors was something that he termed Pharyngeal voice. Caesari used this term to describe the tonal quality that results when the falsetto is in the process of being transformed into the head voice.
He wrote the following in the Musical Times in 1950:
All operatic tenors in the Rossini-Bellini-Donizetti period were given pharyngeal training, the pharyngeal being mixed very carefully with both the falsetto and the chest voices. That is how tenors, in particular, were able to produce perfect messa di voce even on the highest notes. (How often do we hear today this piano to forte and back to piano?) In those days they were known as tenori di grazia, because of their exquisite attack and altogether effortless production combined with artistic rendering. They were vocal craftsmen.
While an interesting study of historical usage, it doesn’t tell us much about what the particulars are with regard to this special tool. Caesari goes on to state:
When properly developed, either as a natural gift or as a result of considerable exercise, the pharyngeal mechanism dovetails perfectly into the basic or chest mechanism – just like gears – and can be engaged in exact percentages at the will of the singer; at the same time he can also introduce small percentages of falsetto if he so wishes. The quality of such mixed tones is remarkable. The falsetto by itself is a windy, anaemic, stupid tone; mixed, however, with goodly percentages of pharyngeal it becomes a living entity. In tenors (not in female voices) the pharyngeal is inclined to be ‘steely’ in timbre; but when it is mixed with a small percentage of falsetto we get a highly attractive tone – a glowing centre with a softened rim, and of great carrying power. The so-called chest voice, when mixed with a well-balanced percentage (according to the pitch) of pharyngeal, acquires greater brilliance, quality, and carrying power.
So, we’ve learned that this pharyngeal mechanism is truly a distinct sound: it is not the falsetto (which is breathy and dull), nor is it the chest voice. Caesari equivocates finally and gives us an idea of what it truly is:
Actually, there is no such thing as a ‘pharyngeal’ voice; the term; translated from the Italian ‘voce faringea’ was used by exponents of the old school merely to describe a peculiar tone quality produced by a distinctive mechanism built into the vocal-membrane system (traditionally, and regrettably, known as the vocal chords, or cords). As a matter of fact, there are three distinct vocal-membrane mechanisms producing three individual tone qualities: the falsetto, the pharyngeal, and the basic, or so-called chest voice. Firstly, the falsetto, which is produced with the thin upper edges of the membranes separated, as they vibrate, by an appreciable gap, thereby permitting a certain air-leakage and consequent tonal dilution; secondly, the pharyngeal, produced with the same thin upper edges but drawn very close together as they vibrate to leave only a thin, razor-edge slit; thirdly, the basic or chest, produced with the membranes approximated almost as much as for the pharyngeal but also engaging a certain amount of membrane in depth. The singer can engage at will any one of the three mechanisms separately, or any two, or all three simultaneously on certain pitches; consequently, the pharyngeal mechanism can be used separately by the singer, quite independently of the falsetto or chest mechanisms; and this is necessary when developing it with exercises. All tenors, some light baritones, and all female voices have a pharyngeal mechanism, whether they know it or not. Sometimes they may employ it unconsciously, so to speak. In all these voices it lies from F (first space) to D (fourth line) normally, but can be carried to F or F sharp (fifth line). Remember that male voices sound an octave lower, when written in the treble clef; consequently, we have the curious phenomenon that whereas the pharyngeal mechanism is built into the front half of the vocal membranes in tenors and baritones, it is built into the back half in women’s voices. The pharyngeal functions, however on exactly the same pitches in both male and female voices.
So this concept, formulated by Caesari, would seem to be identical to that described by the ‘feigned voice’ by Isaac Nathan. Clearly this mechanism or tool is used as a way to combine the registers of the voice; the chest and the falsetto. From a pedagogical standpoint, developing this pharyngeal mechanism would be most desirable, since this combined activity of the register mechanisms would reduce by a great degree the amount of ENERGY and effort that is needed to sing in the top voice (especially for tenors and higher baritones). It is also a tool that when strongly developed could also unburden the chest voice of a brute strength as well, giving the voice a more penetrating aspect due to the particular approximation of the vocal cords.
Callas in interviews said that her training in bel canto with De Hidalgo wasn’t about making the voice larger per se, but more PENETRATING. It appears that a tool like the pharyngeal voice would not only help the voice to develop registrationally speaking, but could have the additional benefit of giving the singer a ring, or point, or ‘squillo‘ in the voice without the usual squeeze that is so prevalent in classical voice studios today.
It’s a worthy pedagogical tool to explore in further depth!