More About Bel Canto, Part 1

My quest to know more about singing and the Old Italian school extends to the British Isles. I’ve been enjoying reading vocal pedagogy texts by British authors over the course of the summer. It makes me feel like I need to make a special trip and learn more from these experienced authors and teachers!

Esther Salaman’s book Unlocking Your Voice has been this week’s read. After gorging on a diet of her fellow countryman Peter T. Harrison’s work in the past month, I’m exploring her book for its information.

The Brits have a connection to great teaching. Manuel Garcia taught in London for quite some time, as did E. Herbert Caesari, Franklyn Kelsey, and many others. Let’s also not forget the greatest successes of Handel’s opera seria also occurred in London, too!

I’m including Salaman’s chapter here with the addition of hyperlinks to all the things mentioned in her article. I will quote the Kelsey article at the end in a separate blog to cut down on the amount of verbiage here.

Be sure to listen to the sound clips included below (especially the De Lucia). This is a different brand of singing that we don’t hear anymore but I am trying to revive in my own singing and my students every day.

The first sentence alone is my own life story!

Also – check out the IMAGE selected for today’s post. This is the Dresden Opera house which was constructed in 1718 and 1719, during the high period of Baroque opera. We tend to think of large performing spaces for classical singing as a late-nineteenth or twentieth century concept. This image of a very large performance space would tend to invalidate concepts that Baroque singing was somehow a ‘chamber’ event or for vocal miniaturists. Singers then STILL needed to be heard in large spaces.

The convictions I now have about the voice have come insistently out of my own long years of vocal frustration and, finally, from enlightenment brought about by ideas already so well tried in the past, but recently in shadow. For this reason, I want to write a few more lines about Bel Canto, the early Italian school of singing to which I owe everything – as do countless others, often without being aware of it.

All my life I had heard those two words, Bel Canto, mentioned, usually with a sigh as though referring to a bygone, unattainable wonder; or mentioned with an unassailable assurance, as though only the speaker fully comprehended their magic meaning. In fact the term Bel Canto – ‘beautiful song’ – reflects work done by musicians in Italy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who investigated the cultivation of solo singing as an art. The movement began in Florence, and soon spread to other Italian cities. It may be been prompted by the polyphonists, led by Palestrina: their use of separate expressive vocal lines woven together called for musically emotional sound as never before – a kind of vocal orchestration.

Soon the newly enriched solo voice began to dominate. Polyphony declined and harmony developed as accompaniment to the voice which now needed, even more, its own instrumental personality – a core, or definition to the sound. Together with such a core, florid, agile, colourful coloratura singing developed, in which the soloist had much musical and vocal liberty. Expressive vocal embroidery became the hallmark of the artist, as distinct from the skilled craftsman. By the time of Gluck, this freedom had gone even further, and the singers probably became very competitive.

The work of the Bel Cantists, those who researched and taught voice in the early days of the movement, was guarded. It was not generally published, and the training they advocated was based on very long and thorough lessons with one teacher, taking perhaps as much as ten years. Some of the secrecy was broken – luckily – by a few teachers who wrote books or articles, or published their exercises. Alessandro Busti was one, and – much later – Gaetano Nava (c. 1860), another who published his exercises. There was also Porpora, known to be a great teacher, whose work was written down by Isaac Nathan. Composers in the Bel Canto circle revealed, by their compositions, what they wished the voice to express, and most sang themselves, including Cavalli, Monteverdi, Carissimi and Rossini.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the singer and teacher Manuel Garcia was still working within the Bel Canto tradition. However, his invention of the laryngoscope, though an exciting step forward, could then offer only a distorted view of how the mechanism behaved. And his emphasis on ‘coup de glotte’ was badly named and misunderstood. Nevertheless, he remains one of the great figures in the Bel Canto story.

Another link with the Bel Canto, for the sensitive ear, are a few of the earliest of all gramophone records, made during the first years of this century. In spite of the primitive sound mechanics, a special vocal tone and approach can be heard. One such record is that of Dinh Gilly singing Caccini’s ‘Amarilli’.

Another is Fernando de Lucia‘s 1904 recording of ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’ from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. 

It is fascinating to know that Sir Henry Wood was Garcia’s pianist at lessons given at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Henry Wood picked up the great essentials in Garcia’s teaching and used them in his excellent and witty books on singing (the final one, called The Gentle Art of Singing). His simple instruction, ‘Say the vowel at the cords’, tells us very clearly how to go about it and gets to the heart of the system, which was also excellently summarized in Franklin Kelsey’s article on voice in Grove’s Dictionary of Music – 5th edition.

Paraphrasing Kelsey’s article, one realizes that the Bel Canto school is one of intensity of voice as opposed to volume of voice. It is a school of vocalizing ‘at the larynx – the power station’ as part of an act of coordination. ‘At the larynx’ means that the voice is ‘upon the breath’ as opposed to the more modern concept of ‘mingled with the breath’. As a forerunner to this, the Bel Canto approach involved a complete departure from the habitual machinery of speech – unlike the parlando school of singing which probably preceded it, and which has certainly succeeded it.

The entire Bel Canto system was built upon the isolation and continuous ‘caress of the glottis’, the all-important act which took precedence over breathing, tone amplification and articulation. Through an understanding of vibrazione and messa di voce, both of which depend on isolation for their successful operation, the exclamatory vowels could be used in every shade and grade to produce colouring appropriate to the mood and emotion expressed – all worked from the energy imparted to the sound-waves at the source of their vibration.

This method did not attempt to interfere with the natural behaviour of sound, but allowed it to radiate outwards with no propulsive assistance from the singer. The Bel Cantists understood that sound cannot be pushed by breath pressure. Although many singers and teachers know this old and fundamental principle of Bel Canto, and that the text must be expressed by means which are mainly musical, there has been serious confusion for nearly one hundred years. Since the vocal world turned away from tonal intensity (i.e. what scientists call ‘radiation efficiency’) and attended instead to volume of tone, ill-advised medical opinion, with little knowledge of sound physics, has supported some very misleading ideas. To step up vocal power the medical ‘experts’ extolled the low stomach breath, thereby preventing the diaphragm’s vital freedom to compress the breath toward the larynx. Then came new theories focusing attention on placement, not maintaining the act of singing at the instrument, but placing it in some nook or cranny of the head.  This altered the entire conception of singing, which thus gradually lost its instrumental character and became a more specialized extension of the normal speech faculty.

The insights of Bel Canto could only have originated in a Mediterranean country where outgoing people spoke a language built around open vowels – vowels allowed a ‘life of their own’, in a speech habit with a resilient bounce to it. Far as this may be from our colder, more reserved climate, I sincerely believe that the Bel Canto system really got to the heart of the matter, and that we can – still – do best by following it.

Franklyn Kelsey’s book on singing technique (based on his ideas about Bel Canto), The Foundations of Singing, is one of the best, and the following paragraphs, quoted from it, show the depth of his understanding.

To be continued with Kelsey’s paragraphs in a separate post…