More on Messa di voce

Giovanni Lamperti says that the messa di voce should not be attempted till the pupil has attained a considerable degree of agility. This idea is in direct opposition to those held on the same subject by many other excellent teachers. The messa di voce is the sounding of a sustained tone with a swell, that is, by beginning it piano, increasing it to full voice and then diminishing it again to piano. Why agility, which means the ability to sing runs and florid passages, should be acquired before the messa di voce is begun is a question which I find myself quite unable to answer.

The ability to sing a good messa di voce depends entirely on the control of the breath and the consequent steadiness and gradation of tone. Now, the control of breath is the first thing the student has to learn, and from his command of it he derives confidence in his power to sustain a steady tone and to emit it with a degree of force such as he chooses.

Therefore the next step ought logically to be toward the messa di voce, in which are combined the elements of tone mastery. Furthermore, it is by proceeding from the emission of tone sustained at a dead level to the sounding of tones varied in dynamic force that we throw off the shackles of monotony of style. It is by the emission of tones swelling and diminishing that we impart to song that wavelike undulation which gives it vitality and tonal vivacity.

Messa di voce was practised by the earliest singers. It is mentioned as far back as Caccini and is particularly described by Mazzochi, writing in 1638. These old masters, however, do not lay down rules as to whether it should be attempted before or after the acquirement of a certain amount of agility. It must not be forgotten that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and indeed some time before that, singers were capable of executing ornamental music. Archilei, a soprano of the time, was much praised for her skill in adding ornaments to a melody.

Nevertheless an examination of the recitatives of the first operas and oratorios, the works of Peri, Caccini and Cavaliere will convince one that the stilo rappresentativo, as it was called, must have depended for its expressiveness very largely on beauty of tone, pure legato style and the messa di voce, by which flexibility and elo quence are imparted to long passages of sustained tones.

Mancini said:

Un vero ed attimo artista se ne serve in qualunque nota di valore la messa di voce.

A true artist avails himself of the messa di voce on every tone. This is going much too far, but it serves to show in what estimation this beautiful ornament of song was held at a time when the technics of singing were most thoroughly understood. Another later master, D’Aubigny, in commenting on the need of perfect breath control for the exe cution of this device says: “The beginning and the end of the note must resemble the wafting of the evening breeze: one perceives its beginning without being able to define it; one is still listening to its termination when the note has already died away.”

Two or three points must be kept in mind in singing messa di voce: In the first place the mouth must not be twisted or tortured; yet something has to be done with it. It must be kept nearly equally open throughout the tone. The tone must be carefully at tacked and then gently brought for ward, by which it will gain not a little in carrying power. In the beginning of the singer’s study messa di voce should be practised entirely in the medium tones of the scale. No attempts at using it in the higher or lower notes should be made till the elementary exercises in the formation of these tones have been completed.

In singing messa di voce in the higher tones the mouth naturally needs to be opened a little more fully at the forte. Otherwise the tones will sound compressed. On the contrary, as the tone is gradually diminished the mouth should be gradually permitted to diminish its opening so that the current of air forming the piano tone shall not be too much scattered and the tone thus lose its carrying power.

In spite of the dictum of Mancini, previously quoted, the old Italians seem to have had moderate notions about the employment of the messa di voce. Tosi says :

Una bella messa di voce in bocca di un professore che non sia avaro, e non se ne serva, che su le vocali aperti, no manca mai di fare un ottimo effetto.

Which means: A beautiful messa di voce in the mouth of a professor who uses it with discretion and only on clear vowels will never fail to produce a fine effect. Clara Kathleen Rogers says in regard to the method of making a messa di voce:

Singers often think they are making a crescendo when, in fact, they are doing nothing of the kind. This is when they press on some of the throat muscles in their ignorance of how a crescendo is made, and associate the physical pressure with an increase of volume of sound.

They do not really hear an increase of sound, but they take it for granted that there must be one in response to the pressure, which pressure, in point of fact, simply hardens the tone, or renders it tremulous — sometimes both. If we would acquire the skill to swell or decrease the volume of tone at will, we must understand and bear in mind that it is the breath, and the breath alone, that is physically responsible for the in crease and decrease of tone, and not muscular pressure or procuring a larger space in the throat for the tone to expand in by depressing the larynx. (!!!)

In practising the messa di voce let the student begin precisely as in the first exercises of tone production. Let him sing the syllable “la” (the a sounded as in “father”) on tones in the middle of his voice. Let the attack be piano, deli cate, but perfectly bell-like in its clear ness. Let the inhalation of breath previous to the attack be moderate, so that the respiratory apparatus may be under complete control without any sense of tightness.

Then breathe out the tone gently and steadily, increasing the force of the air blast gradually so that in the middle of the tone a moderate forte is reached, or a natural full tone. Then diminish the power of the air blast gradually till the tone dies away imperceptibly. Great care will be necessary in the diminuendo to avoid allowing some of the air to es cape without turning into tone. This will produce a faint hissing sound and impurity of tone.

It is also very likely to render the final part of the tone unsteady. This part of the tone, then, must be watched. Listen to a fine trumpeter play the opening notes of Wagner’s “Rienzi” overture, and you will get a good conception of the messa di voce, except that the trumpeter will produce a forte of much greater power than a singer should desire to get.

Henderson, William James. The art of the singer: Practical hints about vocal technics and style. C. Scribner’s sons, 1906.