There is one man who is sufficiently authoritative to help us to a fairly reliable account of bel-canto, viz., Handel. The words of Robert Franz to Waldmann (quoted by Mr Finck in “Songs and Song Writers”) are definite: “If anyone understood the ‘bel-canto’ of the Italians, it was Handel.” Here then is firm earth. Handel understood Italian bel-canto. A modest, docile study of the man and his work will reveal something of the principles of this school of singing.
The oratorio giant has suffered much from the assumptions of those who have claimed that all that is demanded of Handelian singers is “harmonious sounds and nothing else.” Imagine if you can the genial, poetic, imaginative, graphic Handel who set to music most of the human emotions, from the reflective “Passion” to the thunderclap of the joyous “Hallelujah” in “The Messiah,” and who certainly sounded some depths in emotional differentiation in “Samson” – imagine him being put off with “pretty” sounds! “No differentiation” necessary in such opposite rôles as those of Manoah and Harapha; in “Rejoice greatly” and “I Know My Redeemer Liveth”! Could “harmonious tone and musical plastics” have enabled Jenny Lind (whose voice was not of the finest character by nature) and Sims Reeves, to seize upon the inner meaning of these great Handelian works, and to present them as living entities?
Nor may we suppose that Handel would have been satisfied with a less just expression in his operas than he must have demanded in his oratorios. True it is that he made use of the peculiar form of voice (castrati) which the times gave him, for certain parts; he wanted to attract the public to the operas for which he fought so long and so unsuccessfully…Handel was a theatrical manager as well as a composer. The student may safely conclude that bel-canto meant mastery over the voice. The singers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries prepared themselves by years of long study to give expression to the music allotted to them. The singing of the twentieth century has precisely the same task to negotiate.
From the vocal point of view, this idea of mastery over the voice (and there is, too, a clear gain in vocal power) represents the benefit the world reaped from music which lived long enough to accomplish this purpose, and then perished.
Handel and Bel Canto
Ffrangcon-Davies, David Thomas. The singing of the future. J. Lane, 1907.
One thought on “Handel and Bel Canto”
One area of Handel performance that is always disappointing is bass arias. These are the ones you skip over when listening to an opera. Sometimes they are described as just bluster and time fillers to develop the plot. Handel’s best bass, Montagnana, had a voice described as a cannon. This gives the lie to the “authentic performance” style of baroque singing and shows that Handel’s best singers all sang in a pure bel canto style.