Learning From the Past

From Peter T. Harrison’s second book, “Singing: Personal and Performance Values in Training”:

Upon what characteristics of vocalisation, judging by the capacities and qualities observed by the teachers, composers and singers prior to and during the Golden Age, can we base this, our second identification and definition of the singing voice?

We have five possible sources:

1.   pedagogical treatises

2.   what was and is said about the singing

3.   recordings

4.   the music that was sung

5.   that rare creature, the ‘natural singer’

     Unfortunately, we lack the one element (the sound) needed to illustrate the various terms or processes described in treatises. Exercises themselves, for example, mean nothing in the absence of sound. Exercises would have been executed under supervision, with moment-to-moment adjustments to vocal progress.

Descriptions given by ‘observers’ are likely to be somewhat subjective. We must therefore look for consistencies in these areas.

When listening to recordings from the first half of the 20th century, we may need to do so with ‘new’ ears. Otherwise we may be inclined to look back through lenses obscured by the vocal sounds we are used to. These in turn have been influenced by quite different music and performing circumstances.

The music that was sung, from Monteverdi to Rossini, and beyond, shows us not only how music developed but what voices were capable of.

The creative artists of Monteverdi’s time, both composers and singers, may have felt frustrated by the vocal constraints of the Cappella period and polyphony, however beautiful it was, or the mere setting of poetry to music. In any case they,

… came up with the idea of making language itself, including dialogue, the basis of music. Such music had to be dramatic, for dialogue is by its very nature dramatic: its content is based on argument, persuasion, questioning, negation, conflict.1

     At first they were ‘preoccupied with the exact rendering of the natural accents of the text … from one emotional point to the next’.2 The objective of this ‘wandering, declamatory music’, was to imitate normal everyday (Italian) speech, pointed up by a sparing harmonic background. Any operatic score of Monteverdi provides excellent examples. As Harnoncourt points out, this must have been shocking for music lovers of the day, who were used to ‘highly esoteric and complex polyphonic music’.3

I believe nevertheless that it must also have increased the sense of freedom which singers would already have acquired to some extent through their ability to improvise. Singers of the time were already versed in ornamentation and expressive devices such as the appoggiaturas. In his famous treatise Le Nuove Musiche, Caccini ‘recommends that coloraturas and ornamentation of all types be used only in those places where they reinforce verbal expression’.4

The emphasis on clear and expressive text coupled with a declamatory style and vocal agility paved the way for greater emotive vocalisation. As time went on, and recitativo secco was varied with recitativo accompagnato, and the arioso turned into the full-length aria, the expressive possibilities of the voice expanded along with music which tended always to be innovative. We should remember that many of the composers, in the early stages at least, were singers themselves. It’s reasonable to assume that they wrote for what they discerned the natural singing voice to be capable of.

By the 1720s Handel and Bach were writing their masterpieces. The singing voice was coming into its own, and opera seria reached its zenith. Bach’s dramatic Passions were peaks of baroque genius. Bach’s biographer Albert Schweitzer considered ‘the art of bel canto’ one of the chief requirements for the interpretation of Bach’s music: ‘One should not forget that Bach took the Italian art of singing as his model and composed accordingly.’5

Another great musicologist says, ‘We need to recover the normal technique of Italian bel canto as fully as possible in order to give the finest performances of Monteverdi, Carissimi, Purcell, Bach or Handel.’6 Notice the inclusion of an English composer and a German. He might have added Gluck and Mozart, and even Rameau, as well as Lully, the Italian in Paris. We are not, after all, talking about style or emphasis, but the ability to sing: the capacity of the voice to be expressive as well as skilful in vocalising music of various styles.

By Mozart’s time singers’ natural vocal range had been thoroughly explored, agility was considered natural to all voices, and long lines were commonplace.

The idea that baroque music, with its orderly structure, should be performed in a mechanical fashion is refuted by Donington, who says, ‘There is a way of keeping a steady tempo which is nevertheless not unyielding.’7 Even the earliest bel canto singing would have had a natural pulse and flexibility in accord with the organic nature of the singing voice. Singers would have sung with the requisite sense of line, and thereby expressed music as distinct from singing notes however smoothly. We only have to try Caccini’s famous jewel, ‘Amarilli, mia bella’ to know what was demanded even at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

The idea that bel canto was simply a vehicle for ‘canary fanciers’ is ludicrous when we see what, apart from virtuosic embellishment, was required of voices. Which is not to suggest that singers of the day never showed off; who would not be inclined to flaunt such brilliant facility? According to Rodolfo Celletti in A History of Bel Canto, there was a period when a taste for the spectacular and acrobatic did get the better of singers and their audiences.

… the second half of the eighteenth century, while belonging squarely to the bel canto period, attenuates one of its characteristic features, namely expressive ardour and sensibility, making up for these with a frenzied technical prowess. It was only towards the end of the century and during the first years of the nineteenth century that passion and vigour reappeared … the art of bel canto was to experience its grand finale with Rossini.8

Studying a Rossini or Bellini score shows us that bel canto singing, far from being superficial frippery or merely an attempt to produce a beautiful sound, must have been exemplary in skill and ease over the widest range of musical and emotional expression.

Harrison, Peter T. Singing: Personal and performance values in training. Dunedin Academic Press Ltd. (2013).



1.Harnoncourt, Nikolaus (1982) Musik als Klangrede, Salzburg and Wien, Residenz Verlag. (1988) Baroque Music Today: Music as Speech, Amadeus Press (Translation), p. 129.

2. Parish, C. and Ohl, John F. (1953) Masterpieces of Music Before 1750, London, Faber and Faber Ltd., p. 124.

3. Harnoncourt, Nikolaus (1982) Baroque Music Today: Music as Speech, p. 130.

4. Ibid. p. 130

5. Husler, Frederick and Rodd-Marling, Yvonne (1976) Singing, p. 47.

6. Robert Donington (1978) A Performer’s Guide to Baroque Music, London, Faber and Faber Ltd., p. 53.

7. Ibid. p. 49.


8. Celletti, Rodolfo (1991) A History of Bel Canto, Oxford University Press (Translation), p. 107.


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