ed. note: This series of posts is taken from Edward V. Foreman’s A bel canto method: or, How to Sing Italian baroque music correctly based on the primary sources. Vol. 12. Pro Musica Press, 2006.
Some phrases carry with them an almost magical power, the power to attract, to mystify and confuse, the power to conjure up in a few words whole worlds of imagined glory. Bel canto is just such a phrase, more potent among singers and teachers than any other, evocative of lost skills, of a Golden Age in which the human voice aspired to the divine, an age in which the merest wisp of sung music could move the heart to tears. There is such an aura hovering around the phrase bel canto that it is cavalierly used and misused in attempts to extend its power to mundane objects, to books, to the singing of lesser mortals, to nearly meaningless melodies.
Because it cannot be defined, bel canto is potent wherever it is found, however it is misapplied, no matter that it is hijacked to describe contradictory styles, used in the titles of novels which have nothing to do with singing or music, or hung out on the shingle of voice teachers whose credentials contain no hint of elegance or style.
It will not diminish the power of bel canto to observe that it means nothing more than “good or beautiful singing,” but in that simple definition—which everybody knows but few understand—hides a wealth of implication.
For instance, if we accept bel canto as a particular kind of use of the voice, we must also accept that somewhere the complementary but opposite phrase brutto canto should be employed with similar respect—and inaccuracy.1 If by bel canto we mean a method of vocal emission whose secrets are lost in the hazy umbra of history, we have missed the essential meaning of the word “singing.” If we mean a sweet, ethereal vocal sound whose delicate subtleties soothe the troubled soul and enchant the listening ear in a sentimental reawakening of fond childhood memories, then we know nothing of the Italian Baroque repertoire of arias with trumpet obbligato and energetic calls to war. And still we have misunderstood the word “singing.”
“Singing” is a complex process of which vocal emission is a fundamental but relatively minor component.
By which is understood a Voice uttering Sounds conjoined with words, it may be observed that although Sounds and Words separately produce effect and meaning, yet, when happily combined, the power of both is encreased [sic]; but unless the combination be so just that each appears created by the same impulse: that the Mind, the Heart, and Features of the Countenance, which is the Index of the Passions, be impressed with the feeling, those Words and Sounds convey no correspondent sensation can be produced on the Auditor; for a smiling Face accompanying the plaintive tones of Grief, or a melancholy one uttering the gay sounds of Joy, could not effect the aim of the Singer, which ought not only to please, but to delight and charm; for Mediocrity in a Singer, as well as in a Poet or a Painter is not to be admitted, but a Scholar should endeavour to proceed towards that perfection which touches the Heart so delicately, as the finest Pen is incapable of describing to the understanding.
The desirable vocal emission is culturally determined and varies from society to society with the uses of singing and the meaning of song. Above all else, style—that is to say the appropriate execution of the song as determined and defined by the cultural matrix within which it is embedded—includes the vocal emission necessary to realize the intent of the singer and the import of the song.
The raspy, inflected vocal emission of the blues singer is as much a part of the song as the words and music; in the same way the manipulated falsetto of the Chinese opera singer is essential to the meaning and cultural comprehension of his songs. Both of these fall into the category of culturally defined bel canto.
- I find it highly unlikely that anyone ever set out to sing badly on purpose.