Because bel canto is an Italian phrase, it is sometimes construed to apply only to Italian singing. There is no rational explanation for selecting bel canto out of the plethora of Italian musical expressions and elevating it to the status of holy grail of the vocal art. Throughout the Western musical world Italian words and phrases are ubiquitous descriptives for musical actions from indications of volume and tempo to the most subtly nuanced and emotionally suggestive attempts to convey the composer’s meaning.1
The traditional image of bel canto—particularly Italian bel canto—as all sweetness and light obscures the very real expressivity of the delicate nuances, the chiaroscuro sound, the rhetorical flourishes which enliven the melody—all made possible by an easy vocal emission, but not limited by or to it. Even the singer with a flawed vocal emission or a limited vocal instrument could still enchant and enthrall by his singing, by the manner in which he presented the song—in short, Style. Armed with culturally-anticipated nuances and ornaments he could establish a tempo and then subtly rob it of rigidity in order to render the vocal line fluid and insinuating; through the delicacies of intonation he could inflect the melody in ways so intimate that only the subconscious of the listener received them and was moved.
The traditional goal of Italian singing was diletto, “delight”—the delight of the listener—but also the delight the ensemble singer took in the interweaving of parts; the delight the maestro di cappella took in the mounting up of sonorities, the smoothness of the vocal entries, the overlapping canonic voices; the delight of the composer in hearing the perfect rendition of his aria or motet gracefully adorned with ornaments added by the sensitive singer. Diletto was later augmented by the desire muovere gli affetti [to move the affects or emotions], not only of the listener, but of the performer as well. There are anecdotes which tell us some single phrases uttered by singers moved their peers to tears through the truth of the expression and the justness of the sentiment.
These aspirations were not—and still are not—limited to Italian singers; in some proportion they are the ambition of every musician in every culture, no matter what the underlying esthetic, instrument or style of the music. Wherever music-making is practiced, the concept of doing it well—bellamente [beautifully]—is a profound subtext, always and forever determined by the culture of which it is an audible expression.
In fact the term bel canto was dredged up—not invented but reinvented—in the early 19th century to describe the past glories of the age of the castrati. The first appearance in print seems to have been by Stendhal.2 This pre-dates by 16 years Vaccaj’s use of the term in his famous set of vocalise-ariettas.3 Rossini was familiar with the expression and employed it later in conversations.
- 20.The scores of Verdi’s operas contain many such suggestive phrases, increasingly so in the later works.
- 21.Stendhal [Henri Beyle], La vie de Rossini (Paris, 1824); trans. By Richard N. Coe as Life of Rossini, NY, 1957, p. 341.
- 22.Vaccaj, Nicola: Dodici arietta da camera in chiave di violino per l’insegnamento del bel canto italiano. Milan, 1840.