The ONLY Italian method of singing published from 1777-1820 (43 years!) was written by a woman: Anna Maria Pellegrini Celoni. Her book entitled Grammatica o siano regole di ben cantare (1810) had several slight changes to wordings to its title, but nothing that changed the meaning too terribly. It may be best to name it the Grammatica.
All of the singing manuals we have dating from that time period are either from England or France. I think that is remarkable and rather vexing when you consider that Italians were considered the great masters of voice teaching for centuries and yet they published so very LITTLE. And how phenomenal to have a text written by a WOMAN during a time when much of the ink that was spilled on voice was done by men. Her viewpoints set her ahead of the 19th century pedagogical sisters that would follow in her footsteps.
Richard Miller has written on the paucity of Italian sources for singing instruction during the period of Celoni’s book. What is even more interesting are the operas that were composed from 1777-1820. Mozart, Gluck, Paisello, Cimarosa, Cherubini, Spontini, Beethoven, and Rossini were all writing their masterpieces during this time.
Celoni straddles a period in history when the ‘natural’ singer was beginning to replace the castrato singer on the opera stages of the world. Her writing is clear, and free of any of the floridity of other vocal texts. She is definitely carrying on the mantle of writers like Tosi and Mancini, and I would place the three of them together as a trilogy of writers on the bel canto schooling of the 17th and 18th centuries.
There are no anatomical charts, no exhaustive discussions of breathing maneuvers, nothing of a method that would lie outside the realm of anything found in the classic literature. Her system is based on three pillars: Fermare, Formare, e Spianare (Firmness, Formation, and Smoothness). Her method is built upon PRACTICE and sound-making. Time was the key to her training. One is reminded of the maxim of voice teacher and pedagogue Jeannette LoVetri to “Wait for the bus!” when it comes to patience in voice education. Celoni shared these same ideals.
According to Chiti in Donne in musica (1996), she was born in Rome in 1780 and died in 1835. Celoni was a composer, singer and pianist, in addition to being a teacher of singing. We know that she was married and had two daughters, one of whom died young.
Manuel Garcia II quotes her several times in his Traité de l’Art du Chant (1841), with an inaccurate reproduction of her exercise for the spianato (see below). In Garcia’s 1894 text Hints on Singing he gives a quotation of her, while constantly misspelling her last name: “Celloni.”
He who knows how to breathe knows how to sing.
Here’s the troublesome slice of information: This statement DOES NOT EXIST in any of Celoni’s two versions of her method! So unless we have a personal anecdote of Garcia’s, we should view this statement with some healthy skepticism. The phrase is also attributed to Crescentini and Pacchierotti, and over the intervening years it has become one of those historical “Who said it?” questions for which we’ll never have a conclusive answer. We simply do not have conclusive historical evidence of its authorship in the written evidence.
She lays out her requirements for a singer, which we would do WELL to consider in 2017:
Here are three qualities which should be joined in one who sings, that is, GOOD SENSE, GOOD STYLE, AND A SENSIBLE HEART.
What I find so endlessly interesting is her admonitions on forming the voice. I’m struck by her remarks on the voice ‘being heard,’ in a time when the excesses of orchestral doubling and textures had not yet been realized.
Forming the voice well is a very different thing from firming up the voice, since the latter depends on always sustaining it on every note with perfect intonation, and the former in rendering the voice sonorous, robust, spacious, elastic, obedient, and agile; capable, in sum, of any expression whatsoever, so that even in the midst of other voices and various instruments, it makes itself heard easily, and distinguished not by its hardness, as so often happens, but by the beauty of its formation. Good body in a voice (“Un bel corpo di voce”) is a gratuitous gift, purely an affair of fate. It is like a jewel which has been excavated from the mountain: Its intrinsic natural beauty needs the influence of art so that it can be appreciated and admired. So much so: this lovely full voice will either remain unknown or it will be rendered annoying and displeasing if not brought to perfection by the Laws of Art.
She goes on to explain how lesser voices were built:
There are many who practice the law of this craft, but lack the voice; yet how often it happens that some, gifted with small and unhappy voices, come to gain the admiration of the Public; they have exercised every day, and in opportune hours by singing varied little scales of held notes, adagio, firming up the voice well, and little by little, with great art have smoothed it out, until they have come to sing the respective notes necessary to the voice, either Soprano, Contralto, Tenor, Baritone, or Bass, and in time they are able to approach the sonorous notes of the extension and formation of the voice which we have indicated above. But I must advise that such an exercise will depend above all else on the age of the Student and his temperament: Two exercises a day, no more than half an hour each, and at a good time of day, seem to be sufficient.
There is so much amazing information to unpack just from that paragraph alone. First, it’s remarkable that we have an early author saying, in not so many terms: ANYONE can learn to sing very well. This is a remarkable piece of knowledge from Celoni. It would carry in it the entire premise of the Old Italian school of singing: that the voice can be built by conscientious attention and intelligent practicing. Many have received a voice as a gift of Nature, but those less fortunate should not be without hope that they, too, can build a sonorous and beautiful voice.
Another point I wish to highlight is that Celoni believes in firming up the voice through varied scales of HELD notes, sung adagio. AGAIN, we have the admonition to sing for some time on LONG tones. Long tones are voice builders, and more teachers in 2017 should include them in their pedagogies. In my opinion, if you are working on long tones, you are working on three crucial elements of the principles of voice building: PITCH, INTENSITY, and VOWEL. All three of these components can be ELEGANTLY handled in a single note!
A third point, which I must underline is the fact that she wanted singers to exercise on TWO exercises a DAY for a half an hour. Two exercises ONLY. Can you imagine?
In our exercise-crazed pedagogies, we should consider: how many exercises are really NECESSARY? If one exercise could fill the role of thousands of others, I’d like to know about it. For Celoni, it appears that she wanted lots of long tones, and as we’ll see messa di voce, or what is referred to in her book as spianata di voce.
To smooth the voice, Celoni requires that classic vocal maneuver: the messa di voce. This is what Celoni refers to as the spianata di voce. She indicates the intensity of the tones by using numbers, as follows. The numbers are above the treble clef:
What I absolutely and irretrievably LOVE about Celoni’s messa di voce exercise is the anacrusis of the G before the C! To my pedagogical mind, this anacrusis creates a certain level of laryngeal flexibility and movement before the C is attempted. It’s equally amazing to see the short sixteenth note that precedes the conclusion of the exercise in the penultimate measure. Again, a sense of MOVEMENT seems to be indicated in this messa di voce that isn’t often found in other examples, which can become stiff and forced without these additional figures. The tonal movement preceding and ending the long tone creates a sense of what my colleague Brian Lee calls, “Potentiality of movement” – that the vocal system can (and should) be calibrated to MOVE at any time in any direction: volume, pitch, or intensity.
Celoni’s spianata di voce had a purpose:
The spianata is useful also for cadenzas and half-cadenzas, for all those Singers, who have not been endowed by nature with a good metal and a voice clear, sonorous, well-tuned, but for the ordinary, the heavier, the slower, and less agile and flexible. The same advantage will also enrich those gifted with a beautiful voice but lacking genius, to replace the usual cadenzas, etc., and being able to replace them with a beautiful and long spianata, with its trill at the end. Finally the spianata serves to signify the sense of many words, for example, constancy, peace, repose, calm, sleep, lethargy, etc. I do not give scales here to learn to smooth the voice well, because the same ones written above for forming the voice will serve.
WOW. What an amazing little slice of pedagogical process. Since we so seldom hear a well performed spianata di voce/messa di voce, it’s fascinating to see Celoni assert that other scales weren’t necessary if the voice had been firmed in such a manner. The ability to build metallo in the voice was additionally viewed as due to exercise in the spianata di voce. What an interesting (and rather healthy) way to build squillo into the voice!! I intend to use exercises of this sort more often in my studio teaching. I always tell students that the piano and forte should be related – it shouldn’t sound as if you’ve put down a flute and picked up a tuba.
What about coloratura?
Celoni’s ideas are no less applicable than they were in 1810. Isn’t this little book wonderful!?
There is not doubt that agility is one of the greatest accomplishments of an excellent Singer, because the name of false-singer will be given to one who lacks it, always supposing that he knows how to firm and form the voice through art. Besides, a Musician is sluggish and lazy if he is unable to execute with exactness those passages of many rapid notes in going brightly, vivaciously and joyfully, which are so very often encountered written with a great sense by the Contrapuntists, where they clearly explain the significance of the words, that is, of anger, of furor, of a storm, of flight, of hurricane, of a flash of lightning, of thunder, of invective, or rage, or great happiness, etc., and these passages are nothing more than masses of little notes, which form a volata semplice (simple flight), or redoubled now and above and now below, mezzo volatine (medium little flights), or yet varied arpeggios, or little groups of notes, etc. Since agility is so very necessary, one should apply oneself with all his strength to acquire it well. All the greatest Masters of Singing, in order to methodically indoctrinate their scholars in acquiring it, begin with little, and gradually arrive at many, very many, and with going brightly, joyfully, brilliantly, vivaciously, fast, and very fast.
Celoni’s method is a fascinating journey into a vocal time and place that has long since vanished, but stands as a tantalizing reminder of what was expected of the singers of her time. That this book was written by a woman during a period of history when so few Italian resources were being published makes this a significantly important document.
The adventurous teacher might take some of her wisdom to reap some interesting benefits. Exercises in the long tone, and the spianata di voce could provide some fascinating vocal work in the studio and in practice sessions.
Celoni, Anna Maria Pellegrini. Grammar, Or, Rules for Singing Well. Pro Musica Press, 2001.
Chiti, Patricia Adkins. Donne in musica. Armando Editore, 1996.
Garcia, Manuel, and Donald V. Paschke. A complete treatise on the art of singing: complete and unabridged. Da Capo Pr, 1975.
Garcia, Manuel. Hints on singing. E. Ascherberg, 1894.
Lee, Brian. “Potential in Every Note.” D. Brian Lee, Voice Teacher. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2017.
LoVetri, Jeannette. Somatic Voicework™ Method in Voice and Singing for Voice Teachers and Voice Students. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2017.
Mancini, Giambattista. Practical reflections on figured singing. Vol. 7. Pro Musica Press, 1967.
Miller, Richard. National schools of singing: English, French, German, and Italian techniques of singing revisited. Scarecrow Press, 1997.
Tosi, Pier Francesco. “Observations on the florid song.” New York (1967).