No one could deny Mozart’s vocal works are an extension of the vocal tradition of the 18th century bel canto ideals. It is clear from his compositional style that he was highly influenced by the Italianate vocal pedagogy of his time. In fact, Mozart took singing lessons from Giovanni Manzuoli.
Manzuoli (1720-1782) was a soprano castrato, who later in life changed Fach to become a contralto. What I find fabulous is the quote on his singing from Charles Burney:
Manzuoli’s voice was the most powerful and voluminous soprano that had been heard on our stage since the time of Farinelli; and his manner of singing was grand and full of taste and dignity….The lovers of music in London were more unanimous in approving his voice and talents than those of any other singer within my memory….His voice alone was commanding from native strength and sweetness; for it seems as if subsequent singers had possessed more art and feeling; and as to execution, he had none. However, he was a good actor, though unwieldy in figure, and not well made in person; nor was he very young.
Smith, Horace. Festivals, games, and amusements: Ancient and modern. No. 25. J. & J. Harper, 1831.
There it is again: the observation that these Italian baroque bel cantists sang with DRAMATIC vocal qualities. The stereotype of singers of this age lightly twittering away is patently false if we are to believe those who HEARD this singing. Let’s also remember that Farinelli won his singing battle against the trumpet – not the harp or flute.
Mozart studied with Manzuoli when he was eight years old. (So much for not taking singing lessons until after puberty!) Mozart additionally wrote specific ornaments for Manzuoli to sing in J. C. Bach’s opera Adriano in siria of 1765.
As a composer, Mozart wrote his compositions for the particular abilities of his singers. And what singers! Judging from his work, the kinds of singers available to him must have been staggering in their vocal prowess. Nonetheless, Mozart was not looking to create a new style of vocalism or vocal emission. He merely summarized what had been the prevailing vocal technique of his time.
I want to share a composition that he wrote for his wife Constanze (née Weber). Constanze was born into a musical family, and her three sisters, Aloysia, Josepha, and Sophie were all trained as singers. Josepha created the role of the Queen of the Night, and Aloysia sang Donna Anna in the Vienna premiere of Don Giovanni. Several of the Mozart concert arias were written specifically for Aloysia.
Mozart’s K. 393, written in 1782 and dedicated as “per la mia cara consorte” (for my dear wife), is a collection of three vocalises with accompaniment, with an additional “exercise” as a coda. Perhaps the exercise at the end of the composition was the ‘warm up’ for the extensively demanding vocalise?
I find the composition fascinating because it is a glimpse at a way of singing that is a clear outgrowth of the Italian compositional vocal styles of the 18th century. This music was the exemplar of advanced, virtuoso vocalism that represented the true bel canto schooling. The influence of the castrati is everywhere in this composition, which shows that the ‘natural voice’ was held to a similar standard.
Examining it today I’m struck by several things:
- Every Italian composer of any merit composed solfeggi for singers. This means that Mozart, as a composer, would most likely have been a highly competent voice teacher. He understood the demands and stylistic requirements for the singers of his time.
- Mozart’s vocal style was HEAVILY influenced from Italian, rather than Germanic models.
- If Constanze Mozart sang this composition as Wolfgang intended, she must have had an enviable vocal ability and technique, despite not being an active performer.
- The composition features aspects of deep low chest register and high head, which would indicate that these two registers were to be utilized in a single composition.
- Therefore, the idea that high sopranos wouldn’t sing in chest lacks veracity within the light of this composition.
- The coloratura facility of the composition is breathtaking in its skill and audaciousness. Obviously the demands of singers of this time placed artistic and pedagogical value upon MOVEMENT.
- High notes are not a climax, but merely woven into the fabric of the composition (the long sustained high note virus wouldn’t strike until after 1840).
I’m including for the reader’s enjoyment and perusal the score of the solfeggi, as well as a digital re-creation of what these would have sounded like in a human voice. They provide a tantalizing glimpse at a vocal emission that would disappear in the mid-19th century, to be replaced by a more dramatic compositional style.
Here is a stylized recording of these vocalises with a digitally reproduced voice.
I hope you will find this composition as exciting and fascinating as I have – it provides a late 18th century example of the summation of the requirements for singers of that age.