New Series: The Practical Reflections of Mancini

I will be dedicating several upcoming blogs to the wisdom of Giambattista Mancini’s book Practical Reflections on the Art of Singing, (Riflessioni Pratiche Sopra il Canto Figurato, published in 1774.

This book, along with Pierfrancesco Tosi’s Opinoni de’ cantori antichi e moderni, are the two cornerstones of our understanding of the singing of the Italian Baroque era.

Mancini was born in Ascoli in 1716, and died in Vienna in 1800. He studied with Leonardo Leo, Antonio Bernacchi, and Padre Martini. Maria Theresa of Austria (and the mother of Marie Antoinette) called him to Vienna, where he became the singing master to the Imperial Court. Evidently, such a prestigious honor was proof of his talents and skills as a teacher of voice. The publication of his book Riflessioni Pratiche show us as a modern audience the astuteness of Maria Theresa’s choice in selecting him.

The Royal Palace at Schönbrunn, painted by Bellotto. This was the residence of Empress Maria Theresa, the last of the Habsburgs. She hired Giambattista Mancini as the singing teacher to the Imperial Court in 1760. The Empress’s five-year-old daughter at the time, Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, would later become the last Queen of France.

Charles Burney the author of The Present State of Music in France and Italy: or The Journal of a Tour through those Countries, undertaken to collect Materials for A General History of Music (1773), met Mancini in Vienna and remarked how excited about the prospect of a book on singing written by such an illustrious teacher.

There have been several versions of this text. Here is a breakdown of the history of its publication:

EditionYear
Original Edition Italian,
*prepared under Mancini’s guidance,
Vienna, Austria
1774
French Version, L’Art du Chant Figuré,
Translated (per Mancini) by M. Defaugiers
Paris, France
1776
Third Version, Italian
*prepared under Mancini’s guidance,
Milan, Italy
1777
New French Edition,
Réflexions Pratiques sur le Chant Figuré
1796
New Italian Edition,
Metodo Per Ben Insegnare
D’Apprendere L’Arte del Cantare,
Ossiano Osservazioni Pratiche su
Questa Nobile e Difficile Arte
*includes a letter from Mancini to a “Conte N.N.”
1807
First English Translation,
Practical Reflections on the Figurative Art of Singing
Translated by Pietro Buzzi
Boston, Massachusetts
1912
Second English Translation,
Practical Reflections on the Figurative Art of Singing
Translated by Edward Foreman
Minneapolis, Minnesota
1967, 1996
(reprinted)

What comes through in Mancini’s (and Tosi’s) works are indeed practical reflections and observations on singing. Those that believe that they contain some ‘secrets’ to the lost art of Italian bel canto will be sadly disappointed. What does come through are very fascinating pedagogical views on the art of singing and the teaching of singing. I hope to show in this blog series how the pedagogical ideas of the late Italian Baroque can still communicate to our modern age a philosophy and worldview of what singing is, and demonstrate a through-line of thinking that has endured to the present day.

If nothing else, the text demonstrates the truest secret of these great singers of the Italian Baroque era: daily study with a teacher, and a dedication to mastery over a long and arduous training period that respected nature (i.e., the human body and mind) at all times.

Those that would commit to learning to sing in this way would most assuredly be guaranteed success.

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