La scuola del bel canto/The bel canto school

I am including the below essay in Italian and English from Luigi Leonesi as an example upon which the bel canto school was primarily focused: register unification. Leonesi derided the modern singing of this time (1904) as functionally inferior to the vocal precepts of an earlier time.

It is interesting to read here an Italian speaking of these things, as the veristic school of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and the Germanic approach shifted the pedagogical territory to an air of almost moral superiority in loud (not necessarily big) singing. For Leonesi, register unification was the hallmark of the Old Masters, and once this was accomplished the fullest extension and capacity of the instrument was available for the purpose of EXPRESSION. He notes that those without registrational unification are doomed to a limited palate of choices in their artistry. I often describe the registers as giving the singer the fullest palate of color possible. This way, they are able to paint whatever they wish. To focus on one register is to give a singer one jar of red paint and wish him or her luck in figuring out how to get blue.

Leonesi describes what might be described as a ‘pulled-up’ chest voice all the way to the top of the range, which without the benefit of register unification takes on a screamy, yelly, belty quality. This assertion tracks with much of the literature of Tosi, Mancini, and Garcia as well, and touches upon the point I made in an earlier post on the faddism of vowel modification as the only route to bridging the passaggio, instead of an equitable muscle balance in the larynx.

We have to remember that the pervasive idea of ‘vocal miniaturism’ so prevalent when thinking about anything pre-1830 or so, is patently false. Voices were large and penetrating as well as flexible. The A-B-A form of Handel’s arias exemplified this demonstration of agility coupled with dramatic sustained singing. The arias of Broschi, Vivaldi, and Handel demand register unification and phenomenal breath control (as a result of this unification). They’re also NOT short on DRAMA. Later on this musical (ABA) form mutated into the cavatina/cabaletta in the high cult of bel canto in the early 19th Century. The poles of bel canto (agility/sustained singing) were the RULE not the exception as they are today.

To disregard the registers of the voice and believe that breath or resonance alone are the focus in training (especially for those teachers who wish to understand bel canto schooling) is to prefer a latter school of thought on the voice, and not the empirically tested (tried and true) ideas of the earliest Masters of singing. To deny the primacy of head voice/falsetto and chest voice in training is to misconstrue the extant writings that we have and shoehorn modern ‘square’ aesthetic preferences into a 19th Century ’round’ hole. It is also lazy scholarship.

From Leonesi:

Le condizioni in cui ci troviamo sono molto peggiori del primo periodo, chè, se allora abbandonarono lo scopo del canto, conservarono però la perfezione del meccanismo, mentre noi oggi abbiamo abbandonato e smarrita e l’uno e l’altra.

Per dar qui un esempio, dirò che la voce naturale cantata senza sforzo dà poco più di un’ottava d’estensione, mentre per l’arte del canto ne occorrono quasi due. Quindi come procurarsi gli altri suoni?

Gli antichi maestri, con una trovata di genio, che può dirsi più miracolosa che famosa, riuscirono ad unire la voce naturale con la voce di falsetto o testa, in modo che non distinguevasi l’una dall’altra, mentre noi ora sforziamo la voce naturale, più o meno chiusa, a salire in alto, credendo così, in buona fede, di essere tecnicamente eguali alla scuola antica.

Con l’unione dei registri, come l’intendeva l’antica scuola, era possibile ottenere dalla voce umana una grande espressione insieme alla purezza di suono e d’intonazione, con il più lungo fiato possibile. La voce piegavasi facilmente a tutte le esigenze del bel canto, non che agli abbellimenti: messa di voce, portamento, agilità, trillo, ecc. ecc. Col sistema moderno, facendo doverose eccezioni, regna lo sforzo, anzi la violenza, ed in breve lo sfiatamento. Chi resiste a tanti conati può disporre soltanto d’una espressione e d’una intonazione appenna approssimative, una pronunzia impossibile ed un’enorme differenza di timbri impiegati senza concorso della voluntà, fiato cortissimo, tralasciando di parlare degli abbellimenti del canto, che riescono ineseguibili. 

Qui nasce spontanea l’idea che per rimediare a tanto sfacelo nell’arte, non rimane altro che ritornare all’antica scuola, e su questo son tutti di accordo.

(The conditions in which we find ourselves are much worse than in the first period, which, if in abandoning the scope or purpose of the song, conserved the perfection of the vocal mechanism, while today we have abandoned and lost the one for the other.

To give an example here, I will say that the natural voice (ed. or chest voice) without effort gives less than an octave of extension, while the art of singing demands at least two octaves. So how do we get these other sounds?

The Old Masters, by an invention of genius, that can be said to be more miraculous than famous, managed to combine the natural voice with the falsetto or head voice, in a way that one could not distinguish the one from the other, while now we strain the chest voice, more or less “closed”, in going from the bottom to the top of the voice, believing that, in good faith, this is the technical equivalent of the Old School.

With the union of the registers, as the Old School intended, it was possible to obtain from the human voice a great expression along with a purity of tone and intonation, with the longest possible breath. The voice bent itself easily to all the needs of the bel canto, not only to the embellishments: messa di voce, portamento, agility, trill, etc. With the modern system, making dutiful exceptions, effort reigns, as well as violence, and in short “blowing off”. Those who withstand such retching only have one expression and a hardly approximate intonation, an impossible pronunciation as well as an enormous difference of timbres employed without contest of will, very short breath capacity, prohibiting us to speak of the embellishments of the song, which cannot be performed.

Here arises the idea that in order to remedy such destruction in art, nothing remains but to return to the old school, and I am in agreement on this.)

Notes from Luigi Leonesi from “Scuola di Canto dell’epoca d’oro: Secolo XVII), Opinioni de’ Cantori Antichi e Moderni“, published in 1904.

Night of the Living Chest Voice

Lesson dialogue from a recent lesson:

Me: So, I see you’re working up a lot of Musical Theater repertoire for auditions. That’s terrific!

Student: Yeah, I love music theater! I really want to pursue it. I just love (insert any recent musical here).

Me: Fantastic! So, let’s get started in a warm up and we’ll see where we’re at.

Student: Great! (Vocalizes on a basic scale pattern. It’s a very pretty sound. Up and down the scale we go, but chest voice is NOWHERE to be found. The student has a highly developed soprano head voice with no access to chest whatsoever – )

Me: Great! You sound wonderful, but I noticed that you don’t have a particularly sturdy chest voice. (Inner monologue: How in the HELL are you going to sing ANYTHING Music Theater without a viable chest voice????)

Student: Oh, yeah. My opera teacher told me that if I sing in chest I would lose my voice by the time I was twenty.

Me: (After a protracted silence) Ok then.


What GIVES with the TERROR of the female chest voice? Its obfuscation is so prevalent in the training of young women these days by ‘classical’ teachers. The male version is the teacher who is also MORTIFIED by use of falsetto in training the male singing voice. (For a recent article by my colleague Brian Lee on the subject of male falsetto, click here.)

This HORROR of chest voice is NOT a new trend, historically speaking.  As early as Manuel Garcia, teachers were running away from the chest voice in droves as a sound that was ‘unwomanly’ and ‘crude’ and ‘raw’.

The wisdom of the Old Italians, however, saw equal relevance in BOTH registers, the chest voice AND the head/falsetto.  They were both two parts of a whole, and were to be trained together in the pursuit of a perfected technique.

Here are some quotes from Giambattista Mancini’s “Practical Reflections on Figured Singing” from 1774 (emphasis mine):

“This chest voice is not equally forceful and strong in everyone; but to the extent that one has a more robust or more feeble organ of the chest, he will have a more or less robust voice.”

“It remains for me now to speak of those voices which are slender and weak throughout their register…One observes that these voices are very weak in the chest notes, and the greater majority deprived of any low notes, but rich in high notes, or head voice.”

So, NO CHEST = weak voice.  I find this to be true universally in female singers. The avoidance of chest voice creates a very pretty, but DEVITALIZED vocal sound, free of dramatic capability or true dynamic contrast.

What was Mancini’s solution?:

“There is not a method more sure to obtain this end (chest voice), I believe, than to have such a little voice sing only in the chest voice for a time. The exercise should be done with a tranquil solfeggio; and as the voice enriches itself with a greater body, and range, one may blend it as much as possible with the low notes.”

Manuel Garcia, II, writing in the nineteenth century, also commented on the current trend of chest-voice avoidance:

“As we have said, the chest register is generally denied or rejected by teachers, not that one could not draw from its application an immense advantage, nor that the suppression of the range which it embraces would not deprive the singer of the most beautiful dramatic effects or the most favorable contrasts.”

So, why the fear?

There are a lot of theories about this in the pedagogy, but one of the more interesting ideas I’ve found is the idea that the chest voice was somehow “manly”, and in a patriarchal society, women were expected to only make “lady-like” sounds, especially in the rigid Victorian/Edwardian era.  I find this idea particularly compelling as a sociological and cultural influence into vocal pedagogy. But culture is not function, and nature isn’t bound by our cultural ‘zeitgeist’.  When teachers say, “My dear, DON’T sing in chest voice, that’s VULGAR/UGLY”, these are AESTHETIC judgements, NOT functional ones.

Voice teachers OF ALL STRIPES need to embrace the chest voice as a powerful voice building tool and vital to developing a voice that has strength and power, in whatever style of music to be sung.

As Zelda might say in Poltergeist, “Go toward the CHEST VOICE, Carol Anne!”