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.

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