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In spite of the vocal models that have been transmitted by the media in recent decades, there still exist today people who, though they have never engaged in specialised study nor listened to trained voices, sing in an open manner that displays a soft and fresh vibrato. It is difficult to believe that an hypothetical listener of the past should regard a voice having these same characteristics as defective and unsuited to artistic ends, as is still maintained by some scholars.
Recordings made by the singers of the beginning of this century disclose some 'specimens' appreciably divergent from the vocal standard of today's musical culture. One recognises the above-mentioned 'firm' or even vibrato-less sounds, but these are disposed in occasional episodes, as dictated by the circumstances of actual performance. If the voice is without vibrato for reasons connected with expressive needs or the pronunciation of the text (one might listen for instance to the Lamentationes Jeremiae as declaimed/sung by Alessandro Moreschi (8), or to the other recordings of the same singer), the sound nonetheless remains soft, and the notes without vibrato are never fixed. Such vocalisation differs from what is usual in operatic singing in our own day, but it is also far distant from the hard voices presented by many northern European performers.
In the 16th century, almost all the music produced took the form of vocal polyphony. Performance 'a cappella' normally took no account of the notes' absolute pitch; the only advice was "avere riguardo a quelli che hanno da cantare, che stiano commodi di tuono, né troppo alto, né troppo basso" ("to have regard for those who are to sing, that they be at ease with the pitch, neither too high, nor too low"). (9) With the passing of the centuries, these suggestions were to remain valid; see for example Scola di Canto Fermo (10) of 1715, or the preface by Raffaelle Casimiri to the 'opera omnia' of Palestrina, as cited in note 15 below. The classical typology of roles in polyphony assigned the 'bassus' part to a bass voice, the 'tenor' to a mid-range male voice, the 'altus' to a high tenor exploiting the resonance of the head voice in a very high tessitura, and finally the 'cantus' to a 'puer' or a falsettist. Polyphonic compositions are often to be encountered which seem to lie very high in relation to such a disposition of voices. But the melodic ranges in these cases are not to be taken to correspond to the actual pitches in performance; the fact is that where the so-called 'chiavette' or 'chiavi trasportate' ('transposed clefs') were present, the vocal performance (11) was customarily a fourth or a fifth lower (12).
The singers did not always confine themselves strictly to the vocal roles assigned to them:
Or dico dunque, che queste voci nascono dalla propria materia della canna; et intendo per la canna tutte le parti sopradette, che concorrono a far la voce, si che, se quella sarà molle, farà la voce flessibile, pieghevole, e variabile. Ma se per sorte sarà dura, farà la voce riggida, e dura. Percioche essendo duro l'istromento, non puo (come bisognaria) piegarsi; si come essendo molle, aggevolmente piegandosi, puo formare, e fingere ogni sorte di voce. E di qui nasce, che molti sono i quali non ponno altra voce ch'il basso cantare. E molti anchora se ne veggono che non sono, se non ad una delle voci del conserto inchinati, e quella con grandissimo fastidio dell'orecchia, appena cantano. E per il contrario, poi se ne trovano alcuni, ch'il basso, il tenore, et ogni altra voce, con molta facilità cantano; e fiorendo, e diminuendo con la gorga, fanno passaggi, hora nel basso, hora nel mezzo, et ora nell'alto, ad intendere bellissimi.
(I say, then, that these sounds originate from the actual material of the windpipe, that is, of all the parts mentioned above which together produce the voice, in such a way that if that is soft, it will produce a voice that is flexible, pliable and variable. But if it happens to be hard, it will produce a rigid and hard voice. For if the instrument is hard, it cannot bend itself as required; just as, if it is soft, and bends itself readily, it can form and shape every sort of voice. This is why there are many who are unable to sing any voice but the bass. And there are many others who turn out unsuited to any of the voices of the consort save one, and that with a very great irritation of the ear as soon as they sing. There are also some to be found who, by contrast, sing the bass, the tenor, and every other voice with great ease; and making ornaments and diminutions with the throat, they execute passaggios now low down, now in the middle, now high, that are most beautiful to hear.) (13)
In secular music the higher part could be sung by women too (14), but towards the end of the 16th century there appeared on the Italian musical scene the 'castrato' singers of the 'third sex', to whom were entrusted the roles of soprano and contralto (15). The majority of the arias composed in the 17th and 18th centuries - and many of those contained in the present collection - were intended for these singers. An examination of the vocal characteristics of these legendary performers will undoubtedly prove to be of value in determining a correct line of interpretation. 'Castrato' singers could take the place of children and falsettists with excellent results. The 'puer' in particular represented a poor investment, in that the breaking of the voice at puberty cut off irreversibly the career of soprano that had been initiated only a few years previously.
The castrati, as Rodolfo Celletti (16) has written, plied their art with total dedication, "giacché l'altro punto di forza dei castrati fu che l'orchiotomia, precludendo certi rapporti, certi obiettivi dell'uomo normale - uno per tutti: la famiglia - fatalmente li destinava ad assumere, nel mondo dell'opera, una funzione che potremmo quasi definire sacerdotale. Di qui studi ed esercitazioni di particolare rigore che assorbivano praticamente tutta la giornata del neofita" ("given that the other strong point of the castrati was that orchiotomy, by precluding certain relations, certain goals of the normal man - the family, for one thing - made it his settled destiny to assume, in the world of opera, a function that one could almost describe as priestly. Hence the especially rigorous studies and exercises which took up virtually the whole of the neophyte's day"). Bontempi, in Historia Musica (17), writes: (>>>Next) (<<<Previous)
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(8) Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), 'castrato' soprano of the Sistine Chapel who earned the sobriquet 'angel of Rome', recorded in 1902-3 some ten G&T discs. These recordings were put together on the CD The last castrato, which sold quite widely in the USA. The 'Crucifixus' of Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle (originally G&T 54764 or 54733) has recently featured in the EMI Classics compilation L'epoca dei Castrati. All the recordings made by Moreschi are included on the Fonit Cetra CD Alessandro Moreschi, Le registrazioni integrali, vol.9, in the series Le grandi voci Italiane, CDO 519 (1997).
(9) L. ZACCONI, op. cit., Bk. I, f. 78, Ch. LXIX.
(10) FABIO SEBASTIANO SANTORO, Scola di Canto Fermo, Naples, 1715, Novello de Bonis ed. p. 255.
(11) As may readily be supposed, the transposition to a fourth or a fifth below could be waived in the case of exclusively instrumental performances. See e. g. the Cartella Musicale of Adriano Banchieri, Venice, Giacomo Vincenti, 1614 (transcribed into modern notation by A. Bornstein, Bologna, Ut Orpheus Edizioni, 1994), where for example among the Duos we read: "Duo del Quinto Modo autentico, non corrisponde al tuono. Questo Quinto Modo corista et trasportato è comodo per strumenti acuti, ma riesce incomodo per le voci [...] Per strumenti acuti. Trasportato una quarta sotto [è adatto; n.d.r.] per voci umane" ("Duo of the Fifth Mode proper, does not correspond to the pitch. This transposed chorist's Fifth Mode is convenient for high instruments, but proves inconvenient for voices [...] For high instruments. Transposed a fourth lower [it is suitable (Ed.)] for human voices").
(12) As regards the 'chiavette' and their relation to mode of the pieces, cf. the article by H. F. ANDREWS, Transposition of Byrd's Vocal Polyphony in Music & Letters, vol. 43, 1962, pp. 25-37; or ARTHUR MENDEL, Pitch in the 16th and early 17th Centuries, Part I (pp. 28-45), Part II (pp. 199-221), Part III (pp. 336-357), Part IV (pp. 575-593) in The Musical Quarterly, vol. XXXIV, 1948. Cf. also the Cartella Musicale of A. BANCHIERI (see preceding note). There also existed, on the other hand, 'chiavette' that indicated transposition to a fourth or a fifth above, used in Italy by, above all, Giovanni Gabrieli. A recent contribution to the analysis of this vexed question has been made by PATRIZIO BARBIERI in the essay 'Chiavette' and Modal Transposition in Italian Practice (c. 1500-1837), in Recercare, vol. III, 1991, pp. 5-79. However, the absence in this period of a universally adopted 'diapason' makes it impossible to specify pitches objectively, whether in instrumentally accompanied performance or, still more, in performance 'a cappella'.
(13) G. C. MAFFEI, op. cit., pp. 17-18.
(14) There exist rare cases of sacred music being sung in church by women. A single example may suffice: Ignazio Donati declares in the "Avvertimenti spettanti alla presente opera" ("Suggestions concerning the present work") on his Salmi: "Et volendo servirsene le Monache potranno cantare il Basso all'Ottava alta, che riuscirà un Contralto." ("And if it is so desired, nuns may sing the bass part at the octave above, which will then be a contralto.") (IGNAZIO DONATI, Salmi boscarecci concertati a 6 voci, Venice, Alessandro Vincenti, 1623). All the same, the practice of liturgical singing was always strictly intended for men. See following note.
(15) It could also happen that emasculated singers took parts in chapel choirs that were in a different vocal register from those which they took in operas. Giovanni Francesco Grossi, known as 'Siface', played contralto roles on stage, but, as emerges from the exhaustive enquiries of Enrico Celani, he was admitted at the Sistine Chapel on 10 April 1675 as a soprano (Cf. ENRICO CELANI, I Cantori della Cappella Pontificia nei secoli XVI-XVIII, in RMI, 1907, vol. XIV, p. 87 and RMI, 1909, vol. XVI, p. 65). The contraltos of the same papal choir were usually high tenors, and in every sense men; this view is supported by, among other things, the voluntary dismissal presented by the contralto Lorenzo Sanci. It emerges, in fact, from the daybook of the Chapel "che [il 10 dicembre 1626] il Signore Iddio lo chiamava ad altro stato essendosi risoluto di pigliar moglie" ("that [on 10 December 1626] the Lord God called him to another condition, as he had decided to take a wife") (Ib., RMI, 1907, vol. XIV, pp. 775-776). The performance of liturgical music was reminiscent still of the Renaissance practice which had it that the 'altus' be sung by high tenors - a tradition which survived in the chapels of Rome until this century. See also the preface by Raffaele Casimiri to Le Opere complete di Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina in the 1590 reprint, volume III and others edited by Casimiri, Rome, Fratelli Scalera, 1939, in which may be read: "Soltanto la parte o voce del 'cantus' era affidata - e sarà quindi da affidare - ai 'putti cantori' o fanciulli, sia pur sorretti da qualche voce-guida di falsetto. La parte o voce dell'altus dovrà essere sostenuta - come anticamente - da giovani tenori acuti. Di conseguenza [...] è necessario 'intonare' le composizioni in modo che la parte o voce dell'altus non superi mai nella regione acuta la nota 'la' del nostro attuale corista (la - 870)" ("Only the part or voice of 'cantus' was entrusted - and therefore is to be entrusted - to the 'singing putti' or boys, supported as the case might be by some falsetto voice as guide. The part or voice of altus ought to be taken - as in ancient times - by young high tenors. In consequence [...] it is necessary to pitch the compositions in such a way that the part or voice of altus never goes higher than the A of the modern chorister (A - 870)").
(16) RODOLFO CELLETTI, La vocalità al tempo del Tosi, in Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana, year IV, 1967, pp. 676-684.
(17) GIOVANNI ANDREA ANGELINI BONTEMPI, Historia Musica, Perugia, Costantini, 1695, p. 170.