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Flourishing at the time of Zacconi (32) but already in decline in Tosi's day (33), the Italian singing described by Mancini at the close of the 18th century no longer enjoyed the prestige previously accorded to it; perhaps the fault did not lie solely with the vices of the 'modern singers' who had put vocal virtuosity to wrong uses. The glowing Italian vocal style was on the wane, and was being outshone in spite of itself by the new rays from beyond the Alps. The hopes of the old masters who looked for a restoration of the ancient rules of singing went unheeded, as alternatives were sought that might accord with the desires of the new, composite European society. The French, with their history of restive antagonism, had long since adopted stylistic and aesthetic tendencies that were independent of Italy; as early as 1638, some of the madrigals of Monteverdi had contained in their supplementary directions - a genuine and telling indication of performance practice - the phrase "Canto a voce piena, alla francese" ("Singing with full voice, in the French manner" (34)).
The year 1840 saw the publication in Paris of the celebrated Traité complet de l'Art du Chant of Manuel Garcìa (35), which can be regarded as the manifesto of the new developments in singing. In this work precepts are laid down which are alien to the orthophonic parameters of the Italian language, and which are without theoretical precedents in the treatises of the maestros of bel canto. In keeping with the didactic course adopted by Tosi and Mancini, Garcìa still prescribed the unifying of registers, but it made a complete break with the Italian language and vocal tradition in some of its suggestions regarding the pronunciation of vowels. The pursuit of the appropriate 'timbre' (36) was codified in the manner of a fully-fledged 'mécanisme', which undoubtedly latched onto habits already well-spread but not yet made official: "l'a s'approche de l'o ouvert; l'è ouvert s'approche de l'é, puis de l'eu; l'i s'approche de l'u sans le secours des lèvres; l'o s'approche de l'ou" ("the a is close to an open o; the open è is close to é, and then to eu (ö), the i is close to an u (ü) pronounced without assistance from the lips; the o is close to ou (a very closed o almost tending to a u )" (37).) This criterion, which is consonant above all with the French idiom, appears to have been formulated by Garcìa with expressive ends in mind:
[...] le timbre de la voix doit se modifier autant que nos passions l'exigent. Si la mélodie et les paroles exprimaient une profonde douleur, le timbre qui ferait briller l'instrument fausserait la pensée [...] Si la mélodie, au contraire, exprime des sentiments brillants, le timbre clair peut seul fournir et la couleur de la passion et l'émission éclatante du son. Le timbre couvert produirait l'effet de l'enrouement.
([...] the timbre of the voice should be modified whenever our passions require it. If the melody and the words expressed a profound sorrow, the timbre which made the instrument shine would falsify the thought [...] If, conversely, the melody expresses shining sentiments, only the bright timbre can supply both the colour of the passion and the bursting quality in the sound. The covered timbre would produce an effect of hoarseness. (38))
In the opera seria of the 19th century, subjects and situations were borrowed mainly from Romantic literature and the historical novel. Great heroines, violent emotions, tragic epilogues were settled ingredients for librettists and composers. The passions expressed were more often of sorrow than of joy, and moments of interior travail were much more frequent than the heedless lightheartedness of so many of the characters who had featured in the opera semiseria and opera buffa of 18th-century Italy.
The geographical heart of 19th century Europe coincided with its political and cultural heart, and the musical taste of grand-opéra favoured weighty scenographic, choral and orchestral apparatus. However convenient it might have been, it was impossible to alter the anatomical structure of the soloist's vocal organs so as to effect a corresponding increase in volume; such a result is obtainable nowadays only with the aid of the resources of artificial amplification, which were unthinkable at that time. The different techniques in the construction of instruments, designed to increase their sonorous power, the expansion of the orchestral personnel, and the building of theatres of vaster dimensions were undoubtedly decisive for the spreading of the vocal modifications ordained by Garcìa. Although perhaps initially motivated only by interpretative considerations, this pragmatic orientation showed itself to be of advantage in making voices more powerful, especially in high notes. In addition, the prospering fortunes of the French language in melodrama, combined with the ever more frequent creation of operas in languages other than Italian, intensified the changes in singers' phonetics; all of which could not but undermine further the intelligibility of the text. It is also worth stressing that the new trends in singing exposed the singers to an increased risk of costs to the vocal apparatus from the incidence of both functional and organic pathologies.
There was thus, from the first half of the 19th century, a change in style and in the use of the voice, with a distinct preference for "suoni oscuri, voce di petto e declamazione" ("dark sounds, chest voice and declamation") (39) rather than the decorative virtuoso manner of 17th-century Italian singing. The chest voice, less capable of the agility in gorgias but more powerful than the head voice, became prevalent among singers. To sing high notes in this register it is necessary to 'turn' ('girare') the sounds, by the application of the pronunciation system set out by Garcìa for 'dark coloration'. The new fashion for the 'voix sombrée' did not gain its footing all at once, nor did it mark an abrupt change in relation to the earlier vocal manner. Deploying the ancient technique of 'impasto' ('mixture') of registers, which helps a singer to produce even very high notes while maintaining a bright timbre, Mattia Battistini (40) achieved a level of sweetness and comprehensibility rarely to be heard from a modern singer of the same vocal register (41). The famous singer Tamagno was chosen by Verdi for the name-part in Otello. Today, as is well known, this is regarded as an heroic role, both in dramatic and in vocal terms. Yet in the recordings of this legendary singer one can hear high notes that ring out with great force as well as others of a suggestive softness, all produced by judiciously blending the chest voice with the head voice (42). Nowadays the tenors considered suitable for dramatic roles have difficulty in singing piano and with grace, particularly in high tessituras; this incapacity tends to be wrongly attributed not to lack of technical expertise but to the innate character of the voice. (>>>Next) (<<<Previous)
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(32) L. ZACCONI, op. cit., Bk. I, f. 8, Ch. XII: "Per il che possiamo senz'altro concludere (...) che essendo le musiche moderne fatte con buonissime regole, e cantate da buonissimi cantori, patroni degli accenti vaghi, e delle gratiose maniere, che le abbiano molta più forza che non haveano l'antiche". ("From which we may certainly conclude (...) that since modern music is governed by the best of rules, and sung by the best of singers, who have command of pleasing sounds and graceful manners, it is much finer than ancient music.").
(33) P. F. TOSI, op. cit., p. 30: "Signori Maestri, l'Italia non sente più le voci ottime de' tempi andati"; p. 129: "E che in oggi si canta male". ("Italy no longer hears the excellent voices of the times that are gone"; "And these days singing is poor".)
(34) CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI, Madrigali Guerrieri et Amorosi (...) Bk. VIII - Part Two: Canti Amorosi, Venice, Alessandro Vincenti, 1638: Madrigals Dolcissimo uscignolo, Chi vol haver felice. Transcription into modern notation ed. by Gian Francesco Malipiero in Tutte le opere di Claudio Monteverdi, tomo VIII/2, Bologna - Vienna, Universal, 1926-1942 (2nd rev., 1954).
(35) M. P. R. GARCÌA, Traité complet de l'Art du Chant, Paris, Heugel & Co., 1840.
(36) M. P. R. GARCÌA, ib., 7th repr., 1878. See in this connection the account given in the paragraph entitled Des timbres (metalli della voce), p. 82.
(37) M. P. R. GARCÌA, ib., p. 50.
(38) M. P. R. GARCÌA, ib., p. 50.
(39) ANDREA DELLA CORTE, Vicende degli stili del Canto... in Canto e Belcanto, Turin, G. B. Paravia & Co., 1933, p.245.
(40) Mattia Battistini (1856-1928), Italian baritone. He sings Perché tremar from Zampa, ou la fiancée marbre by Ferdinand Hérold - 1906 - on Gramophone 052148 (889C) (now also on the CD Lebendige Vergangenheit, Mono 89045 H. R. 1991).
(41) Besides great facility on high notes, singing that follows the principles of 'impasto' of registers also offered the performer a great extension of the vocal range. The 17th century provides a variety of relevant instances. Caccini's arias Poi ch'a mortal rischio and Io che l'età solea viver range respectively from D1 to G3 and from D1 to F3. They are printed in the collection Le Nuove Musiche e Nuova Maniera di scriverle, Florence, Zanobi Pignoni & Co., 1614, which bears on its frontispiece the inscription "Con due arie particolari per tenore, che ricerchi le corde del basso" ("With two special arias for tenor encompassing bass notes") It is evident that the range of the 16th-century tenor does not correspond to that of the modern tenor: in today's performances - whether polyphonic or solo - the tenor part is taken by baritones or tenors whose vocal qualities do not coincide with those favoured at that period.
(42) Francesco Tamagno (1850-1905), Italian tenor. On the EMI Classics CD Grandi tenori di ieri e di oggi (CDOC 16369), he sings Sopra Berta from Meyerbeer's Il Profeta - 1903 - Ed. Ricordi; his voice-production on this recording recognisably 'mixes' chest and head voices, contrasting markedly with the high notes sung almost exclusively from the chest which are normal today.