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Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

I Sing (or Play) the Body Electric

J.Q. Davies. Romantic Anatomies of Performance. University of California Press, 2014.

One of the main developments at the dawn of the Romantic movement in music is the rise of the virtuoso. Virtuosi had existed before the early 19th century, but the were (almost?) all castrati. The transfer of that level of virtuosity to other voices (female sopranos and tenors, in particular) and to other instruments (Paganini with the violin; Liszt with the piano) was new and a defining feature of early 19th century opera and much Romantic instrumental music.

Davies looks at the performers of the early-mid 19th century, when virtuosity for both singers and pianists was all the rage in context of the increased interest in medicine, anatomy and physiology of the same era. It is therefore no surprise that Garcia and many after him take such an interest in the vocal mechanism around this time (an interest the continues into today’s voice science). It gives the reader a fresh look on familiar figures like Chopin, Malibran, Duprez, Nourrit, Liszt, and others. 

The book is made up of an introduction and six essays focusing on performers active in Paris and London around 1830. 

The first chapter is Davies’ often cited (and previously published) article “Veluti in Speculum”, a thorough look at the last great castrato. The essay focuses particularly on Velluti’s appearances at the King’s Theater in London which was hugely controversial at the time bringing in just about every political, social, religious and artistic debate at the time. Velluti was used as a stand-in for venting about the aristocracy, the Catholic church, the self-examination of masculinity or the rising middle-class merchants, and so many other issues which were as widely discussed as his singing (which was largely panned).

The Sonntag-Malibran Stereotype presents the beginnings of the now-established idea of the operatic diva by exploring the partnership and rivalry between Henriette Sonntag and Maria Malibran. 

In Search of Voice: Nourrit’s Voix Mixte, Donzelli’s Bari-Tenor. Davies explores the huge change in how tenors would sing in the upper range coming down, surprisingly, on Nourrit’s side, something few writers have done other than Nourrit’s biographer Quicherat. Most significantly pointing out that it was Nourrit who was the great artist-citizen and Duprez who seemed to only be concerned about making sound. The Nourrit/Duprez rivalry is framed as the beginning of a sense of gendering of voices with chest voice emerging as masculine and head voice as feminine. (This continues to be an issue today with many operatic sopranos actively avoiding chest voice and of course men singing exclusively in chest voice avoiding falsetto except for comic or special effects.)

Three other essays explore the hands of the great pianists Chopin, Thalberg and Liszt and will be of interest to the pianists among us. I will admit to skimming those sections, but there is plenty there that will be of interest to pianists and anyone interested in the development of piano playing during the 19th century.

Davies’ perspective, even on familiar material, is unique and fresh. This is a book I’d put on the must-read list not only for singers and pianists but anyone studying 19th century music. (In fact, I first came across this book when parts of it were an assigned reading for a music history class focusing on Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and French Grand Opera.)  There is much worth discussing here in a future Bel Canto Book Club!

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