Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

The Solfeggio Tradition

Nicholas Baragwanath. The Solfeggio Tradition: A Forgotten Art of Melody in the Long Eighteenth Century. Oxford University Press, 2020. 

Like many singers and teacher, I have long been curious about how singers in the past were trained. How is it possible that all singers were able to sing music that we consider so difficult that those who excel at singing florid music are given a separate category? The answers to their training can be found in the many treatises. We are learning a great deal from reading Garcia’s treatise together and of course from working through the Vaccai exercises. We can learn a great deal about the training and can duplicate it ourselves. But there is another question that is not only avoided but often dismissed. How were all musicians so able to improvise variations and even new pieces? We marvel at stories of Mozart as a boy improvising music in front of an audience. How was that possible?

I stumbled across The Solfeggio Tradition by accident. It contains some answers not only to those questions but quite a few I had never thought to ask. Baragwanath details the system in which many musicians were trained in the long 18th century (roughly 1680 to 1830, or from Scarlatti to Bellini, if you prefer).  He makes a strong case that young singers in 18th century Italy had mostly been trained from a quite young age to sing in church choirs. This involved learning to read chant melodies and other music from the Middle Ages to their own time using a system most of us learned about in a music history class: Solmization. The use of the moveable hexachord is usually only thought of as belonging to the Middle Ages, but it remained the training system for young choristers (many of whom later became the major singers, musicians and composers of their time) into the early decades of the 19th century. 

The training is described here in great detail along with its importance in their training so that they were able to improvise countermelodies to cantus firmus melodies and also to figured bass. This allowed them to improvise with great facility (and also explains the speed at which composers in that era were able to compose). Most composers were trained this way and those who were not were usually taught by someone who had been. 

Baragwanath discovered that finding out about solfeggio in the 18th century was challenging. Why the need to understand how solfege was taught at that time? “To me, they held out the promise of an answer as to how professional musicians in the past managed to compose so fluently, to improvise and embellish instantaneously, and to switch effortlessly between seven clefs.” (p. 3) Baragwanath cites some famous singing treatises as evidence of this usage: Mancini (1774, 55) and Corri (1810, 8). “Progression to vocalization (singing melodies with open vowels) depended on first having mastered the syllables of solfege.” (p. 5)

So what were young musicians taught as solfège? The evidence suggests that rather than the French “fixed do” or the moveable do most of us were taught in school, they were taught the medieval hexachord system.

The process of singing solfeggio was radically different from anything I had come across before. Because the singer had to rely on the vocal part, rather than the bass, modulations between scales must have been cued melodically. But where were the cues? Drawing on contemporary guides to solmization as well as my experience as a performer, I tried to work out the most plausible readings, one that would make pedagogical as well as practical sense. I soon realized that the syllables were not included merely to provide an even circulation of vowels and consonants for singers to practice their diction. They were central to each lesson. They functioned as mnemonic aids. The same patters occurred again and against, helping the student acquire an instinctive feel for the “right” ways to enliven a melody with tasteful chromatic touches, to color it by shifting from major to minor mode and vice versa, and to modulate from one scale to another. By singing these solfeggio with something close to their original syllables, I was learning how to create music like an eighteenth-century apprentice—learning the tradition way, by singing. (pp. 7-8)

“The technique is analogous to that used by modern jazz musicians, taking a chord progression as a conceptual framework, they are able to create music of astonishing complexity and variety by applying a few rules such as associated modes, chord substitutions, and guide tones.” (p. 9)

Eager to discover some 18th century guide to this system, he searched eagerly for a textbook or treatise of some sort explaining the practice. What he found instead were cheaply produced booklets and handwritten notebooks setting out more or less the same rules of liturgical canto fermo for novice choirboys and trainee clergy.

So how exactly were 18th century musicians trained? Those from musical families like the Bachs and Mozarts were mostly taught at home. Those less fortunate had few options, especially those who were disadvantaged or orphaned. Their one option was the Catholic Church. Churches needed singers and were willing to educated, house and feed them in exchange for their labor in providing music for the many daily services. Church music in Italy at this time ranged from Gregorian chant to various historical forms of polyphonic choral works to pieces in the current style. Haydn is an example of a musician trained this way. 

One reason this 18th century solmization practice is not widely known is that when musicologists began studying medieval music in the 19th century they ignored later practice as a corruption of the medieval style. Unfortunately the idea that chant belongs only to the medieval period ignores the currency of plainchant during the era of Haydn and Mozart. Often in church services the lower voices would sing the chant while the upper voices “adorned it with decorative countermelodies.” 18th and 19th century parishioners were accustomed to hear both old and new styles in the same service. Styles varied, of course. Simpler chant was used for ordinary days with more elaborate music performed on special days (of which there are many on the liturgical calendar). Knowing how to transform plainchant into “figured” music for simple festivals was a crucial skill for any choirmaster.

The practice of the moving hexachord seems bewildering to the novice, but in practice singers only ever encountered the two or three scales that occupy their particular voice range. 

Although the modes endures in theory as a means for classifying chants, in reality they were subject to so many accidentals that their defining intervallic profiles became meaningless. They were indistinguishable from major or minor keys. (p. 70)

Some sources claim that apprentices spent more than a year on nothing but spoken solmization. They did nothing but name the notes and beat time. Singers sang on solfege for as long as was necessary before moving on to singing on vowels. Zingarelli continued to teach in this traditional system until the 1830s. He indicated the old syllables and mutations in an autograph collection of solfeggio for tenor voice. 

The closing of the church schools in the early 1800s doomed the tradition. “Without a steady supply of apprentices it could not survive.” The old method was replaced by new tutorials mainly aimed at the new market of musicians who owned a piano and who wanted to learn to make music at home quickly and accurately. 

This topic, improvisation in general and in music of the long 18th century is currently a hot topic in many fields, especially in those studying performance practice for early music. An effort is underway in Europe to use the old method in training. No doubt we’ll see published results over the next few years. This and many related books on the topic of Solmization, Partitura and Improvisation will be of interest to anyone wanting to master the ability to ornament and improvise in performance.