Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Improvisation and the opera singer

Melina Esse. Singing Sappho: Improvisation and Authority in Nineteenth-Century Opera. The University of Chicago Press, 2021.

As students most (if not all) of us were taught that there is a strict differentiation between composer and performer. The composer creates the work of art, and then the performers are expected to accurately represent what is in the score adding our own unique interpretation without straying too far from the pitches, rhythms, and other markings on the page. Bonus points for using the latest scholarly edition. Recent scholarship into the training of musicians in the 18th century (see my previous post about Baragwanath‚Äôs The Solfeggio Tradition for one example) call into question the relationship between composer and performer and the extent to which improvisation shaped music in the long 18th century (roughly 1680 to 1830). 

As a framework to explore improvisation in 19th century Italy, Melina Esse employs the poet Sappho, known for her ability to create poetry extemporaneously. Sappho is either directly or indirectly the model for works as wide-ranging as the title character in Mme de Sta√ęl‚Äôs once-popular novel Corinne, or Italy, the character of Corinna in Rossini‚Äôs Il viaggio a Reims, Bellini‚Äôs Norma, and Gounod‚Äôs opera Sapho. To what extent did artists improvise in live performance or where they merely (or perhaps even fraudulently) creating the illusion of improvisation. This makes for interesting reading for anyone interested in the performance practices of the 19th century. 

The first chapter explores the early 19th century phenomenon of women poets who improvised poetry in live performances. Chief among these improvasatrice artists was Rosa Taddei. She chanted or sang extemporaneous poetry for audiences on the streets and in the salons. This because a popular curiosity for foreign tourists who viewed it as a particularly Italian phenomenon. De Sta√ęl‚Äôs Corinne is ‚Äúa hybrid of romance and travel narrative‚ÄĚ telling a story of a love affair between the title character and a melancholy Scotsman. Even as many readers were fascinated by tales of these improvisatory poets, many above the Alps expressed skepticism. (This is similar to the skepticism expressed at the idea that Italian singers of the era were able to improvise ornaments and variations in performance.) The poets were accused of charlatanism: that they must have been quoting from previously composed or learned works. (I can‚Äôt be the only reader who read the description of poetry being improvised and spoken or half-sung over simple musical accompaniment as being very similar to rap.)

The second chapter recounts an operatic character loosely based on Mme de Sta√ęl‚Äôs heroine: Corinna in Il viaggio a Reims (1825). While the opera itself was not successful (for a variety of reasons) the French press gushed over Giuditta Pasta‚Äôs performance. 

‚ÄúListeners encountering Giuditta Pasta as Corinna were, however, struck by the overlap between diva and poetic improviser. The French press gushed over Pasta‚Äôs uncannily accurate re-creation of Sta√ęl‚Äôs iconic figure, both in her declamation and in her ability to convincingly embody pre-existing visual representations of Corinna. The visual aspects of Pasta‚Äôs performance no doubt occasioned so much comment because the final improvisation was purposely staged as a tableau vivant of Gerard‚Äôs famous portrait of Corinne improvising at Cape Miseno.‚ÄĚ (p. 56)

At this point the subject of improvisation in Rossini arises. Stendhal‚Äôs invented anecdote of Rossini hating a singer‚Äôs variations on his melodies has been much quoted in spite of the fact that there is no truth in it. 

A consideration of the unified pedagogy of composers and singers‚ÄĒand how it relied on improvisational performance as a foundation‚ÄĒcomplicates the direction of influence assumed by scholars such as Gossett and Colas. It is not so much that composers wrote melodies that singers then varied, imitating the original, but that both composers and singers were trained to construct melodies by practicing a range of improvisational solutions to certain schemata. Instead of attempting to tease out the issue of whose ornaments are ‚Äúbetter‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒmore sophisticated, more innovative‚ÄĒI would like to suggest that we understand Rossini‚Äôs ornamented style as participating in the same creative, improvisational practices that were used to train singers. One result of this shift in perspective is that the notion of an ‚Äúoriginal‚ÄĚ and a ‚Äúvariant‚ÄĚ becomes virtually meaningless‚Ķ.‚ÄĚ (p. 62)

In the same opera, the role of the Comtesse de Folleville was created by Laure Cinti-Damoreau, also considered a master of Rossinian ornamentation. She wrote two treatises on that subject both of which can be found on

Unfortunately, by the time of their publication, the practice of improvisation and even most ornamentation was falling out of favor, especially in France. They remain, however, useful guides into how singers were trained to sing in the bel canto tradition.

Next Esse takes a look at the creation of the aria ‚ÄúCasta diva‚ÄĚ in which Bellini is called upon to create music that sounds as if it were being improvised by a singer who had fallen into a divine trance. The result is something quite different from most of Bellini‚Äôs melodies. This is followed by a look at the creation of Giovanni Pacini‚Äôs opera Saffo. Of particular interest is the importance of the singer‚Äôs influence on the compositional process. 

And finally, Esse explores two works created for Pauline Viardot: Berlioz’s adaptation of Gluck’s Orphée and Gounod’s Sapho. The process of creating a new version of Gluck’s opera was a clash of ideas about the roles of singer, composer, and adaptor and even more so conflict over the very nature of the character of Sappho. After much conflict in which Viardot often took the upper hand, the performances were a triumph for her. She even published her cadenzas which were later denounced by Berlioz even though he had a hand in their composition. This disagreement derailed a plan to adapt Gluck’s Alceste

Eight years earlier, Mme Viardot had helped Charles Gounod obtain a commission to compose and opera for her on the subject of Sappho. She asserted her ideas about the character and what the music would be like in ways that would later embarrass Gounod. In addition, their relationship was the subject of a great deal of gossip which created problems when Gounod was set to marry. The bride‚Äôs family demanded that he cut off all contact with the singer about whom so much malicious gossip had been spread. One of Viardot‚Äôs ideas that proved to be unpopular was the insertion of Gounod‚Äôs m√©lodie ‚ÄúLamento‚ÄĚ into the final scene (with new words). The inclusion of a well-known salon song into a dramatic moment in an opera was viewed as inappropriate by many critics and audience members. (Viardot would later compose her own setting of the poem.)

Lamento (Ma belle amie est morte) (Charles Gounod)

Sapho: Final scene (Gounod)

Lamento (Ma belle amie est morte) (Pauline Viardot)

This is a fascinating look at performance, improvisation and the relationship between singers and composers. The approach is interdisciplinary which adds context beyond what is found in traditional sources on these composers, singers and the various works cited. Anyone looking to empower singers and their creativity will want to read this book.