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. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Divas and Scholars Part IV

This is the last of my posts about Philip Gosset’s Divas and Scholars. I would apologize for having written so much about this book, but there’s just so much worthy of discussion (and so much more I left out!). Anyone who loves opera, performs opera, or produces opera (so, anyone who would be on a site like Bel Canto Boot Camp!) must read this book, probably more than once. In this last installment I will try to summarize Gossett’s chapters concerning issues that arise when producing opera.

Opera has often been and sometimes still is performed in the language of the audience rather than the language in which it was originally composed. Translations of the libretto pose their own particular questions. For example, a number of operas by Italian composers were composed in French for a Parisian premiere but became better known in the Italian translation (even outside of Italy). Which version should be performed (assuming neither is the native language of most of the audience)? And then there is the issue of translating the opera into the language of the audience. The idea that audiences would attend performances in a language other than the one they spoke, is mostly a very recent one. The case of Italian opera in London was a brief one and led to a backlash (and the rise of the ballad opera form). One aspect of this practice not often acknowledged is how the widespread adaptions of Italian opera into French or German or English (or other) versions (sometimes with musical as well as text changes) influenced the music composed across Europe. Performances of the operas of Mozart and Rossini in French at the Odéon in Paris altered the course of French opera. 

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Divas and Scholars Part III: Performance Practice for Singers

One of the big questions around ornamentation is “when did it stop?” At what point did composer begin expecting that singers would perform exactly what was in the score and no more or no less? While it is not considered correct practice now to add ornaments or appoggiaturas to the operas of Verdi (after all, he writes in so many himself) that does not explain the curious notation found in the score for Rigoletto. In the scene preceding the trio in the last act, Verdi wrote in the autograph score (which is reprinted in the Ricordi piano-vocal score on page 218) “This recitative must be declaimed with the usual appoggiaturas.” (Quest Recitativo dovrà essere detto senza le solite appoggiature.) This is a curious (and unnecessary) notation if the practice of adding additional appoggiaturas had fallen out of practice by that time. 

As for variations and cadenzas, when performing Rossini the singer should be aware that in many cases we have ornamentation and cadenzas in Rossini’s own hand written out for specific singers. It is not necessary for 21st singers to sing those exactly, but they do give us examples of the appropriate performance practice for singing the music of Rossini and his contemporaries. Those practices can and should be adapted to suit the particular singer’s unique voice and skills. Other useful examples come from the notebooks of singers of Italian and French opera and printed editions claiming to represent the ornamentation performed by a famous singer in that aria. We also have the examples printed in various treatises (like Garcia’s) which provide examples of the kinds of variations, ornamentation and cadenzas considered exemplary in that era. (Note: some of the published versions can be found at Many of those are quite interesting, for example, a published version of Nicola Vaccai’s “Api Erranti” with ornaments by the great castrato Velluti. Since there is text for two additional verses, one could sing a mostly plain first verse, a second verse with the singer’s own ornaments, and then the third verse with Velluti’s rather elaborate variations.)

By no means should a singer assume that one has to sing someone else’s ornaments, variations or cadenzas. As Laure Cinti-Damoreau wrote:

I do not offer them [examples of ornaments and cadenzas] to you to be performed at any cost, despite your physical capabilities and your character. I propose these models of variations, rather, so that later your taste will lead you, within your individual means, to invent others that suit you properly.” (p. 301)

(Note: Her treatise can be found here. It has ample examples of exercises and includes multiple variations on the same melody illustrating the practice of ornamentation.)

Gossett provides the following caveat regarding ornamentation and appoggiaturas in recitative in modern performances.

Nineteenth-century practice is a guide for modern performers, not a recipe, and performers must never lose sight of who they are as musicians or of the audiences for whom they are performing. Appoggiaturas, after all, lend weight to phrase endings, applying stress and adding rhetorical emphasis to the poetic structure. Modern performance style, on the other hand, in the spoken drama as on the operatic stage, tends to flow more quickly, avoiding what today are perceived as excessive rhetorical devices. The emphatic Shakespearean declamation of John Gielgud, for example, reflected a powerfully different style from that of the more conversational Derek Jacobi.” (p. 304)

As for the matter of cadenzas, they were longer than those to which we are now most accustomed. A good many of the ones that were considered “standard” in the 20th century are anachronistic. (The “standard” cadenza in “Una furtive lagrima” is a good example of that. It was borrowed from Verdi and inserted into a Donizetti opera. Gossett details some examples of cadenzas written by the composer or from the same time period which are more appropriate. Of course, this all depends on the individual singer. The process of constructing an original one is not that hard but it would require immersion into the style of the opera.)

Rossini provides us with the most examples of ornamentation. First, the ornaments written out in the score, and also those written for performances of his and other composers’ work, including a couple of examples of Rossini writing out ornamentation for music by Bellini. In Bellini’s autograph scores we can see alternations in which Bellini reworked music for particular performers and also alternations made for subsequent singers in the same roles. There are also changes in orchestra doublings or instrumentation (sometimes indicating that in the theater he found the orchestration too heavy. We have fewer examples of this in Verdi’s scores but there are similar alterations for Jenny Lind who created the role of Amalia in I masdanieri. 

As for alterations to the score like transpositions, punctature, and variations, they can mostly be explained by looking at how opera was performed in the 19th century. Opera in 19th century Italy was cast from an ensemble of singers hired for a season. Because of this sometimes a singer would find a role that they were required to sing sat uncomfortably high or how for them or at least had numbers out of their comfortable range. There were two ways to address this issue: transposition and punctature. Transposition is obvious enough and was quite common, and often happened with arias. But in ensembles where one singer’s music is too high or low but the music for the other singers is singable, they would alter the vocal line by changing the notes to other pitches that fit the underlying harmony. That is punctatura. We know that composers were aware of this and in many cases approved. We know, for example that when Verdi’s Ernani was set to premiere in Vienna in 1844 that Verdi made it clear that he would allow no cuts to the score, but in a separate letter to Donizetti, who was supervising musical matters at the theater at the time, that he trusted the older composer to make any necessary punctature. Gossett makes a strong case (with examples) that it is preferable to make a few minor alterations to the score rather than have a singer struggle with a note beyond their range (either too high or too low), an ornament they can’t manage or sputter to the end of a long phrase they cannot sing in one breath. There are limits. (And here as in many cases Gossett is not shy about calling out famous names!) He especially calls out Estelle Liebling’s edition of Una voce poco fa which one hopes has finally fallen out of fashion. 

Transpositions are a controversial matter, even though a good number of them are standard practice. (As in the previous mentioned version of “Una voce poco fa” in which the aria is transposed up to make it more suitable for a soprano voice.) This issue includes the problem of the constant rising of orchestral pitch. In Verdi’s day a=432 (even though in 19th century Rome it was a=450). That is high enough to make the highest pitches in a singer’s range unstable if a particular theater is using higher than usual pitch. 

One argument in favor of allowing transpositions is that in Verdi’s sketches we sometimes see that he had begun work on an aria in one key and later changed it to suit the singer in the first performance. That means that the keys were chosen for the singers, not singers chosen to be able to sing the notes of the arias in the “original” key. One of the arguments against transpositions is the belief on the part of some musicologists that specific keys were chosen for deeper meanings. (For some composers that is true. Richard Strauss, for example. But other than the association of C major with Sir John Falstaff in Verdi’s final opera, I know of know evidence of such associations for Italian composers.) Gossett points out that there are no key associations for which someone could not find some relationship, whether it was intended by the composer or not. Again, Gossett is able to provide multiple examples of arias and even ensembles that were originally composed in one key and then modulated by the composer before it reached its first performance. Does that mean that all transpositions are okay? As an example of an ill-advised transposition, Gossett again brings up the issue of “Di quella pira” in which it is not uncommon for the cabaletta to be transposed down a half or even a whole step just so the tenor can interpolate a high C (now B or B-flat) that the composer never wrote. We also see examples of Bellini transposing his own music not only for the first performances but for later performances with different casts. If Bellini did not mind transposing his own music, should we not be allowed to change the key to make a role more singable? “Casta diva” is given as an example as it was originally composed in a different key than we now usually here it in performance. Donizetti did the same for “Regnava nel silenzio” from Lucia di Lammermoor for the soprano Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani. (She abandoned the aria altogether the next time she sang the role substituting “Perché non ho del vento” which Donizetti had written for her in Rosmonda d’Inghilterra.) Lucia’s mad scene was also transposed. Donizetti composed it in F major but it was transposed to E-flat major where it remains in most printed editions. 

A number of transpositions in bel canto opera occur in those roles written for Rubini (or those Rubini later sang but had been written for other tenors). Even in his own time Rubini’s voice was exceptionally high which means that a great number of transpositions exist in operas like Il pirata when tenors found the music composed for Rubini much too high for their voices. (And this was before the switch to tenors singing everything in chest voice!) Some of these changes were made by Bellini himself, some by others, and some by publishers (who must have realized that few tenors could manage the F above high C!). 

What then does that mean for modern theaters wishing to put on operas like I puritani, Il pirata or La straniera? Do we transpose the music to suit the tenor? What does that do to the tessitura of other parts in the ensembles? What changes might that require in the orchestration? There are no easy solutions. Part of what makes this book so interesting is that Gossett’s view is that we need to be informed about all aspects of how these operas were composed and performed not only at the premiere but in the many productions that followed during the composer’s own lifetime. Only then can we make practical choices that will ensure successful revivals of this music. Strict adherence to a critical edition is no more a solution than blindly disregarding the original score and making hack-work of the music. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

The Garcia Family, Part 4: Manuel Garcia II

Previously I have surveyed the books available about the other members of the Garcia family: the father Manuel (I), and his daughters Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot. Unlike his sisters, Manuel Garcia II gained fame not for singing but as a voice teacher and especially for being the first to detail the mechanism of the singing voice. Unfortunately, the biographical sources for Garcia are sparse. The New Grove article is surprisingly short, and the two book-length biographies, one in English and one in Spanish, are well over one hundred years old. 

Manuel Garcia II was born in Madrid in 1805. He studied singing with his father and harmony with Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli in Naples in 1814 and later with François Joseph Fétis in Paris. He traveled with his family to North America where they presented Italian opera in New York in 1825. He abandoned pursuing an operatic career after an unsuccessful debut in Paris as Figaro (7 October 1828). He did however continue singing in amateur and student performances after that. 

After a few months of military service in 1830, he worked in military hospitals in France where he began studying the physiological aspects of the voice. He published Mémoire sur la voix humaine in 1841 which was the foundations of his subsequent work in the field of vocal pedagogy. In 1855 he invested the laryngoscope. He published his Traité complet de l’art du chant (1840-47) which BCBC is currently reading. He was a professor at the Paris Conservatoire from 1847-1850 and then at the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1848 to 1895. His students included Jenny Lind, Hermann Nissen, Erminia Frezzolini, Julius Stockhausen, Mathilde Marchesi, Charles Bataille and Charles Santley. He died in 1906. 

Of the two biographies, only the English one can be found online:

M. Sterling Mackinlay. Garcia the Centenarian and his Times (Edinburgh, 1908)

The Spanish language biography is available in several libraries:

A.G. Tapia. Manuel Garcia, su influencia en la laringologia y en el arte del canto (Madrid, 1905)

I hope everyone will join us as we discuss Garcia’s main treatise. We are focusing on Part 2 which is an excellent guide to bel canto performance practice. If you sing any repertoire from the 18th or 19th centuries, you will find much practical information in this book. Please join us on Zoom on Sunday!

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Divas and Scholars, Part 2

By the mid-20th century, the Italian operas that had entered the standard repertoire had settled into standardized performing traditions. Many of the misprints in the scores were easily corrected by a teacher, coach, or conductor who was familiar with the errors. Books were published showing the cuts, alterations, and additions to the scores, and sometimes publishes included these in their editions. The fact that some of these were added to the scores decades after the death of the composer mattered little. Gossett documents a number of cases where attempts to return the score to something closer to the form in which it was first performed were often met with anger and derision. The “tradition” (such as it was) had now become canon. The prevailing attitude was “If it was good enough for Toscanini, it’s good enough for me.” In some cases, these additions alter the way a role can be cast. Two examples are found in Verdi’s most often performed operas. The interpolated high e-flat in “Sempre libera” in La traviata and the tenor high C in “Di quella pira” in Il trovatore. Verdi wrote neither note. Gossett comments”¦

Give me a tenor who can sing Manrico as Verdi conceived the part and chooses to add a singing high c, and I will join the loggione in applauding him. Failing that, let Manrico, in Rossini’s famous words to the same Tamberlick, leave the high c on the hat rack, to be picked up on his way out of the theater.”

Enter the critical edition. The first task of the editor is to locate reliable sources, in particular the autograph scores, wherever they may be: in libraries, public or private, collections of noble families, or even in bank vaults in Switzerland. Searches of libraries in the 1960s revealed scores thought to be long lost. In addition, part books belonging to famous singers (with alterations to the part written in by the composer), orchestral parts and other rich sources were hiding waiting for scholars to find them. Some of these finds included the source material for Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims (much of it reused in Le comte Ory), the tragic ending of Tancredi, and original materials necessary to reconstruct Verdi’s Stiffelio (which the composer had reworked into Aroldo). Verdi was a particular problem as Verdi’s heirs still own many of the original sources of his work and are reluctant to share them with scholars. 

In addition to restoring the opera to its original state, a critical edition more accurately represents the articulations, dynamics, and slurs of the original score. This allows Rossini to sound like Rossini, Bellini like Bellini, etc. Too often the cuts and alterations served to make Rossini sound more like Donizetti or Bellini, and Bellini or Donizetti to sound more like early Verdi, none of which is in any way an improvement. Fortunately, there is a growing acceptance of critical editions. Obviously, an edition is not a production and conductors, directors and singers must make choices among the available options and sometimes make cuts to conform to the realities of producing opera in the 21st century, not least of which the overtime that kicks in begins when a performance lasts more than three hours. 

Many factors must be considered when deciding what of the many options to perform. One factor is the very different cultures in which these works were created. (19th century audiences clearly had more stamina than 21st century ones.)  Next, we must choose between the various versions of the opera, including those created by the composer, those created with limited input from the composer and those created without any input at all. (Donizetti supervised most productions of his operas while he was alive so there are fewer contemporary nonauthorial versions. Those exist much later and only in his most popular works.) This creates its own problems as sometimes singers, conductors and audiences are well attached to “traditions” that have nothing to do with anything the composer wrote. 

Gossett points out that we are under no obligation to recreate the opening night of any particular opera. Composers often made drastic changes to their own works to make them more appealing to audiences. This is especially true of works created for Italian theaters and later revised for Paris (in French translation). So which alterations to the score are acceptable and which are not? That is not a question easily answered.

Another aspect of 19th century theater must be considered at this point. For the most part, works were performed by a roster of singers engaged for the entire season. (Season for this purpose does not necessarily mean the entire year but might only mean a few months of continuous performances, for example the carnaval season between the day after Christmas and the start of Lent. One ensemble of singers sang all the important roles. This practice often required alterations if a role had been written for a singer whose voice sat a bit higher or lower or who had exceptional skills that the current occupant of the role lacked. Such alterations are less often required in modern theaters where each opera is cast separately. If the theater is producing a role requiring special skills, the singers with those skills are hired. Transpositions and punctature were quite common in the 18th and 19th centuries (and a few transpositions are still commonplace).

Another type of alteration made to accommodate the singers or the local taste was to cut portions of the score from performance. Cuts are made for a variety of reasons. The first of these is length. Modern audiences are not used to being in productions that last as long as what was standard in the 19th century, and as previously mentioned, performances over three hours incur overtime for the orchestra, crew, and sometimes also the chorus. One place where cuts are often made is in the recitative. This can often be done judiciously, and some cuts are so standard that the audience may not be aware that anything is missing. It also brings the bel canto operas more in line with Verdi’s operas where there is far less recitative. 

Other cuts happen internally in numbers to make them shorter. Some of this is done for length and other times because of the difficulty in executing some passages. It is also quite common for repeated music to be excised from a production. In some cases, especially in Verdi, the entire cabeletta section of a two-part aria (like the cabaletta following Deh miei bollenti spiriti in Verdi’s La Traviata, is omitted. (In that case cut because many tenors struggled with it.) 

Sometimes entire numbers are cut. This is in some ways part of the shift in dramaturgy from the 18th century into the 19th. In 18th century operas every character, including the servants, must have at least one aria to sing. By the mid-19th century such parts are cut to a bare minimum. It is therefore understandable why 19th century producers would find such moments in the opera unnecessary. This made earlier works sound a bit more contemporary to the audiences of the time. 

I have greatly condensed the material covered in Divas and Scholars, but even scratching the surface means that there will be two more blog posts to cover the main points. This book really is a must read for anyone involved in the production of opera in any capacity. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Keeping Score: Divas and Scholars, Part 1

Philip Gossett. Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera. University of Chicago Press, 2006

Whenever I have been cast in an opera, there are many questions about the production to discuss. The fee, the dates, schedule conflicts, etc. But some of the most important questions involve what exactly I will be singing. What edition of the score are we using? Are there cuts and if so, what are they? (I can only remember being in one opera with no cuts at all and that was The Rape of Lucretia). Will we be performing the “traditional” cadenzas and ornaments, or will we be creating new ones or will be doing none at all? These are not easy questions under the best of circumstances but when performing Italian opera there are many more problems that must do both with the circumstances under which the operas were written and the 100-200 years of “tradition” that are attached to most of the scores. 

If you have ever wondered why the published scores for so many operas are in the shape they are in (obviously wrong notes, discrepancies between editions and between those editions and the orchestral score, etc.), Philip Gossett offers the answers to these and many more questions about opera scores and opera in performance. Divas and Scholars explains what we find in the various editions and what we hear when we go to the opera. Philip Gossett spent his life not only studying Italian opera but advising on productions of those operas. His experience then is practical as well as academic. Gossett was strongly discouraged by his professors from choosing Italian opera as his research area. At first, he had no intention of attempting to create scholarly editions of Italian operas, but he eventually did find himself working on critical editions of the work of the bel canto composers. 

There are a great many factors to consider when studying opera. Gossett starts with the libretto. He makes a strong case for understanding the original text of the librettist before studying the many repetitions and changes made by the composer. (A practice also advocated at BCBC. Most of the material in the chapter on libretti will be familiar to Boot Campers, but it is worth reading in full.) Next comes the music. (Sometimes composers started composing from a complete libretto. At other times they were composing as the various scenes were sent to them piecemeal. In a few situations, the composer asked for arias or ensembles in a specific poetic meter as they had already composed a melody for that scene. As deadlines for composing, rehearsing, and performing an opera were often quite short (three weeks of rehearsals seems to be the norm and that includes composing arias custom-fitted to the singers and orchestrating the entire work. Ensembles and choral numbers were composed first. All of this was done in a rush which sometimes necessitated composers like Rossini to leave the composition or at least the completion of the work from a skeleton of the score and usually the secco recitatives to an assistant. Fortunately, composers in the first half of the 19th century used high quality paper that has held up well. The same cannot be said for the paper available in the second half of the century. 

Rehearsals were chaotic and everything happened at breakneck speed. Of particular concern to us is that copyists were paid by the page not by the hour, incentivizing them to work as quickly as possible. It is therefore not surprising that mistakes crept into the scores, part books (a score with all the music for a particular role, usually with figured bass rather than a piano reduction), and orchestra parts. It is a great mystery is how any opening night ever came off well and is a testament to the abilities of everyone involved that things sometimes ran smoothly enough for the premiere of a new work to be a success. “Indeed, nineteenth-century performance materials actually used in the theater are so filled with mistakes that one wonders how the performers ever got through an evening.” (p. 73)

Due to the plethora of versions created for different productions in the years following the premiere, we are left with many alternate arias and scenes or simply variations on the same pieces. Even in the premiere production, composers made numerous changes during rehearsals for the premiere and then again for each subsequent performance with new casts and in new theaters. Some changes were to accommodate the singers and others to cater to local taste. (For example, changing a tragic ending to a happy one or vice versa.) In some cases, orchestrations were altered, usually adding instruments to earlier works composed for smaller orchestras.

Many changes were made by the composer hoping to make a more successful performance of his opera. Other changes, however, were imposed by the state. Censorship was common in the 19th century. Subject matter deemed appropriate in Naples might be taboo in Rome or Paris necessitating, cuts, or alterations of the text. In the case of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera the setting had to be moved from Sweden to Boston! Other changes were made by the singers themselves (substituting arias or even whole scenes as in the case of Maria Malibran using Vaccai’s ending rather than Bellini’s for I Capuletti ed I Montecchi.) Still others were made by producers in other theaters (such as the so-called Malibran version of Bellini’s La Sonnambula that was created by Sir Henry Bishop for performances in England and in an English translation. Bellini did not object to the changes, but he had no part in creating them.)

Given the number of errors, alterations, additions, edits, and other variations made to these scores, it is surprising that over the decades that followed something of a “performing tradition” emerged of the most performed Italian operas. In addition, some ornaments, variations and even cuts because “standard.” None of this was based on any scholarly authority and only rarely were the composers’ manuscripts consulted. This is the musical culture into which Philip Gossett entered and attempted to prepare authoritative scores for the operas of Rossini and Verdi. 

There are a great many examples offered. Too many to discuss in this synopsis. And this is only the first of three posts I plan to make on this book. This really is a must read for anyone who sings, conducts, directs, produces, or just enjoys 19th century Italian opera. (In other words, anyone who would be reading this blog!)

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Beyond the 24

Every summer I try to take some time to look for new or less overused songs and arias to assign my students. This summer that included discovering recently purchased anthologies of music by African American women (Margaret Bonds, Florence Price, Jacqueline Hairston) and soon will include the new (ordered and on its way) anthology of music by composers of the African Diaspora in an effort to replace the tired, and in many cases cringe-worthy “standard” English language art songs assigned to undergraduates. (For an overview of anthologies of art songs for the voice studio I recommend Madeleine Grey’s blog ( 

While thinking about that, I’m reminded that I always plan on assigning more than the same seven or eight songs from the 24 Italian Songs and Arias (Now 28). In conversations about the full Parisotti three-volume anthology (from which most of the famous Schirmer volume is drawn) I realized that many people are not aware that there’s a third volume, and I had assumed that most of the ones not in the 24/28 volumes are not often assigned. But as usual, a little research revealed a very different story than what I had assumed. 

Alessandro Parisotti (1853-1913) is no longer remembered except for his Arie Antiche in which he published 99 songs in three volumes. All of these songs were rarities at the time he published his arrangements of them, although now many are standards and in a few cases the operas, especially those by Handel, are regularly performed. I found a good many professional recordings on YouTube of songs not in the famous 24. (There are likely many more if I did a deeper search.) Dame Janet Baker wins the prize for having ventured well beyond the most famous pieces in these volumes, although just about every singer of note at one point sang a few of these either on recordings or in recitals preserved on video or audio recordings.

I easily found YouTube videos of every number in Volume I (although the versions of Plaisir d’amour were in French rather than Italian and rightly so). Many were by students, (NATS being online for the past few semesters means there are tons of options for those. I have only shared clips sung by famous singers. There are some real gems here and many that I like better than some of the ones too often assigned.

Bononcini: Deh più a me non v’ascondete

Alessandro Scarlatti: Son tutta duolo

Alessandro Scarlatti: Spesso vibra per suo gioco

Alessandro Scarlatti: Se tu della mia morte

Vivaldi: Un certo non so che

Caldara: Selve amiche

Handel: Alcina; HWV 34: Ah! mio cor! schernito sei

Pergolesi: Ogni pena più spetata

Pergolesi: Stizzoso

Piccinni: Notte, dea del mister

Paisiello: Chi vuol la zingarella

Paisiello: Il mio ben quando verrà

The same goes for Volume II. It was easy to find videos of all the songs although many were only student recordings (many of those very good). Even so, I’m sharing performances by famous singers for your enjoyment and edification.

Falconieri: Pupillette

Tenaglia: Quando sarà quel di

Stradella: Ragion sempre addita

Fasolo: Cangia tue voglie

Scarlatti: Su, venite a consilio

Bassani: Dormi, bella

Bassani: Posate, dormite

Gasparini: Lasciar d’amarti

Sarro: Sen corre l’agnelletta

Marcello: Non m’è grave

Paradies: M’ha preso alla sua ragna

Piccinni: Alessandro nelle Indie: Se il ciel mi divide

The songs in Volume III are less well represented on YouTube, but better than I would have thought. Only one aria from this volume, “O leggiadri occhi belli” is in the 28 Songs and Arias collection. Piangerò is widely available and widely performed. There’s quite a bit of Handel in this volume as well as songs by Caccini, Traetta and Cimarosa. Many of these are more difficult than in the first two volumes but Boot Campers will know how to manage the ornaments found in these arias from their Vaccai work. I present these as a challenge (and recommend singers look through the entire collection. There is some excellent recital rep here. More than enough for a group recital like the one we did over the summer with the songs of Bellini.

Caccini: Tu che hai le penne, Amore

Fasolo: Lungi, Amor da me

Tenaglia: Begli occhi, mercé

Rosa: Vado ben spesso congiando loco

Antonio Sartorio: Oh che umore stravagante

Scarlatti: Toglietemi la vita ancor

Scarlatti: Se delitto è l’adorarvi

Handel: Chi sprezzando il sommo bene

Vinci: Teco, sì, vengo anch’io

Traetta: Ma che vi costa, signor tutore

Dalayrac: Quand le bien aimé reviendra

Cherubini: Ahi! che forse ai miei di

I trust that at least a few of these will pique interest from BCBCers. Personally I am obsessed with Rosa’s “Vado ben spesso.” I’ll be posting a video singing it soon. I really would like to hear more Traetta and Jomelli programmed. They were the leading composers of their day and don’t deserve the neglect they have suffered for 200 years. (The same can be said of most of these composers.) In addition to these I recommend some of the other collections as well. It’s easy to criticize early 20thcentury collections as anachronistic, but I find them well written for the piano and also good for teaching purposes. A more scholarly edition might be preferable for a student with great confidence who is secure enough to sing with little support from the accompaniment, but for most teachers of beginning or even intermediate voice students, that is not the case, especially those of us who teach high school students or music education majors not so experiences as solo singers. Another collection, also in three volumes, is Knud Jeppesen’s La Flora. However, since those editions are quite expensive, the public domain Parisotti remain more practical for budget-minded teachers and students.

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Famous singers discuss the use of chest voice

Jerome Hines. Great Singers on Great Singing. New York: Limelight Editions, 1982.

I don’t believe any topic comes up more often at Bel Canto Boot Camp than chest voice. At some point around World War II, chest voice went into decline in soprano and even many mezzo-soprano voices. Singers of all types used chest voice as it is discussed in all the 18th and 19th century treatises. Then suddenly they start avoiding chest voice in the lower range. I can speculate why, but I’d rather know that guess. In my research I am looking for statements from signers, teachers and perhaps critics explaining this change and why it was thought necessary. I am calling this The Mystery of the Disappearing Chest Voice. For my first stop, I thought of Jerome Hines’s Great Singers on Great Singing. The book consists of a series of interviews conducted by Hines with singers describing how they sang. I share these quotes without comment, in the hope that the lead to a discussion and to further research in the view in the mid 20th century on the role of chest voice in treble voices.  All ellipses and brackets are from the original.

Licia Albanese

“Did you use your chest voice?”

“Not too much. It’s dangerous and vulgar. If you do use it, you must use it with much expression. Sometimes you use it as a defense when you’re in bad voice, but you can cover it up with beautiful expression.”

“Then you never had to face the problem of the passaggio [passage] from the chest voice to the head voice?”

“No,” was her answer. (p. 23)

Martina Arroyo

“What does chest voice mean to you?” I asked.

“I have no chest voice!”

“Really?” I said, surprised.

“It’s true. I can’t even fake it. I use a bit of opening when I sing down, but I have never had a strong lower voice, by nature. I have pushed, trying to find it.”

“You said pushed. What does pushing mean to you?”

“Just more pressure than necessary. Using muscles you don’t need. But if you support low you don’t force of push.” (p. 32)

Fiorenza Cossotto

“That is why I have always paid very strict attention to not exaggerating on the low notes, but to keeping the voice even, not shoving down the chest tones like a man. Once in a while when a certain word requires a more dramatic intensity, or power, I darken the sound, but only for a moment.”

“Naturally on the low notes I use a little bit of chest, but I see to equalize it with the middle voice.” (pp. 71-72)

“Did you ever have a problem with the passage from chest voice to the middle voice?”

“No,” she said. “I used chest voice, but I use it lightly.”(p. 73)

“There is a chest sound that some singers use which is not focused; it is completely abandoned, but that is not the true beautiful sound. It is vulgar. I absolutely refuse to use such a sound. I keep the chest voice contained, always within certain limits, controlled by the breath, also in terms of volume. I never give all that I can, but I always try to focus the sound and I use it so all the way down.” (p. 74)

Régine Crespin

“You know that in France, years ago, everybody was against singing in the chest. We were not permitted to do it. And that’s why I had such a difficult time finding the way to balance and not have a break. For my type of voice I needed sometimes to have some chest, from A…where it was going almost naturally.”

“I understand,“  I said. “Since chest voice was taboo, nobody taught how to smooth out that troublesome passage; you were only supposed to use head voice, thus avoiding the problem.”

“But,” she went on, “if I wanted to sing on chest on D flat, D, E flat, E, F [above middle C], I had to work hard. But now I know how to balance that, because I put my larynx down and just let it go free. It will go, because the chest is a natural sound. When we talk, we talk on it. Chest voice is the speaking voice.” 

I said, “I have heard many mezzos really sound as if they were yodeling as they went from chest to head and back.”

“That is terrible.”

“How can they overcome this problem?”

“With strong attention in preparing to go into the head tone, leaving the larynx open, but being careful to keep the soft palate high.” (pp. 81-82)

“Do you feel that the chest voice is more relaxed, less placed in the mask?” I asked.

“Yes. But it has to be connected always with the mask. Chest voice is more relaxed. Sometimes I start in the higher register and the breathing is not so easy, and I immediately go back to the chest ton. Immediately the breathing is easier, and I have more breath. And it relaxes me for going up.”

“You can’t really sing chest without relaxing, can you?

“Absolutely not! Unless you push.” (p. 83)

Gilda Cruz-Romo

“One should begin with the chest voice as a base and then build the rest on it,” she began.

“What do you mean by chest voice?” I asked. 

“Oh, the chest voice is a meaty sound, it has a more open feeling. The talking voice is chest voice. When you teach a beginner you say, ‘Talk to me.’ Then: ‘Now sing that way.’ But with the chest we have too wide vowels. Then you must round the sound out, mellow it. It must be covered and made more beautiful. But you must not force on the chest. If you do, you will not be able to carry that force to the high notes. The voice becomes too heavy.”

I stopped her again. “I have heard some singers say that chest is too dangerous to use.”

“That is because they have never learned to mix the chest with the head,” she said emphatically. “Maybe it’s not for everybody but…”

“I know,” I laughed, “it’s your way of thinking.”

“Well, I’m a spinto, and when I sing with a big orchestra it is necessary to use chest voice mixed in to cut through the sound of all those instruments. Of course you mustn’t use chest beyond F sharp above middle C. Chest must be used gently, I can’t say it enough—carefully.” (pp. 91-92)

Cristina Deutekom

“Cristina, as a dramatic coloratura, do you use chest voice?”

“Yes, but never just chest voice alone, and I never use pure head voice alone. It is always a balanced mixture of the two. There are three registers in a woman’s voice: the first goes up to B or C above middle C, the second to E or F above this, and the third as far above this as the voice will go.” (p. 96)

Marilyn Horne

“I have the ability to color my voice in so many ways in the famous break area that I don’t even consider it a problem area. I can sing it all head resonance, I can sing it all chest resonance, I can sing it fifty-fifty, I can sing it sixty-forty. But I call that coloration.” (pp. 139-140)

“Many sopranos say they never touch the chest voice if they can help it,” I said.

“Which is crazy! They’re afraid of it because teachers don’t know how to teach it. The chest voice should be taught and sopranos should have it.” (p. 141)

Zinka Milanov

“All right. Now let’s talk about chest voice and head voice,” I said.

“I am personally against chest,” she said.

“Did you ever use it at all?”

“Yes, I did, but only when I had to. Never a chest note on F [she indicated the first F above middle C on the piano]. When you do this [sing chest] too much on E and F, then the next two or three notes are hollow [she demonstrated with a breathy, empty sound].I am against chest…especially for a soprano, you know. But for a mezzo-soprano too, it’s very bad, because of this hollow part…they start to push there.”

“How can a woman singer overcome this problem of the hollow sound just above the E and F?” I asked.

“With lots of breath, and connection…legato. I never used the chest. That’s why I lasted so long, and was so fresh. If I used chest, it was covered chest.”

“What do you mean by covered chest?”

“Covered means you do not open, like also the top [high voice], the slender sound on top.”

“Then you used a slender sound on the chest?”

“Absolutely!” She sang a blatant, spread chest tone, and then corrected it by singing a low, pure, floating awe. (p. 170)

Anna Moffo

“Do you use chest voice?”

“I do, but I’m more inclined to use the mixed,” she said. “The mixed voice has head voice in it. Chest voice has no head voice, no head resonance at all. I don’t think it’s very pretty. Chest voice I feel vibrate right here on my breastbone…as opposed to my nasal or head voice, which I feel right in the middle of my forehead, between my eyebrows…very high…a column of air going straight up through the top of your head, I guess. Basically, chest voice is not a good idea.

“They say people who use chest voice lose their top. Maybe you don’t lose your top, but you get very wobbly…a hole in the middle, and you get two big breaks in the voice.”

“Are there exceptions to this idea?”

“Jerry, there are people with extraordinary instruments…freak instruments…”

“I don’t regard these as freak instruments,” I said, “as much as freak techniques. We tend to limit ourselves by saying, ‘That’s a freak voice…I cannot expect to do that.’”

“No,” she disagreed. “We should know what we can do.” (p. 187)

Patrice Munsel

“Now, Pat,” I began, “you have successfully made the transition from Broadway to opera…” She broke in to correct me: “I sang both pop and classical from the beginning. When I first sang at the Met I got the ‘Prudential Family Hour’ with Earl Wrightson. I had to switch styles constantly at that time from classical to pop. When I had my own television show I would do ‘Un bel di’ and a jazz blues routine consecutively with only one solitary minute to change clothes, attitude, and vocal technique. Such a routine is really a schizophrenic exercise. You simply cannot mix classical and pop styles. I found the biggest problem was switching gears vocally as well as mentally.”

“Is there an enormous difference in vocal techniques between the different styles?” I ventured.

“Not really. The production is about the same—except belting is much more relaxed.”

“Now wait,” I said, proud that I, as an opera singer, had even heard of belt. “For the unenlightened, just what is belt?” As Pat prepared to show me, I interrupted. “Don’t demonstrate by singing. Put it in words. After all, I am producing a book, not a recording.” 

“But it’s hard to put into words. I can’t verbalize it.” 

“I bet you can,” I persisted.

“Belt is a flatter sound with no vibrato. It is high chest voice. I can belt to the C and D above middle C, but no higher without damage to my cords…and a possible heart attack. It has to be very forward—almost nasal (not French nasal). There is more space in the back of the throat. Oh, it’s hard to verbalize.” (pp. 190-191)

Magda Olivero

“Do you use chest voice?” I asked

“My maestro said, ‘On some occasions you might have to, but support it as much as possible. Use it once in a while, but don’t abuse it. At the end of your career you may permit more of such luxuries.’

“Sometimes now I permit myself this luxury, but in the moment I do it I have a sense of remorse, because my teacher’s words remain with me…’Don’t do it’…and I feel I am betraying something.” (p. 208)

Roberta Peters

“Well, then, do you use chest voice?” I asked.

“No, I don’t use chest voice. He always wanted it extremely even. He never believed in registers. You have to keep it as even as you can up and down. You’re not going to have the exact sam position of the throat on the top as you have on the bottom. You can’t have that. When I was descending a scale, he would tell me to think high…think up, and as I was going down, because if you think down, then you dig, and you’re pushing, you want to make it bigger and bigger.” (pp. 235-236)

Beverly Sills

“Then you didn’t use chest voice?”

“I didn’t begin to use it, “she continued, “until I sang Constanza in The Abductionand had to go to G below middle C. It didn’t bother me, because it was only touched, and wasn’t used for dramatic purposes. It was simply part of the scale that Mozart had written. When I went into the bel canto repertoire, I began to use my chest voice higher than I had ever used it before, up to an F or F sharp, which is very dangerous for a voice like mine, and probably shortened its life, but it was a deliberate choice: I wanted to make a dramatic effect, and I made it, period! I opeted for the shorter career, though when people say fifty-one is young to retire, it might be, but I’ve been singing since I was seven, so for me, it’s forever!” (p. 305)

Joan Sutherland

“Do you use chest voice?” I asked.

“I feel the chest voice should be used sparingly,” she said. “In a way, my chest voice has been underdeveloped.”

“Because it is not necessary in your kind of repertoire?” I asked.

“Oh no! A dramatic soprano needs it in Trovatore, Norma, and also Fledermaus. It is also necessary in some of the Handel operas which have such a great range. But I really have left it rather underdeveloped.” (p. 328)

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Who was Nicola Vaccai?

Now that we are again working our way through Vaccai’s Metodo Pratico di Canto, this is a good time to ask the question, “Who was Nicola Vaccai?” If you had never heard his name before or only heard it in connection with his vocal method book, you are in good company. His many operas, liturgical works, and salon pieces are not well known. Other than Giulietta e Romeo very little of his music was published during his lifetime or heard outside Italy.

Nicola Vaccai bas born in Tolentino in 1790 into a family of doctors, but his first interest was in poetry. He composed poetry and even plays in verse before he began studying law, during which time he found his true calling in music. He first studied with Giuseppe Janacconi (who was later maestro di cappella at St Peter’s) and then studied composition with Paisiello in Naples. There he wrote liturgical pieces and insertion arias for opera revivals in the Neapolitan theaters. He wrote many operas, most of which were unsuccessful. 

In Venice, he found himself in demand as a teacher to the students of the wealthy patrons. A few years later he finally found some success as a composer with Pietro il grande (Parma,1824), Zadig ed Astartea (Naples, 1824) and Giulietta e Romeo (Milan, 1825). Bellini’s opera on the same subject supplanted Vaccai’s but many productions substituted Vaccai’s final scene for Bellini’s. (That practice was so common that many scores of Bellini’s opera included Vaccai’s final scene in the appendix!) 

As his prospects as a composer diminished, Vaccai pursued his career as a voice teacher in earnest, first in Paris and then in London where he published his famous method book in 1832. He then returned to Italy where he was for a time head of the conservatory in Venice and then retired to manage his father’s estate. 

There is not much written about Vaccai in English, which is a shame. There is one biography in Italian written by his son, Giulio. La vita di Nicola Vaccai scritta dal figlio Giulio con prefazione del professore A. Biaggi (Bologna, 1882). It is fortunately available online: 

As for his music, other than the final scene from Giulietta e Romeo (which I discussed as we looked at Hillary Porriss’s Changing the Score), there are only a few other items available at New Grove lists some other works including salon pieces which as far as I can tell were never published. (I will keep looking.) So, if anyone has more information, I would love to include it. In the meantime, here are a few pieces that I was able to find easily along with clips from performances. 

“Sorte avversa!” Duet for soprano and contralto from Giovanna d’Arco. 

(Note: the two videos are student performances, curiously both from 2014.)’Arco_(Vaccai%2C_Nicola)

Aria and duet (final scene) from Giulietta e Romeo

There are complete recordings of the opera available (including on youtube), and I already posted clips of the final scene when discussing Changing the Score, but in the interest of encouraging mezzo BootCampers to pick up this aria, here is a recording of Romeo’s Cavatina. It is beautiful music and sung with good bel canto style (and the application of the ornamentation skills we’re learning) this would be a great recital piece!

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Bel Canto Bookshelf Bibliography

Austin, Stephen F. Provenance: Historic Voice Pedagogy Viewed through a Contemporary Lens. Inside View Press, 2017

Berger, William. Wagner without Fear: Learning to Love – and Even Enjoy – Opera’s Most Demanding Genius. Vintage Books, 1998.

Bushnell, Howard. Maria Malibran: A Biography of the Singer. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979

Caccini, Giulio. Le nuove musiche. Edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock. A-R Editions, 1970. 

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

De Angelis, Marcello. Le Carte dell’impresario: Melodramma e Costume Teatrale nell’ottocento. Firenze: G.-C. Sansoni, 1982.

Eisenbeiss, Philip. Bel Canto Bully: The Life and Times of the Legendary Opera Impresario Domenico Barbaja. Haus Publishing, 2013.

Feldman, Martha. The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds. University of California Press, 2015.

Fitzlyon, April. Maria Malibran: Diva of the Romantic Age. London: Souvenir Press, 1987.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Harvard University Press, 1990.

Monahan, Brent Jeffrey. The Art of Singing: A Compendium of Thoughts on Singing Published Between 1777 and 1927. Scarecrow Press, 1978.

Mordden, Ethan. Demented: The World of the Opera Diva. Franklin Watts, 1984.

Poriss, Hilary. Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Radomski, James. Manuel Garcia (1775-1832): Chronicle of the Life of a Bel Canto Tenor at the Dawn of Romanticism. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Stark, James. Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Gotham Books, 2003.

Viardot, Pauline. Une heure d’étude. 1880