Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Italian Opera buffa in the Romantic Era

Francesco Izzo. Laughter Between Two Revolutions: Opera Buffa in Italy, 1831-1848. University of Rochester Press, 2013.

Even the most seasoned of operagoers can be excused for thinking of comic opera as limited to Mozart and Rossini, oh and a couple of works by Donizetti. And then nothing until Falstaff and Gianni Schicchi. Like so many observations about opera history, this is based only on the modern standard repertoire, which is misleading. While it is true that comedy had fallen on hard times in 19th century Italy. Melodrama and tragedy were the preferred theatrical forms there. In Laughter Between Two Revolutions: Opera Buffa in Italy, 1831-1848, Francesco Izzo covers comedies written or performed during the period between two revolutions, exploring the works themselves as well as how audiences received them. 

The perception that Italian opera and literature in the mid-19th century was dominated by tragedy is an overall accurate picture. Not only were there many operatic tragedies, but there was also a thriving industry turning out historical novels. This is in part due to an overall sense in Europe during the Romantic era that art served a higher purpose beyond merely entertaining the audiences. In addition, Italy is in the midst of a growing movement know as Risorgimento which eventually led to the unification of Italy as a country rather than a number of smaller states each ruled by foreign powers (Spain, France, and Austro-Hungary) in ever-changing configurations. This was indeed the era of tragedy in Italy, a country known throughout Europe for its tradition of comedy from commedia dell’arte through opera buffa. Even Donizetti who had been successful with comic operas in both Italy and Paris, expressed little interest in writing anything but serious operas towards the end of his career. 

Nevertheless, many Italians were eager to defend their country’s opera buffa tradition for its nationalistic overtones and for its being the operatic form least influenced by trends coming from France and Germany. Composers and librettists continued to produce comedies, but they had negligible impact outside cities like Naples where they originated, and the major composers of that era, Mercadante, Pacini, Bellini, and Verdi, mostly avoided comedic libretti. 

In Naples, comic operas were mostly performed at the smaller Teatro Nuovo. The Teatro San Carlo was reserved for opera seria and various other serious forms. Operas in this era use a number of designations like dramma, opera seria, and melodramma (often without any consistency even between the score and the published libretto). Performances at the Teatro Nuovo were often in the Neapolitan dialect and sometimes even featured spoken dialogue rather than recitative. Sometimes even established comedies like Rossini’s il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola were adapted to the performance style of the theater. Other larger cities also had theaters in which the serious works were performed in the larger, more posh theater while comedies and farces were performed at the smaller one. Rome’s Teatro Valle was the first such comic opera theater to be subsidized by the government. Milan is the exception with La Scala performing both comedies and dramas in the same season. In 1838, the theater even began charging the same ticket prices for both seria and buffa performances. (Tickets for opera seria had traditionally been sold for a higher price.)

The first chapter focuses on two operas that premiered in 1832 both with remarkable success in their own time. Luigi Ricci’s Il nuovo Figaro and Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Elixir remains popular and includes one of the most popular tenor arias in the repertoire. Ricci’s Figaro, on the other hand, had disappeared from the repertoire by the end of the 19th century. Both are based on works by the French playwright Eugène Scribe. (Scribe is most often associated with grand opera and rightly so, but he wrote a substantial number of comedies as well.) Izzo explores the traits of L’elisir that contributed to its success both in the 1830s as well as today. Rather than continue the farcical and happy-go-lucky music of earlier buffe, Donizetti bathes this comedy in full-on romantic pathos. The best example of that is in the aforementioned tenor aria “Una furtiva lagrima.” The aria has no corresponding moment in the Scribe play upon which the libretto was based. It was added simply to create this sympathetic moment for the leading man. Of course, moments like this in which lovelorn tenors bemoan the states of their love lives are not uncommon in comic operas. (See also: “Languir per una bella” from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri). Donizetti is nevertheless increasing the number of such moments in comedies like Elixir and Don Pasquale to appeal to an audience more used to seeing tragedy than farce on the operatic stage. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Performance Anxiety and Multitasking

Lynn Helding. The Musician’s Mind: Teaching, Learning, and Performance in the Age of Brain Science. Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.

In the chapter “Mind Games” Helding describes the current research into music performance anxiety (MPA). Until recently MPA was considered by mental health professionals as a form of social anxiety, even though many who suffer from MPA show no anxiety in most social situations. More recent researchers have decoupled to two. Readers may want to consult Dianna Kenny’s The Psychology of Music Performance Anxiety (2011) as Kenny is referenced and quoted several times in this chapter. Kenny describes MPA as having both nature and nurture components. Some parts of MPA may stem from genetic/biological causes while others stem from early life experiences. Pressure from oneself, however, seems to be the #1 reason given by both student and professional performers for MPA. The most extreme form of MPA is “choking.” This is more common in student performers than professionals, although that is likely because those whose MPA is that severe usually choose a different profession. 

There can be an upside to MPA. Many performers have learned to harness their nerves in ways that aid them in performance. The suggested way of learning to practice this skill is having students perform in low-stakes situations. Performing in front of people as often as possible allows them to practice performing while feeling nervous. 

There are a number of treatment options for MPA. Beta blockers have been used for some time now although they come with side effects like excess saliva and the disruption of fine motor coordination which many performers will find problematic. Helding discussing therapeutic options in detail including psychotherapy, Alexander Technique, Yoga, as well as exposure therapy and stress conditioning, resilience training, power posing, and meditation. 

One final practical but much needed advice is to avoid distractions leading up to important performances. (I happily read this chapter before a student’s senior recital and was able to pass on this excellent advice.) Notify family and friends that you will be limiting your time socializing with them before the recital or concert event. There is time for that after you have performed, but distractions before can cause sub-par performances. With so much work put into a student recital or professional debut, this is a simple way of making sure our energy is not wasted on socializing or entertaining out of town guests. The rest of the chapter discusses the difficult decision on changing careers (which can be a stressful and difficult process). 

Lest we think that Helding is entirely negative about the digital age, she next discusses the upside of the information age. Musicians and music-lovers can now connect like never before and the process of recording and distributing one’s own music has never been easier or less expensive. Staying in contact with potential audience members and publicizing events has also become easier and cheaper. 

The Multitasking Trap

Next is the issue of multitasking. Older readers will remember when multitasking was the buzzword du jour. The idea that workers could manage multiple tasks at the same time or in quick succession was touted throughout the business world. We now know that this idea has proven to be a complete failure.

We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible and switching from one task to another. 

What’s worse: when we are interrupted from a task it takes an average of 25 minutes to reconnect to our first central task. The takeaway from this research: put away your phone when you practice. Turn it off. Even the pings from updates throw us off. The more challenging the task (say, learning an opera role!), the more likely we are to self-distract, and what is more distracting than a cell phone full of games, messages, and other enticing options. Just put it away and mute it for the duration of your practice time. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Feedback and Practice

Lynn Helding. The Musician’s Mind: Teaching, Learning, and Performance in the Age of Brain Science. Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.

Feedback Frequency

How much feedback should students be receiving from their teachers? Research shows that beginners should receive a lot of feedback which should diminish as students approach proficiency in their instruments. How soon should teachers begin to pull back? Sooner than is the norm. This can sometimes be a difficult transition so it will require discussion between student and teacher. (Students accustomed to frequent praise may have difficulty with this transition.) Singers will always need more feedback than instrumentalists because of the problem outlined in the previous chapter (and last blog post…we do not necessarily hear what the audience does). Nevertheless, too much feedback can lead to dependency on outside feedback which can create a toxic teacher-student relationship. There is also the problem of feedback multiple sources. There is a limit to how much criticism a performer can process at one time. Sometimes it is better to step back, especially when it is clear that the performer is aware of the issue and making the correction. (Note: everyone who has ever had a stage director and conductor giving them feedback at the same time is familiar with this problem.)

A special topic arises at this point in the book that is worthy of discussion. It is sometimes considered essential for a teacher to touch a student to adjust in posture or hand position or some other aspect of singing or playing. It has become the norm in recent years to ask permission before touching a student, but since students sometimes do not feel empowered to say no, especially with a new teacher or perhaps with a famous person doing a master class, they may object but not feel they can say no. One workaround is for the teacher to demonstrate by placing their hands on their own body and letting the student touch themselves in the same place. This can often have the same effect without any personal discomfort. We also do not always know what issues a student may be struggling with, and they should not be obligated to share why they are uncomfortable being touched in certain places or at all. If that can be avoided, it should be. 

Another issue that comes up often is performers who are “too in their own heads.” Overthinking is an obstacle. One often heard piece of advice is “just do it.” That often works for those proficient enough at singing or playing to not need to think about technical aspects during a performance. Instead, Helding explores methods for thinking while performing as much performance requires shifting requirements, adjustments, variations, etc. that requires us to think about what we are doing and not just automatically repeat what we have rehearsed.

Deliberate Practice

By now most everyone has heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” in which he states that mastering any skill requires 10,000 hours of practice time. There are a number of things wrong with this “rule.” Some skills require far less time to master while others require significantly more. (Concert pianists have logged in at least twice that much practice time before entering major competitions, for example.) But the most significant flaw is that the quality of practice matters at least as much as the quantity. This is perhaps the aspect of practice most often ignored by young students. Mindless repetition produces minimal results. In fact, mindless repetition can sometimes lead to “regression.” And more significantly, the student is often continually practicing their mistakes into their habits. Qualities needed for deliberate practice include accepting discomfort, complete attention, self-feedback, and constructing mental representations of what to do. How we practice is as important as how much. Again, much valuable information and discussion of current findings in this book. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

The Musician’s Mind Part 1

Lynn Helding. The Musician’s Mind: Teaching, Learning, and Performance in the Age of Brain Science. Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.

Every singer, coach or voice teacher has wondered what are the best strategies for practicing, memorization, and performance. We all get advice on the best ways to learn our music or to teach others theirs. But what does the current knowledge of how the brain works tell us and how can we translate into our own teaching and practice and performing? That is the subject of Lynn Helding’s The Musician’s Mind: Teaching, Learning, and Performance in the Age of Brain Science. There is far too much in this book to cover in a few blog posts so I will just pull out the parts that I think are most relevant for this group while strongly encouraging everyone to read it. I am already incorporating much of this into my teaching (and in some cases relieved that what I have been recommending for students is backed up by science). 

(A note about science: Helding describes in detail the misuse of a single scientific study that morphed into the Baby Mozart movement back in the 1990s. Science when well-understood and well-applied is useful to us. Taking a small-scale study and assuming effects far beyond the scope of a study in order to sell a product, service, or method borders on fraud and undermines public trust in the scientific method. Caution must be used when applied scientific discoveries to practice.)

First things first: how does learning work? In three steps: 1) Attention 2) Learning Itself and 3) Long-Term Memory. 

Step One: Attention. This is the topic of much of the current brain research. Attention has four components. First, default mode: the state in which the brain returns when not engaged in a cognitive task or hijacked by something else distracting it. (Note: it is in this state that brain activity increases. This is also the state we are in while daydreaming, so it is therefore the state in which we are our most creative.) Also, emotion plays a critical role in memory consolidation. It is emotion that helps encode our experiences into long-term memory. “Desire is the ignition system of attention.” Helding advises against attempt to boost desire and motivation using rewards such as candy, praise, or money. (She is opposed to Behaviorism. Her rationale is based on research and apply not just to music lessons but also to rearing children, all kinds of learning environments or even in the workplace. Basically, the research shows that the recipient of the rewards may show short term responses, but since the reward is the goal, not the improved behavior, those habits do not survive once the reward is removed. They do not lead to long-term habits.) Setting specific, realistic short-term and long-term goals are a much better strategy. One last aspect of attention is discussed: the importance of sleep. Sleep deprivation is the main impediment to attention.

Step Two: Learning. This has two components: chunking and constructed memories. Chunking is the amalgamation of bits of experience. People with better memories seem to be able to manipulate a greater number of chunks and those chunks contain many more bits. Constructed memories are how we place new experiences into what we have already learned. 

Step Three: Memory. 

The complex neurobiologial process of learning itself is encoded in a maxim called Hebb’s rule: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Learning begins when the synapses (the gaps between neurons) are excited by a thought or a sensation. With the addition of attention, emotion, and desire, short term memory rapidly progresses to working memory—otherwise known as learning.

Short-term memory is not just a miniature version of long-term memory but is altogether biologically distinct. As every singer and voice teacher has learned, regular practice works, weekly last-minute cram sessions do not. Also of interest, the addition of emotion and intention aids in memory. Something to remember when learning a recital or a role.

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

This Is Your Brain on Music

Levitin, Daniel. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. 2019.

In anticipation of spending a few weeks exploring Lynn Helding’s The Musician’s Mind, I would first like to recommend a more general book on music and the brain. Daniel Levitan was a musician who became a recording engineer and record producer. He then had other assorted jobs in the recording industry before going to college in his thirties to study cognitive science. His background in both music and brain science gave him a unique perspective in researching the more perplexing problems in the field of neurobiology. What is happening in our brains when we listen to or perform music? (Those, it turns out, are two different questions.) What is it that we remember when we remember music: the exact pitches and rhythms or is it the contour that we remember? (There is evidence for both views!) 

A main topic here though is Levitin’s challenge to the view of Stephen Pinker and others that music is just a biproduct of more useful cognitive processes. “Music as auditory cheesecake.” That it is just a byproduct of other evolutionary processes that simply gives us pleasure but serves no other necessary function. Levitin argues that music served as an indicator of cognitive, emotional, and physical health, and was evolutionarily advantageous as a force that led to social bonding and increased fitness.

Levitin also makes a compelling case for the importance of music education.

When they find out what I do for a living, many people tell me they love music listening, but their music lessons ‘didn’t take.’ I think they’re being too hard on themselves. The chasm between musical experts and everyday musicians that has grown so wide in our culture makes people feel discouraged, and for some reason this is uniquely so with music. Even though most of us can’t play basketball like Shaquille O’Neal, or cook like Julia Child, we can still enjoy playing a friendly backyard game of hoops, or cooking a holiday meal for our friends and family. This performance chasm does seem to be cultural, specific to contemporary Western society. And although many people say that music lessons didn’t take, cognitive neuroscientists have found otherwise in their laboratories. Even just a small exposure to music lessons as a child creates neural circuits for music processing that are enhanced and more efficient than for those who lack training. Music lessons teach us to listen better, and they accelerate our ability to discern structure and form in music, making it easier for us to tell what music we like and what we don’t like.

As it is intended for a general rather than academic audience, this is an easy read, but it is also a fascinating one. This is a summation of the current research on how music works in the brain and an admission that there is still a great deal we do not yet understand. At this point I must admit that I listened to the audiobook version, which is excellent and includes auditory, often musical, examples. Audiobooks are often available to those with library access and can be an effective use of commute time or for listening while doing chores.

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Opera Acts, Part 2

Karen Henson. Opera Acts: Singers and Performance in the Late Nineteenth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

The next chapter covers the career of the Polish tenor Jean de Reszke and the development of what we now think of as the Heldentenor voice type. De Reszke was one of five siblings, three of whom has significant opera careers. The sister Josephine was a well-known coloratura soprano who later focused on “falcon” (or dramatic soprano) roles. (Had she lived longer she might have sung in some of the earlier Parisian Wagner productions.) His brother Edouard was an accomplished bass. Jean began singing as a baritone but retrained as a tenor before moving to Paris where he began his career as a tenor singing in the operas of Massenet. Massenet was composing for tenor mostly in the then-new full-throated technique but still sometimes calling for pianissimo high notes that would likely have been sung in voix mixte. From there he premiered the final revision of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the Paris Opéra (an unlikely choice for a former baritone on his way to becoming a Wagnerian), then Radames in Aida and finally his first Wagner role, Lohengrin. Then he added Walther (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg). 

Jean and his brother Edouard then moved to New York where they were primarily associated with Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera. In 1895 he sang his first Tristan opposite Lillian Nordica with his brother singing King Marke. From there the younger Siegfried with Nellie Melba as Brünnhilde (!). Of his Tristan, the New York Times critic William J. Henderson, up to that point accustomed to hearing Tristans bark and shout their way through the challenging third act said:

…Jean de Reszke’s incomparable skill in the management of the vocal organs overcame all the difficulties of the scene. The cantabile was sung with fluency, breadth of style, perfect intonation, and deep emotion. The exclamatory speeches were delivered in the true dramatic parlando, in which song so closely approaches speech that the boundary lines are almost obliterated. Yet, in delivering these speeches in this manner, M. de Reszke sacrificed nothing in their tremendous force, and it may be doubted whether any artist ever achieved a more thrilling effect than he did with that speech…. (p. 150)

In an epilogue, Henson goes into detail about singers who had been mentioned in the previous three chapters. 

Emma Calvé, the famous French verismo soprano is discussed in terms of her learning to use whistle register (which she credited to her study with the castrato Domenico Mustafà, then the director of the Sistine Chapel choir), and her incorporation of the then-new realistic style of acting that was becoming popular in the works of Zola, Ibsen, and others. Calvé also claimed to have done cultural research in preparation for roles: visiting Spain to prepare for Carmen, visiting an asylum to prepare to play Ophélie, etc. Such role prep would now be considered obligatory for any serious actor but was novel in her time. “Calvé…built on the achievements of an earlier, realist-minded generation and introduced innovations that continue to be part of performance today.”

Victor Carpoul, a French tenor was a star at the Opéra-Comique famous for his light and “seductive” singing. After Duprez’s famous chest-voice high C at the Paris Opéra in 1837, the older, lighter approach to tenor high notes continued to flourish at the Opéra-Comique until 1871 when Adolphe Duchesne sang at least one chest voice high note during a performance of Ferdinand Hérold’s Le Pré aux clercs. (Note: I have been trying for some time to find an original source for this event and have so far not been successful.) Capoul appeared at the Metropolitan Opera during its inaugural season and after retiring from singing took a position as Directeur des études dramatiques at the Paris Opéra in the 1880s where he was charged with improving the level of acting there. Unfortunately, he did not publish his ideas about acting in opera.

French Baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure was known for the beauty of his voice and the tastefulness of his interpretations. He began his career at the Opéra-Comique. Success in London at Covent Garden led to contracts at the Paris Opéra. He was famous for a number of roles including the title roles in Don Giovanni and Guillaume Tell, Posa in Don Carlos and the title role in Thomas’s Hamlet. His later career included oratorio and concerts which sometimes including some of his own compositions, the most popular of which were two songs on religious themes, “Le Crucifix” and “Les Rameaux.” (The latter was once perennial Palm Sunday favorite in a choral arrangement.) He taught briefly at the Conservatoire where he published La voix et le chant, a traditional method, from a period in which singers were more likely to publish memoires or observations on singing and acting.

Marie Heibron was a Belgian soprano active in the 1870s and 1880s. She studied at the Conservatoire with tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez and had a career at a variety of theaters including premieres of operas by Massenet and others. She was a gifted singer and actor whose personal life often dominated both her successes and failures. 

Paul Lhérie (1844-1937) was the first Don José in Carmen after which he continued in a career as a baritone. Like Galli-Marié he may have played a role in the composition of Bizet’s most famous opera. Among other things that occurred during what was a difficult rehearsal process it was Lhérie and Galli-Marié who insisted that the Opéra-Comique keep Bizet’s original tragic ending instead of replacing it with the standard opéra-comique happy ending. (A young Vincent d’Indy was hired to accompany L’hérie in the offstage (and in the score a capella) song “Les Dragons d’Alcala.”) As a tenor he struggled, and for a time he was taking on both tenor and baritone roles. But it was as a baritone that he had his most significant success taking on roles like Verdi’s Rigoletto, Conte di Luna and Germont, and Posa in the premiere of the revised four-act version of Don Carlo at La Scala. He also premiered the role of Rabbi David in Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz. 

Paola Marié was the sister of Célestine Galli-Marié, and an accomplished operetta soprano in her own right. They were the daughters of Mécène Marié de l’Isle who created the role of Tonio is La Fille du regiment. Paola was known for her a lively stage presence and an agile voice and often performed in pants roles. 

Édouard de Reszke was a Polish=French bass and the brother of Jean de Reszke. The two often appeared together in operas from the 1880s until Édouard’s retirement. He had a large and powerful voice and an imposing physique. 

Josephine de Reszke was a Polish soprano, sister of Jean and Édouard, who was a star of the Paris Opéra after its relocation to the Palais Garnier. As discussed earlier she was a falcon, a dramatic soprano with a short top. Only once did she appear on stage with both of her brothers in a production of Hérodiade. She unfortunately died too young to have left behind any recordings.

There are many recent books and articles exploring singers and instrumentalists for whom music was composed and the sociological, economic, and political worlds in which music was created and performed. Opera Acts is part of the Cambridge Opera Series which includes many interesting volumes. I think they will be of great interest to BCBCers who perform or enjoy the eras and repertoires explored. 

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The Making of the Modern Opera World (Part 1)

Karen Henson. Opera Acts: Singers and Performance in the Late Nineteenth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

For most of this its history, from the beginning of the 17th century up through the end of the bel canto era, opera was singer-based. Impresarios ruled supreme, of course, but an opera was a performance event to showcase the glory of the great singers of the era (and in the case of opera seria the glory of the monarchy). Audiences entered the theater already knowing the stories based almost exclusively on Greek and Roman mythology and history. In some cases, they had already attended multiple operas using the same libretto. What they expected to experience as new was the singers with their glorious voices and expressive abilities. Expression of course meaning ornamentation and musical expression. But by the mid-19th century composers had begun to insert a dominance over what happened on the opera stage. The practice of inserting arias by other composers (and perhaps even with unrelated texts) into the performance was disappearing as was the expectation that singers would add ornaments or even rewrite or transpose passages to better suit their own voices. Opera Acts explores the era after singers had moved from “freedom to subservience, creativity to interpretation.” Singers were increasingly expected to sing exactly what was on the page and had to find new creative outlets for their artistry. Variations on the word interpret (interpreter, interpretation, etc.) begin showing up in discussions of performances by singers in the 1870s to 1890s replacing words like artist and “chanteur.” Singers began exploring acting, costuming, public image, staging (in what is the beginning of the concept of a stage director) and other aspects of performing in which to express the creativity they had once channeled into how they sang.

Henson quotes a letter from Verdi in which he states that “singers should not sing in their way, but in mine…only one will should dominate: my own.” This is an enormous change from a generation or two earlier in which singers were often basically co-creators of a role along with the composer. Not only was music composed for their specific talents, but they ornamented as they pleased and even inserted music by other composers that better suited their voices. This was no longer tolerated. (At least in most cases. A few transpositions and interpolations survived at least halfway through the 20th century, but they are the exception.) In fact, Verdi’s final two operas were written purely for his own pleasure with no specific performance in mind and only one singer (Tamagno in the title role of Otello) in mind.

In discussing this era of singing, Henson highlights several singers. While I object to some of her framing, in particular the concept of “not singing,” the details presented about singing in the late 19th century are enlightening, and most significantly (at least to me) is the ways in which the then-new presentation of singers as interpreters has continued into our own time. She also explores some then famous singers who either originated or who helped make famous many operas still often performed today.

The first of these singers is the baritone Victor Maurel (1848-1923). Maurel was Verdi’s first Iago, and the first Falstaff, and the first interpreter of Verdi’s revised Simon Boccanegra. He was also the first Tonio in Pagliacci. In addition to singing and teaching, he wrote and published essays including one on the importance of physical exercise for singers, a staging manual for Don Giovanni, and late in life a book Un problème d’Art. Of particular interest is the discussion of Maurel’s study of acting, borrowing from the current great English Shakespearian actors and incorporating those techniques into opera. At the time English actors were beginning to incorporate more realism into their performances, and Maurel was a proponent of bringing that kind of realism into opera as well.

Next the author focuses on mezzo-soprano Célestine Galli-Marié, known for her realistic portrayal of Carmen. Noteworthy here is Galli-Marié’s participation in the composition of the role. This would have been typical a generation or two earlier, but by the 1870s it was practically taboo for a singer to suggest changes to the score of a new opera. She especially influenced Bizet in the composition of the famous Habanera. Bizet had originally composed a chanson in 6/8 which had been learned and rehearsed but which did not meet the mezzo’s approval. She wanted Carmen’s entrance to have a stronger character and be rooted in a folk music tradition. A number of Bizet scholars have been highly critical of the singer for making such “tyrannical” demands, but the result speaks for itself. What opera character makes a stronger and more indelible entrance than Carmen? 

This criticism brings up the problem that still plagues opera…the disempowerment of the singer. If we think of this as a post-modern phenomenon, then we are missing examples of the diminishing power of the opera singer beginning in the mid-19th century. Galli-Marié’s other roles are also explored as part of her quest for a more realistic style of operatic acting, including her creation of the title role in Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon in which she attempted to match recreate the movements of the actors who had played the role in the theater. (There is also a discussion of her performances in a number of less-well-known French pants roles from the mid-late 19th century. It is a bit off topic for BCBC, but anyone researching the cross-gender casting of opera characters will want to consult this source as it includes examples not often mentioned elsewhere.) 

Massenet was something of an anachronism. In an era in which composers were proudly writing the music they wanted and then challenging the singers to rise to the technical difficulties, Massenet was continuing the older practice of seeking out singers and then tailoring the music for a role around their abilities and even changing the score to accommodate a new singing taking on a role. He even goes as far as to notate in his autograph scores the contributions of the singers, one in particular, Sibyl Sanderson. Henson frames the relationship between Massenet and Sanderson in the context of the emerging celebrity culture (with which 21st century readers are so familiar). In addition to being of artistic value, the relationship served to promote both the composer and singer in the press. 

We see Massenet’s willingness to accommodate singers in his many revisions to his first successful opera Manon. The many Manons from the first few decades of the opera’s history cover a range of voice types and acting styles. Some lyric, some coloratura, some operetta specialists. Rather than expect each singer to shoe-horn her own voice into the role and manage as best they can (which is what we expect today) the composer provided new entrance arias, added coloratura, or sometimes lowered the pitch depending on the singer currently assigned the role. This would have been standard in the bel canto era or earlier but by the 1880s, few if any composers were still so accommodating. 

Another intriguing aspect of Sanderson’s career is that as photography becomes a standard in print media, her particularly photogenic looks and skill at posing for the camera boosted her career significantly. (So it would seem that this aspect of an opera career is hardly new.) The combination of her photogenic image and having what for that era was the idea feminine body type helped her career immensely. The remaining portion of this chapter is devoted to the then-new focus on the visual in opera, including Massenet’s many characters who unveil during the opera in which the body is “blatantly exhibited and eroticized.…”

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The Italian Traditions and Puccini Part 3

Rules of Versification

Italian poetry is founded on a fixed system of standardized verse types that were consolidated in the early 18th century in the opera reforms of Apostolo Zeno and in the countless opera seria libretti most notably those by Metastasio. It was not until Arrigo Boito in the 1860s that librettists began straying from these forms. Baragwanath explains the various types of poetic lines, organized by length. Those of us who have read and listened to Derrick Goff at BCBC these past two years (or longer) will find this merely a review, but it is good to see the author giving such importance to information that was so essential to the construction of these operas and to their performance. While this strict system of versification may strike some as restrictive, in fact it allowed composers a great deal of freedom to write within these structures and for singers to ornament and improvise. Great liberties could be taken on such a firm foundation. 

For this reason, the modern idea of a strict hierarchy of beats, in which the first or third beats of a common-time measure are always regarded as more or less “accented” in comparison with the others, should be applied with caution.

Despite the widespread use of this method, most theorists found it difficult to explain these rules in word, but some did. (Baragwanath cites many. There is too much detail to list here, which is why the book itself is so highly recommended.) 

Although the guiding principles of musical rhythm and poetic meter for composing vocal music were strict, composers who adhered too closely to the models ran the risk of being labeled “hacks.” Methods of explaining this in the treatises of the 18th and 19th century vary, but what they all agree on is the primacy of poetic meter rather than metrical pulse in musical composition. This practice held from roughly 1680 until 1830 when ideas about music from the north began to take hold in Italy. While these practices continued to remain in force to a certain extent (especially in the smaller more conservative institutions like the one in Lucca where Puccini was trained), conservatories slowly moved towards a more Austro-Germanic conception of music based on the bar line and regular phrase structures. 

Baragwanath explains in length the musical ideas promoted by Bonifazio Asioli. Sadly, there is no available English translation of his work which severely hinders any penetration into the English-speaking conservatory. This is a shame as studying the way the composers of our repertoire conceived their music would be an immense help for those of us interpreting it in performance. So much is assumed by these composers of singers who were trained in the very same manner as they were. One can only hope that there will be further exploration of Asioli’s writings to make them more accessible to singers, coaches, and conductors. Until that happens, Baragwanath’s summary of Asioli’s teachings will suffice. He goes through each of the Italian poetic meters starting with the endecasillabilo on down. Readers of Derrick Goff’s work on this subject will be familiar with much of the terminology used. (All the more reason his libretto course is a must!) 

The Partimento Tradition

Until recently, not much had been written about the manner in which the Italian composers and singers were trained, however over the past two decades or so a number of scholars have begun to explore the available materials used in musical training on the Italian peninsula and other areas where Italians were at various times in charge of musical instruction. These authors include Cafiero, Gjerdingen, Rosenberg, Sguinetti and Stella. This has been an extraordinary task because for the most part the information is gleaned from various papers and materials found in archives. The main manner of training is called partimento. It is somewhat difficult to explain, but in general it is something of a combination of figured bass realization and composing with a cantus firmus. 

The term partimento began the eighteenth century as a regional variant of basso continuo. Neapolitan maestros, instead of viewing basso continuo as a mechanical process for deriving chords from a numerical shorthand, developed their own system for training performers and composers. They used basses as cues for the recall and adaptation of various styles or modi, which in turn were constructed on the framework of numerous schemata taught by rote. The power of this system, which helped ensure the success of hundreds of indigent boys, lay in its simple method of integrating the craft knowledge of small harmonic-contrapuntal schemata into the aesthetic, performative experience of a complete musical movement. (Robert Gjerdingen, “Partimento, que me veux-tu?” Journal of Music Theory 51: 126)

The prescribed line in partimento was not necessarily the bass. It could be the soprano, alto or tenor line as well, or the prescribed notes might jump from one part to another. What this method developed was creativity and an ability to improvise musical ideas. This helps explain why so many musicians were so adept at creating music on the spot or improvising variations in live performances. It also explains how composers were able to produce so much music so quickly. Singers were so well practiced in it that they were the ones who taught it to all receiving musical instruction. (In other words, the great composers were taught this method by singers. Pause a moment and let that sink in.) Moreover, the teaching of singing was considered essential for composers to learn to compose melodies. Most significantly, the performance of opera was a collaboration between composers and singers, not one recreating music for the other to “interpret.” Of course, composers could trust singers to vary and ornament in performance in the appropriate style since they had all been taught in the same method. 

There is far more detail about this and other topics in the book, far too much to condense into a few blog posts. Also included are excerpts from the operas of Bellini and Puccini showing how this training played out in their works. One topic of particular interest was how composers were taught to use particular devices to portray certain affects. Tempo in particular was thought to portray the emotion. Again, Baragwanath refers to Asioli to show that composers used the tempo markings and a few key indicators like affettuoso, amoroso, grazioso, etc. to indicate the affect to be portrayed in the piece. 

Most of this information was new to me. What wasn’t I learned at Caramoor (now Teatro Nuovo). There is a good reason that 18th and 19th Italian music tends to be neglected by music theorists who were only trained in German methods. It was created by musicians trained in a significantly different system and does not always conform to Austro-Germanic norms. The difference in Italian music is not by defect but by design. It is a failure of music theory textbooks if they cannot clearly explain the structure of an aria or ensemble in an opera by Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, or Puccini. Fortunately, a number of authors are exploring the Italian training methods and how they relate to the music. This repertoire is far too popular to have suffered this neglect in college music classes for so long. Now that is (slowly) being rectified. 

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Puccini’s Musical Studies in Lucca and Milan

Baragwanath, Nicholas. The Italian Traditions & Puccini: Compositional Theory and Practice in Nineteenth-Century Opera. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

My last post covered the background on Italian musical training in the 18th and 19th centuries, which serves as background to Baragwanath’s study of how this style of teaching influenced Puccini’s compositional style. When Puccini arrived at Milan to study, the textbooks for the preliminary courses were extremely conservative, leaning on the work on Asioli. Unfortunately for us, these Italian treatises rarely dealt with compositional matters such as text-setting, expressive devices, or form. These seem to have been left mainly to private instruction. The longest and therefore most comprehensive treatise is Alexandre Choron’s Principes de composition des écoles d’Italie (available on Another influential treatise from that era is Asioli’s Il Maestro di composizione, ossia seguito del Trattato d’armonia. It is accompanied by a separate book of musical examples, many of them by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. There is some evidence that this book was used by Giuseppe Verdi in his musical studies. German treatises on music were mostly not available in Italian translation until after 1800, although many were available in the libraries of the major Italian conservatories for those students who could read them in the original language. Nevertheless German-style approaches to the study of music theory and composition began creeping into the Italian conservatories in the 1840s and 1850s through the progressives and modernizers, many of whom published influential journals. These publications promoted German views on music as well as the latest in new instrumental music from across the Alps. This led to a reversal of the centuries old practice of Germans traveling to Italy to learn to compose music as Handel and so many others had done. Now Italians were looking to German symphonic models for inspiration. 

Puccini’s musical studies started early. Coming from a long line of musicians, he began musical studies at the age of five with his father Michele. Once old enough he began studying music In Lucca and singing in the cathedral choir. The instruction in Lucca was very conservative. They continued the teaching of thorough-bass rules of the Neapolitan partimento method with some influence from Rameau’s ideas of ideas about chord roots and inversions. Instruction also included rigorous training in harmony and counterpoint. 

The Instituto Musicale in Lucca

The Instituto Musicale was founded in 1818 to train church musicians and singers to create a bulwark against the influence of operatic trends that were pervading church music throughout the peninsula. It might have remained so were it not for the arrival in 1835 of Giovanni Pacini. Pacini will not be too well known by most 21st century operagoers, but at various times throughout his life he was a successful opera composer (although at the time he took the job in Lucca, he had not had a hit in quite a few years, but his greatest successes were ahead of him). 

Rhythm without measure, accent without beat

In nineteenth-century Italian usage, the word for musical rhythm, ritmo, encompassed a far broader range of concepts and meanings than its modern counterpart. It could, for instance, be used to refer to fluid subjective movements of the individual mind or “soul” in terms of emotions and feelings, especially of the sort induced through the sentiments of poetry or music and manifested in the ebb and flow of a reading or performance. Owing to the overwhelming dominance of vocal music in the Italian traditions, it could also signify the various meters and accents of verse, denoting either the musical “rhythm” of on individual line of poetic verse or, somewhat confusingly, a succession of several such verses, in much the same way that the singular word “verse” can now be used to mean both an individual poetic line and an entire stanza. In this sense, as mentioned earlier, melodic “rhythm” (ritmo) was effectively synonymous with “phrase” (frase), which could also signify an individual setting of a line or two of verse or a series of similar such settings. A closely associated but essentially independent system of harmonic rhythm, regulated by a succession of weak and strong impulses within the instrumental accompaniment, was considered to supplement these vocal verse phrases. Only rarely, and usually in rudimentary books for beginners, was ritmo used to convey the idea of regular pulse subdivided symmetrically into the beats and measures of a time signature. (p. 66)

“Ritmo was therefore regarded as something quite different from the orderly arrangement of regular beats and measures that served as the means to record its outlines in written form.“ Thus, there are two somewhat independent rhythmic concepts happening in music simultaneously. Without an understanding of poetic verse and its rhythmic content and how that was set to a vocal melody, singers are stuck using only one kind of rhythm and not the one that applies most to them while singing Italian music. Students at the conservatories during the eras in which the operatic repertoire was being composed would learn the basic rules of versification and “the expression of the text in vocal melody and the phrase in comparison with the different poetic meters.” 

The freedom which the vocal rhythm has from the regular pulse and bar lines written on the page was explained through the idea of accento musicale, which is literally translated as the (speech) accent of music. “It referred to the expressive nuances generated through a variety of devices that together determined the contours and fluctuations of the vocal phrase.” 

More on Italian versification in the next post.

Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Puccini and the Italian Traditions (Part 1)

Nicholas Baragwanath. The Italian Traditions & Puccini: Compositional Theory & Practice in Nineteenth-Century Opera. Indiana University Press, 2011.

For quite some time I have been curious about how our favorite composers (and the performers who first sang and played their music) were trained. This question was often brushed aside as if everyone had always learned music theory and other musical skills in the same manner that we do today. As it turns out, that is not the case. For a long time, any discussion of this topic focused only on how music was taught in the German speaking countries (and occasionally France, if you include Rameau). (The exception of Early Music study is duly noted, as much of that historical material is on the Italian style of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.) In some ways this is not surprising. Musicology and Music Theory as we know them are disciplines that first appeared in Germany. The focus of music theorists is therefore mainly on works either from the Austro-German tradition or those from outside those countries that nevertheless conform to that style. 

So where does that leave Italian opera? Mostly ignored. That is a shame because that oversight has left too many unanswered questions and left singers, coaches and conductors with few tools to understand the music we perform. Most of the names and concepts that I will discuss over the next few weeks here are completely new to me, and most of the original works referenced by Dr. Baragwanath have never been translated into English. Fortunately, he does discuss them in detail. You will want to take some time with this book since many of the concepts will be new. I have already returned my library copy but have ordered my own since I know I will be referring to this volume again and again. 

In the introduction Baragwanath recounts some of the many Italian teachers and treatises on music. Despite having taken a semester long graduate course called History of Music, I had only heard of a few of those and all but one of those I had ever heard of because of Rachelle Jonck’s mentioning them here at BCBC. So imagine my surprise at learning that there is a long and rich history of pedagogical guides to steer young Italian musicians, singers, and composers. I will not give the rest of the list from before the 19th century, although it will be of interest to those who sing a great deal of 17th and 18th century music (and can be found on pages 1-2). There were many schools and local styles, but by the beginning of the 19th century most had faded into obscurity (although there were certainly some local holdouts) except for the Neapolitan and Bolognese schools. These are distinguished more by their approach to teaching music than by differences in resulting musical style. 

Young composers (and really all musicians as most musicians composed and most composers performed to some extent) were trained in an interactive method. Harmony and counterpoint were taught was “practice” rather than as theory. The dominant method of composition was based on the earlier partimento method (described in Baragwanath’s other book The Solfeggio Tradition). Francesco Durante (who you may know as the composer of “Danza, Danza” and “Vergin tutto amor”), a student of Alessandro Scarlatti, is usually crediting with having codified the partimento method that would dominate the 18th century and early 19th century throughout Europe. Music was conceived as counterpoint above a bass line rather than a progression of chords organized by root and their inversions as promoted by Rameau. 

By the 1860s more modern (translation: German) ideas about music theory and musical training began to take hold in Italian conservatories. As new conservatories were being formed throughout Italy in the nineteenth century, they were initially modeled after the Neapolitan schools. In this model, training was divided into three successive stages: 1) rudiments, harmony, and figured bass; 2) counterpoint and fugue; and finally, 3) composition. Counterpoint was mainly taught through singing and thus the instructor was most often a voice teacher. Harmony was taught at the keyboard and thus the instructors were usually those who taught accompaniment. Written work in harmony and counterpoint (using Rameau and German models) was considered scientific rather than practical music-making. There were a great many written manual for teaching these subjects, but the one that stayed in use the longest was Carlo Gervasoni’s La Scuola della Musica, in tre parti divisa. (It is available online at Baragwanath also lists many other books in use at that time. The connection between this instruction and the music of Italian opera in the 18th and 19th centuries (he uses examples from operas by Bellini and Puccini) make for interesting study and diverge quite a bit from the usual Germanic-based studies of music we are used to, at least in the English-speaking world.

All that leads us up to Puccini, who is the main topic of this book. More on that in my next post.