26 Italian songs and arias in vocal training
Maartje Sevenster, June 2019
Why are the 26 Italian songs and arias so popular in vocal training? First, they are in Italian. Second, and not unrelated, they were all composed during what is called the Bel Canto era, with the exception of the first two songs (Caccini and Monteverdi) and a few “fakes” (Fetis and Parisotti, Caldara #17). The Bel Canto era lasted roughly from 1630 to 1830, although some may refer to a first and a second Bel Canto period, distinguishing composers such as Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini (second period) from the earlier Baroque composers that feature in 26 Italian songs and arias. Some only refer to these second period composers when using the term Bel Canto.
Bel Canto originated in Italy and has always been very strongly linked to Italian language. You could say that what Italian is amongst languages, Bel Canto is amongst singing styles. It is elegant, crisp and clear, melodious and expressive. When first coming across the term Bel Canto, which means beautiful singing, you’d probably wonder why there would have been times when beautiful singing was not the objective. Of course, no culture would have aimed for ugly singing as such! However, there were periods when singing was all about telling a story (think minstrels), or much more instrument-like (e.g. renaissance polyphony) or abstract and trance-like (Gregorian chant). After the Bel Canto era, singing became much more deeply dramatic (think Romantic opera) and singing technique was increasingly influenced by having to sing over the top of large orchestras with louder modern instruments.
The start of the baroque period coincides with the start of opera and solo singing (“monody”). Monteverdi (#2) is the famous instigator of this transition to the Stile Nuovo (also stile moderno or seconda pratica), but Caccini (#1) was very important in establishing the new style. In fact, Caccini is widely accredited with establishing “good singing” (Stark 1999) and as such leading into the Bel Canto period.
“With Caccini, vocal techniques and the new styles [..] were inextricably linked” (Stark 1999).
It is the cantata by Carissimi (#3) which illustrates the real start of Bel Canto, only some 30 years after the Stile Nuovo, and the huge contrast of the flowing, elegant and rhythmical (almost always in triple meter in this early period) song with the two dramatic, highly ornamented and declamatory monodies of the earlier style (e.g. Bukofzer 1947). In the high baroque, the Bel Canto reached unequalled heights, with world famous castrato stars like Farinelli. An example of this is the aria Per la Gloria (Bononcini #14) sung by castrato Benedetto Baldassari at the premiere of Griselda in London, 1722. But:
The castrati epitomized Bel Canto ideals and Handelian era may be called the golden age of Bel Canto, but the principles were well established before the rise of castrato singers (Stark, 1999).
Interestingly, 26 Italian Songs and Arias does not include any works from the late Bel Canto period in the first decades of the 19th century. The two songs from the 19th century (Fetis #25, Parisotti #26) are fake Baroque pieces, presented as works by Stradella and Pergolesi, respectively. Another song in that category is #17 which in the book is presented as by Caldara but is very likely also a Romantic-era forgery (Tufano 2017), part of the same Baroque revival in that era.
While the style of Bel Canto continued to evolve toward the high baroque da capo arias such as the one by Bononcini (#13) or Caldara (#15) and later the classical era (Paisiello #24), one aspect stayed the same: the objective of a very balanced and natural sound or evenness of voice, as Garcia (1857) calls it. Our current understanding of the Bel Canto techniques is largely based on relatively recent sources from the 19th century “revival” period such as Garcia (1857) and Lamperti (1905). But as Toft (2013) observes:
“These treatises describe Italian bel canto practices in great detail, and although compositional style obviously had changed dramatically between the late eighteenth century and the middle of the nineteenth century, many of the principles of expression remained relatively stable during this period.”
As voice acoustics became better understood, even more detailed technical instruction manuals were written such as the one by Coffin (1980) which takes the principle of vowel modification to a new level. A paradox of Good Singing is that in order to keep vowel sounds seemingly constant over a large pitch range, vowel articulation has to be adjusted. This is primarily to allow for good resonance and timbre regardless of pitch, but in doing so the vowels also sound more natural to the listener.
“In order to attain evenness of voice, a singer should, by clever management, modify a vowel, insensibly rounding it as the voice ascends, and brightening as it descends; by this means, a seeming equality results from a real, but well-concealed inequality of the vocal sound” (Garcia 1857)
As put by Coffin (1980): “The overtones of bel canto are dependent upon a very simple but invisible phenomenon: vowels have pitch which act [sic] as resonators to sung pitch if they are shaded to allow for greatest resonance”.
Garcia (1857) describes brightening and rounding the vowels as colouring them toward other, more open and closed vowels, respectively. He realized that shortening and lengthening of the vocal tract was an important factor – though not the only factor – in this. In current terminology, rounding would be called covering. Rather than aiming to colour one vowel toward another one as Garcia recommends, which requires a certain degree of rote learning, it may be more effective to think in terms of adjusting every vowel by covering (going up) or opening (going down). With a lower larynx and more protruded lips, the vocal tract lengthens, which results in lowering the so-called formants (vowel resonances or pitches in the terminology of Coffin) keeping the timbre warm even at high pitches but also keeping the vowel resonances more contained and thus the vowel sound clearer.
This links to the ideal of chiaroscuro. This ideal is also used in the visual arts, with e.g. Rembrandt epitomizing it in Baroque paintings. In Bel Canto, chiaroscuro is not so much about contrast but combination of light and dark. Every sung note should have a degree of light and darkness in it (Mancini, 1774). Garcia describes it as follows:
“The clear timbre [high larynx, low velum] imparts much brilliance to the chest register, but when exaggerated makes the voice shrieky and shrill; whereas the sombre [lower larynx, high velum] gives it breadth and roundness – for by means of the latter only, the rich quality of the voice is obtained. This, however, when exaggerated, muffles the sounds and makes them dull and hoarse.”
In other words, neither light nor darkness should be exaggerated. Garcia does not use the term chiaroscuro (although it does appear in one of the editions of his treatise, but in a somewhat dubious context and this was later corrected by his grandson….) but Coffin (1960) does equate his “principle of clear and sombre timbres” with chiaroscuro. In the present day, vowel modification is understood to be more than darkening them at high (bright) pitches and brightening them at low (dark) pitches. The books by Coffin, amongst others, teach more careful tuning of the second formant of each vowel to a higher harmonic of the sung pitch to achieve bright resonances. This essentially involves a very precise shaping of the mouth cavity using tongue and lips. This cannot be achieved by a continuous rounding of vowels as the melody is going up in pitch. Garcia would have lacked the terminology to describe this, so we may never know whether this is what he had in mind.
It is unlikely that the so-called singers’ formant or “singing in the mask” were Bel Canto techniques to achieve brightness, as is frequently suggested, at least in the very one-dimensional way they are often practiced. The singers’ formant requires a low position of the larynx (e.g. Sundberg 1972), and excessive singing in the mask may move the larynx upward (Howlett 2012). Both contradict the instructions by Garcia, who describes that the larynx position should be adjusted with pitch. Also, the concept of the open throat, which is an essential element of achieving the singers’ formant, also does not feature in Garcia, who instead says that the “muscles of the throat should be relaxed” only gradually opening at higher pitches. Both aspects of singing technique are likely to have arisen in the mid 19th century, after the Bel Canto period. Before the Bel Canto, composers like Monteverdi may have had a different approach to chiaroscuro in the vocal part by alternating brighter and darker vowels cleverly matching the melodic line, such as in the last phrase of Lasciatemi morire (#2).
Vowel modification techniques are important well beyond the realm of Bel Canto repertoire, also or maybe especially in choral singing. Moreover, Bel Canto techniques are good for vocal health and longevity (Garcia 1857, Coffin 1980). The best way to start practicing them is with the language and the repertoire that gave rise to Good Singing and this is why 26 Italian Songs & Arias (and related collections such as the early Arie Antiche, et cetera) is so popular.
Bukofzer, 1947, Music in the Baroque Era – From Monteverdi to Bach
Coffin 1980, Overtones of Bel Canto
Coffin, 1960, Sounds of Singing
Garcia, 1857, Treatise on the art of singing
Howlett, 2012, The Myth of Forward Placement (http://neilhowlett.com)
Lamperti, 1905, The Technics of Bel Canto
Mancini, 1774, Practical reflections on figured singing
Stark, 1999, Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy
Sundberg, 1972, An articulatory interpretation of the ”singing formant”; Quarterly progress and status report of Dept for Speech, Music and Hearing
Toft, 2013, Bel Canto a performer’s guide
Tufano, 2017, Caldara e l’amorosa investigazione dell’antico: sulla fortuna di alcune arie tra Otto e Novecento