Singing And Singers

—As has been noted by the reader, music, up to this time, developed principally along vocal lines. We have no details as to the character of the training of singers among the Chaldeans, Egyptians and Greeks except such as indicate that their idea of singing was a sort of musical declamation. Such seems also to have been the idea of the nations in the north of Europe.

We have seen that the Welsh bards were required to undergo a very thorough and exacting course of study, but the practical side of singing and the rules laid down for the training of the young minstrels is not a part of our knowledge. The songs of the early Church, sung by masses of worshipers, were of necessity simple in every way, requiring no art. It was not until the use of Discant became popular, and the Polyphonic school began to use florid writing that we can infer that there must have been some methods of training vocalists for artistic work. Although we have little or no details as to the course of training which the early singers received, we are justified in assuming that they must have possessed skill in execution of no mean order. It must not be forgotten that practically all the composers of the early Polyphonic school were singers, able to execute their own works. Hence, studies in singing must have gone hand in hand with composition. The voice parts of the masses, motets and madrigals of the composers of the 13th to the 16th centuries have absolute independence of progression, syncopations, embellishments, etc., to such an extent that it taxes the musicianship of the chorus singer of the present day to sing them; they are not only exacting in intonation, rhythm and other musical matters but also in mechanical points, such as flexibility and freedom of voice and thorough breath control.

Influence of the Opera on Singing.—When the Opera was established, after the declamatory style offered by the first composers had proven unsuccessful in holding the public, the florid style of the old discanters was revived and modified, which, as the Opera developed, gave a great impetus to a systematic and thorough study of singing. The new style of melody introduced by the opera composers of the 17th century demanded purity of voice, wide range, flexibility, expressive shading and a marvelous breath control, as well as great physical endurance. Singers were expected to execute the most intricate passages, abounding in diatonic and chromatic scales, arpeggios, turns, gruppettos, trills, etc., of the most elaborate nature, passages such as are considered purely instrumental today. Alessandro Scarlatti, the composer, and himself a singer, is credited with having had much to do with the great development in the art of singing. He trained a number of singers and pupils, and thus founded the “old Italian” school of singing. It was natural that the art side of singing should thus develop in Italy for several reasons, notably, because Italy had a great number of highly-trained composers, the character of the language is such as to lend itself to the requirements of artistic singing, broad full vowels, soft consonants, absence of final consonants, etc., and the enthusiastic, essentially lyric temperament of the race.

The Training of a 17th Century Singer.—We are given an idea of the course of training which singers of the 17th century were obliged to observe in a work Historia Musica, published by G. A. A. Buontempi, in 1695. This contains an account of the regulations of a school for singers in Rome, directed by Virgilio Mazzocchi, in which Buontempi was a pupil: The pupils were obliged to devote one hour each day to the singing of difficult passages with the idea of acquiring experience ; one hour to the practice of the trill, one to passages in agility, one to literary studies, one to vocalises and to various other technical exercises under the direction of a teacher and before a mirror to acquire the certainty that the singer did not make a faulty movement of the face, the forehead, the eyes or the mouth. This was the morning’s work. In the afternoon, a half-hour was given to theory study, the same amount to writing counterpoint on plain-song melodies, then to learning and applying the rules of composition (writing on an eras-able sheet) ; then followed a half-hour of study of a literary nature, and the rest of the day was given to practice on the clavichord, to the composition of a psalm, motet, canzonetta, or any other kind of piece according to the pupil’s choice.

Such were the common exercises of those days when the pupils were kept on duty at the school. On other days, they would go outside the Angelica Gate to sing against the famous echo that was found there, listening to the response in order to criticise their work. Other duties were to sing in nearly all the musical solemnities of the various churches, to study attentively the style of the great singers of the day, to make a report of their observations to their master, who, the better to impress the result of their studies upon the minds of his pupils, added remarks and advice as he deemed necessary. Under such discipline it is not astonishing that the Italian singers attained a high degree of excellence, and became not only distinguished singers but skilful composers as well. That the reader may gather an idea of the character of passages executed by these singers an example is given on the previous page.

Growth of the Florid Style.—As the art of singing developed, the singers increased their capricious embellishments. With the idea of securing brilliancy as well as the hope of winning success for their works, composers yielded to the exactions of singers and the depraved taste of the dilettanti. This explains the seemingly endless vocalizing and those passages of pure agility which crowd the scores of the best Italian masters of the 17th and 18th centuries. Before giving some account of the famous singers of the old Italian school it will be interesting to have a few notes upon a work on vocal music which bears upon the matter of execution.

A Work on Singing.—In 1725, Pier Francesco Tosi, a renowned singer (born about 165o, died 1730), published a work, translated into English, and published in 1742 under the title “Observations on the Florid Song, or Sentiments of the Ancient and Modern Singers,” which contains some interesting and valuable statements for the student of the history of the art of singing. The most minute principles are set forth with much grace and spirit, in all cases showing enthusiasm on the part of the author for his art and a high sense of the dignity of the profession of singing. When the discussion is in regard to certain kinds of passages in which the singer was accustomed to improvise ornaments, Tosi demands the union of five qualities : intelligence, invention, meter (rhythm), mechanism (technic) and taste ; and in addition, other qualities which he calls “secondary and auxiliary graces” : the appoggiatura, the trill, the portamento di voce, phrasing. This work by Tosi and one by Marcello entitled Le Theatre a la Mode throw much light on the execution of the vocal music of the 18th century.

Seventeenth Century Singers. — Baldassare Ferri (1610-1680) was one of the most renowned of the male sopranos of the old school. His voice had the greatest agility and facility, perfect intonation, a brilliant shake or trill and his breath supply seemed to be inexhaustible. In regard to his intonation, it is said that he was able to ascend and descend in one breath a two-octave scale with a continuous trill without accompaniment with such perfection of intonation that when he finished he had not varied a shade from the pitch of his starting-note. He was in high favor in the courts of Poland, Germany, Sweden and England. A medal was struck in his honor. Antonio Bernacchi (169o-1756) was a pupil of Pistocchi (1659-1720), the most celebrated teacher in Italy at this time, whose principles are represented in Tosi’s book. He commenced his career early and appeared in opera in Italy, later in England and Germany. After some years of experience with the public taste he altered his style, making great use of the florid style, a veritable embroidery of roulades, an innovation that was so successful as to be immediately followed by other singers in spite of the protests of the older school of singers. It is related that when Pistocchi heard his former pupil, he said : “Ah! woe is me! I taught thee to sing and now thou wilt play!” He sang in Handel’s opera company in London, 1729-30. He then returned to Italy to take up the career of a teacher and brought out a number of fine singers. Francesco Bernardi Senesino (168o-175o) was a great favorite in- England, where he sang in Handel’s operas. His voice was exceptionally fine in quality, clear, penetrating and flexible, his technic remarkable ; his style was marked by purity, simplicity and expressiveness, and his delivery of recitative was famous over all Europe. The name of Niccolo Porpora was mentioned in connection with the opera as a celebrated singing master as ,well as composer. No singers before or since have sung like his pupils, notably Caffarelli and Farinelli.

Gaetano Majorano Caffarelli (1703-1783) —the reader will note that many of the old school of musicians lived to a ripe old age—was the son of a Neapolitan peasant, who tried to repress the boy’s evident musical inclinations. Cafaro, director of the Chapel Royal, at Naples, chanced to hear him sing and succeeded in getting charge of him and gave him his elementary instruction, which was fol-lowed by instruction from Porpora, who was then living in Naples. Porpora was a most exacting teacher, requiring implicit obedience and unceasing practice. The story is told that Porpora kept Caffarelli for five or six years to the unvaried study of a single page of exercises despite the pupil’s most strenuous objections. At the end of the time, when Caffarelli declared he would submit no longer, the old teacher said : “Go, my son. I have nothing more to teach you. You are. the greatest singer in Europe.” When he first appeared in opera he sang female parts, for which his beautiful face was well-suited. Some years later he took men’s parts. He gained great popularity in the leading cities of Europe and amassed an enormous fortune. He ex-celled in slow and pathetic airs, yet he was most admirable in the bravura style, and his technic in the trill and chromatic ‘scales was unapproached by any other singer of his time. He was fond of introducing chromatic passages in quick movements.

Farinelli (1705-1782), whose real name was Carlo Broschi, was a pupil of Porpora, He made his first public appearance in Rome when he was seventeen years old. It was on this occasion that he sang the famous aria with trumpet obligato, written by his master, a piece which be-came so associated with him as to be demanded at all his concerts. In this piece, trumpet and voice vie with each other in holding and swelling a note of extraordinary length and volume ; when the trumpeter had exhausted his breath Farinelli kept on with increased power and ended with a great vocal display. This aria called for wonderful vocal technic owing to the novelty and difficulty of the trills and variations introduced. In 1727, he engaged in a musical duel with Bernacchi, previously referred to, in which he was conquered: As a result of this he placed himself under Bernacchi’s instruction, and thus perfected his wonderful talent. In 1731, at the suggestion of the Emperor Charles VI, he modified his style and devoted study to the mastery of pathos and simplicity. During his public career he won the greatest possible success in the European capitals and passed the last years of his life in wealth. Mancini, a fellow-pupil of Farinelli and later a famous singing master, says of Farinelli’s voice : “It was so perfect, so powerful, so sonorous and so rich in its extent, both in the high and the low parts of the register, that its equal has never been heard in our time. . . . The art of taking and keeping the breath so softly and easily that no one could perceive it began and ended with him. The qualities in which he excelled were the evenness of his voice, the art of swelling its sound, the portamento, the union of the registers, a surprising agility, a graceful and pathetic style and a shake as admirable as it was rare.”

A few other singers of this class may be mentioned : Giacchino Conti, called Gizziello (1714-1761), Giovanni Carestini (1705-1758 ?) a contralto, Giuseppe Boschi, the most celebrated basso of the 18th century, one of Handel’s singers, and Girolamo Crescentini (1766-1846). So much space has been given to these singers because their work laid the principles for vocal training that have ever since been the foundation upon which the great masters and sing-ers of later times have built their art ; to these principles has been given the name of the old Italian School of Singing.

Ill-effect of Virtuosity.—The student who goes fully into the subject of the relation of singers to the opera will find that the great development of virtuosity among singers exerted an ill-effect and called forth a very pronounced reform in which Gluck was the leader. Singers were capable of such great vocal display, and the public showed so much enthusiasm for the brilliant feats of vocalism, and so great was the rivalry between singers and their partisans that composers vied with each other in their efforts to introduce the most difficult and florid passages possible. The text of an aria had no real value and became merely a vehicle upon which to place the dazzling vocalization of the singer. Dramatic truth was ruthlessly sacrificed. A singer, sup-posed to be in the very throes of death, would give a virtuosic display that would tax the lung power of a man in the most perfect physical condition. Gluck’s reform consisted in requiring that the arias should express the emotions suited to the situation, thus calling for expressive singing, not mere vocal display. The history of the opera and singing since then shows periods of change toward one idea or the other until the principles of Richard Wagner as to dramatic truth were generally accepted.


Grove.—Dictionary of Music and Musicians, articles on the singers mentioned in this lesson.