History of Opera/Bel Canto

Bel CantoEdit

‘Beautiful singing[1]’ is how The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes the term bel canto. It goes without saying that the beauty of a certain sound is subject to the ears of the individual and what he deems as beautiful. Therefore, when the school of Italian singing started developing the term, they wanted it to be a representation of the “‘classically’ trained voice of opera and concert singers[2]”(Stark Introduction XX), in the Italian art of singing around the late sixteenth century for the solo virtuoso singer. The vessel that stood to represent this model of virtuosic singing was the castrato. The castrati were castrated before puberty to stop the development of the larynx, which results in having shorter vocal cords than an uncastrated male–yielding a wider range and higher notes in singing. When this advantage is added with the naturally wide lungs of the male, a virtuosic singer can be developed. Thus, the way towards developing the epitome of bel canto is paved. The characteristics that are required to represent this epitome are: legato in singing musical phrases, light tone in the higher range, and agility in delivering a richly sustained timbre between the ranges. The aim of this essay is to continue the tradition of sculpting the ambiguous body of the term bel canto and to give it a more rounded appeal in understanding its techniques and shedding more light on the history of the golden age of singing.

LaryngologyEdit

In order for the phenomenon of singing to reach its golden age, it went through a journey of studying the larynx and how it is the essential part in producing sound. Aelius Galenus of Pergamon (130-200 A.D.) is considered to be one of the pioneering anatomist who contributed tremendously into the study of laryngology with his theory on phonation: “in order, however, that the animal may emit voice it requires, no doubt, the motion of the breath, but nonetheless the narrowing of the channel in the larynx; not a simple narrowing, but one which can by degrees be constricted and by degrees be relaxed. Such is what the body we are dealing with effects accurately, and hence I call it the glottis or tongue of the larynx[3]”(Holmes 49). Quite a strong theory that remained relevant for more than a millennium after its publication. Many tried to defy it but to no avail until the 18th century. Antoine Ferrein (1693-1769) who was a professor of anatomy at the Jardin Du Roi marks a revelatorial point in the study of the larynx with his acoustic experiments. He was the first to produce a clearer understanding on the nature of larynx and its role in the phonation of sound. With his acoustic experiments he concluded three points from his investigations. “First, that in order to phonate the lips of the glottis had to come together”; this speaks back to the theory on phonation by Galenus when he describes how the emission of sound is achieved by narrowing the channels of the larynx; “second, that vibration of the lips was the essential factor since by touching them the sound stopped”; this adds to Galenus theory when he theorizes that constriction between the channels of the larynx can be achieved by narrowing the distance to no vibration; “third, that difference in tension of the edges of the glottis caused the changes in the pitch[4]”(Duey 17). His investigation on the physiology of the larynx made him the anatomist who discovered greater knowledge on the study of phonation than those who preceded him.

The role of the performer before the 16th centuryEdit

The role of the performer has been through two stages from the beginning of the first millennium to the middle of the second one. The first stage is of being of utter importance to the performance of the song and the second is in being the least important role in the production of singing. Opinions on the role of music and the performer were in fluctuation amongst the intellects when it came to its significance. Attention towards virtuosity can be traced back to the days of Aristotle. He paid attention to how the different organs in our body play a role in creating voice. He says: “the greatest difference in sound is produced by the blows of the air and the shapes assumed by the mouth[5]”(Aristotle 800a). Here he indicates how the interaction between the air and the movement of the mouth have a significant role in shaping sounds. Great attention is given to the mechanics of voice production. Another example of criticism on virtuosity is Quintillan, Plutarch. He emphasizes on the importance of vocal training as he says: “the good qualities of the voice, like everything else, are improved by training and impaired by neglect[6]”(Quintilian 19). As Christinaity started developing and expanding, music became a powerful tool in spreading the religion. Therefore, musicians and composers started appearing more and more to integrate music into religious services. However, John of Salisbury (1115-1180) expresses his opinion on music as it “defiles the service of religion[7]”(Lang 140). He sees it as a tool that desecrates the piety of the congregation in the church. Around the 12th century, singers were accused of malpractice of music. Nonetheless, composers continued developing their monodic melodies into polyphonic melodies in the 14th and 15th centuries. The application of polyphonic melodies in congregations moved choral singing into higher grounds. As performers gained a concrete role in music production, the castrati were to root them as a fundamental part in the development of music as the 16th century turned.

CastratiEdit

Castration has its roots in ancient civilizations for other purposes than singing, but it would be pertinent to note how it came into the art of singing. The main purpose of castration in the realm of singing was to maintain the high voice in male sopranos. Their crucial impact on music started appearing in the “Sistine Chapel by 1562 in its public performances[8]”(Duey 49). After that, the members of the Sistine Chapel started including more castrati in their services after they observed their phenomenal capacity and started training them as sopranists from 1609[9](Duey 49). Their presence in the Italian church choirs was quite essential until the end of the 19th century. Another place where bel canto reached its golden age is on the stage of the opera. Singing opera required agility singing, high range, and dramatic expressions in singing. Castrati already acquired these skills; therefore, the opera “was not laggard in realizing that the extraordinary vocal gifts of these “unnatural” ones were made to order for its essential baroque characteristics[10]”(Duey 49). They earned the position of the leading role in almost every opera and one of the greatest examples is Girolamo Crescentini(1762-1846) in playing Romeo in Romeo et Juliette in 1804 in Vienna. Emperor Napoleon was amongst the audience and his performance was so effective on him that “Napoleon gave way to tears and not knowing how to express his pleasure the Emperor sent to him the decoration of the order of the cross of iron, rank of chevalier[11].”(Fétis 390).

During their professional years, they were highly praised, and criticized for their abnormality. Charles de Brosses critiques their appearance as they “grew to be big and fat like capons, with hips, buttocks, arms, breast, and neck round and plump like women[12]”(Brosses 239). It is undeniable that their appearance was leaning more towards the female side rather than the male side. They appeared with fair skin, thick hair, tall, more rounded in the chest area, and one of their extraordinary features is that they sounded like children when they spoke, even though they had semi-gigantic bodies. Nonetheless, they are also praised for their unique vocal gifts. Manuel Garcia, one of the most popular voice teachers throughout the 19th century, praises them in Hints on Singing when he says: “let it suffice, to mention, as one of the most important, the disappearance of the race of great singers who, besides originating this art, carried it to its highest point of excellence[13]”(Garcia Preface VI).

characteristics of bel cantoEdit

With the castrati being the singers who brought bel canto to its golden age from mid seventeenth century to the eighteenth, comes its florid techniques. Since their chests acquired abnormal dimensions due to castration, they were able to produce their popular technique: messa di voce. It consists of swelling the tone by beginning the passage quietly and then swelling the note to full volume and bringing it back to quietness by diminishing the volume (i.e., crescendo and diminuendo). In the days of the castrati, it was used as an ornament to the passage but then as a pedagogic tool in vocal pedagogy in the eighteenth century[14](Harris). Bel canto would not be named the florid art of singing without bravura. Bravura is “the element of brilliant display in vocal or instrumental music that tests the performer’s skill[15]”(Jander). The term bravura came to be known from the aria di bravura by Handel. It requires the singer to sing vocal passages floridly, energetically, and richly all at once. Expressing heroic emotions through the high and middle range. It can be said that singing bravura passages encompasses a strong example of bel canto characteristics in motion. Another characteristic of bel canto that was developed by the castrati in the eighteenth century is legato. Legato is the singing “of successive notes in performance, connected without any intervening silence of articulation[16]”(Chew). It beautifies the vocal passage for it sustains the timbre throughout singing, and with this delicate flow of vowels, it produces a pleasing sound to the ear. Also, with its lack of intervals of silences between the vowels, the emotion that the singer is trying to project comes out uninterrupted and smoothly attainable by the ear of the listener. In order to sustain the timbre throughout the legato, the singer imbues the vocal passage with the chiaroscuro quality to enrich the vowels with resonance. Chiaroscuro is “the result of laryngeal source and the resonating system interacting in such a way as to present a spectrum of harmonics perceived by the listener as a resonant balanced vocal quality[17]”(Emanski). In order to have a clearer perspective on the audible quality of chiaroscuro in singing, it would be useful to study its effect in painting. The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio is an excellent example of its application. The background of the painting is mostly dark, except for the shockingly intruding of the light from the window. As the light travels through the room, it shapes the limbs and facial expressions of the men in the painting. The shaping of the light of the figures is rounded to completion by the presence of the darkness. Similarly, in singing, the singer shapes the sound of the light tones while also rounding them with richness. An example of its application in singing is Maria Callas’s coloratura of Dinorah, Act II: Ombra leggera(The Shadow Song), 1995 by Meyerbeer. She sings the verse with a fully rich voice, delivering resonant chiaroscuro quality. However, when she starts singing the chorus(Ah, va ben…) she subtly splits her voice into two distinctive sounds. The first voice is light-dark in quality in comparison with the second one, which is only light. The two sounds respond to each other throughout the chorus. The first sounds supported, whereas the second one is suspended and lacks ground to stand upon. She ornaments this part of the song to express the dialogue between Dinorah and the shadow that she finds in the woods. The light-dark part in the chorus is the physical and spiritual body of Dinora, and the light part is the shadow’s body–suspended and unmaterialistic. Ginger Dellenbaugh, a music historian, praises the skills of Callas when she says: “Callas exceeds most singers with her particularly intuitive production of sound, and awareness of her own timbre and vocal space. In this recording, she makes use of the dark, “covered” aspect of her middle range, accentuating its already hollow quality by vocalizing her initial runs and flourishes on an “a” vowel in a way that is focused vertically in the middle of the mouth[18].” ( Dellenbaugh 106-107).

In summation, after its emergence in the late sixteenth century to its development in the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, bel canto became the epitome of singing. Though the castrati were criticized for their abnormality, they nonetheless, played a chief role in raising it to its excellent point in the art of beautiful singing. With its florid techniques, it paved the way for singers to express the emotions of their characters more vividly and energetically. After all, its emergence, development, and presence till this day is fueled with the desire to express and ring the soul of humanity through song.

ReferencesEdit

• Aristotle. On the Soul. Parva Naturalia. On Breath. Translated by W. S. Hett. Loeb Classical Library 288. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957. • Charles de Brosses, Lettres familières écrites d’Italie en 1739-40, second authentic ed., Paris, 1858, 2 vols., p. 239. • Chew, Geoffrey. “Legato.” Grove Music Online, 2001, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.16290 • Dellenbaugh, Ginger. “Meyerbeer, Le Pardon De Ploërmel, Ou Dinorah, Act II: Ombre Leggera [The Shadow Song].” Maria Callas's Lyric and Coloratura Arias, Bloomsbury Academic & Professional, New York, 2021, pp. 106–107. • Duey, Philip. Bel Canto in Its Golden Age. King's Crown Press, 1951. • Emanski, Julianna. “Brief History of Chiaroscuro.” Juliannaemanski, 13 Mar. 2017, https://www.juliannaemanski.com/single-post/2017/03/12/brief-history-of-chiaroscuro • Fétis, Biographie des Musiciens, II, p. 390. • Gordon Holmes, “History of the Progress of Laryngology from the earliest Times to the Present,” The Medical Press, London, July 15, 1885, p.49. • Harris, Ellen T. “Messa Di Voce.” Grove Music Online, 2001, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.18491 • Jander, Owen. “Bravura.” Grove Music Online, 2001, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.03888 • Lang, Paul Henry. Music in Western Civilization. W.W. Norton, 1941. • Manuel Garcia, Hints on Singing, New York, 1894. Preface VI. • Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, transl. by H. E. Butler (Leob), London, 1921. XI, iii, 19. . The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Grove, 2001. • Stark, James A. Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. Univ. of Toronto Press, 2008.

  1. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Grove, 2001.
  2. Stark, James A. Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. Univ. of Toronto Press, 2008.
  3. Gordon Holmes, “History of the Progress of Laryngology from the earliest Times to the Present,” The Medical Press, London, July 15, 1885, p.49.
  4. Duey, Philip. Bel Canto in Its Golden Age. King's Crown Press, 1951.
  5. Aristotle. On the Soul. Parva Naturalia. On Breath. Translated by W. S. Hett. Loeb Classical Library 288. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957.
  6. Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, transl. by H. E. Butler (Leob), London, 1921. XI, iii, 19.
  7. Lang, Paul Henry. Music in Western Civilization. W.W. Norton, 1941.
  8. Duey, Philip. Bel Canto in Its Golden Age. King's Crown Press, 1951.
  9. Duey, Philip. Bel Canto in Its Golden Age. King's Crown Press, 1951.
  10. Duey, Philip. Bel Canto in Its Golden Age. King's Crown Press, 1951.
  11. Fétis, Biographie des Musiciens, II, p. 390.
  12. Charles de Brosses, Lettres familières écrites d’Italie en 1739-40, second authentic ed., Paris, 1858, 2 vols., p. 239.
  13. Manuel Garcia, Hints on Singing, New York, 1894. Preface VI.
  14. Harris, Ellen T. “Messa Di Voce.” Grove Music Online, 2001, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.18491
  15. Jander, Owen. “Bravura.” Grove Music Online, 2001, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.03888
  16. Chew, Geoffrey. “Legato.” Grove Music Online, 2001, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.16290
  17. Emanski, Julianna. “Brief History of Chiaroscuro.” Juliannaemanski, 13 Mar. 2017, https://www.juliannaemanski.com/single-post/2017/03/12/brief-history-of-chiaroscuro
  18. Dellenbaugh, Ginger. “Meyerbeer, Le Pardon De Ploërmel, Ou Dinorah, Act II: Ombre Leggera [The Shadow Song].” Maria Callas's Lyric and Coloratura Arias, Bloomsbury Academic & Professional, New York, 2021, pp. 106–107.