OBSERVATIONS ON THE TECHNIQUE OF ITALIAN SINGING FROM THE 16TH CENTURY TO THE PRESENT DAY
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by Antonella Nigro

Print-off from the book Famous ancient arias: the best-known arias of the early Italian baroque, transcribed and realised according to the style of the period (Celebri Arie Antiche: le più note arie del primo Barocco italiano trascritte e realizzate secondo lo stile dell'epoca) by Claudio Dall'Albero and Marcello Candela, Rugginenti Editore, Milan, 1998

(for kindly authorization of the publishing house Rugginenti - Milan).

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Cover of the book 'Celebri Arie Antiche'One of the primary requirements for the purpose of realising aesthetically and historically correct interpretations of the music of the past is to identify the music's original sound-medium. But it is not always possible to establish this precisely, above all as regards vocal compositions. For whereas we have available to us a comparatively wide range of period instruments whose particular characteristics can be objectively determined, in the case of song the sound produced cannot be separated from the actual performer. The human voice is extremely malleable, and varies in accordance with the anatomy, taste and technical equipment of the singer. There are also the effects of a multiplicity of cultural, social, anthropological and other factors which tend to change over time.

This kind of variability can be experienced in listening to the earliest gramophone recordings: the voices of famous singers from the beginning of this century are generally thought not to correspond to the tastes of today. But if there is a large difference to be found after barely a hundred years, one is bound to ask oneself what sort of a surprise one would have in listening to music sung in a yet more remote past.

Discordant positions have been taken in the debate among musicians and scholars concerning an historically appropriate style of vocal performance. Within the cultural ambit of Northern Europe, respected opinions on the topic call for a vocal production in which vibrato is slight, if not indeed entirely absent. This practice does facilitate extremely clean intonation; but while it reflects the musical customs of more northerly peoples, it is strikingly removed from the usual pattern in traditional Italian singing.

Philological disputes on this matter are still unresolved: however, a reasonably definite way forward is indicated by the writings of the period. A variety of works from the late 16th and early 17th centuries discuss, albeit briefly, the art of singing. In his Prattica di Musica(1), one of the earliest texts in which we find extensive remarks on the subject, Ludovico Zacconi asserts:

Il tremolo nella musica non è necessario; ma facendolo oltra che dimostra sincerità, e ardire; abbellisce le cantilene [...] dico ancora, che il tremolo, cioè la voce tremante è la vera porta d'intrar dentro a passaggi, e d'impatronirsi delle gorge [...] Questo tremolo deve essere succinto, e vago; perché l'ingordo e forzato tedia, e fastidisce: Ed è di natura tale che usandolo, sempre usar si deve (sic); accioché l'uso si converti in habito; perché quel continuo muover di voce aiuta, e volentieri spinge la mossa delle gorge, e facilita mirabilmente i principij de passaggi [...]

(The tremolo is not necessary in music; but to perform it, besides demonstrating sincerity and boldness, embellishes the cantilenas (2)[...] I say further that the tremolo, that is, the trembling voice, is the true way of access to passaggios (3) and to the command of gorgias. This tremolo should be succinct, and graceful; because the excessive and forced is tedious, and annoys: And its nature is such that if one uses it, one must use it always (sic); in order that the use be converted into habit; because that continual movement of the voice is helpful, and readily assists the production of trills, and facilitates wonderfully the bases of passaggios [...] (4))

In the light of the instructions cited, it may legitimately be supposed that Zacconi's 'tremolo' is neither a device of emphasis, to be used for expressive effect, nor indeed an ornament, like the trill or the mordent (5); rather, it presents itself as a constant attribute of the voice. The essential traits in terms of which Zacconi describes the 'tremolo' coincide almost entirely with those which characterise the vibrato of today. It is important, however, to distinguish the natural vibrato from the vocal effect which results in oscillations so wide (owing, usually, to efforts to increase the volume of the voice) as to impair intonation and sound-quality. Further confusion is caused by various artificial practices, such as the use of the diaphragm to 'move' the sound intentionally by means of small impulses, as in the technique employed by some players of wind instruments, or such as the more or less rapid contraction of the muscles of the larynx, a habit fairly widespread among singers of folk and pop music. These expedients do not add to the beauty of the voice or provide emphasis in the singing; one might conjecture that Zacconi is referring to something analogous when he speaks of the 'excessive and forced' tremolo which 'is tedious, and annoys'.

It is a reasonable supposition that even the singers of the past practised a form of breath-control (6): "L'ottava (regola è; n.d.a.) che spinga appoco appoco con la voce il fiato [...]" ("The eighth (rule is [Ed.]) that one push the breath little by little with the voice [...]").(7) Maffei's words appear to describe a technique of production similar to the one used in modern singing, in which the apportionment of breath produces in the voice an involuntary vibration. In the baroque period, too, the vibrato probably formed part of the singer's technical equipment, independently of any expressive purposes. One could say that - contrary to the opinion that has become established even among musicians - the fixing of the voice is a distinctly unnatural and mechanical effect, resulting from the stiffening of the muscles of the larynx and the uncontrolled expulsion of the breath. It is possible in singing to suspend from time to time the vibration of the sound, whether voluntarily or otherwise, but it has to be said that in the case of most singers who lack the requisite awareness the voice remains fixed at all times, resulting as it does from a faulty production. (>>>Next)

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(1) LUDOVICO ZACCONI, Prattica di Musica, Venice, Bartolomeo Carampello, 1596; anastatic reprint, Bologna, Forni, 1983.

(2) Ib., Bk.I, folio 55, Ch.LXII.

(3) Diminutions and improvised passages of agility. Since the art of 'passeggiare' (executing passaggios) constituted one of the essential elements in the training of singers from the 16th to the 19th century, the reader interested in this fundamentally important aspect of the performance of arias in this period will find it useful to consult the works cited in the present article, as well as in the general bibliography under 'riproduzioni in fac simile'.

(4) Ib., Bk. I, f. 60, Ch. LXVI.

(5) This is the view maintained by Thurston Dart in The Interpretation of Music, London, Hutchinson University Library, 1954, p. 50 of the 1967 edition, where he claims that the vocal vibrato is an effect like the trill or the mordent, and is to be employed as such; in the performance of ancient music therefore, according to the English musicologist, voices with vibrato would be entirely inappropriate in polyphony and solo singing alike.

(6) Some remarks on the use of the breath in singing can also be found in: PIER FRANCESCO TOSI, Opinioni de' Cantori Antichi e Moderni, Bologna, Lelio dalla Volpe, 1723 - Repr. con note ed esempi di Luigi Leonesi, Naples, Di Gennaro & Morano, 1904; anast. repr. Bologna, Forni, 1985. On p. 65 one reads: "Il Maestro può correggerne lo Scolaro con quegl'insegnamenti da cui si impara di far un buon uso del respiro, di provvedersene sempre più del bisogno, e di sfuggir gl'impegni se 'l petto non resiste. In ogni composizione gli faccia poi conoscere il sito di respirare, e di respirar senza fatica, poiché ci sono de'cantanti, che con affanno di chi sente penano come gli asmatici ripigliando stentatamente fiato ad ogni momento, o arrivando all'ultime note sfiatati morti." ("The maestro may correct the pupil by means of those instructions through which one learns to use the breath well, to provide oneself always with more than is needed, and to avoid demands with which the chest cannot cope. He should also enable him to recognise in any composition the points at which to draw breath without becoming tired, for there are singers who, to the distress of their audience, struggle like asthmatics, and laboriously catch their breath from one moment to the next or reach the last notes expiring from breathlessness"). Compare also the paragraph 'diminutions' in the authors' 'Notes on the Criteria of Realisation'.

(7) GIOVANNI CAMILLO MAFFEI, Delle lettere del Signor G. C. M. da Solofra libri due: dove tra gli altri bellissimi pensieri di Filosofia e di Medicina v'è un discorso della voce e del modo d'apparar di garganta senza maestro, Naples, 1562; in Revue dee Musicologie, no. 38 (1956), p. 20.