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History of the Term

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Generally understood, Bel Canto refers to the Italian vocal style of the 18th and early 19th centuries of which the qualities include perfect legato production throughout the range, the use of a beautiful tone in the higher registers and agile and flexible delivery. Bel Canto or literally beautiful singing is a term that came to be widely used in the 19th century, but as a tradition has its origins as far back as the 16th century. Prominent vocal pedagogues from the Bel Canto era include: Manuel García I & II, Mathilde Marchesi & Julius Stockhausen (both students of Garcia II ), Francesco Lamperti, and his son Giovanni Battista Lamperti.

The term "bel canto" refers to the Italian-originated vocal style that prevailed throughout most of Europe during the 18th century and lingered in a less elaborate but still dominant form until around 1840. The hallmarks of the bel canto style were:

  • an impeccable legato production throughout the singer's (seamless) range,
  • the use of a light tone in the higher registers,
  • an agile, flexible technique capable of dispatching ornate embellishments,
  • the ability to execute fast, accurate divisions,
  • the avoidance of aspirates and the eschewing of a loose vibrato,
  • a pleasing, well-focused timbre,
  • a clean attack,
  • limpid diction, and
  • graceful phrasin g rooted in a complete mastery of breath control.

Operas and oratorios highly conducive to this method of singing were composed by George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) and his contemporaries during the Baroque period. They contained da capo arias which were designed to provide solo singers with plentiful opportunities to display their technical skill and demonstrate their ability to improvise on the spot by embellishing the written score in a (hopefully) tasteful and illuminating manner. Da capo arias featured extensive and elaborate ornamentation, demanding much from the vocalist in the way of fluent runs, trills, turns (gruppetti), mordents, morendi, roulades, staccato passages, appoggiaturas, acciaccaturas, marcato notes, messa di voce effects, rapid scales, wide leaps spanning two octaves or more and brilliant cadenzas. In short: what is commonly referred to by opera-goers as coloratura.

Two famous 18th-century teachers of coloratura vocalism were Antonio Bernacchi (1685–1756) and Nicola Porpora (1686–1768), but numerous others existed. A large proportion of these teachers were castrati. Singer/author John Potter declares in his book Tenor: History of a Voice (Yale University Press, 2009, p. 31) that: "For much of the 18th century castrati defined the art of singing; it was the loss of their irrecoverable skills that in time created the myth of bel canto, a way of singing and conceptualizing singing that was entirely different from anything that the world had heard before or would hear again."

In a narrower application, the term "bel canto" is sometimes attached exclusively to Italian opera of the time of Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) and Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848). These three composers wrote bravura works for the stage during what musicologists call the bel canto era, which lasted approximately from 1805 to 1840. The bel canto era preserved many of the Baroque's musical values, although such characteristic forms as opera seria and the da capo aria did not survive the passing of the 18th century. Changing tastes and social standards also killed off the operatic castrato voice and ensured the concomitant rise to singing supremacy of the prima donna soprano and the virtuoso tenor. (The last important opera role for a castrato was written in 1824 by Giacomo Meyerbeer [1791-1864].)

Actually, the phrase "bel canto" did not enter common usage until the middle of the 19th century, when it was set in opposition to the development of a weightier, more powerful style of speech-inflected singing associated with German opera and, above all, Richard Wagner's revolutionary music dramas. Wagner (1813–1883) decried the Italian singing model, alleging that it was concerned merely with "whether that G or A will come out roundly". He advocated a new, Germanic school of singing which would draw "the spiritually energetic and profoundly passionate into the orbit of its matchless Expression".

Interestingly enough, French musicians and composers never embraced the more florid extremes of the 18th-century Italian bel canto style. They disliked the castrato voice and because they placed a premium on the clear enunciation of the texts of their vocal music, they objected to the sung word being obscured by excessive fioritura.

The popularity of the bel canto style as espoused by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini faded in Italy during the mid-19th century. It was overtaken by a heavier, more ardent, less embroidered approach to singing that was necessary in order to perform the innovative works of Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) with maximum dramatic impact. Tenors, for instance, began to inflate their tone and deliver the high C (and even the high D) directly from the chest rather than resorting to a suave head voice/falsetto as they had done previously, sacrificing vocal agility in the process. Sopranos and baritones reacted in a similar fashion to their tenor colleagues when confronted with Verdi's drama-filled compositions. They subjected the mechanics of their voice production to greater pressures and cultivated the exciting upper part of their respective ranges at the expense of their mellow but less penetrant lower notes. Initially at least, the singing techniques of 19th-century contraltos and basses were less affected by the musical innovations of Verdi, which were built upon by his successors Amilcare Ponchielli (1834–1886) and Arrigo Boito (1842–1918).

One reason for the eclipse of the old Italian singing model was the growing influence within the music world of bel canto's detractors, who considered it to be outmoded and condemned it as vocalization devoid of content. To others, however, bel canto became the vanished art of elegant, refined, sweet-toned musical utterance. Rossini lamented in a conversation that took place in Paris in 1858 that: "Alas for us, we have lost our bel canto". Similarly, the so-called German style was as derided as much as it was heralded. In the introduction to a collection of songs by Italian masters published in 1887 in Berlin under the title Il bel canto, Franz Sieber wrote: "In our time, when the most offensive shrieking under the extenuating device of 'dramatic singing' has spread everywhere, when the ignorant masses appear much more interested in how loud rather than how beautiful the singing is, a collection of songs will perhaps be welcome which – as the title purports – may assist in restoring bel canto to its rightful place."

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