Sally A. Sanford*
A Comparison of French and Italian Singing in the Seventeenth Century**
4. Speech mode
[0.1] Although Italian and French solo vocal music in the seventeenth century may have shared a common aesthetic aim -- to move the passions -- French and Italian singers achieved that aim through quite different technical and stylistic means. This article examines some of the principal areas of vocal technique that help to define the differences between French and Italian singing in this period.(note 1)
[1.1] Besides obvious, important differences in compositional and ornamentation style, and the lack of interest by the French in the castrato voice, the most significant differences between French and Italian singing in the seventeenth century stem from the fact that Italian is a qualitative language while seventeenth-century French was quantitative.(note 2) Italian vocal music is brought to life chiefly through the expressivity given to the vowels, while in French music the emotional expression rests chiefly in the highly nuanced inflection of the consonants.
[1.2] You can experience the kinesthetic implications of the qualitative/ quantitative difference in language for yourself. It may be easier to do so if you stand up in front of your computer screen. Imagine that you are Italian and say Mama mia (audio 1). Say Mama mia again. Notice the ebb and flow of air in your body and the flexibility required in your abdomen to inflect the vowels, to give more stress and dynamic emphasis to the accented syllables. Contrast this feeling by imagining now that you are French and say ma mère (audio 2). There is no ebb and flow of air corresponding to a qualitative accent; instead the air flow is more steady, even, and relatively small, as you say an evenly weighted short-long pair of syllables, in this case with a more distinct word boundary between ma and mère than we had with mama mia. Lets say something a bit longer: Comment-allez vous? (audio 3)
[2.1] I hope you can sense just from this brief spoken exercise that French and Italian singers would have used quite different approaches to breathing. Here we get into the grey areas involved in reconstructing historical vocal techniques, because the seventeenth-century singing treatises tell us very little about the nature of the release of air during phonation aside from the fact that it was not done with great force.(note 3) Jean-Philippe Rameau in the mid-18th century provides some rationale for evolving a breath technique for singing from the spoken language:
. . . all our attention, all our desire, should be simply to train oneself to expel the breath more or less in the same fashion as when we go to speak: preoccupied by the single thought one wishes to express, the voice is heard without costing the least effort. It should be the same for the singer: preoccupied only by the feeling he wishes to convey, all the rest should be so familiar to him that he no longer is obliged to think about it.(note 4)
[2.2] Extrapolating from text declamation then, the Italian approach to breathing can be described as one that varied air pressure, air speed and air volume according to the dramatic and emotional declamation of the text, and to some extent according to the size of the space in which one was singing. Even though the air pressure fluctuated, the Italian breath system during the seventeenth century generally used less pressure than we associate with modern operatic singing today.(note 5) A variable air stream gives a dynamic shading, a chiaroscuro, to the vowels that corresponds to the accentuation and declamation of the text. The text itself thus provides a dynamic plan and shape for the vocal line that should be observed by the singer and reflected in the accompaniment.
[2.3] The musical selection shown in example 1 and figure 1 and performed in audio 4 gives an excerpt from the monody Occhi se sete i giri by Giovanni Pietro Berti.(note 6) If one adopts an aesthetic position that the expression of the text should take precedence over the music, there is an implied descrescendo for the resolution of what we might call a V-I cadence at measure 9, based on the dynamic stress pattern of the Italian verso piano, in which the final accent lies on the penultimate syllable.(note 7) It is often so ingrained in musicians to give a dynamic accent to the arrival of the tonic that we instinctively give such cadences a dynamic shape opposite to that implied by the text, even when we understand intellectually that the resolution of the cadence has an unstressed syllable. Bertis text underlay further helps to soften the cadence by anticipating the last syllable before the resolution of the cadence.
[2.4] With the new emphasis in early seventeenth-century Italy on recitative and on the primacy of the words, it is not surprising that we find an ornamentation style that features dynamic ornaments, such as the messa di voce and esclamazione. The text is the key to expressive singing for Caccini, who says that expressing the passion of the text is achieved through breath control: a man must have a command of breath to give the greater spirit to the increasing and diminishing of the voice, to esclamazione and other passions . . . (note 8)
[2.5] The seventeenth-century French approach to breathing can be described as a steady-state system of virtually constant air pressure, air speed and air volume -- similar to some modern schools of French art song singing(note 9) -- with the principal difference due to the amount of air pressure, which, as also for the Italians, was lower than in the modern school. In the seventeenth-century French steady-state system, dynamic shading of the vowels was not a primary concern; the dynamic contours of the vocal line took place within a smaller range. Instead of expressive vowels, the focus was on the expressive inflection of the consonants which were sung on this steady air stream. The consonants were sung longer or shorter, and the forcefulness given to them was harder or softer according to the passion expressed.(note 10) French consonant technique will be discussed in more detail below.
[2.6] Let us compare the French and Italian schools of breathing. The music sung in audios 5, 6, and 7 is shown in example 2 and figure 2. You can hear the opening phrase of Tristes enfans by Joseph Chabançeau de la Barre(note 11) sung with a seventeenth-century French technique (audio 5), a seventeenth-century Italian technique (audio 6), and a modern technique (audio 7). Audios 8, 9, and 10 will allow you to make a similar comparision of these different schools of singing with an Italian piece of music, the opening measures of Monteverdis Lamento dArianna, using an Italian (audio 8), a French (audio 9) and a modern technique (audio 10). The music for the Monteverdi selection is given in example 3. In the audios using French technique, the text is given expression and inflection through the consonants; the dynamic shape of the vowels is relatively even; and the syllables are given a quantitative accent. The resultant sound palette is more intimate. In the examples of Italian technique, the vowels bloom and carry the bulk of the expression of the text, observing a qualitative accent. The resultant sound palette has more dynamic variety, as the rhetorical stress ebbs and flows with the breath stream. In the audios using modern technique, the dynamic shape of the vowels is also relatively even, but the consonants are not given special expressive emphasis; the resultant sound palette is fuller, is not as intimate, and uses more constant vibrato.
[3.1] The principal reason that vibrato is perceptible as a constant in the vocal tone of modern singing is because of the greater air pressure used. When there is a change in air pressure or in the size of the air stream, the larynx will automatically respond differently. Using a lower pressure (compared to modern operatic singing) avoids the need to control vibrato through mechanical suppression in the vocal tract. Seventeenth-century singing -- whether French or Italian -- is not achieved by taking a modern production and straightening the sound. If you try to suppress vibrato without changing the air pressure, you will have to use some kind of constriction in the vocal tract. Such constriction can lead to unnecessary tension and fatigue. This can understandly alarm voice teachers when their students start straightening their sounds for singing early music. Using a laryngeal set-up that is unconstricted, with a breath pressure that will allow for vibratro to be used at the singers discretion, is a common denominator between Italian and French singing in the seventeenth century; what differs is the variable versus steady state air stream. Vibrato would have been consciously added by the singer when desired and was not a natural by-product of the voice production.(note 12)
[3.2] There are two different ways of producing vibrato, one produced with breath pressure (audio 11) and the other produced in the throat (audio 12). Both types of vibrato mechanism were used during the seventeenth century. The different mechanisms produce a difference in sound for these two types of vibrato -- somewhat subtle, a test for the sound fidelity of this new technology. The French would most likely have used a throat-produced vibrato, a mechanism very similar to their trill technique, in order not to disturb their steady air stream. The Italians most likely used a breath-produced vibrato as their norm, since they were using a variable air stream already, with throat vibrato reserved perhaps for more special effects. No seventeenth-century source addresses this issue, although Johann Adam Hiller in the late 18th century regarded throat vibrato as the more difficult of the two types of vibrato.(note 13) This suggests to me that the 18th-century Italo-Germanic School used throat vibrato less often than breath vibrato.
[4.1] The lower air pressure (compared to modern singing) that we find in both French and Italian breath systems meant not only that the laryngeal setup used did not have vibrato as a constant presence, but also that the vocal tract could be quite relaxed. A more relaxed vocal tract in turn allows for the likelihood that singers used speech mode a good deal. Speech mode is a laryngeal setup that employs a relaxed vocal tract and extends speech production into singing, an indispensable technique for singing in the stile recitativo, for example.
[5.1] Seventeenth-century and modern Italian are much closer to each other than seventeenth-century French is to its modern version. In using historical French pronunciation, listeners may react first to differences in vowel sounds, such as the oi-vowel which was pronounced as oé or oué until the French Revolution.(note 14) Bacilly describes a vowel nuance for French singing of delaying the nasalization of a vowel on a long note until the end of the note, a device that adds enormous possibilities and subtleties for inflection.(note 15) You can hear this on the word enfans in audio 5.
[6.1] Just as each passion manifested itself in a set of particular characteristics that could be codified for the artist in a work such as Le Bruns Caracteres des passions (1696), so each passion had its own characteristic manner of speech. Bacilly gives us in skeletal form a discussion of consonant doubling or prolonging.(note 16) His discussion was later expanded upon in the eighteenth century principally by Bérard, Lecuyer and Raparlier.(note 17) Bacilly confined his examples to the letters m, f, s, j, and v. Bérard later outlined five types of consonant articulation: hard, soft, natural, dark and clear, depending on the character of the words one is singing. Lecuyers rules for consonants can be summarized as follows:
[6.2] These writers describe a technique of preparing or prolonging consonants and of varying their articulation to make the music expressive. Bérard called it consonant doubling, and would indicate it by writing in a second consonant at those places where it should be applied. This consonant technique is not discussed in Italian or German sources. (note 19)
[6.3] Voiced consonants such as m, n, b, l, v, d, and z are often the easiest to prolong, because they can be pitched. From a practical point of view, prolonging consonants lets one play with their position relative to the beat, carrying a consonant over into the beat, for example, rather than having it occur before the beat, as is the standard in most classical singing, which follows an Italian tradition in this respect.
[6.4]Bérard gives the following guide for strong consonant doubling in the opening of La Haines air Plus on connoit lamour from Lullys Armide: (Act III, scene iv):
Plus on cconnoit llamour, & pllus on lle ddetestte: Detrruisons sson ppouvoir ffuneste. rRomppons ses nnoeuds, decchirons sson bbandeau, Brrulons sses trraits, etteignons son fflambeau.(note 20) (see figure 3)
The more one understands love, the more one detests it. Let us destroy its sinister power, Let us break its bonds, Let us tear its veil, Let us burn its features, snuff out its flame.(note 21)
[7.1] Both French and Italian singing in the seventeenth century differ significantly from modern singing with respect to the use of throat articulation, a technique for singing rapid passages and ornaments. Throat articulation had existed at least since the middle ages and had reached a zenith in the 1580s with garganta singers such as the three ladies of Ferrara, who excelled in this gorgia technique. Bacilly called this technique, or the laryngeal set-up for using this technique, the disposition de la gorge.(note 22) The Italians called it the dispositione. Throat articulation as heard in audios 4 , 5, 15, and 16 is an essential technique for a singer of seventeenth century music, particularly because it makes the music easier to sing.
[8.1] Given the considerable differences between French and Italian methods of singing in the seventeenth century, it is reasonable to assume that French and Italian singers would have reacted to musical notation differently, especially in pieces that sought to reflect the spoken declamation of a text. The qualitative/quantitative distinctions discussed above and heard in audios 1 and 2 illustrate how the style of declamation dictates a different approach to even a simple V-I cadence. The right mental software is essential to reading notation of the period. Orfeos famous aria Possente Spirto, from Act III of Monteverdis opera, is generally regarded as one of the more difficult pieces in the repertoire, a work of dazzling virtuosity demanding great technical prowess.(note 23) In my view, however, Monteverdi was very practical. Any good Italian singer of the time, who knew his affetti and who could sing with throat articulation, could have come in off the street and sight read the aria with Monteverdis ornamentation. (Of course, a singer of Monteverdis time might have preferred to improvise the affetti instead of following Monteverdis model.) Monteverdi has constructed the passaggi in Possente Spirto by stringing together a series of written-out affetti, all of them affetti in which a singer of his time would have been quite experienced and adept. Strung together, the trilli, ribatutte and cascate make a wonderful effect while being quite simple to sing -- given the right technique and the right mental software. An historical approach makes this piece easy; working against a modern technique would make it very difficult. You can hear an excerpt from this aria in audio 15, which is shown in example 5 and figure 4.
[8.2] Similarly, the florid double of a French air, such as the one that Joseph Chabançeau de la Barre wrote out for Tristes enfans in example 6 and figure 5 is much easier to sing using an historical approach (audio 16). This double can also be viewed as a series of ornaments strung together, ornaments which a few years later would more likely have been indicated by sign rather than by notation. The rhythmicization of the port de voix coming before the beat at regrets provides a nice illustration of Bacillys description of the ornament.(note 24)
[9.1] Using an historical approach to singing French and Italian music of the seventeenth-century requires fluency not only in different musical styles, but in different vocal techniques. It involves different reactions to musical notation as well. The differences between French and Italian singing that we have discussed are based primarily on differences in language. The implications of these differences are important not just for singers interested in seventeenth-century repertory, but also for instrumentalists interested in playing with an historical approach, since singing was the model for instrumental playing in this period.
*Sally Sanford (Salsanford@aol.com) is one
of the leading American singer-scholars in the revival of historical vocal
styles and techniques. She is a founding member of Ensemble Chanterelle,
a trio of soprano and plucked strings that specializes in seventeenth-century
music, and Associate Director of the cross-disciplinary Aston Magna Academy.
Her most recent recording is a compact disc of music by Henry Purcell, From Rosy Bowers, for Albany Records (Troy 127).
**This article has been adapted from a lecture-recital
given on April 29, 1994 at the annual conference of the Society for Seventeenth-Century
Music in Rochester, NY. I would like to acknowledge the generous assistance
of Raymond Erickson, harpsichord, in the musical examples played at the
1994 conference session, and of Catherine Liddell, theorbo, Dr. John Howard
of the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library at Harvard University, and Thomas Lehman
in the preparation of the audio examples for this article. I would also
like to thank John Sheridan, who provided assistance with the preparation
of the examples in modern notation, Brent Wissick and Ed Rykken for their
help in the audio test-phase of this project, and the entire editorial
board of this Journal for their invaluable assistance with and guidance
of this project.
1. For a more detailed discussion see Sally Allis Sanford, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Vocal Style and Technique, DMA dissertation, Stanford University, 1979. See also, Jeffrey G. Kurtzman, Vocal Style, The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: Music, Context,
Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
2. For a detailed discussion of syllabic quantity see
Bénigne de Bacilly, Remarques curieuses sur lart de bien chanter , 2nd. ed. (Paris: Guillaume de Luyne, 1679; reprint, Geneva: Minkoff
Reprints, 1971), Part II. For an English translation see Bénigne
de Bacilly, A Commentary Upon the Art of Singing, translated by
Austin B. Caswell (New York: The Institute of Medieval Music, 1968).
3. Below are representative examples of comments on breathing from both seventeenth- and 18th-century sources. They provide some documentation for using both diaphramatic and costal breath techniques, but are not specific enough to determine the action of the diaphragm and the nature of the breath stream during phonation.
A. Dès que le vent est donné avec plus de force que nexige le son, la glotte se serre, comme lorsquon presse trop la hanche dun hautbois: si cet exces de force est encore donné trop precipitamment, il roidit les parois de la glotte, & lui ôte toute sa flexibilité. . . (Jean-Philippe Rameau, Code de musique pratique, ou méthodes pour apprendre la musique [Paris: LImprimerie Royale, 1760], 16).Return to text
4. Jean-Philippe Rameau, Code de Musique, 1760,
17: toute notre attention, toute notre volonté, doit-elle
se borner a pousser le vent a peu pres de la même façon que
lorsque nous voulons parler: occupé de la seule pensée quon
veut exprimer, la voix se fait entendre sans quil en co-te le moindre
effort. Il en doit être le même du chanteur; occupé
du seul sentiment, quil veut rendre, tout le reste doit lui être
si familier, quil ne soit plus obligé dy penser. Rameaus
comments, though outside the period which is the focus of this article,
are also interesting for the comment that the breathing should be so natural
that it would not require conscious thinking on the part of the singer.
5. It is beyond the scope of this presentation to go into
the myriad aspects of modern operatic vocal techniques and the variety
of schools of opera singing in the present day. For purposes of this discussion,
however, the word modern is used to embrace the common elements
involved in singing classical opera in a medium-to-large opera theatre.
12. I take a somewhat different position on this topic
than does, for example, Ellen Hargis in The Solo Voice, A Performers Guide to Renaissance Music, ed. Jeffrey T. Kite-Powell
(New York: Schirmer Books, 1994), 5.
17. See Bérard, LArt du Chant (1755);
Lecuyer, Principes de lart du chant, suivant les règles de
la langue et de la prosodie françoise (Paris, 1769); Raparlier,
Principes de Musique, les agréments du chant, et un essai sur
la Prononciation, lArticulation et la Prosodie de la langue françoise
(Lille: P.S. Lalau, 1772).
19. After Raparlier, who was obviously well acquainted
with Bacilly and Bérard, the French approach to singing consonants
is not discussed again in a similar rational formulation until the writings
of the noted singing teacher Manuel Garcia in 1847, when he acknowledges
the work of Bérard and Bacilly, and applies their technique to
other languages and to works by Gluck, Mozart and Rossini, among others.
See Manuel Garcia, A Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing, edited
and translated by Donald V. Paschke (New York: Da Capo Press, 1975), 21ff.
23. See, for example, Nigel Rogers, Voices, Companion to Baroque Music ed. Julie Anne Sadie (New York: Schirmer
Books, 1991), 354. I am in complete agreement with Rogers regarding the
limberness of the vocal tract required for executing passaggi and with
the difficulties of executing rapid-fire ornamentation using
a modern operatic technique.
Sally Sanford, soprano
Catherine Liddell, theorbo
Editor, 1/15/2003, revised 7/15/2005: the original monaural data files for these examples have been replaced by RealOne Player media files.
Audio 1: spoken Mama mia
Audio 2: spoken Ma mère
Audio 3: spoken Comment allez-vous?
Audio 4: excerpt from Berti, Occhi se sete i giri
Audio 5: excerpt from de la Barre, Tristes enfans de mes desirs -- French style
Audio 6: excerpt from de la Barre, Tristes enfans de mes desirs -- Italian style
Audio 7: excerpt from de la Barre, Tristes enfans de mes desirs -- modern style
Audio 8: excerpt from Monteverdi, Lasciate mi morire -- Italian style
Audio 9: excerpt from Monteverdi, Lasciate mi morire -- French style
Audio 10: excerpt from Monteverdi, Lasciate mi morire -- modern style
Audio 11: breath vibrato
Audio 12: throat vibrato
Audio 13: excerpt from Lully, Armide: Plus on connait lamour -- with doubled consonants
Audio 14: excerpt from Lully, Armide: Plus on connait lamour -- without doubled consonants
Audio 15: excerpt from Monteverdi,Orfeo: Possente spirto
Audio 16: excerpt from de la Barre, double for Tristes enfans de mes desirs
This Version html prep. RJ 10/13/95, edited KJS 10/16/95.
Copyright © 1995 by the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music. All rights
Jonathan Glixon, Far il buon concerto: Music at the Venetian Scuole Piccole in the Seventeenth Century, Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music 1 (1995) <http://www.sscm-jscm.org/v1/no1/glixon.html>, par. 2.3.
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