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.” Let’s 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. Berti’s 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 Monteverdi’s “Lamento d’Arianna,” 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 singer’s 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 Brun’s 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. Lecuyer’s 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 Haine’s air “Plus on connoit l’amour” from Lully’s Armide: (Act III, scene iv):
Plus on cconnoit ll’amour, & 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 1580’s 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. Orfeo’s famous aria “Possente Spirto,” from Act III of Monteverdi’s 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 Monteverdi’s ornamentation. (Of course, a singer of Monteverdi’s time might have preferred to improvise the affetti instead of following Monteverdi’s 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 Bacilly’s 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). Return to Beginning
**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. Return to Beginning
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). Return to text
2. For a detailed discussion of syllabic quantity see Bénigne de Bacilly, Remarques curieuses sur l’art 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). Return to text
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.
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A. Dès que le vent est donné avec plus de force que n’exige le son, la glotte se serre, comme lorsqu’on presse trop la hanche d’un 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: L’Imprimerie Royale, 1760], 16).
As soon as the air is given with more force than the tone requires, the glottis constricts, as when one presses too much the reed of an oboe: if this excess of force is also given too precipitously, it stiffens the walls of the glottis and takes away all its flexibility.
B. Mais de tous les muscles de la poictrine le diafragme est le plus necessaire pour la respiration ordinaire, comme les autres sont plus necessaires pour les respirations violentes, qui font enfler la poictrine extraordinairement. (Marin Mersenne, Harmonie Universelle, vol. 2: Traitez de la Voix et des Chants [Paris: S. Cramoisy, 1636], 3).
But of all the chest muscles, the diaphragm is the most necessary for ordinary respiration, since the others are more necessary for violent respiration, which swells the chest extraordinarily.
C. On peut aussi comprendre sous le nom de Disposition, l’haleine, qui est encore fort necessaire pour l’execution du Chant, à moins que de vouloir souvent couper un mot, ou un syllable en deux. . . . (Bacilly, Remarques curieuses , 50).
Breathing can also be included under the heading of disposition. It is essential to good vocal performance so as to avoid cutting a word short or cleaving a syllable in two. (Austin Caswell, trans., A Commentary upon the Art of Singing, 25).
D. L’Inspiration est le mouvement de l’air extérieur qui entre par la bouche, le nez & la glotte dans la Trachée-artère, & va remplir toute la capacité des Poumons: l’inspiration suit necessairement de la dilatation de la Poitrine: cette dilatation a son principe dans le mouvement des côtes qui s’élevent en se portant en dehors, & dans la contraction du Diaphragme, dont la partie convexe qui regarde la Poitrine descend & comprime le Ventre. L’Expiration est l’action des Organes, par laquelle l’air intérieur est chassé des Poumons, & en sort par les mêmes voyes qu’il y étoit entré: on doit rapporter l’Expiration au rétablissement du Diaphragme, & au retrecissement de la Poitrine, qui se fait par l’abaissement des côtes. Comme le Poumon est le centre contre lequel agissent tous ces différens mouvemens, il doit être comprimé, & l’air doit être chassé des Cellules pneumoniques ou il étoit contenu: c’est cet air qui doit servir à la formation de la Voix & par conséquent du Chant, puisque ce dernier n’est qu’une sorte de modification de la Voix, par laquelle on forme des Sons variés & appréciables. (Jean Baptiste Bérard, L’art du Chant [Paris: Dessaint & Saillant, 1755], 9-11).
Inspiration is the movement of exterior air which enters the trachial artery by the mouth, the nose and the glottis and fills the entire capacity of the lungs: Inspiration follows necessarily the dilation of the chest: this dilation has its basis in the movement of the ribs which are lifted upwards and in the contraction of the diaphragm, whose convex part, which is near the chest, descends and compresses the abdomen. Expiration is the action of the organs by which the internal air is expelled from the lungs, leaving by the same paths it entered: one should correlate expiration with the re-establishment of the diaphragm and with the contraction of the chest, which is done by a lowering of the ribs. Whereas the lung is the center around which all these different movements occur, it must be compressed and the air must be driven from the pneumonic cells where it had been contained: it is this air which must serve the formation of the Voice and, as a result, singing, since this latter is only a sort of modification of the voice by which one forms various and appreciable sounds.
E. Gli proibisca di prender fiato in mezzo d’una parola, imperciochè il dividerla in due respiri è un errore, che la natura non soffre, e si deve imitarla per non esserne burlato. In un movimento interrotto, o in un Passaggio lungo no v’è questo regore, allorchè non si possa cantara, o l’una o l’altra in un sol fiato. (Pier Francesco Tosi, Opinioni de’ cantori antichi, e moderni [Bologna: L. dalla Volpe, 1723], 65).
Let him [the Master] forbid the Scholar to take breath in the Middle of a word, because the dividing it in two is an Error against Nature; which must not be followed, if we would avoid being laugh’d at. In interrupted Movements, or in long Divisions, it is not so rigorously required when the one or the other cannot be sung in one Breath. (J. E. Galliard, trans., Observations on the Florid Song [London: J. Wilcox, 1742], 60)
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 qu’on veut exprimer, la voix se fait entendre sans qu’il en co-te le moindre effort. Il en doit être le même du chanteur; occupé du seul sentiment, qu’il veut rendre, tout le reste doit lui être si familier, qu’il ne soit plus obligé d’y penser.” Rameau’s 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. Return to text
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. Return to text
12. I take a somewhat different position on this topic than does, for example, Ellen Hargis in “The Solo Voice,” A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Music, ed. Jeffrey T. Kite-Powell (New York: Schirmer Books, 1994), 5. Return to text
17. See Bérard, L’Art du Chant (1755); Lecuyer, Principes de l’art 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, l’Articulation et la Prosodie de la langue françoise (Lille: P.S. Lalau, 1772). Return to text
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. Return to text
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. Return to text
Sally Sanford, soprano Catherine
Editor, 1/15/2003, revised 7/15/2005 and 11/22/2016: the original monaural data files for these examples were converted to RealOne Player media files, and later to mp3 format.
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 l’amour” -- with doubled consonants
Audio 14: excerpt from Lully, Armide: “Plus on connait l’amour” -- 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.
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