Origins and Principles

In the 1570s and 1580s, a group of musicians and literary figures gathered in Florence to discuss the music of the Ancient Greeks, and in particular Greek tragedies, which they believed were performed to musical accompaniment, with a perfect union between words and music. The group was subsequently referred to as the Florentine camerata, and listed among its members composer-singers such as Vincenzo Galilei (father of the astronomer), Giulio Caccini, Jacopo Peri and others, as well as poets – dramatists such as Piero Strozzi, Ottavio Rinuccini etc.,. Using the Greek tragedy as their model, they resolved to free any future vocal compositions from the madrigal polyphonic conventions, and to focus on the role of the solo singer performing to a simple accompaniment. Natural declamatory speech set to music.


       Caccin, Giulio 1551 -1610


Theoretical deliberations became empirical pursuits. A new style of vocal composition emerged, the stile rappresentativo. One of first exponents of this style, and regarded by many as the finest, was Giulio Caccini. His elegant, eloquent and melodious compositions have stood the test of time, and one, in particular, the plaintive love song , Amarilli mia bella, is to this day used as an instructional tool for the student of voice. Caccini’s other great attribute was his own versatility as a singer. He considered as paramount, even in the earliest development of the new style, the need for naturalness of utterance combined with naturalness of tonal emission. The resultant artistic singing came to be described as 'bel canto'. Predating, by several centuries, the use and application of that term.


It is not surprising that the style whose springboard was Greek theatre, should, in due course, be used to stage its own dramatic works - the first operas. It became imperative, therefore, that the instrument fundamental to the performance of these works, should become an empirical study in its own right.


Thus the study came to focus on a phenomenon referred to as the natural voice, not uncommon (though less so now) in Mediterranean countries, especially Italy, with a language devoid of aspirates, and possessed of a mellifluousness and fluidity like no other. Many singing voices manifest degrees of naturalness in their emission. However, a wholly natural voice is a rarer phenomenon, and may be defined as a voice which, before schooling, is capable of producing a free and full tone, resting solely on the breath, and coupled with clear and distinct enunciation, across its given compass. The study was meticulous in its search, and governed by the understanding of the principle of cause and effect.


Over succeeding generations, a school of thought began to emerge, which in turn led to the creation of a school of vocalism that spread throughout Italy. Although centres for this learning became associated with principal Italian cities eg., Rome, Naples, Venice, Florence, Bologna etc., the teaching itself remained unified in precept and purpose. It was never regarded as a method, nor was it peculiar to one location or another. Masters, with ears finely tuned to the physical aspects of tonal issuance and the resultant aesthetic of the tone itself, moved freely across the country, and eventually abroad; imparting their knowledge accordingly. A living oral tradition arose, in which learning passed from master to pupil, and from pupil to pupil.


Despite the progressive emergence of treatises on vocal pedagogy from Pier Francesco Tosi onwards, and the inevitable proliferation of methods, the oral tradition, among its true representatives, survived regardless of the increasing incursions by the codifiers and methodologists. As a living tradition, it was never static. The artistic singing, which was its end product, served a veritable plethora of composers and their respective musical styles throughout the centuries, and came to be known as 'bel canto' – fine or beautiful singing.



Bel Canto – fact and fantasy

  • It is a descriptive term, pure and simple.
  • Its origins are in the 16th century.
  • Its greatest glories are in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • It is not a vocal technique nor a vocal quality.
  • It is not a style, worse still a period in musical history.
  • The expression bel canto singing is an absurd tautology.
  • The idea of a bel canto singer singing bel canto repertoire, is too ridiculous to contemplate


The extent to which this term has been corrupted in our time is deplorable. It has necessitated the interpolation of the word 'old' in the naming of the present school, in order to return some dignity to this simple descriptive phrase. For a more comprehensive overview of this question, please refer to the section entitled – THE ITALIAN VOCAL TRADITION - DECLINE AND FALL.



The present school - tradition and precedents

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