Bel Canto – An Idea Comes of Age
by Jan Schmidt-Garre
When we were looking for a common denominator, a name, for our project, one word soon forced its way to the forefront: Bel canto. This term seemed to be the best one to unite all the tenors of the first half of this century, whom we planned to present in twelve portraits and to bring back to life with a huge quantity of historical documents. They all served this ideal of beautiful singing in which the main stress was always on perfect intonation, beautiful sound, and the perfect balance of the voice. In this sense, Bel canto ought to be our ideal as well to the extent that we are concerned here with an artform, singing, and not primarily with biographical material, anecdotes, or attempts to conjure up a vanished age. For this reason, each portrait centres on the critical analysis of one particularly informative recording, explained in advance by Jürgen Kesting. The second component that we developed for each film was a scene charged with the appropriate atmosphere to present the environment and the world in which the singer lived, in the most tangible possible form, as this was the historical background of his singing.
The many discussions we held during the course of this work with music historians specialising in singers, experts on the voice, and present-day singers gradually changed the superficial, almost slangy concept of beautiful singing that had guided us up to then. The historical phenomenon of Bel canto pressed its way into the foreground and pushed the synonym for successful singing aside. We realised that music historians had defined Bel canto as nothing more than the stylistic requirements and the necessary vocal skills of the Italian repertoire in the early 19th century, as composed by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and had indeed only seen these works as a derivative of the original Bel canto composed in the 18th century by Handel and Scarlatti. The break-through of the rugged, positivistic 19th century into this world, dominated as it was by the canto fiorito – artificially decorated singing – of the castrati singers, was marked by the virile high C with chest resonance. It was heard for the first time in 1831 in the opera house of Lucca.
Under the impact of this historical redefinition of Bel canto, our interest turned first to the tenor who represents a stylistic bridge to the early 19th century: Fernando De Lucia. In a thirteenth programme we devoted as much time to him as ever an optical medium allows, considering that no moving pictures of him exist. As John Steane said in discussion with us, "In a real Bel canto singer it’s not simply a matter of smoothness and flexibility but an element of phantasy enters as well. When you listen to Fernando De Lucia your first instinct is to say, ‘how poetic.’ ‘Poetic’ is almost as vague as ‘Bel canto’ itself, yet you do mean something by it: that the imagination of the singer has taken flight, that these are no longer notes on paper." With De Lucia’s singing still echoing in our ears, we then listened to Gigli’s serenade from Iris or Björling’s Ingemisco from Verdi’s Requiem as testimony to a new age, one that had nothing to do with the historical Bel canto in which De Lucia had grown up. And indeed, our tenors of the 78 era no longer learnt the "Latin of singing," as Jürgen Kesting called it; they sing contemporary music, verismo music, and then only gradually start turning to older works such as a little Mozart, Verdi, a Gluck aria or two, and perhaps a few comic roles by Rossini. Historical Bel canto plays no essential part in the repertoire of our protagonists.
And so, as we listen to the great recordings by Tauber, McCormack, Gigli, or Björling, we know that they are something new – but can still pick up a trace in them, an echo, of the old school. Suddenly we rediscover our original intuition of that which Bel canto could have been. In Tauber’s unique ability to anticipate with his voice the modulation the orchestra was about to make, in McCormack’s perfect intonation, or the unearthly beauty of sound in the voice of Beniamino Gigli, we can see the traces of the great Bel canto ideal about which singing teachers of the 18th and 19th century wrote. Although the historical Bel canto has vanished, the aesthetic principle of Bel canto is coming back to life; it has survived, and is making its mark in the really great, revitalising recordings. Bel canto appears here to have been turned into something nobody had expected, into a universal principle of art: the imperative of discretion, the economy of resources, the unsentimental objectivity, the free, spontaneous ability to let things evolve.