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Commentary

Stendhal, by Olof Johan Södermark, 1840 [Source: Wikipedia]
09 Sep 2019

Stendhal on the Rossini Revolution

Some Details concerning the Revolution inaugurated by Rossini

Some Details concerning the Revolution inaugurated by Rossini

Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle, 1783–1842)

Above: Stendhal, by Olof Johan Södermark, 1840 [Source: Wikipedia]

 

The art of bel canto was created in the year 1680 by Pistocchi; and its progress was hastened immeasurably by Pistocchi’s pupil, Bernacchi (c. 1720). The peak of perfection was attained in 1778, under the aegis of Pacchiarotti; but since that date, the race of male sopranos has died out, and the art has degenerated.

Millico, Aprile, Farinelii, Pacchiarotti, Ansani, Babini and Marchesi all owed their reputation to this style favoured by the older composers, who, in certain passages of their operas, provided the interpreter with scarcely more than a framework or canvas,[1] upon which to work out his own conceptions; and there is scarcely a single one of these great singers who did not, in addition, enrich the lives of his contemporaries by fostering the talents of two or three first-class prime donne. The biographies of such fine cantatrici as la Gabrielli, la de’ Amicis, la Banti, la Todi and others, all reveal the names of the famous soprani from whom they had learnt the supreme art of managing a voice.

More than one of the leading prime donne of our own generation owes her talents to Velluti – Signorina Colbran, for instance.

The supreme qualities of the soprani and of their pupils were seen at their most resplendent in the execution of largo and cantabile spianato passages; and we have a beautiful example of this style of writing in the prayer-scene from Romeo e Giulietta. Yet this precisely was the type of aria which Rossini, ever since the moment when he arrived in Naples and adopted what is now known in Italy as his “second manner”, has been at greatest pains to eliminate from his operas. In former days, a singer might train for six or eight years before being able to achieve a true largo, and the patient perseverance of Bernacchi, for instance, is proverbial in the history of the art. But once this degree of perfection, purity and sweetness, which the generation of 1750 considered to be the sine qua non of good singing, had finally been attained, the singer had nothing further to do but to reap his reward; his reputation and his fortune lay ready to hand. However, since Rossini has appeared on the scene, success or failure in the execution of a largo passage has become a matter of sublime indifference, and if ever such a passage were to be offered to any of our own audiences to-day, I can hear, even from where I now sit, the echoes of that little proverb about the devil and his own funeral. … That poor audience would be bored to death; and the reason is simple because it would find itself being addressed in a foreign language which it thinks it knows, but which in fact it needs to sit down and re-learn from the beginning.

The older style of singing could stir a man to the innermost recesses of his soul; but it could also prove rather boring; Rossini’s style titillates the mind, and is never boring. It is a hundred times easier to acquire a fair enough proficiency to give a competent rendering of one of Rossini’s great rondo movements (the rondo from la Donna del Lago, for instance), than it is to achieve a similar standard in some great aria by Sacchini.

The subtleties involved in sustaining a long holding-note; the art of portamento; the technique of modulating the voice so as to make it fall with equal stress upon every note in a legato passage; the skilled control which enabled a singer to draw breath quite imperceptibly, without interrupting the long-drawn phrases of vocal melody so typical of the arias of the old school[2] – these and similar qualities represented formerly the most difficult and the most essential attainments of a good performer. The mere agility, remarkable or otherwise, of the voice, served only one purpose: it was employed in the execution of gorgheggi, i.e., it represented a luxury, it was used for display, or, in a word, for supplying an element of superficial glitter, and never for providing those essential qualities which were to shake and stir the soul. Every aria was provided, towards the conclusion, with a cadenza, usually of some twenty bars, whose whole raison d’être was to allow the singer to perform tricks with the muscles of his throat,[3] and to indulge in gorgheggi.

Rossini has been responsible for a musical revolution; but even his sincerest friends blame that revolution for having restricted the boundaries of the art of singing, for having limited the qualities of emotional pathos inherent in that art, and for having rendered useless, and therefore obsolete, certain technical exercises, valueless in themselves, but which could ultimately lead to those transports of delirium and rapture which occur so frequently in the history of Pacchiarotti and other great artists of an earlier generation, and so very rarely to-day. The source of these miracles lay in the mystic powers of the human voice.

The revolution inaugurated by Rossini has killed the gift of originality in the singer. What incentive can any singer have nowadays for taking infinite pains to convey to his audience, firstly, the native and individual quality of his voice, and secondly, the precise shade of expression by which it may be endowed through his peculiar and original sensibility? In Rossini’s operas he is doomed to wait for ever in vain for one single opportunity to display these rare qualities, whose acquisition may have cost him literally years of unrelenting labour. But in any case, the mere habit of expecting to find everything already worked out, already noted down in black and white in the music from which he has to sing, is enough to kill his own inventiveness, to quench the last spark of initiative within him, and to induce a fundamental attitude of laziness. The average modern composer makes no greater demands in his score than can be fulfilled by the exercise of a moderate degree of technical competence in a specifically material field: the field, in fact, of the instrumentalist. Rossini’s attitude of lasciatemi fare (leave everything to me), which is typical of his relations with his interpreters, has now reached such a pitch, that the latter may not even dispose of the right to improvise on the last note of all; in almost every instance, Rossini will be found to have supplied his own embroidery.

In days gone by, the great singers, Babini, Marchesi, Pacchiarotti, etc., used to compose their own ornamentation whenever the musical context required an exceptionally high level of complexity; but in normal circumstances, they were concerned with extempore invention. All the various categories of simpler embellishments (appoggiature, gruppetti, mordenti, and so on) were theirs to dispose and arrange as they thought best, spontaneously, and following the dictates of their art and their inner genius; the whole art of adorning the melody (i vezzi melodici del canto, as Pacchiarotti used to call it, when I met him in Padua in 1816) belonged by right to the performer. For instance, in the aria:

Ombra adorata, aspetta[4]

Crescentini would suffuse his whole voice and inflexion with a broad and indefinable colouring of satisfaction, because it would strike him, while he was actually standing up and singing, that an impassioned lover about to be reunited with his mistress probably would feel something of the sort. But Velluti, who perceives the situation rather differently, interprets the same passage in a vein of melancholy, interspersed with brooding reflections upon the common fate of the two lovers. There is no composer on earth, suppose him to be as ingenious as you will, whose score can convey with precision, these and similar infinitely minute nuances of emotional suggestion : yet it is precisely these and similar infinitely minute nuances which form the secret of Crescentini’s unique perfection in his interpretation of the aria; furthermore, all this infinitely minute material is itself in a perpetual state of transformation, constantly responding to variations in the physical condition of the singer’s voice, or to changes in the intensity of the exaltation and ecstasy by which he may happen to be inspired. At one performance, he may tend towards ornaments redolent of indolence and morbidezza; on a different occasion, from the very moment when he sets foot on the stage, he may find himself in a mood for gorgheggi instinct with energy and life. Unless he yield to the inspiration of the moment, he can never attain to perfection in his singing. A great singer is essentially a creature of nerves; a great violinist, on the other hand, needs a temperament of a radically different quality.[5]

But in any case, it is fundamentally wrong for the composer to elaborate all the ornamentation, for the simple reason that he would have to possess a perfect and intimate knowledge of the voice for which his music is destined, whereas this knowledge is something which can be known only to the singer who possesses it, and who has spent perhaps twenty years studying it and training it to the required flexibility.[6] A single ornament, I will not say badly, but even unenthusiastically performed, rendered dutifully but without brio, can destroy in an instant every shred of enchantment which had ever existed. You had been in heaven; but now you come tumbling down into the prosaic world of a box-at-the-opera; and you can count yourself lucky if you have not landed bang in the middle of a singing-lesson!

[Stendhal, and Richard N. Coe. Life of Rossini. (New York: Criterion Books, 1957), 341–345. (Translator’s notes omitted)]


[1] The great singers of this school never actually altered the theme of an aria; they gave It first in a comparatively simple rendering, and then proceeded to embroidery. At the end of each aria, they were normally given some twenty bars to be filled ad lib. with gorgheggi and other light embellishments of this nature; and finally, the song concluded with a bravura passage; v. for instance, pria che spunti …, from il Matrmomo segreto. This particular aria belongs to a category known in Naples as arie di narrazione.

[2] I find it to all intents and purposes quite impossible to write adequately of the art of singing in any language other than Italian: here is the passage which I have just written as it would have appeared in the original: Le ombreggiature per le messe di voce, il cantar di portamento, l’arte di fermare la voce per farla fluire eguale nel

canto legato, l’arte di prender fiato in modo insensible e senza troncare il lungo periodo vocale delle arie antiche.

[3] The word gorgheggi is associated with the verb gorgheggiare, to make warbling noises in the throat. Cf. French: gorge = throat; English: gargle. (Trans.)

[4] Adored shade, wait …!

[5] The greatest violinist in Italy, and perhaps in all the world, is Paganini, who is still a youngish man, thirty-five years old, with black, piercing eyes and dishevelled hair. This ardent creature did not stumble upon the secrets of his divine art by dint of eight years’ dogged perseverance through the Conservatoire; a hasty impulse inspired by loving too well (so the legend goes) resulted in long years of imprisonment; and there, solitary and abandoned in a dungeon which might well have had no issue save to the scaffold, he discovered that the only companion who could console him in his fetters was his violin. Gradually he acquired the art of expressing the very whispers of his soul in sound; and the endless, dragging evenings of captivity gave him ample time to perfect this new language. Paganini should not be heard when he is striving to emulate the violinists of the North in some mighty concerto; but rather on some informal evening when he is in the mood and playing capriccios. Let me hasten to add that these capriccios present just as many difficulties in execution as any concerto!

[6] Velluti always prepares three different sets of ornamentation for any given passage; so that, when the instant of performance arrives, he can choose the one which best suits his mood. This precaution ensures that his embellishments never sound forced (stentati).

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