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Charles Vincenti

The Tenor Voice - Part 2

In this second part of the articles focusing on the tenor voice, Mr. Charles Vincenti gives us further historical detail about the tenor.

In England, Italian singing never made it. However, the solo tenor voice was used in sacred music, court odes and theatre music with Purcell writing for a high tenor (counter-tenor), a convention that Handel continued to use. Using his Italian experience, Handel employed the best castrati for the leading roles in his operas. This was the norm at the time as their excessive and elegant vocalism made them popular with both composers and audience. Yet he engaged three Italian tenors; Francesco Borosini, Annibale Pio Fabri, and Giovanni Battista Pinacci. The role of Bajazet in Tamerlano, written for Borosini, is the first true tenor role in an opera, a role that needs great agility, especially in the middle and lower registers.4 For the English tenors, Handel used his oratorios where he gave them the title role in Samson (1743), Belshazzar (1745), Judas Maccabeus (1747) and Jephtha (1752), with John Beard singing most of Handel’s tenor roles.

In most of Mozart’s Italian works, the tenor had a secondary role, usually a character role while the romantic leading role was given to the castrato. Nevertheless, in his German Singspiels, the tenor was given a romantic leading role. Mozart had a good working relationship with most tenors, especially with Anton Raaff. He considered Raff as an ‘absolute master in bravura singing, long passages and roulades’.5 Mozart was very considerate to the singers’ voice and always created music that would fit the voice, consequently giving the singer pleasure in singing it while at the same time satisfying his own artistic criteria.6

During the eighteenth century, tenors required great lightness and agility in their singing, attributed mainly to the ornamental technique of the castrati. Their popularity and their fine singing quality made the castrati the ideal teachers for tenors-to-be. They opened schools with Antonio Pistocchi opening his in Bologna in 1706. His students included tenor Annibale Pio Fabri and the castrato Antonio Bernacchi, who opened his own school and taught the great castrati Senesino and Carestini, together with the tenors Domenico Panzacchi and Anton Raff. This shows the role of the castrati in shaping the art of singing. A general pattern can be observed in the career of famous tenors, all starting as boy sopranos in church choirs and singing female stage roles. Then they move on with a castrato singer. The most promising would continue to study a set of repertoire skills in great detail for several years. This master-student relationship established the tenor technique and passed on the concept of singing through generations.

The art of singing was taken seriously by the castrati-teachers to the point that some wrote treatises. Pier Francesco Tosi’s treatise Opinioni de’ cantori antichi e moderni o sieno osservazioni Sopra il canto figurato(1723), stresses on the importance of moving seamlessly from the chest register to the head register. It emphasises not to sing too much in the throat or nose, breathing in the right places and pronouncing words properly.7 It discusses ornamentation and the messa di voce technique which was essential in the singing style of the time.

Others wrote solfeggi and exercises for their students. In his 24 Solfeggi or Exercises for the Voice to be Vocalised, Composed and Dedicated to his Scholars (1808), Venanzio Rauzzini instructs students not to go beyond their natural vocal ability, as every voice is unique. Every student should find his individual style and sing the appropriate songs. Similar to Tosi, he stressed on the messa di voce, breathing in the proper places and the accurate articulation of words. The singer should focus on expression and precision.8

4 Ibid., 25.

5 Ibid., 28.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 39.

8 Ibid., 40.

In next week’s blog, we shall turn to a completely different topic. The libretto of City of Humanity 1 – Behind the Fortifications takes place in the town of Birgu mostly during the Great Siege of 1565. Birgu is one of the oldest towns in Malta and in the following series of blogs, Ms. Carole Prietzac a French cultural historian gives us a detailed account of the history of Birgu.


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