Francisco Viñas: the art of the castrati II

Second part of the third chapter of the book The art of singing: historical data, advice and guidelines for educating the voice, published in 1932, in which the Spanish tenor Francisco Viñas describes the educational system of castrated singers and the absolute dedication that brought the art of singing to the height of its expression, the differentiation between modernist and classical singers, and the decline of bel canto until the disappearance of the last sopranist singer.


The decline and twilight of the “bel canto.”

It has been written in one hundred chronicles of the Italian Lyric Theatre that at the beginning of 1800, or perhaps earlier, due to having forgotten the good rules and truth in singing, the decadence began. It is also often said that the system of capricious executions of those eighteenth-century singers created such an abusive independence of style that, when repeating a romanza or an aria, those who were not able to introduce an infinite number of variations were no longer considered good virtuosos; they had to almost improvise a new aria with the same accompaniment, adding a new series of “fioriture or abellimenti” that thad to be totally different from the previous one. The trills, chromatic scales, grupetti, arpeggi and jumps of the octave were so abundant that, if we are to give credit to the historical legacy, the audience was even fed up with them.

However, that admirable skill or absolute predominance of the vocal organ denoted the perfection of a school of singing at the height of its glory. The style was gradually perverted, and even though it was much more florid, it ceased to be poetic, sentimental and sincere. The audience no longer wept with emotion, although they were delighted by the prodigious mechanical effort. However, the artists that were called fashionable singers as well as the puritanical and intransigent classics, that had been shaped since childhood in the great musical academies of Italy, were in general good composers, as we have already said, and this allowed them to frame their whims within the laws of harmony and counterpoint, thereby safeguarding, at least, the aesthetic of music.

At the end of the reign of the evirated, when the natural voice was already dominant, the glorious genius of Gioacchino Rossini, faced with the licentiousness of that modernism, wanted to put a stop to the vocal excess of the virtuosos, by creating a series of brilliant operas in which he himself wrote all the ornaments capable of satisfying the most fickle of vocalists. Such were the works: Aureliano in Palmira, Gazza-ladra, Gl’italiani in Algeri, Semiramide and Il Barbiere di Siviglia; the latter, a classic, elegant model of Italian lyrical comedy; today a sort of stronghold for light sopranos. However, even if Rossini’s laudable efforts were praised, his effectiveness must have been absolutely null to judge by the results obtained. The severe style of his works, which disciplined caprice, was not to the liking of the most celebrated virtuosi; and while the audience accepted in good spirits the abusive mechanical display, the singers continued to sharpen their wits in modifying musical concepts to the despair of the composers.

In more recent times, Rossini himself, hearing the divine Patti in a performance of the Barbero at the Thêatre des Italiens in Paris, was embittered by the infinity of innovations brought by her in Rosina’s role, new decorations never dreamt of by him; decorations that were, of course, in keeping with the diva’s prodigious faculties, but that in some scenes even transformed the melodic design, which made the author exclaim, angry despite the admiration he felt for that sublime artist: “But this is a desecration! What Adelina sings is not the music of my Barbero!” The decadence of “bel canto” is also attributed to the influence that the great tenor Duprez of the Paris Opera exerted in his time, for having initiated the era of the dramatic tenor, the first of the famous artists who sang bringing vocal strength, an orderly way of shouting with his famous “chest C’s”, relegating to the last the soft, sentimental singing, all expressiveness, sweetness and technical ability.

But, in my opinion, the causes of the decline were very different. Neither the abuses of the sopranists, nor the new era of the dramatic singer initiated by Duprez had any art or part in the decline. What had to do with this were the very severe punitive sanctions decreed by Napoleon I when he took over Italy, as we have mentioned when discussing the “castrati.” However, as we have already said elsewhere, that great legislator, despite the loathing he felt for the mutilated singers, was passionate about one of them; for having heard in Milan, in Nicolini’s opera “Coriolano”, the famous sopranist Velluti —who was called the Nightingale of Naples— and Crescentini, he had to recognise that the singing virtues of those beings had something supernatural and inexplicable about them.

A few years later, after the fall of Napoleon, the Veneto and Lombardy states were again invaded by the Emperor of Austria, Francis I, who decreed that the evirated, even the most eminent, should be ostracised and forbidden to appear in theatres, since he saw in them the stigma of ignorant and perverted humanity. With these supreme dispositions, the audience, which already felt the influence of the innovative masters, who had breathed the revolutionary winds brought by the great French tragedy of 1793, found itself well disposed to accept the evolution, understanding that the horizon of art should not be enclosed in the reduced framework of the isolated voice; the poetic expression and the acoustic caress that had been enough until then were no longer enough; they wanted something more; something that would be the complement and essence of the representational melodramatic art, which certainly the castrated could not give. Once the castration began to be persecuted, the great schools that fed on the “predestined” children were automatically closed, and the unhappy singing musicians took refuge in the basilicas, where they brought the last sparks of an art that was dying and that would never return.

Castration banned and sopranists unable to perform in theatres —without respect for the most prestigious artists—, “bel canto” quickly declined. The great schools, lacking its first component, which is the initiated child, began to decline, and the departments where teachers specialised in the art of vocal education were trained disappeared. The time for the studies that were necessary to become a good singer was no longer governed by law, and it was shortened. However, for a certain period, the elected singers who inherited the tradition, and were banned from the stage, dedicated themselves to its preservation through teaching, giving rise to another glorious period —the last one— of that dynasty of prominent lyric artists.

In some musical academies in Italy, especially those of Bologna, Rome and Naples, the last glimmers of that divine art were preserved until almost the middle of the 19th century, although they were only faint reflections, the shadow of the old glory; and although the decline was steadily worsening, the vestiges of the classical system of vocal education still gave rise to a legion of very remarkable singers, among whose names are those of Peri, Manuel Garcia, Giulini, Tamberlich, Patti, Cotogni, Massini and Gayarre; to name only the stars of the first magnitude. Nevertheless, the melodramas, although they were already more perfect, continued to be written, no longer according to the absolute concept of the lyrical drama, but seeking almost exclusively the melodic emphasis adapted to the effects of the human voice. Such have been the works of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Gounod and Meyerbeer, who are the masters who shone most brightly in the art of theatre, until the coming of the immortal reformer, the true creator of lyric drama: Richard Wagner.

Those works, as has been said, generally inspired by melody with all its conventions and simplicity of orchestral procedures, had nevertheless the virtue of keeping alive the cult of the art of singing, which was almost its only support and purpose. Even today, whenever a singer with great vocal powers appears, we see the exhumation of that operatic repertoire in which they can shine, as they were favoured by Mother Nature with the charm of an exceptional voice, at times cultivated without any other master than their own intuition. However, when such wonders appear, we do not find in these fortunate ones that divine fascination of the singers of the glorious era, whose last echoes by privilege of the years were given to us in the Patti, in Massini and Gayarre: a fascination that stemmed from the scientific study and pedagogical education of the vocal organ.

We admire today the “rare case,” in resurrecting these works, the beautiful voice, a brilliant and sharp note sustained to infinity. We are sometimes surprised by the astonishing flexibility in the whole musical range, or by some eminent quality, born spontaneously as a delicate solitary flower that sprouted in winter without cultivation. But the connoisseur of the art senses, through the prodigious faculties of the favourite singer, the treasure hidden in them, which does not arise and perhaps never will, in spite of the practice that can be acquired; because, having lacked in the beginning the first foundation, a faulty orientation took hold of nature in the absence of the rules that should have taught him to discipline, to order, to measure his strength, to develop qualities, to destroy defects, to regulate the style and to balance the timbres, to the point of submitting the vocal organ to the dictates of the absolute will, so that in addition to delighting he could also stir up the emotions of the audience.

Oh, illustrious manes of Gayarre! Why couldn’t it be written, even as an annoying commentary, the wonderful art displayed in the Donizettian romanza of “Don Sebastiano,” and in that of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers,” true models of flawless style and diction? Who can forget that dramatism overflowing with feeling in the famous tercet of “Lucrezia Borgia” in the words “Oh my mother! my mother!” said without betraying the laws of aesthetics, without showing off sonority or very hight brilliant notes, or “messe di voce” in which Gayarre was amazing? Nothing more than good expression, in the style of the classics; the phrase said with such an expression of pain, that the subjugated and moved audience, as if by magic spring, was made to burst into a tremendous cry that manifested their mood, fascinated by the force of the emotion, that that great artist transmitted. It was by virtue of the predominant technique in him, without which the inspired will would not have been obeyed by his vocal organ.

This whole glorious period of “bel canto” has now passed forever. An emeritus artist who leaves the scene is not replaced: no one fills the void left, because the new singers, wherever they come from, especially the men, usually do not sing, they do not know how to emit artfully; everything is shouting, declaiming like one speaks, breaking the sounds, trembling at times, diverting them, without perfect tuning; the “portamento” is neglected, which translates into a continuous and horrid dragging of the sound and the worst thing is that the public, whose taste has been perverted, accustomed to the stridencies or false emissions, accepts without protest such attacks, which are killing the aesthetic beauty of our art. The greatest interest of a show that used to reside in the “bel canto”, can be said to have passed to the orchestra in our days; those who have a discreet voice —by nature— appear on stage without preparation; and in an improvised way, in a great haste, they are subjected to certain insufficient vocalizations with fatal results in the majority of cases. For this reason we see young people with good faculties at the beginning of their studies, whose omens could not be more flattering, who after two years already have a worn-out voice. Once the school is gone, all that remains is the memory of such sublimity.

Part III

Text excerpted and translated from El arte del canto, Francisco Viñas, Barcelona, 1932.