From Pensieri e riflessioni sopra il canto figurato by Giambattista Mancini, Maestro di Canto della Corte Imperiale e Accademico Filarmonico — Vienna, Van Ghelen, 1774
With no desire of polemicising, I have recently felt uneasy about the way some teachers use old singing treatises. While I find it absolutely necessary to know and respect them, I would beg students to be careful about what they accept or take for granted from certain “experts”. Nonetheless, the sacred masters of Belcanto, such as castrato Mancini, gave us some hints about technique and general disposition that should not be ignored, and that, surprise! contradict some of the things that are being sold as “historical” by some. Here some highlights — my favourites. Enjoy!
Pag. 22: About the qualities of Faustina Bordoni
Perfect intonation, phrasing and perfect SUPPORT (sostenere la voce) And, of course, the sublime art of saving breath and breathing again when needed — plus good taste. Supporting the voice and being able to breathe well and distribute the breathing (which is impossible without proper use of the diaphragm!) were highly appreciated.
Pag. 40: About physical defects which prevent from good singing
Apart from scary tumors in the palate, the teacher/doctor shall check if the tongue is relaxed and agile; if lips close regularly — if the chin is pointing too much outside, thus deforming the proper symmetry of the mouth… — the harmony of the face and a harmonious size and positioning of jaws and chin were appreciated.
Pag. 46: About “natural” voices
Many like to argue against countertenors because of the famous Caccini quote about “natural” voices. Mancini, a castrato, says TENOR and BASS are “natural” voices, because they mostly make use of chest voice. Yet, all over his treatise, he specifies that ALL voices make use of chest voice up to a certain note, then breaking into head voice/falsetto. The term “natural” here has no implication of “unnatural” for soprani and contralti (and no mention of gender either: soprani and contralti here mean men/women). I don’t think Mancini would have described his voice as “unnatural”. Rather, that tenor and basses are “natural” voices because they mostly rely on chest/modal voice.
Pag. 62: Importance of good communication in a teacher
A good teacher must be able to communicate well — explaining in a easy, plain way. This is normally a gift of nature — very hard to obtain through practice… you communicate well, or you don’t...
Pag. 72: Imitating the mistake of the pupil in order to show it clearly
If the teacher imitates the mistake, the pupil can see it clearly and is stimulated to correct it. Funnily enough, one of the typical mistakes quoted by Mancini is cantare nella gola, singing in the throat. This is something early music singing teachers haven’t read, probably. One sings in TESTA and in PETTO — not in GOLA.
Pag. 74: Bad positions
How interesting: Mancini makes a list of typical bad positions for singing. WRINKLING THE FOREHEAD… CONTORTING THE NECK AND THE BODY… to prevent this, Mancini makes his pupils sing STANDING before him, by heart, so that they don’t have to adopt strange positions reading the score...
Pag. 76: HEAD HIGH, NOT FORWARD, NOT BACKWARDS!
“I have been like a dance teacher with my pupils: I put them before me, adjusted their position, then said ‘Son, keep your head high, do not push it forward nor backwards… thus, the throat stays soft. If you lean your head forward or backwards, the throat gets TENSE.”
Pag. 83: The pleasure of having been able to see a pupil improve
Mancini narrates how he started teaching a teenager who had been discarded by other two teachers. After much patient work, he improved very much — “I cannot say how much pleasure I obtained from this… Loving singers/teachers/professionals: what relief do we feel, when a pupil gets it right!”
Pag. 83: Singing only chest voice for some time to train a small voice
A little voice (vocetta) might improve if the teacher makes it sing for some time only in chest voice.
Pag. 86: Never force the voice
Probably the worst thing a singer can do, and a teacher to his pupil: force the voice if the venue is big or too big. Never force!
Pag. 88/89: Mistaking the “Fach” of a pupil
How many times it happens that a teacher torments a real soprano making him/her sing as a contralto, or viceversa a contralto forced to sing soprano… God forgive that teacher...
Pag. 91: Portamento=Legato
Portamento means going from one note to the other LEGANDO (binding, joining) the voice, with perfect proportion and union, either ascending or descending. Wow, legato isn’t a romantic Wagner invention. Wow.
Pag. 94: Legato and strong torax/petto = being able to sing to the hearts
Indeed, the ability of singing legato and having a strong chest — which in Mancini seems to signify a strong torax, a strong resonance, which is also connected to supporting and opening the rib cage — gives as a result the ability to move the audience, singing to the hearts.
Pag. 94: SUPPORT of the fiato!
The good singer is able to KEEP the breath/fiato in such a way that he can do all sort of things with his voice without any noticeable fatigue, this by ACCOSTUMING THE BELLOWS OF THE VOICE TO SUPPORT, GRADE AND DIMINISH THE VOICE — what are the bellows of the voice if not the organs that regulate the flow of the air, id est, diaphragm, abdomen, ribs? You can’t say it any clearer… Singing without support is not something the sacred Belcanto castrati would have approved. No way they could have sung those long messe di voce without proper air flow regulation!
Pag. 95: Practising chiaroscuro
Highly necessary to practise in order to apply chiaroscuro to the song, a “necessary” tool in any genre of singing. No plain singing then — no lack of dynamics...
Pag. 109: OH TRILLO!
Oh Trillo! Sustain, ornament and life itself of singing! Needs no further explanation 🙂
Pag. 112: Trillo starts on the upper note and BOTH MUST BE DELIVERED EQUALLY
Indeed, although there are several kinds of trilli (with crescendo, with diminuendo, raddoppiato…), the universal rule is that it starts on the upper note, normally at one tone distance, and that BOTH NOTES have to be delivered equally. That means, if you cannot hear both notes, it is not a trillo. This should make some people wonder and go practise (hehehe).
Pag. 115: The amazing trillo raddoppiato with messa di voce.
So, let’s see if I dare to record a video with it 😉
Also interesting by Mancini: a good messa di voce and a trillo is ENOUGH for a perfect cadenza 🙂
Pag. 124: Cadenza should be in ONE breath. Oh, and for that you need SUPPORT.
You must be good supporting and distributing your fiato if you want to be able to do your cadenza in one breath, without interrupting it. Very important for the pupil to learn this, Mancini says!
Pag. 135: Ingredients for coloratura: Intonation, relaxed jaws and strong torax. YES.
Indeed. No tricks here. For a good passaggio (which in this time means coloratura passage), you have to have good tuning, relaxed, light jaws and you must SUPPORT WITH A STRONG TORAX. No coloratura without support.
Pag. 139: Again — you — have — to — support! (Verstanden?)
The art of perfectly SUPPORT/SUSTAIN your breath. Enough said.
Pag. 140: Cantar di sbalzo (big interval jumps) — needs DEEP/BIG LOW NOTES
Cantar di sbalzo is one of the types of agilità/virtuosity described by Mancini — consisting in jumping wide intervals (think Fiordiligi’s Come scoglio’s incipit). For that you need a STRONG, RESOUNDING, AGILE voice, rich with DEEP low notes and high notes. Where is the fear for low chest notes here? It is actually very appreciated.
Pag. 145: Young singers: do not be shy, do not be afraid. Have SPIRIT.
Be brave, courageous, energetic. Never fearful, never lazy/weak, never shy.
Pag. 148–149: A singer is an actor. Which is why he has to study the language.
If you don’t comprehend the power of the words, you won’t be understood. The Italian must be well spoken (as in high‐Italian, literary Italian). And the actor (singer) must study Latin, History and Italian!
Pag. 167: Recitativo must be delivered like if spoken by an educated person
As in: recitativo is like speaking. You must speak it well, then, as if you would be a wise man of culture. Because an educated person does not speak just anyhow. You have to phrase it. Distinguish the sentences, the different meanings of the words, making the voice sometimes strong, sometimes sweet...
Pag. 169: All recits are the same, there is no difference between sacred/chamber/opera
Against what other treatises say, Mancini considers recitativo has to be sung the same way, either if it is sacred music, chamber music or opera. The important thing is, the voice must be natural, clear, with the due strength in the words, respecting the punctuation… the audience must understand the meaning of the poem. Yes, we sing poetry (not prose). Mancini suggests the recitativi of cantatas by Scarlatti, Porpora, Gasparini — in order to practise for the operatic stage. Because, you know, good recitativo means good declamation, and that is the way to get to the audience. As in Pag. 182: