November 6, 2017

The Requirements of Bel Canto

Bel canto, beautiful singing! That has to do with tone quality: the voice must be trained for beautiful quality in all the details of forte, crescendo, decrescendo and mezzavoce (no fortissimo or pianissimo exists properly in singing, for that would take away from the true principle of execution), which we may classify as matters of technique. The student must first acquire the rudiments of perfect control, in order to be able to sing the plain cultivated style in Italian, German, and French; the plain style being the old Italian music where technical execution must be faultless. It is not easy, and requires complete control of the breath through diaphragmic support, tone production through vocalization, full even tone, and the flawless blending of registers, besides absolute knowledge of technique on the teacher's side—who must guide the pupil in the different stages of style. Then, after an absolute technique is acquired, whether for expression in music of the plain or florid type, sentiment must be expressed, without a trace of sentimentality, which is a passionate low expression of rubato. The pupil is then fitted to express even the true rubato, that is, the declamatory style in music.

We are hopeful today that the Garcías' intelligent production of the voice will continue to attract disciples to the tradition of bel canto, which has been acknowledge universally as the only technique for the singing of dramatic as well as lyric compositions.

—extract from Anna E. Schoen-René's America's Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences (1941), page 94-95.


One reads the words above and begins to understand why Madam Schoen-René was called the "Prussian General." For her, bel canto vocal technique was not a personal elective, but an absolute matter that required discipline, commitment, intense study, and application. Enter her studio, and you would be kept on scales and exercises for a least a year. The result? She was noted as having more students at the Metropolitan Opera than anyone else, except for Oscar Saenger, who also held his students to matters of technique for a protracted period. What has changed since these two teachers were on the scene? Everything! 

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