A Couple of Swells:  The History of the Messa di Voce

On March 5th, 1760 Giuseppe Tartini wrote a letter to a certain Maddalena Lombardini, in response to her request for instruction on playing the violin. Tartini was one the master teachers of the 18th century, and his words are well worth heeding.

‘Your main study should be the use of the bow, in order to make yourself mistress in the expression of whatever can be played or sung. … First, exercise yourself in a messa di voce upon an open string, for example, upon the second, which is the D string. Begin pianissimo, and increase the tone by slow degrees to fortissimo; and this should be equally done on the down-bow and the up-bow.

‘Set out on this exercise at once, and spend at least an hour on it every day, though at different times, a little in the morning, and a little in the evening; and keep constantly in mind that this is, of all exercises, the most difficult and the most important.

‘When you master this exercise, … every degree of pressure upon the string will become easy and certain; and you will be able to execute with your bow whatever you please.’

Let’s accept Tartini’s authority as a matter of course and grasp the meaning of his advice. In short, the messa di voce is the most difficult and important of all exercises, the mastery of which enables a player to do whatever she pleases. Why is this so? To answer this simple question we must make a detour.

In the late 1500s, a group of Florentine musicians, poets, and thinkers came together in a society called the Camerata. Their discussions led to the development of a novel musical form, the opera. Until then, most vocal music was polyphonic. Voices blended smoothly in long contrapuntal lines, often of a religious and meditative nature. From its beginnings, opera concerned itself with dramatic action, the thoughts and feelings of individual characters, and the primacy of words, all of which encouraged monody as opposed to polyphony.

In polyphonic, devotional compositions, singers used a limited range of pitch, dynamics, and expressive devices. In monody, solo singers could widen all these ranges, and were indeed required to do so by the composers of the new style. Expressive effects in opera included trills, mordents, appoggiaturas, slides, vibrato, and the messa di voce – a gradual crescendo on a single long note, followed by a gradual decrescendo. The term comes from the verb mettere, ‘to place,’ and may be translated as ‘the placing of the voice.’ It must not be confused with mezza voce, which means ‘half-voice.’

Giulio Caccini, a member of the Camerata, was the first person to write about the messa di voce and to systematize its use, in a collection of arias and recitatives published in 1602 and titled Il nuove musiche – ‘The New Music.’ Caccini also discussed variations on the basic ornament, such as the exclamatio viva (starting a note forte, then diminishing and swelling it), and the exclamatio languida (first swelling the note, then diminishing it again, to finish with a second swell).

The Singer’s Messa di voce

The human voice results from the interaction of two separate mechanisms or registers. For lack of better words we’ll call them ‘chest voice’ and ‘falsetto.’ To sense how the registers work, imagine the following situation. Entering a chapel in the woods, you cry out ‘Yoohoo!’ A voice in the dark announces, ‘The pope named a woman as the archbishop of Naples .’ In mock disbelief, you growl, ‘No!’ Most likely you’d give a preponderant, if not exclusive, role to your falsetto when you say ‘Yoohoo,’ and to your chest voice when you say ‘No!’ The registers are sensitive to matters of pitch, intensity, and vowel. Singing the vowel ‘oo’ softly high up in your vocal range brings the falsetto into action; singing ‘ah’ loudly in the middle of your range tends to isolate the chest voice; singing an octave leap with a decrescendo would make the registers mesh and collaborate. The messa di voce can make or break a singer’s voice. Perform it badly and throw the vocal registers into disarray; perform it well, and your voice finds its freedom and power. For that reason it was the ultimate vocal exercise of the Bel Canto era.

In the performance practice of the Baroque era, it became standard for performers to execute an exclamatio on most notes of suitable length. In Baroque manuscripts, written crescendi and diminuendi are often absent; as with other ornaments, composers and performers alike assumed that the effects would be applied automatically, whenever appropriate. For this reason, some Baroque scores contain an expressive marking that might mislead modern performers. When composers wanted a note sung or played without a messa di voce, they would indicate it sostenuto, which isn’t how later composers – for instance, Brahms or Liszt – used the word.

The difficulties of executing a perfect messa di voce quickly became apparent to singers, instrumentalists, and their teachers. What was at first a mere musical ornament became a major source of pedagogical instruction. The messa di voce was adapted, among many others, for brass by Girolamo Fantini (1638), for strings by Christopher Simpson (1659), for woodwinds by Johann Joachim Quantz (1752), and even for the keyboard by François Couperin (1717). Needless to say, it’s impossible for a harpsichordist to alter the dynamics of a note once it’s struck. Couperin’s strategy was to use rubato in an attempt to create the illusion of messa di voce.

The messa di voce poses great challenges because it addresses the main issue in sound production and dexterous coordination – the apportioning of energies and the interplay of tension and relaxation. To execute a perfect messa di voce is to employ one’s energies perfectly. Let’s imagine a violinist (perhaps Tartini’s correspondent) practising her exclamatii on a sustained note, on a single bow. When Maddalena swells, she leans too hard on the string and crushes her sound; she spends her bow too quickly and gets stranded at the tip; she concentrates on the crescendo and neglects rhythm and intonation. Each misuse triggers new, compensatory misuses in turn. To avoid choking the instrument, Maddalena pulls the bow away from the bridge, up towards the fingerboard. Her sound becomes ‘pretty,’ but it lacks power and the capacity to project in a concert hall.

The difficulties of performing a decrescendo are even greater. A musician of average ability tends to change both the dynamics and the colour of sound immediately she sets out to perform a decrescendo, ‘letting go’ of the sound’s core and making it feeble and unsubstantial. Indeed, to sing or play quietly yet compellingly is the mark of a virtuoso technique; and to pass from forte to piano and back to forte, as the exclamatii require, is harder still than to remain in one dynamic, whichever it may be.

If it’s challenging to maintain dynamic control over a single, long note, imagine how hard it is to master dynamics while changing bows, crossing strings, using double stops, and so on. All technical and musical events contained in every phrase constitute provocations to the player’s capacity to execute a perfect messa di voce. Conversely, the player whose messa di voce is unprovokable is someone who has conquered her instrument.

‘Every note,’ Quantz wrote, ‘whether a quarter, eighth, or sixteenth, must have its piano and forte in itself, as far as the time permits.’ Domenico Corri, a pupil of Nicola Antonio Porpora, who in turn was one of the great singing teachers of the 18th century, once defined the messa di voce as ‘preparing the voice for a crescendo.’ The ideal preparation to an action normally ensures an ideal outcome; a basketball player can sometimes be sure that a shot will go in even before he throws it, for he feels that the preparation for the shot was ideal. The string player who has mastered the messa di voce has mastered its preparation, and is therefore permanently ready to execute a crescendo – on the down-bow or the up-bow, at the heel or at the tip, on long or short notes, ‘whether a quarter, eighth, or sixteenth.’

I nstead of defining the messa di voce as ‘performing a crescendo,’ or, like Corri, as ‘preparing for a crescendo,’ let’s call it ‘being ever ready for a change of dynamics that doesn’t disturb the instrumental mechanism and the tone colour it produces.’ You perform a crescendo or a diminuendo, or vice-versa, in succession or in alternation; the mechanics of your technique remain steady and controlled; your tone quality remains constant despite the change in dynamics. It’s unnecessary for you to execute a messa di voce on all notes; but it’s utterly necessary for you to be able to execute it at all times . Signalling a virtuosity of contact between player and instrument, or between singer and voice, latent messa di voce is forever present in the ideal technique. It’s this property of the messa di voce that allows Tartini to claim that its mastery is equal to mastery of the bow and, consequently, of the violin.

Although Vincenzo Bellini indicated con messa di voce over a line in his opera Norma as late as 1831, the term gradually sank into oblivion during the 19th century. The Baroque and Classical tastes favoured the unevenness of effect characteristic of the messa di voce, while the emerging fashion aimed for a perfectly smooth, legato sound. The Tourte bow lent itself only too well to the newfangled technique, distracting string players from the pleasures of swelling and diminishing. Semantics also contributed to the disappearance of the messa di voce. The official violin manual of the newly founded Paris Conservatoire was published in 1803 (by Baillot, Rode, and Kreutzer). A misinterpretation of its text made it so that, today, ‘son filé’ may mean either sustained tone or tone nuanced with the messa di voce, contributing to a sense of pedagogical confusion. This is to everyone’s loss. Next month I’ll continue to discuss the messa di voce, explaining why it’s essential to all string players and suggesting ways of practising it.


Paganini, an exponent of the Bel Canto?

In the popular imagination, Paganini was a devilish technician with a flair for scandal. But his peers spoke of him as a lyrical master. Ole Bull, the great Norwegian violinist, wrote that ‘without knowledge of the Italian art of singing, it is impossible to properly appreciate [Paganini’s] playing.’ Contemporary with Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran, and other Bel Canto luminaries, Paganini ‘especially excelled in giving life to the simplest melodies, in giving to his tone the quality of the human voice; in contrasts of light and shade, and expression, now plaintive, now brilliant and gay, now fantastical.’ Bull describes a meeting between Malibran and Paganini (witnessed by Rossini and de Bériot among others) in which both engaged in a competitive display of lyrical power. By all accounts, including Malibran’s, Paganini won the match. In Robert Schumann’s description, Paganini seemed to extend the principle of the messa di voce to a higher sphere. ‘He began with a tone so thin, so small! Then effortlessly, almost imperceptibly, he cast his magnetic charms. They oscillated from artist to listener, from listener to artist, becoming ever more wondrous, more intricate, while the listeners pressed together in a bond of common fascination.’ If Schumann, Bull, and Malibran are right, Paganini’s success as a violinist must have been due partly to his mastery of the messa di voce.

© Pedro de Alcantara , 2004


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