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Solfeggi in Their Historical Context

Solfeggi, or studies in melody, were central to the training of European court musicians from the late 1600s until the late 1800s. They had their greatest influence first in Italian conservatories, especially at Naples, and then later at the Paris Conservatory, where the principles of the "Italian school" continued to be taught far into the twentieth century. Because learning the Italian style of music was a priority for almost any eighteenthcentury musician, many well-known non-Italians also studied or taught solfeggi. This was especially true for famous singers or teachers of singing, but seems also to apply to instrumentalists and composers. Mozart, for example, wrote a small number of solfeggi for his wife Constanza. The oldest Italian conservatories were not established to conserve music. They were charitable religious institutions for the conservation of orphans and foundlings. Different conservatories specialized in the teaching of different crafts or skills, one of which was music. In a society where family connections and social rank were all-important, an orphan needed a marketable skill in order to make his way in the world. It was not enough to learn "about" music. The child needed to become fluent in the courtly style so that he could eventually perform at church, in an aristocratic chamber, or at the opera theater. Thus training in solfeggi was practical, not theoretical. By the eighteenth century, the best conservatories found that they could supplement their income by hiring out their well-trained young musicians. This income made possible the recruitment of ever more illustrious teachers, with the result that the Italian conservatories became magnets for talented students and teachers from all over Europe. The conservatories began accepting paying students, and slowly transformed into institutions much like the music conservatories of today. Though manuscript collections of solfeggi were centerpieces in the training of musicians in the days of Bach and Mozart, today the outlines of this tradition have faded and most modern musicians will be surprised at how different solfeggi were in comparison with modern "sight-singing" books. In a sense, solfeggi and partimenti (instructional basses) were two sides of the same polyphonic coin. Partimenti provided a bass to which the student added one or more upper voices in a keyboard realization. Solfeggi provided exemplary melodic material, always in the context of a bass (and most probably a harmonic accompaniment). Thus the melody-bass duo at the heart of eighteenth-century music was taught and reinforced from both the top and the bottom. Collections of solfeggi were thus like a lexicon of stylistically favored melodic utterances. For the future improvisor, whether of whole compositions or merely of ornamented reprises and cadenzas,

solfeggi provided a storehouse of memorized material from which the performer or composer could later draw. Neapolitan solfeggi have been preserved in manuscript collections attributed to various great maestros who taught in the conservatories. In some instances these maestros were famous composers and in other instances they were famous singers. Among the singing masters were retired castrati who had been among the most admired performers of the century. In Paris, several Italian musicians became established as teachers. The vogue for learning the Italian style led to the Parisian publication of a thick volume of Solfeges d'Italie (Italian Solfeggi) in 1772 (reprinted several times, each time with additions). The masters included in this volume were mostly selected from the Naples conservatories. With the founding of the Paris Conservatory in 1795, the Naples methods were taken up by the new institution. The standard collection of Italian-style solfeggi later used at the Paris Conservatory, the Solfge des Solfges in various redactions by Dannhauser and Lemoine, has remained in print to this day. According to the renowned violin master Giuseppe Tartini (16921770), the "usual Italian solfeggio," meaning the way to sol-fa a scale, was Ut-Re-MiFa-Sol-Re-Mi-Fa ascending (in major) and "Fa-Mi-La-Sol-Fa-Mi-Re-Ut" descending. This is rather different from today, and reveals the heritage of hexachord systems in use in earlier centuries, where half steps are always pronounced "Mi-Fa." Already in the late seventeenth century "Do" was replacing "Ut," and many eighteenth-century sources questioned whether multiple syllables should be used at all in complicated and modulating music. Many Neapolitan solfeggi feature such elaborate and rapid melodic ornamentation that note-for-note syllabification seems unlikely. The eighteenth-century editors of the Solfeges d'Italie recommended abandoning syllables for those solfeggi. The Paris Conservatory adopted the modern usage of "Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-LaSi-Do" for the notes from C up to C an octave higher, regardless of chromatic inflections or key. This was but one of many options in the eighteenth century. Nineteenth-century teachers, faced with the new phenomenon of music classrooms filled with dozens of students (who might be talented amateurs or members of newly formed choral societies) adopted a simplified sol-fa that tied syllables to scale degrees, something foreign to the world of Bach and Mozart. One of the motivations for this new system, and especially for certain syllabic inflections intended to represent sharps or flats, was the need for cheap music printing for the masses. By avoiding any duplicated initials of the syllables (the French Sol and Si, the two S's, were changed in England to Sol and Ti, two different initials), it became possible to print music without the need for special music fonts. Frre Jacques could

thus be printed as D R M D, D R M D, etc. Variants of this "tonic sol-fa" remain dominant in North American colleges and universities, where teachers face the challenges of teaching large classes of young-adult learners. Neapolitan students studied solfeggi as part of their six-day-a-week curriculum, and the second master (secondo maestro) of each conservatory appears to have been assigned the supervision of this study. Boys often came to the conservatories as young as seven years old, so they would grow up singing solfeggi. Their level of accomplishment with syllables may thus have been similar to students today who begin French-style solfge at a young age. Yet even with the facility that early training permits, many Neapolitan solfeggi are florid to a degree that would make syllabification more humorous than impressive. We are thus left with the irony that today we ask adult learners to perform feats of sight singing (singing with syllables tied to scale degrees and chromatic inflections, free of any harmonic and contextual support from a keyboard instrument) that seem not to have been imagined in the eighteenth century. Perhaps, with the evidence of actual eighteenth-century pedagogy before us, we can envision the emergence of a "historically informed" style of instruction, one that focuses on the accumulation of stylistic knowledge rather than on a gymnastics of syllables.

A Beginner's Guide
Collections of solfeggi copied in the early nineteenth century sometimes begin with elementary exercises of simple intervals in long note values. Presumably those exercises, often titled Scale e Salti (Scales and Leaps) were intended for rank beginners. Other collections from that period continue the progression of mechanical pattern-based exercises to a level of great difficulty. Presumably those exercises were intended as drills for aspiring professional singers. In the eighteenth century, however, the great majority of solfeggio collections contain neither primers for beginners nor pattern exercises for professional warm-ups or drills. Instead these collections begin and end with relatively difficult lessons in style, florid melody, and contrapuntal imitation. As far as is known today, the boys in the Neapolitan conservatories sang the melodies of solfeggi, and either they or more likely a maestro played the bass and accompaniment at the harpsichord or other keyboard instrument. We do not know if solfeggi were sung solo or by a group. In fact we know hardly anything about the performance details of solfeggio practice. If we judge by eighteenth-century performance practice generally, then we could infer that a light, supple voice with little or no vibrato was the ideal. One

should not attempt these exercises with the full operatic chest voice that developed in the nineteenth century, or with the wide, slow wobble of vibrato that became common in operatic singing since the 1940s. Male singers may need to use a falseto voice for the many high passages, even when singing an octave lower than written, since most solfeggi were for boy sopranos. Actual tenor solfeggi are a late development. MIDI files are given for each solfeggio in this series. One MIDI file plays just the bass, and the other plays both bass and melody. A goal of solfeggio study is to become fluent in this melodic language, which became better known as bel canto (fine singing). To that end, it may be useful to approach a particular solfeggio in three stages. First, listen to the simulated performance several times, mentally singing along. Second, listen again to the simulated performance, this time actualy singing out loud. At first sing softly so that you can still hear the MIDI melody clearly. Third, sing the melody accompanied by only the MIDI bass performance. You are welcome to download the MIDI files to your own MIDI program, in case it would help to change the tempo or key. As a concession to modern students, the solfeggi melodies are here presented in the treble clef. The original clefs corresponded to the vocal range specified in a collection's title. Thus, for instance, a collection titled Solfeggi di soprano would have had its melodies written in the soprano clef. Solfeggi change key frequently. Try to be aware of the key for each phrase in a solfeggio. As exercises in style, solfeggi require careful attention to intonation, phrasing, articulation, and an understanding of the import of written-out ornamentation. For instrumentalists interested in acquiring an insider's knowledge of eighteenth-century style, the vocal study of solfeggi can be mixed with instrumental performance. There were eighteenth-century collections of solfeggi for violin, and C. P. E. Bach's Solfeggietto (Little Solfeggio, originally titled just Solfeggio) was written for the keyboard.