Academic journal article Current Musicology

Speaking and Sighing: Bellini's Canto Declamato and the Poetics of Restraint

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Speaking and Sighing: Bellini's Canto Declamato and the Poetics of Restraint

Article excerpt

The critics were confused. "We do not really know whether it should be called sung declamation or declamatory singing," one reviewer for L'eco, an Italian journal devoted to the arts, wrote in 1829. "The goal of this method seems to be to reunite the force of declamation with the gentleness of singing ..." (1) Vincenzo Bellini's two successes of the late 1820s--Il pirata in 1827 and La straniera in 1829--had attracted a great deal of attention in the Italian press, and what drew the most comment was his novel approach to melody. Stripping away ornament to tie melody closely to the rhythms of the spoken word seemed a radical move to audiences who had been taking pleasure in Rossini's florid and showy style for the last two decades. At its starkest, Bellini's canto declamato, as it came to be known, paired relentlessly syllabic text-setting with a preference for repeated notes. The new style appeared both in passages of free arioso and within the lyrical sections of numbers, as in these two excerpts from La straniera (examples 1a and 1b). (2)

Despite the mixed response from Bellini's contemporaries, modern scholars have tended to understand these melodic reforms in wholly positive terms. Trimming down musical utterance into something lean and spare, they have argued, shows an admirable concern with the needs of drama over and above those of mere vocal athleticism. (3) Nineteenth-century critics also tended to understand Bellini's canto declamato as a renunciation of excess. Detractors and supporters alike labeled the new style "filosofico," linking it to the burgeoning Romantic movement in the literary arts. (4) Even hard-to-please German critics praised Bellini's reforms, and his Italian supporters lauded canto declamato as a kind of moral antidote to Rossini; music more closely allied to and grounded in the text, they maintained, stimulated thought and spoke to the heart rather than speaking only to the senses. (5) Not everyone, however, was convinced of the merit of the new method. L'eco's anonymous reviewer warned, in subtly gendered language, that declamatory "force" could overpower melodic "gentleness" and that "confusing declamation with singing" could result in "monotony, slowness, fragments ... and a lack of motives that attract or remain in the ear." (6)

In the midst of this flurry of comment prompted by Bellini's experiments, however, opera critic Carlo Ritorni had a different axe to grind. One of Bellini's most vocal supporters, Ritorni was the author of a well-known manifesto on libretto construction and operatic dramaturgy; it was not unusual to read his signed opinion pieces on musical matters in the pages of this very same journal. (7) But this time, Ritorni's screed in L'eco had nothing to do with opera. He was upset about a new trend in women's fashion: the return of the tightly-laced corset. Why, he wondered, were women rushing to adopt a look that was in his words, "ugly," "unnatural and dangerous"? (8) Ritorni's lengthy complaint begins with a clinical-sounding list of symptoms that he argues are attributable to corsets:

   In the head: headaches, vertigo, tendency to faint, aching eyes,
   pain and tinnitus of the ears, nosebleeds. In the chest: ...
   dislocation of bones, ... painful breathing, spitting of blood,
   consumption, alterations in circulation, heart palpitations ... In
   the abdomen: loss of appetite, nausea, bleeding, bad digestion ...
   hardening of the liver ... Not to mention hypochondria, hysteria,
   and a quantity of maladies particular to women, which it would be
   superfluous to list here. (9)


It seems odd that an advocate of Bellini's new "filosofico" style, and one whose publications focus on matters of versification, declamation, and the history of musical drama, should expend so many words on such minute and messy details of female physiology. From a distance of nearly two centuries, Ritorni's gruesome list may seem no more than evidence of a prurient interest in women's underwear and a strange appendix to his public persona of cultural critic and man of letters. …

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