Western professor brings old treatises to life

The term bel canto gets bandied about by singers and historians, but often with no real meaning.

“Nobody really knows what the term means,” said Robert Toft, a professor at Western’s Don Wright Faculty of Music. “It’s used indiscriminately. Musicians first applied the term to describe a performing style in the 1860s to symbolize the loss of the old Italian vocal practices in the face of the rising popularity of the new Germanic style of singing associated with Wagner’s operas.”

Toft has researched more than 125 treatises from the 18th and 19th centuries to understand what singers of that period called ‘expressive singing.’ He has just finished writing his fourth in a quintet of books on the history of singing, Bel Canto: A Performer’s Guide. The publisher, Oxford University Press, suggested a companion website with recordings to demonstrate the techniques.

“On the website you’ll be able hear what the music might have sounded like 200 years ago,” Toft said. “Since there is no right or wrong, singers can apply the principles in a thousand different ways.”

Toft has given master classes at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland, an academy and research institution, which focuses on early music and historically informed performance, and at the Early Music Institute of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, as well as at music departments in the United Kingdom.

This summer, he will be in residence at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Ireland’s oldest musical institution, spending four months working with a small group of singers to prepare them to record music for the website at the end of the summer.

While in Dublin, Toft will also continue work on the fifth book, A Guide to the Performance of 16-century Vocal Music, Cara to Dowland.

“My research tries to discover what the practices were and how they might have sounded,” Toft said. “I work with singers to help them bring the music to life in a new, well actually old, way using principles derived from treatises. Without recordings to guide us, a great deal of experimentation must take place if we are to successfully set well-known music in new guises.”

The treatises are often very detailed, giving lengthy descriptions of bel canto techniques, and in the late 18th century, Domenico Corri published a collection of vocal music that precisely indicated many features of how the notes should be sung. Toft extracted principles from Corri’s collection, as well as hundreds of other scores, and used them in conjunction with treatises to reconstruct the old style.