'Nach der jetzig Newen Italienischen Manier zur guten Art im singen sich gewehnen': the trillo and the migration of Italian noble singing

Wistreich, R. (2013) 'Nach der jetzig Newen Italienischen Manier zur guten Art im singen sich gewehnen': the trillo and the migration of Italian noble singing. Analecta Musicologica, 49 pp. 138-150. ISSN 0569-9827


It is a story so often told that it has achieved the quality of a myth: how one country – Italy, the ‘land of song’ – in a process beginning towards the end of the sixteenth century, harnessed its native people’s apparently inborn, uniquely irresistible and extraordinarily perfectable singing style and so successfully exported it, that what Michael Praetorius in 1619 called the ‘Newen Italienischen Manier zur guten Art im singen’ had, by the mid seventeenth century, already achieved a European-wide hegemony which remained largely unchallenged until well into the twentieth century. Behind the myth lies a considerable amount of hard fact, testified to by a rich historiography that traces the colonisation by Italian vocality of vast swathes of European music culture, ranging from compositional genres (opera, cantata, oratorio, etc.) and human ‘diasporas’ both out of and into Italy of singers, composers, teachers and consumers, to the meta-discourses of various specifically vocal ‘Italian-nesses’ in constructions of different national musical identities, local performance styles and even hierarchies of taste. However, attempts to pinpoint exactly the defining ‘technical’ substance of Italian singing that so quickly established itself as the epitome of good singing (for example in the training of German choirboys in the seventeenth century) and also the reasons why those particular features should have been equated with ‘expressive refinement’ in art singing, both within and beyond Italy, has proved notoriously elusive. This paper focuses attention right down onto the physical minutiae of one critical element of the ‘Italienischen Manier’, indeed of the ‘bel canto myth’ itself: throat articulation (cantar alla gorgia) and its manifestation in the so-called ‘coloraturen’, of which the most famous example is the talismanic trillo. The ability to control very precisely – and display in sound – fine articulations of the vocal folds, turns out to be at the heart of a complex cultural discourse that is rooted, finally, in the integers of class. The almost magical execution of the trillo exemplifies a wider discourse of vocality which locates the singing larynx at the meeting point of virtù and virtuosity. This essay traces its history as both ‘technique’ and perennial marker of ‘noble’ singing.

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