Reconstructing the tenor ‘pharyngeal voice’: a historical and practical investigation

Querns Langley, K. E. (2021) Reconstructing the tenor ‘pharyngeal voice’: a historical and practical investigation. Doctoral thesis, Royal College of Music.


One of the defining moments of operatic history occurred in April 1837 when upon returning to Paris from study in Italy, Gilbert Duprez (1806–1896) performed the first ‘do di petto’, or high c′′ ‘from the chest’, in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. However, according to the great pedagogue Manuel Garcia (jr.) (1805–1906) tenors like Giovanni Battista Rubini (1794–1854) and Garcia’s own father, tenor Manuel Garcia (sr.) (1775–1832), had been singing the ‘do di petto’ for some time. A great deal of research has already been done to quantify this great ‘moment’, but I wanted to see if it is possible to define the vocal qualities of the tenor voices other than Duprez’, and to see if perhaps there is a general misunderstanding of their vocal qualities. That investigation led me to the ‘pharyngeal voice’ concept, what the Italians call falsettone. I then wondered if I could not only discover the techniques which allowed them to have such wide ranges, fioritura, pianissimi, superb legato, and what seemed like a ‘do di petto’, but also to reconstruct what amounts to a ‘lost technique’. To accomplish this, I bring my lifelong training as a bel canto tenor and eighteen years of experience as a classical singing teacher to bear in a partially autoethnographic study in which I analyse the most important vocal treatises from Pier Francesco Tosi’s (c. 1653–1732) treatise ‘Opinioni de' cantori antichi e moderni‘ (1723) to ‘Garcia’s Treatise on the Art of Singing’ (1924). I analysed the treatises for concepts of registration, timbre, breathing and resonance tuning. Subsequently, I researched contemporary accounts of several tenors to develop a ‘picture’ of their individual voices and to distinguish voice types, and then analysed multiple extracts from operas to determine range, tessitura, dynamic ability, and melodic contour markers for each singer. Using performance practice methodologies in the teaching studio, I was able combine all these elements to produce a valid and effective historically informed reconstruction of the historical tenor ‘pharyngeal voice’ and pedagogy.

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