‘Il vero modo di cantar’: the international transmission of the sound of Italian singing in early modern Europe

Wistreich, R. (2021) ‘Il vero modo di cantar’: the international transmission of the sound of Italian singing in early modern Europe. In: Early Modern Soundscapes, 7 July 2021, Online (Liverpool John Moores University). (Unpublished)


It has acquired the status of a myth: how Italy, land of song, in a process beginning sometime in the sixteenth century, harnessed its native people’s apparently inborn and irresistibly alluring singing style and so successfully exported it that by the mid-seventeenth century, it had achieved a European hegemony of art singing that would, before long, become world-wide. Behind the myth lies, naturally, plenty of fact: a rich historiography traces the colonisation by Italian musicians of vast swathes of European music culture, primarily through the dissemination of compositional genres, and migrations both out of and into Italy of singers, composers, teachers and consumers of music. Italian singing ultimately became the key driver of an intricate network of dynamic structures of music consumption across Northern Europe, feeding many dependent economies either directly, or indirect spill-overs from it. But attempts to account for this complex cultural history have, until recently, largely ignored what lies at its heart: the embodied acoustics of singing itself, and the commercialisation and international transmission of ‘Italian vocality’ through a complex interaction of emulation, local adaptation, professional instruction and self-teaching, supported more by specialised printed method books. This paper explores the process by which a highly elite style of vocalising first fostered in the secretive world of Italian courtly comportment, made its way into the cultural mainstream of European society, thanks both to the economic and social drivers of an emerging capitalist Europe, and the universality of the human voice with its capacity for being tamed and trained.

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