What is Bel canto

Jun 5, 2014

Bel canto (Italian for “beautiful singing” or “beautiful song”, pronounced [bɛl ˈkanto]), along with a number of similar constructions (“bellezze del canto”/”bell’arte del canto”), is a term relating to Italian singing. It has several different meanings and is subject to a wide variety of interpretations.

The words were not associated with a “school” of singing until the middle of the 19th century, when writers in the early 1860s used it nostalgically to describe a manner of singing that had begun to wane around 1830.Nonetheless, “neither musical nor general dictionaries saw fit to attempt a definition of bel canto until after 1900”. The term remains vague and ambiguous in the 21st century and is often used to evoke a lost singing tradition.

The bel canto-era composer Gioachino Rossini by Vincenzo Camuccini – OperaGlass, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46203

History of the term and its definitions

  • prosodic singing (use of accent and emphasis)
  • matching register and tonal quality of the voice to the emotional content of the words
  • a highly articulated manner of phrasing based on the insertion of grammatical and rhetorical pauses
  • a delivery varied by several types of legato and staccato
  • a liberal application of more than one type of portamento
  • messa di voce as the principal source of expression (Domenico Corri called it the “soul of music” – The Singer’s Preceptor, 1810, vol. 1, p. 14)
  • frequent alteration of tempo through rhythmic rubato and the quickening and slowing of the overall time
  • the introduction of a wide variety of graces and divisions into both arias and recitatives
  • gesture as a powerful tool for enhancing the effect of the vocal delivery
  • vibrato primarily reserved for heightening the expression of certain words and for gracing longer notes.