Bel Canto Technique Explained

Early Beginnings


During the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries great voice teachers discovered, by trial and error, how to properly develop the singing voice. Consequently, the term bel canto has come to be traditionally applied to both the manner of singing and the vocal music. Composers whose works depended on that singing method included Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. These composers wrote bravura works for the stage during what musicologists sometimes call the bel canto era. The term bel canto, literally meant, beautiful and seemingly effortless singing. It is usually applied to singing finely sustained in the Italian manner, with emphasis on beauty of tone and phrasing, on agility and ability to take high notes without strain.



Farinelli - Castrato, the wonder of the bel canto technique

Farinelli [1705-1782] was an excellent exponent of the bel canto technique, who was described by a music critic: “His voice”, he records, “was so perfect, so powerful, so sonorous and so rich in its extent, both in the high and in the low parts of the register, that its equal has never been heard in our time. The qualities in which he excelled was in the evenness of his voice, the union of the registers, the art of swelling its sound, the portamento, a surprising agility, a graceful and pathetic (moving) style, and a trill as admirable as it was rare.” 

Farinelli (Carlo Broschi) 1705 -1782

Unfortunately, we do not have an actual recording of Farinelli singing. However, you could listen to the following extract from the movie sound track of Farinelli on U-Tube:

Demise of the bel-canto technique


The bel canto method of singing was 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 the 1830s. The term remains vague and ambiguous in the 21st century and has often been used to evoke a lost singing tradition.


By 1858, Rossini tells us, the term bel canto was already being misused and wrongly confused with fiorture (to embellish the music). The introduction of the verismo (realistic) style by composers such as Verdi and Puccini in the mid-1860s moved away from the bel canto method. It led to the development of what is known today as the "open throat method", when it was set in opposition to the bel canto method with the development of a weightier, a more powerful style of speech-inflected singing associated with German opera and, above all, Richard Wagner's revolutionary music dramas.


Wagner (1813–1883) decried the Italian singing model, alleging that it was concerned merely with "whether that G or A will come out roundly". He advocated a new, Germanic school of singing which would draw "the spiritually energetic and profoundly passionate into orbit of its matchless Expression".


Interestingly, French musicians and composers never embraced the more florid extremes of the 18th-century Italian bel canto style.The open throat method of a technique developed by the French tenor Jean De Risqué where he produced the voice in the mask of the face (now commonly known as the forward production method).


Mathilde Marchesi - A Great Bel Canto Voice Teacher


Marchesi was a leading Paris-based teacher of bel canto sopranos.

Her singing method based on Garcia’s, drew on the traditions of bel canto, which aimed for evenness throughout the register, precise attack, excellent intonation, brilliance and ease at the top of the voice, and vocal longevity.


Musicologists occasionally apply the label bel canto technique to the arsenal of virtuosic vocal accomplishments and concepts imparted by singing teachers to their students during the late 18th century and the early 19th century. "All their pedagogical works follow the same structure, beginning with exercises on single notes and eventually progressing to scales and improvised embellishments.


Mathilde Marchesi 1821-1913

Recommended Reading


[1] Herbert-Caesari, The Voice of the Mind, first published in 1951 by Robert Hale Limited London. Republished by his daughter Alma Caesari – Gramatke   and Rolf Gramatke reprinted by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CRO 4YY.


[2] The Science and Sensations Of Vocal Tone ( A School of Natural Vocal Mechanics) by Edgar F. Herbert-Caesari  published by J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd London 1958.


[3] Cornelius Reid, Vocal Pedagogue and Author, New York City, Bel Canto Principles and Practices, republished by The Joseph Patelson Music House New York 10019.

[4] Mathilde Marchesi and her pupils, published by Roger Neil in 2016 by New South Wales Publishing,University of New South Wales Press Ltd  [10 9 8 7 65 4 3 2]


[5] Mathilde Marchesi Op.31 Vocal Method ( Part 1 Elementary and progressive exercises, Part 11 Development of the exercised in  the form of vocalises) published by G. Schirmer, Inc distributed by Hal Leonard Corporation.


 [6] Herbert-Caesari 50 Vocalises (Vocalization Exercises) Published by Casa Ricordi, Milano ISM M-041-80945-8.