After my Cuban adventure I’ve had a couple of weeks to finish my article on Pier Francesco Tosi’s famous Opinioni of 1723 for the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics. I’ve written at some length on Tosi, most recently in A History of Singing but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to give him my whole attention. If you’re a singer you’ll know that the treatise was translated into English in 1743 (ten years after his death) and into German by J S Bach’s pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola in 1757. There were also translations into Dutch (1731) and much later into French (1874), and Tosi’s material turns up in the writings of Mancini, Hiller, Corri and many others all over Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, culminating in a reference in the bible of 19th century singing pedagogy, Garcia’s L’Art du Chant; no other singing treatise has had such currency over such a long period. His English and German translators annotated his writings, interpreting them for their own readers, so we get a picture of evolving techniques and styles as the essence of artistic Italian singing was adapted to local conditions from generation to generation.
In the past I’ve tended to rely on Galliard’s 1743 edition (wonderfully engaging prose with lots of random annotations – an extraordinary achievement for an émigré German) but I’ve now had to read every single word in my poor Italian and German (my piece will eventually be translated itself into German) – something I wish I’d done when I was encouraging students to read original sources. As a key source for performance practice Tosi is on the reading list in every conservatory. What do we do with him these days, having absorbed his thoughts and tracked their influence over hundreds of years? Ignore him mostly. We certainly don’t want to spend our days practising solfa, register changes, messa di voce or portamento. We invented early music to get away from all that stuff.