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The Solfeggio TraditionA Forgotten Art of Melody in the Long Eighteenth Century$

Nicholas Baragwanath

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780197514085

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780197514085.001.0001

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Discovering Solfeggio

(p.1) 1 Introduction
The Solfeggio Tradition

Nicholas Baragwanath

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter gives an overview of the main discoveries of the research and a summary of the book containing brief discussions of solfeggio manuscripts, apprenticeships, eighteenth-century solmization, plainchant and score-reading, vocalization and embellishment, melodic structure and form, and the importance of practice rather than theory. The procedure of re-creating the lessons contained in the old manuscripts, and the insights into the pedagogical system they embodied, are discussed. The pre-industrial method of learning to make music—to improvise or compose—is compared to the classroom model adopted by later institutions and still in use today. It relied on informal music learning practices that developed creative skills through listening and copying. The chapter concludes by suggesting potential applications of the historical method to contemporary music pedagogy, performance, composition, and musicianship.

Keywords:   music theory, music pedagogy, music performance, eighteenth-century music history, apprenticeship, solfeggio

Whoever can sing, can play.

Old saying traditionally observed at the Naples conservatories

There are many thousands of manuscripts known as solfeggi.1 More than four hundred separate collections have been gathering dust in archives since the early nineteenth century. Some contain only a handful of folios, whereas others fill entire bookshelves.

This vast store represents merely the tip of an iceberg. Because writing a solfeggio for a lesson cost an eighteenth-century maestro just a few minutes’ labor, for every one preserved hundreds more must have been discarded or erased from writing tablets. Each manuscript tells a tale of survival.

Once, these yellowed pages were alive with the sound of singing and the bustle of daily music classes. Now, they are silent—enigmatic remnants of a vanished world of music making.

How were they used? What did they teach? Could solfeggi hold the key to unlocking the trade secrets of a forgotten art of melody in the long eighteenth century?

These were the questions that sprang to mind when I first became aware of the scale of manuscript sources awaiting discovery in archives across Europe and the United States. Judging by sheer quantity, I reasoned, they must have been important. Scholars had only just begun to take note of solfeggi, primarily in connection with partimenti—single-staff guides to the improvisation of a composition at the keyboard—which were much better understood, thanks to the pioneering work of Gjerdingen (2007) and Sanguinetti (2012). From their findings, I knew that the most common type of solfeggio consisted of a melody, or sometimes a vocal duet or trio, to be sung using some kind of syllables in conjunction with a bass line to be played as a keyboard accompaniment. A typical beginner’s lesson can be seen in example 1.1.

IntroductionDiscovering Solfeggio

Ex. 1.1 Leo, Solfeggi a voce sola di soprano (c. 1734–37), no. 1, fol. 161v

This solfeggio exists in two separate manuscript collections in the library of the Naples Conservatory, one assigned to Leonardo Leo (1694–1744) and the other to Niccolò Porpora (1686–1768). Multiple attributions are common among solfeggio manuscripts, owing in part to the guesswork of later archivists and in part to the (p.2) way they were cascaded through the student body. They may also have been copied for private lessons or preserved by some conscientious student with access to paper and ink. Because Leo and Porpora did not serve together in the same faculty, it is doubtful that the lesson presented in example 1.1 could have issued from both of them. The dual attribution probably arose because two copies of a solfeggio from the same lesson became separated and were misattributed when the central Naples Conservatory library was established in 1791.2

This melody was most likely intended for the young boys at the Turchini Conservatory in Naples, where Leo served as second-class maestro from 1734 to 1737. At that time, he oversaw the initial three years of study, during which apprentices were required to master the rudiments through solfeggio. Eighteenth-century maestros “would never sit youngsters at the harpsichord unless they had already received three years of instruction in solfeggio.”3 This tallies with Florimo’s later claim that “after the training in solfeggio, which lasted for as many years and as long as the maestro deemed necessary, each student decided, according to his own inclination—and in keeping with the old saying traditionally observed at the conservatories, that whoever can sing, can play—whether to sing, compose, or learn the instrument that most appealed.”4

Finding out any more about solfeggi turned out to be challenging. In fact, it seemed that almost nothing was known about them. The most illuminating source I could find was a concise beginner’s guide, available online as part of Robert O. Gjerdingen’s website “Monuments of Solfeggi,” and even this page openly acknowledges the limits of our current understanding:


As far as is known today, the boys in the Neapolitan conservatories sang the melodies of solfeggi, and either they or more likely a maestro played the bass and accompaniment at the harpsichord or other keyboard instrument. We do not know if solfeggi were sung solo or by a group. In fact we know hardly anything about the performance details of solfeggio practice.5

In his historical overview, Gjerdingen nevertheless offers some reflections on how solfeggi might have contributed to the curriculum taught at the conservatories:

Solfeggi and partimenti (instructional basses) were two sides of the same polyphonic coin. Partimenti provided a bass to which the student added one or more upper voices in a keyboard realization. Solfeggi provided exemplary melodic material, always in the context of a bass (and most probably a harmonic accompaniment). Thus the melody-bass duo at the heart of eighteenth-century music was taught and reinforced from both the top and the bottom. Collections of solfeggi were thus like a lexicon of stylistically favored melodic utterances. For the future improviser, whether of whole compositions or merely of ornamented reprises and cadenzas, solfeggi provided a storehouse of memorized material from which the performer or composer could later draw.6

This interpretation makes good sense. Singing hundreds if not thousands of solfeggi over the course of several years probably did equip students with an instinctive feel for correct and tasteful melody and bass combinations, as well as provide them with a storehouse of memorized melodic material that could be called on to assist composition and improvisation. In this respect, solfeggi can be defined as “exercises in style for voice and basso continuo, providing a storehouse of contrapuntally and harmonically contextualized melodic exemplars useful in partimento realizations and free composition.”7

But I suspected that there was more to solfeggi than this. To me, they held out the promise of an answer as to how professional musicians in the past managed to compose so fluently, to improvise and embellish instantaneously, and to switch effortlessly between seven clefs.

Proving it was going to be difficult. I was facing an immense, uncharted ocean of primary source material without so much as a compass to guide me. Any attempt to tell the story behind these thousands of manuscripts would mean starting from scratch.

At first, I searched for clues in contemporary accounts of solfeggio practice. These turned out to be either frustratingly vague or concerned more with liturgical plainchant than with Galant melody. Next, I attempted to trace the origins of manuscript collections and to research their histories. There were dead ends at every turn. Finally, I fell back on my default response as a stumped musicologist: analysis. I besieged dozens of solfeggi with every analytical weapon in my armory, breaking them down into conglomerations of themes, harmonies, (p.4) counterpoints, phrases, motives, schemata, rhythms, functions, cadences, gestures, agents, topics, pitch-classes, and genres. When I stepped back to inspect the results, I was astonished to find that my efforts had left hardly a dent. I was no closer to identifying the distinguishing features of solfeggi or to working out their didactic uses than I had been before I started. They appeared to respond to analysis in much the same way as any other contemporary composition. In seeking to identify typical solfeggio forms or melodic contours, for instance, one might as well try to find typical patterns for all eighteenth-century music. Some solfeggi resemble short instrumental sonata movements and exhibit the same degree of variety, whereas others follow the conventions of genres as diverse as arias, duets, and dance movements. Many are constructed in fugal episodes, like anachronistic Renaissance ricercars. Analyzing them may give rise to interesting interpretations, but no more so than might be found in any other eighteenth-century repertory. In other words, modern methods of analysis can provide a great deal of insight into the structures of individual solfeggi, but they struggle to come up with convincing, let alone historically grounded, answers as to how they were used, what they taught, and how they helped prepare apprentices for professional lives as composers and performers.

While contemplating ways to get around this obstacle, it dawned on me that my hard-won knowledge of modern music theory might be the very thing holding me back. After all, in the lost world of eighteenth-century solfeggio, I was a complete novice. I knew less than a seven-year-old on her first day at school. To engage with the material on its own terms, I would have to go back to basics. I would have to train myself as an apprentice (see box 1.1).

Without a maestro or textbook to guide me, I decided that the only way to do this was to sing as many solfeggi as possible in emulation of the five-year-old Giuseppe Sigismondo, who, over the course of four months in 1744, “sang around one hundred solfeggi, some devised on the spot by [his] own master [Giuseppe Geremia, a student at the Loreto Conservatory] and others by [Francesco] Feo.”8 Getting to know the material as a performer might conceivably foster some intuitive understanding of its educational significance. Fortunately, several collections were arranged as a progressive series of “lessons,” which meant that I could follow in the footsteps of real students. It was also relatively easy to pick out the most basic solfeggi from other collections. Soon, stacks of photocopied manuscripts by half-forgotten maestros such as Francesco Durante (1684–1755) and Carlo Cotumacci (1709–85) began to rise like paper stalagmites from the floor of my study. At this stage I had no idea what they might reveal, other than my tolerance for untidiness. But these ghostly lessons would at least be brought to life once more, by the voice of an apprentice and the hands of an accompanist, probably for the first time in more than two centuries.

I sat down at the piano and opened my first lesson (example 1.1). It looked simple enough, with encouragingly long note values and limited melodic movement. No sooner had I opened my mouth to sing, however, than I closed it again in (p.5) befuddlement. Which syllables should I use? Could I sidestep the issue by vocalizing with a vowel? Did it matter? I raced to my shelves. No one appeared to know.

From the primary sources I was able to ascertain that Neapolitan maestros in the 1730s relied on a system of syllables for solfeggio lessons. Of that there was no doubt. They may occasionally have had recourse to an easier option, namely, vocalizing on a vowel, but only when working specifically on intonation or advanced vocal techniques. Evidence for this can be found in sources such as Mancini (1774, 55) and Corri (1810, 8). Progression to vocalization (singing melodies with open vowels) depended on first having mastered the syllables of solfeggio.

The other easier option—singing to French (modern) solfège, that is, do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si, with do always on C, re always on D, etc.—would not have been used by Leo and his pupils. Although in common usage in France from the mid-1700s, it did not have any significant impact on Italian musical life until the very end of the eighteenth century (as documented in Chapter 14).

(p.6) In any case, I was not interested in singing Leo’s solfeggio in the manner of an amateur fifty years after the event or like a student at one of the new public lycées of the Napoleonic era. I wanted to re-create the lesson as an apprentice of the time may have undertaken it in order to understand how it may have taught a set of fundamentals that underpinned professional skills. The sources indicated that this meant singing it to a set of syllables derived from the medieval system of Guido of Arezzo (c. 991–c. 1033), which appears to have developed over the course of seven centuries of unbroken tradition.

IntroductionDiscovering Solfeggio

Ex. 1.2 Tartini’s “usual Italian solfeggio” (De’ principj dell’ armonia musicale, 1767)

Only Gjerdingen had shown any interest in this Galant solmization system. He pointed out that Giuseppe Tartini, the violin virtuoso from Padua, defined the “usual Italian solfeggio” by means of the syllables “ut, re, mi, fa, sol, re, mi, fa” in his 1767 treatise on harmony.9 Because these eight syllables map onto a major scale ascending through the octave, for instance, from c1 to c2 (as shown in example 1.2), they confirm that Galant musicians continued to rely on “mutations” between the medieval hexachords. (Brief definitions of technical terms such as this can be found in the glossary in the frontmatter). As soon as sol on G was reached, a mutation occurred: G-sol overlapped with the G-ut of a new hexachord, meaning that the scale finished with the syllables A-re, B-mi, C-fa. This process is highlighted in example 1.2 (and throughout the book) by added stroke symbols: / indicates a mutation to a higher hexachord, whereas \ indicates a mutation to a lower. That Tartini’s “usual solfeggio” originated in traditional theory was confirmed by earlier sources such as the Key to Music (1677) by the Viennese organist Johann Jacob Prinner, which set out the normal ways to solmize ascending and descending scales using Guido of Arezzo’s ancient categories of “hard,” “soft,” and “natural” hexachords (again, definitions of these terms can be found in the glossary).

Tartini’s major scale was derived from the medieval Guidonian system and conceived in terms of two overlapping ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la scales, with the traditional ut (commonly sung as the more melodious do)10 located on its first and fifth notes. However confusing it may appear today, musicians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were taught to think of the major scale as a fusion of two six-note scales beginning on what would now be called its tonic and dominant notes. Material stated in the tonic and dominant, therefore, such as the subject and real answer of a fugue or the transposed themes of a sonata, would have been regarded as identical in terms of syllables. In C major, do-re-mi signified both C-D-E and G-A-B.

(p.7) Tartini’s solmization reminded me of Johann Agricola’s (1757) commentary to the Observations on Canto Figurato (1723) by the retired Bolognese castrato Pierfrancesco Tosi, in which the same syllables—ut-re-mi-fa-sol/re-mi-fa—were shown to begin on any note. Similar illustrations of annotated transposed scales can be found in many other sources, for instance, Samber (1704); Münster (1748); Cotumacci (c. 1755); Solano (1764); Panerai (c. 1780); and L. Sabbatini (1789–90). In Guido’s system ut was limited to just three notes: G, C, and F. Over the centuries the number of permissible finals increased. By the eighteenth century, ut could be any chromatic note, giving rise to a moveable double do system quite different from its medieval precursor, in which a “compound scale” made up of two overlapping six-note “simple scales” could be transposed onto any one of the twelve major keys. In the key of G major, for instance, the syllables do-re-mi signified the notes G-A-B and D-E-F♯, whereas in the key of D♭ major they signified D♭-E♭-F and A♭-B♭-C. This mind-boggling network of hexachords and scales was my second discovery.

Equipped with this minimal knowledge, which admittedly made little sense at the time, I resumed my apprenticeship. The journey was slow and arduous. Most basic solfeggi turned out to be constructed around a single hexachord, allowing the student to become familiar with this essential building block of melody and to discover its various ambitus or boundary pitches (e.g., major melodies circumscribed by do-sol or minor ones by re-la) and cadence points (e.g., closing on do and fa or on re and la). More troublesome were the mutations between different hexachords, which often seem alien and bewildering to modern musicians. But they could at least be practiced. The most problematic features were the accidentals and modulations, which appear to have been introduced at a surprisingly early stage of the learning process.

IntroductionDiscovering Solfeggio

Ex. 1.3 Leo, Solfeggi a voce sola di soprano (c. 1734–37), no.1, with suggested realization of the figured bass and solmization by the author

Take, for instance, Leo’s rudimentary solfeggio, transcribed in example 1.1 and speculatively solmized in example 1.3. Its melody circles around the six notes of the hexachord G-A-B-C-D-E, requiring no mutation beyond the old convention of singing the semitone above la (in this case, F) always as fa. In spite of its apparent simplicity, it includes several chromatic notes and, in m. 9, a clear cadence into a minor key. Neither Tartini nor Agricola gives any hint for dealing with these matters. Should all the sharps be sung as mi? Where does the modulation take place, exactly? How should one solmize a minor key?

The process of singing solfeggio was radically different from anything I had come across before. Because the singer had to rely on the vocal part, rather than the bass, modulations between scales must have been cued melodically. But where were the cues? Drawing on contemporary guides to solmization as well as my experience as a performer, I tried to work out the most plausible readings, ones that would make pedagogical as well as practical sense. I soon realized that the syllables were not included merely to provide an even circulation of vowels and consonants for singers to practice their diction. They were central to each lesson. They functioned as mnemonic aids. The same patterns occurred again and again, helping the student acquire an instinctive feel for the “right” ways to enliven a melody with tasteful (p.8) chromatic touches, to color it by shifting from major to minor mode and vice versa, and to modulate from one scale to another. By singing these solfeggi with something close to their original syllables, I was learning how to create music like an eighteenth-century apprentice—learning the traditional way, by singing.

The experience of singing these didactic melodies and hearing their associated basses seemed to have given me an insight into the creative process behind the music. It felt as if a veil had been lifted from the manuscripts in front of me. Freed from the distorting lens of twentieth-century harmonic theory, the syllabic foundations of familiar patterns and devices, realized in all manner of florid styles, leapt off the page. I could see at a glance that the solfeggio by Leo shown in example 1.3, for instance, was not a piece in C major that modulated to A minor but (p.9) a most basic exercise in how to create a characterful and varied melody using only the six syllables of a single hexachord, without modulating. This short composition demonstrates how musicians of the time were able to summon up sophisticated melodies with a minimum of effort. They were not burdened with the weight of theoretical baggage that prevents modern classically trained musicians from achieving similar feats. To create a melody like the one shown in example 1.3 required little more than an ability to keep a six-note scale in mind while applying a few simple rules and conventions. These were acquired more by practice and familiarity than by rote learning.

The technique is analogous to that used by modern jazz musicians. Taking a chord progression as a conceptual framework, they are able to create music of astonishing complexity and variety by applying a few rules such as associated modes, chord substitutions, and guide tones. The essence of the method is to keep in mind a simple framework while subjecting it to conventional transformations that do not alter its substance. The mental image of the chord progression remains unaffected by changes to its musical realization.

Singing example 1.3 to its original syllables, analogously, teaches one how to form a basic melody by keeping in mind the simple six-note scale as an unchanging framework while exploiting its many possible interpretations. Eighteenth-century apprentices knew, for instance, that in this exercise do could be sung as either G or G♯, depending on melodic context. They understood that fa and sol could likewise be sharped without changing the syllable, as confirmed by the original “traits” (not slurs, as explained in Chapter 7) that connect C with C♯ and D with D♯ in m. 6. In addition to these didactic functions, the melody familiarized apprentices with the archaic stile antico associated with Palestrina, which was still very much in use in church music.11 In short, this example demonstrates just how much could be achieved with a single hexachord.

Although such conventions will seem unfamiliar to readers at this stage, the lesson embedded in example 1.3 taught beginners the essential identity of a major key and its relative minor and the basic method for dealing with accidentals. It may be paraphrased in modern terms as follows:

  1. 1. Use only the syllables do-re-mi-fa-sol-la. These represent the first six pitches of the major scale. If required, a semitone above la may be added and sung as fa.

  2. 2. In order to project a major mode (known as do-re-mi or do-mi-sol), shape the melody within the notes G-do and E-la and lead it toward a cadence on G-do or C-fa.

  3. 3. In order to evoke a contrasting minor (known as re-mi-fa or re-fa-la), bring out A-re and E-la as both boundary notes and cadential goals.

  4. 4. When approaching a cadence from below, closing, for instance, on A-re or E-la, sharp the leading note (without changing the syllable).

  5. 5. Sliding chromatically between syllables is permitted, provided that it is done tastefully and not overused.

  6. (p.10) 6. Note-for-note solmizations such as this are found only in beginners’ solfeggi. Most were realized in a very different manner, to be explained in Chapter 7.

In the eighteenth century much could be achieved with only six syllables—by those in the know. Modern classical musicians have no such basic framework. If they wish to conjure up a comparable melody, they must take into account complex modulations between different keys, as well as the distinction between notes that do and do not belong to a governing scale.

After a few months of self-directed apprenticeship, having sung through several hundred solfeggi with something like their original syllables, I began to perceive eighteenth-century music in a new way. Everywhere I looked, I saw standard patterns: a mi-fa-mi-fa here, a fa-mi-fa-la there. By force of habit, I could not help but rank a succession of accidental sharps and flats into those that required a change of syllable and those that did not. I appreciated the punchlines of musical jokes more keenly, because so many were recycled from didactic ruses such as the “wrong fa” originally devised to catch out unsuspecting apprentices (see example 9.15). Even classic works took on new meanings. The opening seven bars of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata op. 53, for instance, feature a common Neapolitan solfa lesson in modulating up then down a fifth (as explained in connection with example 13.4).

Back to Basics

All the while, I continued to rummage through library catalogues and databases in search of contemporary sources. I was particularly eager to find a textbook or treatise connected to the Italian orphanage-conservatories whence most of the manuscript collections originated. Surely some information about how to sing these lessons must have survived? Curiously, I could find almost nothing on solfa other than countless rudimentary guides to ecclesiastical plainchant (canto fermo). Their gothic-looking square noteheads and four-line staves seemed far removed from the rococo arabesques of eighteenth-century solfeggi.

As I became more familiar with these sources, however, I realized that the elusive “textbook” had been hiding in plain sight from the start. It was to be found in any number of cheaply produced booklets and handwritten notebooks setting out more or less the same rules of liturgical canto fermo for novice choirboys and trainee clergy. These sources chronicled a world of eighteenth-century music education that went far beyond the Italian conservatories to encompass just about every provincial church school, monastery, and convent in Catholic Europe.

This came as something of a surprise. The central role of the church in eighteenth-century music education tends to be overlooked nowadays, in part because of a preoccupation with the fashionable courts and theaters that gave rise to the bulk of our classical canon and in part because of an emphasis on composers who were born into musical dynasties and trained within the family, like Domenico Scarlatti, (p.11) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and J. S. Bach and his sons. Their home schooling has obscured the fact that most other professional musicians, who were not so fortunate, learned their craft in exchange for singing at religious institutions.12

The reasons for this are easy to grasp. Catholic churches needed singers, instrumentalists, and organists to deliver the chants and musical alternatives that formed the cornerstone of daily service. Disadvantaged children and orphans needed an education in order to get on in life. The two arrived at a mutually beneficial arrangement. In return for a basic education and training in music—as well as food, shelter, and spiritual sustenance—children labored for free in choir stalls and organ lofts. This explains why most music schools were run by the church, why most music teachers belonged to the clergy, and why most children began music lessons by learning to sing plainchant with traditional medieval solmization.

The Styrian maestro and pedagogue Johann Joseph Fux offers a representative example of this educational system. Born a lowly peasant, he was trained by his local Catholic cantor before being accepted as an apprentice by a Jesuit order in Graz. He began his professional life as an organist from 1696 at the Schottenkirche on the Freyung in Vienna. His famous teaching method of species counterpoint, set out in the Steps to Parnassus (1725), relies on traditional Guidonian solmization (although this aspect is rarely mentioned today).

Similarly, the celebrated Viennese theorist Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, who taught Beethoven, began his career as a seven-year-old puer cantor (boy singer) at the Augustinian monastery in Klosterneuburg before progressing to the Benedictine abbey at Melk and the Jesuit seminary in Vienna (see box 1.2). From 1772 he worked as regens chori (choirmaster) at the Carmelite church of St. Joseph in the Laimgrube, Vienna, teaching the rudiments to choirboys.

Even the Austrian violinist and pedagogue Joseph Riepel learned traditional Guidonian solfa as a child, despite the fact that he later railed against the unnecessary complexities in both its original “Latin” form and its newer “Italian” transposable form (which had been in use, he claimed, since the fourteenth century). While (p.12) advocating German letter names in place of Italian solfa syllables, Riepel added the following aside: “Incidentally, I have tried to find the ut re mi fa that I learned in my youth, but almost every schoolteacher has a different method for instructing his students. One replaces ut with do, another replaces mi with a French si, etc.”13 The precedence of the old-fashioned ut and B-mi over the newer do and B-si in this formulation suggests that he continued to think in terms of the Guidonian system. It also testifies to the increasing acceptance of French fixed-do solfège among German-speaking musicians during the 1750s.

From these and many other composers’ life stories, I began to appreciate that, for those who were unlucky enough to come from a family that possessed neither wealth nor a Kapellmeister, music education in eighteenth-century Catholic Europe necessarily began with traditional solfa and plainchant.

It followed that Italian solfeggi could not be understood in isolation. They represented specialized variants of a much wider tradition centered on church schools. The stylish and sophisticated lessons documented in most Neapolitan solfeggio manuscripts did not require written instructions because they presupposed a solid grounding in sight-singing for Divine Service.

In eighteenth-century terms, I had begun my apprenticeship at least a year too late. I needed to go back to the real basics. This meant working through contemporary guides to canto fermo.

Although these differ in the presentation of chants, they evince a remarkable consistency of approach. Essentially the same basic teachings can be found in “cantorinus” textbooks from many parts of Europe, as I discovered from leafing through scores of sources.

Undergoing a course of instruction as an eighteenth-century puer cantor helped me solve many puzzling aspects of solfeggio. It explained, for instance, how little boys and girls managed to master skills that can seem beyond the reach of most modern musicians. For them, mutating between hexachords and switching clefs was, quite literally, child’s play. They were accustomed to reading multiple clefs from their very first lessons because they learned to read notation through just four simple patterns (encircled by fa syllables and called “mutations at the fourth and fifth”) that unlocked any staff, clef, or key signature. Solfeggio manuscripts assisted their transition from archaic canto fermo to the modern five-line staff of canto figurato (otherwise known to us as normal notation)14 by superimposing these four patterns onto different clefs and key signatures.

IntroductionDiscovering Solfeggio

Ex. 1.4 Crescentini, Raccolta d’Esercizi per il Canto all’ uso del Vocalizzo (1811; I-Nc, Solfeggio 109), fol. 12r, no. 8

(a) Theme, mm. 1–8, preceded by a guide to reading it in different clefs

IntroductionDiscovering Solfeggio

(b) Theme and three variations compared

The precise workings of this remarkably efficient method of score-reading are explained in Chapter 5. In order to experience it in anticipation, look to the opening of a solfeggio by the retired castrato Girolamo Crescentini (1762–1846) shown in example 1.4(a). When scanned in bass clef with no key signature, it presents a straightforward melody in A minor (bounded, in typical fashion, by the notes re and la), yet when scanned in treble clef it reads with identical syllables in the keys of F or F♯ minor, as well as fitting perfectly onto many other clefs and keys, as indicated in the example. Musicians trained in this way could, in fact, read up to eighty-four (p.13) (p.14) combinations of clefs and key signatures with just two basic staff layouts. Evidence as to how this method was applied can be found in a complete Italian course of study used by the girls at the College of San Miguel of Belem in Mexico City during the 1770s. Each of their practice melodies was introduced with two or more different clefs.15

Learning to Sing

Thus far I had uncovered a system of note naming based on the medieval hexachords and developed over the course of centuries into a twelve-key matrix of compound scales. This facilitated musicking by allowing practitioners to label discrete patterns of pitches with the same names whatever the key and wherever they occurred within a scale. A rising tone-semitone-tone, for instance, was always re-mi-fa-sol whether it fell on D-E-F-G, A-B-C-D, or any other transposition of the same pattern. This naming system gave rise to an associated technique of score-reading in which multiple clefs could be read with the same layout of notes. But these insights relate primarily to the first stage of apprenticeship, to the discipline of “spoken solfeggio” (solfeggio parlato), in which initiates learned basic theory by speaking notes aloud and beating time. They increased understanding of the rudiments as taught to eighteenth-century musicians but offered little to help me achieve my real aim: to reconstruct the practice of “sung solfeggio” (solfeggio cantato).

This came next with the discovery of how to interpret cryptic performance markings that regularly feature in solfeggio manuscripts. As recounted in Chapter 7, linking Penna’s (1679) recommendation that bare intervals be sung with embellishment, “like an Amen,” with the common German practice of singing solfeggi to the word Amen led me to speculate that the many straight pen strokes that appeared above the melody in manuscripts might indicate melismatic “Amens” attached to main syllable notes. And so it proved. These markings mapped directly onto what later writers described as “traits of vocalization”: short lines that show where one syllable ends and another begins. It turned out that when contemporary maestros spoke of the need to master solmization before progressing to vocalization, they did not mean to suggest that advanced students should sing simple vowels in place of syllables. They meant to describe the practice of vocalizing on the syllables, or in other words, performing them with embellishments and diminutions. Learning the art of melody began where solmization left off, because knowing how to add syllables to a melody was only the first and most basic foundation. Real musical skill lay in knowing how to sing them in a multitude of stylish ways and to weave them together into a coherent discourse.

The way this worked in practice can be sampled by comparing the theme from Crescentini’s solfeggio in example 1.4(b) with its three subsequent variations, presented in vertical alignment for ease of viewing. The variations exhibit progressively more elaborate diminutions, while preserving the fundamental syllabic (p.15) structure of the theme. Knowing where the syllables fall reveals the underlying structure of the melody: its punctuation, rhythms, and cadence points. Apprentice musicians, initially as singers and later as instrumentalists, would learn thousands of ways to realize basic patterns of syllables (or solfeggi) like this with different “traits of vocalization,” stitching them together to create an extended melody. Remarkable evidence as to how this was done can be found in a collection of fifty-three solfeggi by the Neapolitan maestro Pietro Pulli, dating from the 1740s. The manuscript begins with ten ascending C major scales in plain half notes, each with an additional staff above containing florid variations on its syllables.16

Performing a melody in multiple contrasting ways or constructing a melodic composition by vocalizing a solfeggio was a profound trade secret. A detailed account of how it was done must wait until Chapters 7 and 8. But to whet the reader’s appetite, its broad outlines can be sampled in advance from an historical account of Galant solfeggio written by the nineteenth-century Neapolitan maestro and music journalist Michele Ruta. Motivated largely by provincial pride and innate conservatism, Ruta promoted himself as a champion of the old Neapolitan school. In hindsight, he could be said to have taken a last stand against an emerging international consensus in music education that eventually succeeded in consigning the achievements of the Italian tradition to the margins of history. From 1855 onward he published many articles purporting to describe genuine teachings. His claim to authority rested on his studies at the Naples Conservatory from 1841 to 1847 under Carlo Conti and Saverio Mercadante, both of whom followed the teachings of Niccolò Zingarelli, who had trained at the Loreto Conservatory during the 1760s and who was widely regarded as “the last custodian of the great traditions of the ancient Neapolitan school.”17 Unless Zingarelli or his students departed radically from the teachings they had received, which seems unlikely, there are grounds to consider a direct line of provenance from the practices of the mid-1700s to Ruta’s description of them.

Ruta noted that the Neapolitan school did not use a textbook for learning the art of melody. It demanded, instead, long years of practical apprenticeship. By singing solfeggi, apprentices would gain an instinctive feel for the right ways to shape an extended melody. By composing them, advanced students would gradually acquire a working knowledge of how to develop a musical thought and to apply appropriate forms, modulations, and melodic contours. Ruta’s account is given here in full:

The ancient Neapolitan school did not have a written textbook for that study [the study of so-called free composition]; nevertheless, they traditionally adopted, for this part of the instruction, the study of the composition of solfeggio, which they regarded in educational terms as a study in musical logic and aesthetics. Thus, through solfeggio they taught how to develop a musical thought, which tessitura [“weave,” i.e., shaping or structuring] is appropriate for a melodic phrase, which modulations are befitting for a melody, the correctness of the bass, and in addition the nature of human voices and their specific characteristics. . . . It is difficult (p.16) to prescribe tessitura in abstract terms; if prescribed, it would become a template with which the student would structure his compositions. This would be the same as learning to paint with a compass: it would destroy art. But if a taxonomy of specific forms must be banished from teaching, one can nonetheless profitably recommend general norms of fine music as a guide to young students. The ancient masters of our school did not establish these norms, but through the practice of solfeggi they transmitted them to disciples, according to the student’s own melodic phrase; in doing so, they educated the particular taste of the disciple through a long practical apprenticeship, carefully avoiding a conventional thesaurus of phrases.18

There was no substitute for the treadmill of apprenticeship. Any attempt to distill the creative process of solfeggio into a simplified textbook with easily digestible rules and ready-made templates would “destroy art.” If Ruta’s second-hand account can be believed, then the basis for a solfeggio lesson—at least in Zingarelli’s composition class at the Naples Conservatory—was the weaving of a musical discourse from “the student’s own melodic phrase.” The student invented a theme and the maestro guided her, by way of practical demonstrations and exercises, to turn it into a piece. In this process, there was no place for “a taxonomy of specific forms” or “a conventional thesaurus of phrases.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Having arrived at the end of my quest to understand a large and perplexing body of manuscripts, the main thing I had learned, beyond the intricacies of a forgotten technique of solfeggio singing, was that professional music making in the eighteenth century was above all a practical activity. Would-be maestros had none of the “piano arrangements, manuals of harmony, and other royal roads to mediocrity” available to later generations.19 Their skills were acquired through years of laborious imitation, variation, and repetition. Even apparently theoretical concepts such as keys, modulations, and time signatures were instilled by practice.

The pre-industrial method of learning to make music—to improvise or compose—relied not so much on the classroom model adopted by later institutions and still in use today as on what Lucy Green (2017, 5) calls “informal music learning practices.” These involve neither teachers, nor textbooks, nor actually being taught. Rather, they are the means by which young musicians develop creative skills by means of a kind of cultural osmosis grounded in listening and copying. Green’s observations relate, of course, not to classically trained composers but to popular musicians, who are able to play instruments and create songs with little or no formal instruction. An analogy can be made with eighteenth-century musicians, notwithstanding their far more rigorous training regime. Most of them acquired skills in composition without ever having received a “composition lesson,” much (p.17) like the Beatles’ John Lennon, for whom performing in a skiffle group was the cross-cultural equivalent of singing solfeggi and playing partimenti.

Pamela Burnard (2012) argues more forcefully against the modern “fetishization of composition” (p. 2) and makes the case that musical creativity, as defined in her nineteen case studies of real-world industry professionals, cannot be acquired by classroom teaching. It arises, instead, from a variety of practices based primarily on listening and doing. Although her aim is to show how these practices can be observed and replicated in order to develop socially responsive teaching and learning methods, her findings offer insights into how eighteenth-century composers learned their trade and how I, in my small way, managed to pick up skills in Galant composition purely by singing.

It is no more feasible to learn the art of solfeggio from a book than it is to learn to dance salsa by reading about it. In order to apprehend eighteenth-century music in ways that might at least be considered comparable to those of contemporary maestros, it is necessary to do as they did.

This book invites the reader to embark on a similar journey of discovery by experiencing the real lessons of an eighteenth-century apprentice. Speaking and singing the exercises that follow is essential if they are to hold any meaning. It is not enough to glance at them while trying to digest the accompanying text. This will make no sense. Readers must be prepared to experience the lessons with their voices and to compare their interpretations with mine.

Part I looks into the social and historical contexts of the solfeggio tradition, in particular, its significance as a well-trodden musical path out of poverty. In Chapter 2 the true story of a little boy who undertook a standard apprenticeship in music, Joseph Haydn, is taken as a case study to explore the social background to the Catholic educational system and the importance of the Church in musical life, in order to explain the continued reliance on an archaic solmization system. Haydn’s experience was typical for its time, albeit unusually well documented. In return for up to ten years of unpaid apprenticeship, his poor parents managed to secure for him a basic education and training in music in the hope that one day he might become a clergyman. Until the age of seventeen, his daily routine involved singing and playing for an interminable round of church services. Chapter 3 explores the nature of these services in more depth, while Chapter 4 offers an introduction to the surprisingly uncharted world of eighteenth-century plainchant, which remained a cornerstone of Divine Service. Plainchant was performed in updated “tonal” and rhythmic versions so as to appear modern and conventional, as opposed to ancient and exotic, as it usually sounds today. This helps explain the persistence of hexachordal solmization as the basis of music education.

Chapter 5 surveys these rudiments in their original medieval Roman notation. These were the first (and often only) music lessons taught to choristers in Catholic Europe. Scholars of early music will find few surprises here, although they may be taken aback to discover that these lessons in the gamut and musica ficta derive from (p.18) sources written centuries after the Guidonian system is commonly presumed to have disappeared from history.

Overall, Chapters 25 aim to provide a counterweight to prevailing assumptions about eighteenth-century music by deliberately marginalizing activities at court, theater, and home and emphasizing instead the centrality of the church and plainchant in the daily routines of apprentices and most professionals.

Learning to solfa the eighteenth-century way begins in Part II with lessons in the art of melody. Chapters 68 set out the fundamentals of the method and are in that respect the most important in the book. They are also the most difficult, demanding focused practical engagement with real historical solfeggio lessons. In order to ease the burden, readers who are prepared to take my proposed solmizations on trust may skip Chapter 6, which provides instruction in how to name notes in the eighteenth-century manner by a process known as “reading” or “spoken solfeggio.” Apprentices spent more than a year merely adding syllables to melodies.

Once the syllables were thoroughly ingrained through spoken solfeggio, apprentices would be taught hundreds of different ways to sing them. The real business of learning to sing and make music thus begins in Chapter 7, with the sung or played realization of fundamental syllable-notes.

Singing solfeggio allowed students to experience melody as a kind of language and to acquire fluency in it by means of experience rather than conscious learning. In order to try to reimagine this pedagogical process, as well as to demonstrate how to decipher complex solfeggio manuscripts, Chapter 8 surveys some of the many ways in which a common stock pattern of syllables was realized in song. Chapter 9 completes the overview of lessons by outlining the main ways to modulate in solfeggio by singing fa as mi and vice versa. Its discussion of two important sources provides supporting evidence, for those who require it, to back up the reconstruction of solmization put forward in earlier chapters.

Part III moves away from the mechanics of the method toward an interpretation of the primary sources, classifying solfeggi into four main types and outlining their historical origins, characteristic features, and pedagogical purposes. They range from plainchants and Renaissance-style contrapuntal ricercars of the sort that continued to inform liturgical music in many churches to flamboyant rococo arias by Mozart and Farinelli. Some conjure up a courtly world of sparkling musical wit and captivating conversation, while others evoke the drab conventionality of lessons in provincial church schools. Chapters 1113 present examples of the different types, requiring us (as apprentices) to shift rapidly from major to minor and to modulate fluently between keys, all the while avoiding witty didactic traps set by the maestro. Our vocal skills (in theory, at least) will develop to the point where we can tackle the kind of florid, aria-like solfeggi normally reserved for castrato singers, who occupied the top floor of conservatory buildings and who were the only pupils spared the indignity of having to practice in crowded dormitories. Their subtle vocal craft demanded the luxury of an individual room. By the end, we will have learned how to develop themes in a variety of styles, including imitative fugues, and to fashion (p.19) them into multi-movement “cyclic” forms arranged into slow-fast pairs. We will, in short, know how to create music on the spot, like an eighteenth-century solfeggist.

The book concludes in Chapter 14 with a brief survey of alternative solmization systems, which arose largely as a result of Protestant attempts to break free from Roman oversight, before tracing the inexorable rise of French seven-note solfège and its role in the demise of the great tradition. Owing to its ease of use for amateurs and classroom teaching, by the early nineteenth century fixed-do solfège had decisively supplanted the old craft methods.

Given that there is no longer any call for exquisitely skilled maestros to conjure up concertos and arias at a moment’s notice for noble gatherings, or for virtuosos to sing the same song or play the same piece in countless different ways, or (thankfully) for armies of child laborers to provide music for all-day schedules of church services, there seems little incentive for resurrecting their methods. In this book I do not seek to promote a return to the past by advocating a revival of defunct apprenticeships in solfeggio. Rather, I aim to shed light on a central yet long-forgotten aspect of eighteenth-century music, one which can truly be understood only via practice, and to encourage readers to seek out ways to exploit it to enhance and inform present-day musical life. Devotees of historical authenticity may, for instance, be interested in restoring Galant solfeggio as a living practice for performers of eighteenth-century music, just as Wegman (1992, 274) recommends for earlier music. Mainstream performers may be encouraged to experiment with a new kind of authenticity by varying a piece in order to “speak” it with their own voice, as eighteenth-century composers would have expected, or to realize it in multiple contrasting versions so that listeners might experience it anew. Others, with pedagogical expertise, might perceive ways to mine the old methods for strategies to enhance the teaching of aural skills, musicianship, and composition.

In attempting to account for the many thousands of surviving solfeggio manuscripts, I hope also to make a contribution to our understanding of one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories never told, thanks to the heavily edited version of music history passed down to us from the nineteenth century. Solfeggio formed the foundation of training that worked as a powerful engine of social mobility, lifting many disadvantaged children out of poverty and propelling others to unimaginable heights of fame and fortune. Knowing more about how this was accomplished will, I hope, fill a gap in music history and benefit approaches to music pedagogy and performance today. (p.20)


(1.) Peter van Tour’s UUSolf, The Uppsala Solfeggio Database, includes more than twelve thousand individual items (http://www2.musik.uu.se/UUSolf/UUSolf.php; accessed August 2019). The bibliography lists additional sources.

(2.) Example 1.1 also survives in a collection of solfeggi attributed to Porpora, held in the archives of the Minoritenconvent in Vienna: Solffeggi fugatti Del Sig.re Porpora Nicolo (A-Wm, VI. 12834). Felix Diergarten (2011) makes the case that this manuscript may have been used in private lessons given by Porpora during his stay in Vienna in 1753, when Haydn was earning his keep by accompanying at the keyboard. Several features indicate that it was copied from a master document (similar to those currently located in Naples) by a German-speaking amateur. The title page manages to mis spell both “solffeggi” and “fugatti” and includes a characteristic marking over the letter u that was used to assist in the reading of Kurrent script; the solfeggi contain copious performance markings and accidentals of the sort needed by amateurs, especially in numbers 9 and 10; the “arpeggiato” solfeggio found in two Neapolitan collections (I-Nc, Solfeggio 333, no. 8 and Solfeggio 335, no. 10) is mistakenly entitled “apoggiato”; and, most telling of all, not one of them resembles a genuine solfeggio fugato, examples of which feature in Chapters 8, 9, and 11. In describing this collection as “fugatti,” the anonymous copyist got it doubly wrong.

(3.) Ricupero (1803), 50: “i quali non mettevano mai i giovani al cembalo, se prima pel corso di trè anni non si fossero istruiti nel solfeggio.” I am grateful to Nicoleta Paraschivescu for this reference. All translations are the author’s unless stated otherwise.

(4.) Florimo (1869), 107 (emphasis in the original): “Dopo l’esercizio del solfeggio, che durava per più anni e tutto il tempo che i maestri giudicavano necessario, giusta l’antico detto, reso tradizionale nei Conservatorii, che chi canta suona, ogni alunno si dedicava, a seconda della propria inclinazione, o al canto, o alla composizione, o ad imparare quello strumento che più predileggeva.” Paraphrased in Florimo (1881–83), 2:78.

(8.) Sigismondo (1820), translated as Apotheosis of Music (2016b), 6.

(9.) Gjerdingen (2007), 34–40, cited from the preface to Tartini (1767): “comune Italiano solfeggio, ut, re, mi, fa, sol, re, mi, fa.

(10.) The earliest mention of this practice occurs in Doni (1640), who apparently borrowed the first syllable of his surname for the purpose, but Rousseau (1779, 366) claimed that “Italians have always used do in place of ut.” The original ut nevertheless continued to appear in books out of respect for tradition. Both Bononcini (1678, 35) and Penna (1679, 16) acknowledged the everyday use of do while referring to it as ut.

(11.) The resemblance to its Renaissance archetype runs deeper than mere surface features. Although example 1.3 can be dated to sometime between 1725 and 1744, it demonstrates (p.310) an awareness of mensuration practices more commonly connected with the late fifteenth-century writings of Tinctoris and Gafurius and traceable ultimately to Boethius. Not only does its alla breve time signature indicate just that—a tactus, or structural beat, at the level of the breve rather than the more usual semibreve—but it also involves notational devices akin to mensuration. In m. 11 the two semibreves that make up the even division of the tactus encompass six rather than four half-notes. In Renaissance terms, “tempus imperfectum cum prolatione imperfecta,” corresponding to the modern simple time signature of 2/1, momentarily switches to “prolatione perfecta,” similar to the modern compound time signature of 6/2. By marking the fundamental two-part division of the bar, the tied crotchets on la rule out an alternative interpretation of bar 11 as “tempus perfectum,” or three semibreves to be sung in the time of two. Similar instances of mensuration in other solfeggi in stile antico suggest that it cannot simply be dismissed as the result of missing triplet symbols. It presumably relates to a curious revival of the antiquated alla breve time signature in the middle of the seventeenth century. Bornstein (2001, 125) notes that whereas earlier composers favored the C symbol for modern common time, collections of didactic duos for solmization from Giamberti (1657) onward returned to the older system. The five trios in Piochi (1671) were printed first with a C time signature and afterwards alla breve, with all rhythmic values doubled.

(12.) To cite a representative example, David Schulenberg (1995, 171) marginalizes the findings of John Butt’s Music Education and the Art of Performance in the German Baroque (1994) by claiming that it deals only with music education “as taught to boys, that is choristers in church schools—not the education of music professionals, such as organists or instrument makers.” Instrument and cabinet makers aside, it is worth asking where organists were trained, if not in the family or in church schools.

(13.) Riepel II (1755), 1–18, at 11: “Ich habe übrigens das ut re mi fa hervor gesucht, welches ich selbst in meiner Jugend gelernet. Denn fast jeder Schulmeister hat eine andere Art, seine Knaben darinn zu unterweisen. Einer macht anstatt ut ein do, der andere anstatt mi ein französches si, & c.”

(14.) Translations such as “figural chant” and “polyphony” are unsuitable for this book because the notational system of canto figurato could apply to plainchant as well as up-to-date compositions. I generally translate it as “figured melody” or “modern notation.”

(15.) The Archivio Histórico del Colegio de las Vizcaínas contains records from three colonial-era girls’ schools in Mexico City (see Lanam 2018). Of particular interest are sixty-one exercises in score reading by Francesco Feo, preserved in a “Calfskin-bound Notebook of Lessons” (MEX-Mahn, Ms. 26-I-18).

(16.) Pulli (c. 1740; D-MÜs, SANT Hs. 3351). Peter van Tour drew my attention to this important source just as this book was going to press.

(18.) This translation, adapted from Sanguinetti (2005), 462–63, is notable for the omission of the word form for tessitura. In modern Italian this translates as “weaving” or “fabric” and is related, via its Latin root textura, to the English word texture. Ruta obviously uses tessitura to refer to skills in shaping or structuring musical material, but this does not map precisely onto the modern form, with its connotations of templates and functional units. Ruta (1877), 145–47: “L’antica scuola napoletana, quantunque non avesse avuto un metodo scritto per tale studio [lo studio della composizione cosiddetta ideale, cioè la teoria della forma] pure, tradizionalmente adottava, per questa parte della scuola, lo studio della composizione del solfeggio, il quale veniva nell’insegnamento riguardato come uno studio di logica e di estetica musicale. Quindi nel solfeggio essi insegnavano lo svolgimento di un pensiero musicale, la tessitura di cui è capace una frase melodica, le modulazioni che si addicono ad un canto, la correttezza del basso, ed altresì la natura delle voci umane, ed il loro speciale carattere. Essi calcolavano che la gioventù spinta dalla propria vivacità, e dalla poca esperienza, facilmente (p.311) può scambiare la varietà di un pensiero melodico svolto da tutti i suoi lati, con la molteplicità dei vari pensieri, in danno del vero bello e della unità; e con lunga pratica, empiricamente ammaestravano a dominare questa vivacità, ed a guidarla secondo le leggi dell’arte: ed in questa esercitazione insegnavano altresì la tessitura che costituisce il pezzo di musica. La tessitura è difficile prescriverla astrattamente; e prescrivendola, diverrebbe una falsariga su la quale l’addiscente formerebbe le sue composizioni: questo sarebbe lo stesso che imparare a dipingere, disegnando col compasso, ciò ucciderebbe l’arte. Ma se nell’insegnamento si deve bandire un formolario per le speciali tessiture, benissimo si possono dettare di norme generali del bello musicale, le quali sieno di guida al giovane studente. Quantunque i vecchi maestri della nostra Scuola non avessero determinate queste norme, pure con la pratica esercitazione del solfeggio dettavano le loro norme a tenore della frase melodica del discepolo medesimo; di maniera che educavano il gusto speciale dell’allievo col lungo tirocinio del fare, evitando con cura il frasario convenzionale.”

(19.) Lee (1887), 91.