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Messa di voce

The term 'messa di voce' means the placement of the voice. Not in the contemporary interpretation of actively directing the tone to a particular spot, but more about the voice finding its way into the nooks and crannies of resonance on an increasing and diminishing air pressure. It was deemed fundamental to vocal development for most of the history of singing, but has been somewhat neglected for the best part of a century. Like all vocal exercises it develops technical assurance which in turn enables expressive effects.

The process is to start the tone softly, but with immediacy of sound, clarity and precise intonation. The voice then swells with perfect steadiness to its strongest point and in the same breath diminishes symmetrically back to where it started.

Technically speaking, it's not easy to achieve - especially in the early stages. It requires a relaxed throat - completely free of any constriction or grip - to enable the vibrating airways to ferret out the resonances by breath pressure alone. On the symmetrical diminuendo, the intensity subsides, ending up where it started. There must be no forcing and no manipulation of the resonators to get a quick-fix richness or loudness - these are false gods. They may sound impressive internally, but they're not true, natural sounds and their ability to project is limited. The soundwaves must be free to travel through the vocal tract unimpeded. Then they fulfill their potential kinetic propulsion and will carry to the farthest reaches of an auditorium, regardless of size of voice.

When first attempted - provided that the tone is steady and the voice is free and therefore connected automatically to the breathing mechanism - it can be rather frustrating. The tone can be diffused and the length of the process dishearteningly short. Don't be put off by this. Like any muscular action, development takes time. The more we do it, the stronger and fitter it becomes. The flow of breath becomes more economical, the muscles grow and don't tire so easily, the voice increases in amplitude and the softer element becomes more focussed. The mastery of this exercise makes the instrument feel powerful and easily controlled. Although it takes longer to achieve than the vocal short cuts of force and resonator distortion, it is like an insurance policy for the singer's career. It promotes vocal health, fitness, strength, freshness and longevity.

Moreover, as soft tones are predominantly in head voice and strong tones (except the high notes) are formed by the addition of chest voice, the messa di voce encourages the smooth passage from register to register. If we don't master this control of dynamics, there comes a point, especially on the diminuendo, where the voice gets stuck and we have recourse to a rather alarming vocal gear change to enable us to change dynamic. With the correct messa di voce training, we simply have one vocal production, rather than a series of different ones for each dynamic. And this powerful sense of control cushions the instrument and enables it to float freely and easily and allows us simply to sing - without anxiety, technical concerns or awkward laryngeal manipulation.

And of course, all this hard work and dedication is for a purpose - it frees up expression. To be able to swell and diminish the tone at will and in any part of the range is the key to a multifarious palette of colours in the timbre. There are many great singers who achieve their ravishing effects this way, but if I single out Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, it is because of his impeccable vocal control, enabling a massive range of expression from powerful outbursts to the most delicate of nuances. Few singers dared to sing as softly as he did and yet it would carry to the farthest reaches of the largest halls, as those of us who were lucky enough to hear him can testify. He was renowned for his amazing capacity for colouration, especially in Lieder. But if you listen very carefully, it is apparent that he

Gaetano Nava's first and most important lesson; Messa di voce

achieves these effects by dynamic control. He is capable of doing a very short messa di voce on one syllable, arching one over a long phrase and every gradation in between. With this approach of the perfect balance of breath and resonance, expression comes from within - the sonic manifestation of true feeling, as opposed to the superficial and highly personal word by word colouration. It is no surprise therefore, that Fischer-Dieskau lamented the demise of legato - for without it we lose a profound, recondite expression and gain little more than academic imitation. The one is art, the other artifice. And such was the pull of this truly great singer, when he was at the peak of his career and came to London to give a Lieder recital, it would as a matter of course be in the Royal Festival Hall and even on a number of occasions, the Royal Albert Hall.

But I can't finish a chapter on messa di voce without reference to its contemporary exemplar, Edita Gruberová. I have not heard any singer in recorded history use the effect to the level and degree of this extraordinary singer. It is remarkable enough in recordings, but to have heard it live is unforgettable. A thread of exquisite sound appears as if airborne. It slowly swells to a thrilling forte, its bell-like overtones bouncing around the auditorium, as if some sorceror has created a sonic fireworks display. And if that weren't excitement enough, the sound then teasingly diminishes and, having set our pulses racing, she beguiles us into her intimacy with her most ravishing pianissimo. The moment is over...... The music continues and we're brought back down to earth having been literally spellbound by this great singer's benign power. This brings us back to the descriptions of extravagant adulation accorded to the great singers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The painstaking development of technical mastery can lead to almost supernatural vocal powers which have the potential to mesmerise an audience. An art that we're in danger of losing in this fast-paced world which demands and expects instant results. But with the right approach, it is not impossible to achieve such levels of artistry. Here are two examples of messa di voce Gruberová and Marilyn Horne.
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