A Beginner's Guide to Solfeggi

Collections of solfeggi copied in the early nineteenth century sometimes begin with elementary exercises of simple intervals in long note values. Presumably those exercises, often titled Scale e Salti (Scales and Leaps) were intended for rank beginners or as simple frameworks for elaboration as practiced by more advanced students. Other collections from that period continue the progression of mechanical pattern-based exercises to a level of great difficulty. Presumably those exercises were intended as drills for aspiring professional singers. In the eighteenth century, however, the great majority of solfeggio collections contain neither primers for beginners nor pattern exercises for professionals. Instead these collections begin and end with relatively difficult lessons in style, florid melody, and contrapuntal imitation. One will occasionally find, for instance, solfeggio fugues.
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 very little about the performance details of solfeggio practice (for what is known to date, see The Solfeggio Tradition recently published by Nicholas Baragwanath). If we judge by eighteenth-century performance practice generally, then we could infer that a light, supple voice with little or no vibrato was the ideal. One should not attempt these exercises with the full operatic chest voice that developed in the nineteenth century, or with the wide, slow wobble of vibrato that became common in operatic singing since the 1950s. Male singers may need to use a falseto voice for the many high passages, even when singing an octave lower than written, since most solfeggi were for boy sopranos. Actual tenor solfeggi are a late development.
As a concession to modern students, the solfeggi melodies are here presented in the treble clef. The original clefs corresponded to the vocal range specified in a collection's title. Thus, for instance, a collection titled Solfeggi di soprano would have had its melodies written in the soprano clef.
In the world of today's music teachers, the choice between "fixed Do" (the Paris Conservatory system where any version of "C" is sung as "Do", any "D" is "Re," etc.) and "movable Do" (the nineteenth-century choir method where "Do" equals the momentary keynote, "Re" equals the second scale degree of the momentary key, etc.) is argued with religious fervor. Neither system, however, was prominent in the eighteenth century or earlier. Today, children with significant talent should adopt fixed do, if only because it does not make early music, avant-garde music, or difficult music impossible to sing with syllables. Adult learners (meaning all but a few college and university students) should avoid syllables entirely and sing solfeggi with "la, la, la" or any convenient vowel. Having talented young-adult instrumentalists fumble awkwardly through simple solfeggi is a plague to which teachers have become accustomed but which adds nothing to the students' abilities to perform in tune, in time, and with musical grace.
Solfeggi change key frequently. Try to be aware of the key for each phrase in a solfeggio. As exercises in style, solfeggi require careful attention to intonation, phrasing, articulation, and an understanding of the import of written-out ornamentation. The original focus on "hexachords" (i.e., six-note patterns with a half step in the middle) as the determiner of syllables showed a heightened sensitivity to accurately judging each local pattern of half steps and whole steps.
For instrumentalists interested in acquiring an insider's knowledge of eighteenth-century style, the vocal study of solfeggi can be mixed with instrumental performance. There were eighteenth-century collections of solfeggi for violin, and C. P. E. Bach's Solfeggietto (Little Solfeggio, originally titled just Solfeggio) was written for the keyboard. In terms of a pedagogy that could actually produce results, most collegiate courses in "aural skills" should probably avoid singing for instrumentalists, having them perform solfeggi on their instruments instead. The focus then would turn from "Should this be sung Re-Mi-La?" to something like "How can you give this passage a better intonation and clearer shape?" Again, recognizing the limitations of adult learners is important. An adult who begins to study the violin for the first time will never achieve professional standards, and much the same is true for adult learners who attempt to sing solfeggi with syllables.