An Introduction to the History of Solfeggi

Solfeggi, or studies in melody, were central to the training of European court musicians from the late 1600s until the late 1800s. They had their greatest influence first in Italian conservatories, especially at Naples, and then later at the Paris Conservatory, where the principles of the "Italian School" continued to be taught far into the twentieth century. Because learning the Italian style of music was a priority for almost any eighteenth-century musician, many well-known non-Italians also studied or taught solfeggi. This was especially true for famous singers or teachers of singing, but seems also to apply to instrumentalists and composers. Mozart, for example, wrote a small number of solfeggi for his wife Constanza.
Although manuscript collections of solfeggi were centerpieces in the training of musicians in the days of Bach and Mozart, today the outlines of this tradition have faded and most modern musicians will be surprised at how different solfeggi were in comparison with modern "sight-singing" books. In a sense, 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). Collections of solfeggi in use at the Paris Conservatory, for example, were also published with complete piano accompaniments as an aid for teachers unable to improvise the harmony. 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 improvisor, 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.
Neapolitan solfeggi have been preserved in manuscript collections attributed to various great maestros who taught in the conservatories. In some instances these maestros were famous composers and in other instances they were famous singers. Among the singing masters were retired castrati (males neutered before puberty) who had been among the most admired performers of the century. In Paris, several Italian musicians became established as teachers. The vogue for learning the Italian style led to the Parisian publication of a thick volume of Solfeges d'Italie (Italian Solfeggi) in 1772 (reprinted several times, each time with additions). The masters included in this volume were mostly selected from the Naples conservatories. With the founding of the Paris Conservatory in 1795, the Naples methods were taken up by the new institution. A standard collection of Italian-style solfeggi later used at the Paris Conservatory, the Solfège des Solfèges in various redactions by Dannhauser and Lemoine, has remained in print to this day.
According to the renowned violin master Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770), the "usual Italian solfeggio," meaning the way to sol-fa a scale, was Ut-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-Re-Mi-Fa ascending (in major) and "Fa-Mi-La-Sol-Fa-Mi-Re-Ut" descending. This is rather different from today, and reveals the heritage of hexachord systems in use in earlier centuries, where half steps are always pronounced "Mi-Fa" ascending and "Fa-Mi" descending. Already in the late seventeenth century "Do" was replacing "Ut," and many eighteenth-century sources questioned whether multiple syllables should be used at all in complicated and modulating music. Many Neapolitan solfeggi feature such elaborate and rapid melodic ornamentation that note-for-note syllabification seems unlikely. The eighteenth-century editors of the Solfeges d'Italie recommended abandoning syllables for those solfeggi. The recent publication of "The Solfeggio Tradition" by Nicholas Baragwanath provides a detailed history and a "how-to" guide to authentic Neapolitan solfeggio singing.
The Paris Conservatory adopted the modern usage of "Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si-Do" for the notes from C up to C an octave higher, regardless of chromatic inflections or key. This was but one of many options in the late eighteenth century. Nineteenth-century teachers, faced with the new phenomenon of music classrooms filled with dozens of students (who might be talented amateurs or members of newly formed choral societies) adopted a simplified sol-fa that tied syllables to scale degrees, something foreign to the world of Bach and Mozart. One of the motivations for this new system, and especially for certain syllabic inflections intended to represent sharps or flats, was the need for cheap music printing for the masses. By avoiding any duplicated initials of the syllables (the French Sol and Si, the two S's, were changed in England to Sol and Ti, two different initials), it became possible to print music without the need for special music fonts. Frère Jacques could thus be printed as D R M D, D R M D, etc. Variants of this "tonic sol-fa" remain dominant in North American colleges and universities, where teachers face the challenges of teaching large classes of young-adult learners.
Neapolitan students studied solfeggi as part of their six-day-a-week curriculum, and the second master (secondo maestro) of each conservatory appears to have been assigned the supervision of this study. Boys often came to the conservatories as young as seven years old, so they would grow up singing solfeggi. Their level of accomplishment with syllables may thus have been similar to students today who begin French-style solfège at a young age. Yet even with the facility that early training permits, many Neapolitan solfeggi are florid to a degree that would make syllabification more humorous than impressive. We are thus left with the irony that today we ask adult learners to perform feats of sight singing (singing with syllables tied to scale degrees and chromatic inflections, free of any harmonic and contextual support from a keyboard instrument) that seem not to have been imagined in the eighteenth century. Perhaps, with the evidence of actual eighteenth-century pedagogy before us, we can envision the emergence of a "historically informed" style of instruction, one that focuses on the accumulation of stylistic knowledge rather than on a gymnastics of syllables.