Solfeggio is a musical exercise for the voice on the syllables Ur (or Do), Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, forming the Guidonian hexachord, to which was added later the syllable Si on the 7th or leading note, the whole corresponding to the notes, C, D, E, F, G, A, B of the diatonic scale.
These names are considered the result of an accident ingeniously turned to account, the first six being the first syllables of half lines in the first verse of a hymn for the festival of St. John Baptists, occurring on the successive notes of the rising scale, with a seventh syllable perhaps formed of the initial letters of Sancte Johannes.
The first use of these syllables is ascribed to Guido d’Arezzo as an artificial aid to pupils ‘of slow comprehension in learning to read music,’ and not as possessing any special virtue in the matter of voice cultivation; but it is by no means clear that he was the first to use them but they came into use about his time.
It is probably that even in Guido’s day, as soon as the notes had been learned, the use of syllables was, as it has been later, superseded by vocalization, or singing on a vowel. The syllables maybe considered, therefore, only in their capacity as names of notes.
Dr. Crotch, in his treatise on Harmony, uses them for this purpose in the major key, on the basis of the movable Do, underlining them, for the notes of the relative minor scales, and gives them as alternative with the theoretical names – tonic, or Do; Medient, or Mi; Dominant, or Sol, etc.
The continued use of the syllables, if the Do were fixed, would accustom the student to a certain vowel on a certain note only, and would not tend to facilitate pronunciation throughout the scale.
If the Do were movable, though different vowels would be used on different parts of the voice, there would still be the mechanical succession through the transposed scale; and true reading – which Hullah aptly calls ‘seeing with the ear and hearing with the eye,’ that is to say, the mental identification of a certain sound with a certain sign – would not be taught thereby.
Those who posses a natural musical disposition do not require the help of the syllables; and as pronunciation would not be effectually taught by them, especially after one of the most difficult and unsatisfactory vowels had been removed, by the change of Ut to Do, and as they do not contain all the consonants, moreover, voice cultivation is much more readily carried out by perfecting vowels before using consonants at all, – it was but natural that vocalization should have been adopted as the best means of removing inequalities in the voice and difficulties in its management.
Crescentini, says in the preface to his vocal exercises ‘Fli esercizj sono stati da me imaginati per l’ uso del vocalizzo, cosa la pin mecessaria per perfezionarsi nel conto dopo lo studio fatto de’ solfeggio, o sia, nomenclatura dell note’ – ‘I have intended these exercises for vocalization, which is the most necessary exercise for attaining perfection in singing, after going through the study of the sol-fa, or nomenclature of the notes.’
Sometimes a kind of compromise was adopted in exercises of agility, that syllable being used which comes on the principal or accented note of a group or division.
The word ‘solfeggio’ is misused and confounded with ‘vocalizzo’ in spite of the etymology of the two words. The preface to the fourth edition of the ‘Solfeges d’italie’ says ‘La plupart des Solfeges nonveaux exigent qu’ils soient Solfies sans nommer les notes.’ Here is an absurd contradiction, and a confusion of the two distinct operations of solfeggiare and vocalizzare.
There is no precise equivalent in English for solfeggio and solfeggiare. The French have solfege and solfier.
As a question of voice production, the wisdom of vocalization, chiefly upon the vowel a (Italian), and certainly before other vowels are practiced, and most decidedly before using consonants, has been abundantly proved. The use of the words in question is not therefore a matter of much importance. This appears to be in direct opposition to the advice of a very fine singer and an eminent master, Pier Francesco Tosi, whose book on singing was published at Bologna in 1723, the English translation by Galliard appearing in 1742.
He says ‘let the master never be tired in making the scholar sol-fa as long as he finds it necessary; for if he should let him sing upon the vowels too soon, he knows not how to instruct.’ ‘As long as he finds it necessary, ‘ however, is a considerable qualification.
The vowel a, rightly pronounced, gives a position of the resonance chambers most free from impediment, in which the entire volume of air vibrates without after neutralization, and consequently communicates its vibrations in their integrity to the outer air; this, therefore, is the best preparation, the best starting point for the formation of other vowels.
After this vowel is thoroughly mastered the others are comparatively easy. When the vowels have been conquered, the consonants have a much better chance of proper treatment.
Vocalization on all the vowels throughout the whole compass of the voice should be practiced after the vowel is perfected; then should come the practice of syllables of all kinds upon all parts of the voice; and then the critical study and practice of recitative.