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Chasing Expression: Tracing Notated and Performative Devices that Create a Bel Canto Style at the Piano

Paul Zeller, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Discussions of interpretation and performance practice often address specific historical periods, offering analyses of musical practices within a predetermined set of dates, such as ornamentation in the Baroque period, articulation as applied in the Classical era, and phrasing “the long line” in the Romantic era. Such a sectionalized approach yields many valuable insights on how to perform the music of specific composers, but it fails to consider the development of notational practices and performative idioms across different historical eras. Studying the ways in which musicians of different eras applied the same set of musical devices within a specific style could shed new light on the historical transformations of performance practices and promote understanding of expressivity in musical performance.Topic theory can provide a vehicle for such cross-era analysis. This document examines existing scholarship prior to offering its own definition for bel canto style within the framework of topic theory. In addition to identifying specific notated and performative features of this style, this document considers cultural associations and characteristics bel canto music held for its contemporary audiences. Crucially, the definition offered here considers the composers and works that contributed to the apex of bel canto style in nineteenth-century opera, arguing that they belong to an evolving style understood by multiple generations of contemporary listeners. This historicalconsideration opens the door to studying the development of notation and performance practices within a singular topic.After defining bel canto style, this document focuses on keyboard music written in this style by composers from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. Consideration is given to how specific notated and performative elements combine to imitate vocal qualities of bel canto style at the keyboard. Consulting manuscripts, first-hand accounts, pedagogical resources, and current performance practice scholarship, this document traces stylistic continuities found in the notational and performative idioms of bel canto style piano music, arguing that they were understood in much the same way throughout this style’s historical development.

Subject Area

Music|Performing Arts|Music history

Recommended Citation

Zeller, Paul, "Chasing Expression: Tracing Notated and Performative Devices that Create a Bel Canto Style at the Piano" (2021). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI28419804.