A Beginner's Guide

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. 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 professional warm-ups or drills. Instead these collections begin and end with relatively difficult lessons in style, florid melody, and contrapuntal imitation.
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 hardly anything about the performance details of solfeggio practice. 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 1940s. 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.
MIDI files are given for each solfeggio in this series. One MIDI file plays just the bass, and the other plays both bass and melody. A goal of solfeggio study is to become fluent in this melodic language, which became better known as bel canto (fine singing). To that end, it may be useful to approach a particular solfeggio in three stages. First, listen to the simulated performance several times, mentally singing along. Second, listen again to the simulated performance, this time actualy singing out loud. At first sing softly so that you can still hear the MIDI melody clearly. Third, sing the melody accompanied by only the MIDI bass performance. You are welcome to download the MIDI files to your own MIDI program, in case it would help to change the tempo or key.
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.
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.
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.