Everyone who learns to sing or play and instrument has their own memories of them: those “beginner” pieces that are used because they are easy enough for a new learner to get through. For most of us who studied with classical voice teachers, these pieces are from a genre of songs called arie antiche (“old airs”), and they were the first songs we learned in the studio (as opposed to all the stuff we learned off the radio, which we didn’t admit to our voice teachers.) They are simple Italian songs from the 17th and 18th centuries, re-arranged for modern singers and piano accompaniment, and they are forever connected in my brain with my senior year in high school and my freshman year in college .
Even as we learned them, we couldn’t wait to get past them, to get to “the good stuff”, which was more vocally challenging, maybe less tonal, in difficult foreign languages like French or German. We looked down our noses at anyone who sang these songs on his or her recital, it didn’t appear to show any effort, with all the great song literature out there waiting to be discovered by each of us. Not that we were ever too good for arie antiche, but we’d associated them with freshman voice class, and the unsteady techniques of the newbies who sung them.
My own copy of Twenty-Four Italian Songs And Arias of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (the ubiquitous yellow Schirmer Edition, what else?) lay buried among other songbooks from the past until I began to teach, and then I assigned its contents to nearly all of my voice students as their first art song. The difference this time was that, while they found them boring and old (just as we had), I began to hear them as the lovely, timeless little jewels that they are.
Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli released a CD of these songs in 1992 and it was like a breathe of fresh air to hear them performed, finally, by an accomplished professional singer. I am going to open my recital with three of them: Amarylli, mia bella; Cario mio ben; and Nel cor piu non mi sento. Why not, after all?
Nowdays the new edition comes with a CD of someone playing the accompaniment. Kids today! Why, we had to plunk out the harmonies ourselves, after waiting two hours for an available practice room. Y’all get off my lawn!