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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

Joseph de Lalande's Comparison of French and Italian Register Usage

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

‘I have said that the tenor of the Italians was the haute-contre of the French; at least the tenors hardly differ if they choose to sing without making monkeys of the castrati, with their endless roulades and ornaments which disfigure the work of composers.

The [Italian] tenor goes from C to G in full voice and to D in falsetto or fausset: our haute-contre, ordinarily, after G goes up in full voice to Bb; while the tenor after G enters into falsetto; but that is not without exception:

Babbi goes up to C in full voice, the same as Caribaldi did until the age of 48. Amorevoli, who was a little older, went up to D. In Paris, Geliot had the compass of Amorevoli, and Legros had that of the first two [Babbi and Caribaldi]; these qualities of voice, in all countries, are very rare: Lainez goes up to A forced, Rousseau to a B somewhat forced, Dufrenoy up to G forced; all those who succeeded Legros are obliged to shout to reach the pitch of the haute-contre, except Rousseau, but he has a much smaller sound. Thus Geliot and Legros would have been called tenors [by the Italians] and not contraltos, although one is accustomed to translate this word as haute-contre.

The contraltos are women’s voices of second soprano [second dessus], which go from A to C in full voice, and to F in falsetto, as opposed to the ordinary compass of women’s soprano which is from D to E in full voice and to C in falsetto.

The castrati who have soprano or dessus voices have the same compass as the women; others are contraltos or second dessus; we have many of them in Paris among the singers of the choirs; they are often put in unison with the hautes-contres, but they are never made to sing alone. These voices have been sought after in Italy for some time: Both Reginelli, around 1730, and Baalardo, around 1745, were famous; but those [castrati] we have seen since were mediocre, and were rarely used for shows.

That which I have said of female voices is not without exception. La Gabrielli went from Bb until C in full voice, and until F in falsetto; this range is very rare, her voice was equally in its fullness, equality, flexibility, and lightness; this voice was made to be superior to the nightingales; she has ruined the singers of Italy, who all want to imitate her.

La Bastardella, however, had an even wider range, since she had two notes below and two above; it was a full voice, but unequal: when one heard it without seeing her, one thought one heard three different voices. The admirable [quality] that she had, was a falsetto from G until A, and in this falsetto, she made light and admirable roulades; but in the medium and low [ranges,] her voice was rebellious.’


There’s plenty to unpack here, so I’ll make a short summary:

- The typical Italian ‘tenor:’ Sings from ‘C to G in full voice and to D in falsetto.’ - The typical French ‘haute-contre:’ ‘goes up in full voice to Bb.’ - The typical (female) ‘contralto:’ Sings from ‘A to C in full voice, and to F in falsetto.’ It’s unclear to which A and C de Lalande is referring. - The typical (female) ‘soprano:’ Sings from ‘D to E in full voice and to C in falsetto.’ It’s unclear to which D and E de Lalande is referring. - The castrati: ‘have the same compass as the women.’ This clarifies which pitches are meant by de Lalande’s description of female singers. - Gregorio Babbi (1708- 1768:) ‘goes up to C in full voice.’ - Gioacchino Caribaldi/Garibaldi (1743-c.1792:) The same as Babbi - Angelo Amorevoli (1716-1798:) ‘went up to D.’ - Pierre de Geliot/Jélyotte (1713-1797:) Has the same range as Amorevoli. - Joseph Legros (1739-1793:) Has the same range as Babbi and Garibaldi. - Étienne Lainez (1753-1822:) ‘goes up to A forced.’ - Jean-Joseph Rousseau (1761-1800:) ‘Rousseau to a B somewhat forced.’ - Dufrenoy (?) ‘up to G forced.’ - Caterina Gabrielli (1730-1796:) ‘from Bb until C in full voice, and until F in falsetto.’ - Lucrezia Aguiari/La Bastardella (1743/46-1783:) had ‘two notes below and two above’ Caterina Gabrielli, and a ‘falsetto from G until A.’


In order to contextualise some of the rather radical-sounding comments about female singing, I’ll address four additional sources below:

- Pier Francesco Tosi (1723)

‘The Extent of the full natural Voice terminates generally upon the fourth Space, which is C; or on the fifth Line, which is D [of the soprano clef;] and there the feigned Voice becomes of Use...Among the Women, one hears sometimes a Soprano entirely di Petto, but among the Male Sex it would be a great Rarity, should they preserve it after having past the Age of Puberty’

- Giambattista Mancini (1774)

‘Every student, whether he is soprano, contralto, bass or tenor, can easily know the difference between these registers. He needs only to sing the scale to test this. If it is a soprano, start from "sol" on the second line of the staff [G above middle C] and reach the following "Do" on the fourth line [C an octave higher than middle C] and he will notice that these four tones are sonorous, and come out with strength and clearness and without effort, because they come from the chest; while if he sings up to "re" [D a major ninth above middle C] when the organs are not suitable, he will sing this tone with much effort, feeling fatigue in the throat, and consequently the tone is feeble.’

- Jeannette LoVetri (2012)

‘In music theater, specific register qualities are expected and frequently required as part of the abilities a vocalist must have in order to get a job. Casting notices frequently state: “Must belt to D, must mix to F,” “must sing legit to A.”’

- Alessandro Moreschi (1902)

Although the recording quality and conditions make certain observations with regards to timbre and style difficult to verify, the very noticeable ‘breaks’ and distinct changes in timbre bear all of the hallmarks of a rapid, often skillfully disguised, change from ‘mode 1’ to ‘mode 2.’ Indeed, these changes occur at almost exactly the pitches that Mancini and Tosi suggest that they might, although Moreschi seems to have an overlapping area of roughly a fourth (A-D above middle C) which allows him to make vocal, and musical choices as to where he wishes to change laryngeal register. Below can be seen an annotated score marking the places where changes in laryngeal register seem to occur in Moreschi’s performance of the well-known Bach/Gounod ‘Ave Maria.’ It must be stressed that these markings are made based entirely on my own observations.

A recording can be found here:


In order to make all of this a little clearer, I’ve notated all these ranges in a table below. Those pitches which are described in language which suggests ‘M1’ are marked in red, and those which suggest ‘M2’ are marked in blue. For more information on this terminology, please see Bernard Roubeau, Nathalie Henrich, and Michèle Castellengo, “Laryngeal Vibratory Mechanisms: The Notion of Vocal Register Revisited,” Journal of Voice 23, no. 4 (July 2009): 425–38.

In the absence of any definite knowledge of de Lalande’s, Tosi’s, or Mancini’s standard of pitch, all pitches notated should be considered to be guidelines, with the possibility that they may be up to a tone higher or lower than A=440. Those of Jeannette LoVetri and Alessandro Moreschi are notated at A=440.

Since de Lalande’s notation system does not specify octave designations, there are several instances where more than one option is possible. Since Tosi and Mancini are more explicit in this respects, the comparison drawn by de Lalande between the ranges of female voices and the castrati makes certain possibilities more likely than others.

The passage by Jeannette LoVetri includes the term ‘mix,’ a subject of considerable debate. I have notated this pitch in orange to separate it from the others. This passage is included in order to preempt any protestations about the supposedly ‘impossible’ use of the voice documented by de Lalande.



- Joseph de Lalande, Voyage En Italie, vol. 7 (Geneva, 1790), 204-205. Translation partially adapted from Simon Ravens, The Supernatural Voice : A History of High Male Singing (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2014)

‘J’ai dit que le tenore des Italiens étoît la haute-contre des François; du moins les tenori n’en differoient presque pas s’ils vouloient chanter sans faire les singes des castrats, par la quantité des roulades et de broderies, qui défigurent l’ouvrage des compositeurs.

Le tenore va de ut à sol en pleine voix, & jusqu a re en falsetto ou fausset: notre haute-contre, ordinairement après Ie sol, monte en pleine voix jusqu’au si b au lieu que le tenore après le sol entre dans le fausset; mais cela n'est pas sans exception:

Babbi montoit jufqu'à ut en pleine voix, de même que Caribaldi, jusquà l'âge de 48 ans. Amorevoli, qui étoit un peu plus ancien, alloit jusqu'à re. A Paris, Geliot avoir la même étendue qu Amorevli, & Legros avoit celle des deux premiers; ces qualités de voix, dans tous les pays, sont très-rares: Lainez va jusqu'au la forcé, Rousseau jusqu'au la b un peu forcé, Dufrenoy jusqu'au sol forcé; tous ceux qui ont succédé a Legros, sont obligés de crier pour arriver au ton de la haute-contre, excepté Rousseau; mais il a le timbre plus petit. Ainsi, Geliot & Legros auroient été appelles tenori & non pas contralti quoiqu'on ait coutume de traduire ce mot par haute-contre.

Les contralti sont des voix de femmes en séconds dessus, qui vont depuis la jusqu'à ut en pleine voix, & jusqu'en fa en fausset; au lieu que létendue ordinaire des voix de femmes en dessus est depuis re jusqu'en mi en pleine voix, & jusqu'en ut en fausset.

Les castrats qui ont la voix de soprani ou dessus, ont la même étendue que les femmes; d'autres sont des contralti, on séconds dessus; nous en avons beaucoup à Paris parmi les chanteuses des choeurs; on les met souvent à l’unisson des hautes-contres, mais on ne les fait jamais chanter seules. Ces voix ont été quelque temps recherchées en Italie: Reginelli, vers 1730, & Baalardo, vers 1745, eurent de la célébrité; mais ceux qu’on a vus depuis étoient médiocres, & l’on n’en emploie que rarement pour les spectacles.

Ce que j’ai dit des voix des femmes n’est pas sans exception. La Gabrielli alloit depuis si b jusqu’en ut de pleine voix, & jusqu’à fa en fausset; cette étendue est très-rare, sa voix l’étoit également pour la plénitude, l’égalité, la souplesse & la légéreté; cette voix étoit faire pour être audessus des rossignols; elle a gâté les chanteuses d’Italie, qui toutes ont voulu l’imiter.

La Bastardella a eu cependant encore plus d’étendue, car elle avoit deux notes de plus en-bas & deux en-haut; c’étoit une voix pleine, mais inégale: quand on l’entendoit sans la voir, on croyoit entendre trois voix différentes. Ce qu’elle avoit d’admirable, c’étoit un fausset depuis sol jusqu’en la, & dans ce fausset, elle faisoit des roulades légères & admirables; mais dans le medium & le bas, sa voix étoit rétive.’


Pier Francesco Tosi, Observations on the Florid Song; or, Sentiments on the Ancient and Modern Singers, trans. Johann Ernst Galliard (London: J. Wilcox, 1743)

‘La giurisdizione della voce naturale, o di petto termina ordinariamente sul quarto spazio, o sulla quinta riga, ed ivi principia il dominio del falsetto...Nelle femmine, che cantano il Soprano sentesi qualche volta una voce tutta di petto, nè Maschi però sarebbe rarità se la conservassero passata, che abbiano l’età puerile.’


Giovanni Battista Mancini, Pensieri e Riflessioni Pratiche Sopra Il Canto Figurato (Vienna: Ghelen, 1774), 43-44. Translation adapted from Giambattista Mancini, Practical Reflections on the Figurative Art of Singing, trans. Pietro Buzzi (1774; repr., Boston: The Gorham Press, 1912)

‘Ogni Scolare, sia egli Soprano, sia Contralto, sia Tenore, sia Baffo, può da per se con tutta facilità conoscerne la differenza di questi due separati registri. Basta, che cominci a cantare la scala, per esempio se è Soprano, dal sol posto nel terzo rigo, e seguitando fino al C-sol-fa-ut del quarto spazio, offerverà che queste quattro voci saranno sonore, e le dirà con forza, chiarezza, e sènza pena, perchè provenienti dal petto; se poi vorrà passare al D-la-sol-re, se l'organo non è valido, ed è difettoso, lo dirà con pena, e fatica’


Alessandro Moreschi, Bach/Gounod Ave Maria (The Gramophone & Typewriter Company, 83 1902).


Jeannette LoVetri, “The Confusion about Belting: A Personal Observation,” Voice Prints (September/October 2012): 4–7.


Bernard Roubeau, Nathalie Henrich, and Michèle Castellengo, “Laryngeal Vibratory Mechanisms: The Notion of Vocal Register Revisited,” Journal of Voice 23, no. 4 (July 2009): 425–38,


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