About Robert Toft
Treatises from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries document the old practices of singing, and Robert uses these sources to show performers how to complete the creative process composers had merely begun. In workshops and master classes, singers explore period-specific historical techniques of interpretation to turn inexpressive, skeletally notated scores into passionate musical declamation, whether frottole, madrigals, English lute songs, continuo songs, or recitatives, arias, and choruses from operas and oratorios.
Without altering their vocal production, performers learn to set staples of the repertoire in completely new guises through a variety of interpretive devices from the bel canto “toolbox”: accent, emphasis, grammatical and rhetorical pauses, cadence, legato, staccato, portamento,
tonal contrast, messa di voce, tempo rubato, and ornamentation.
Robert has coached singers for his entire career and first became interested in coaching as an accompanist (lute), when he realised that he could help vocalists animate songs in exciting ways by rooting their styles of interpretation in period treatises. In the early 1980s, very few people studied historical approaches to singing, so he embarked on a long and rewarding journey to recover the old principles.
Along the way, he published five books on the history of singing:
• first on the problems of deciding what notes performers actually sang in Josquin’s motets
Aural Images of Lost Traditions: Sharps and Flats in the Sixteenth Century (1992)
• then on eloquence in the first golden age of English song
Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart: The Art of Eloquent Singing in England 1597-1622 (1993)
• next he turned to the bel canto style of the late 18th and early 19th centuries
Heart to Heart: Expressive Singing in England 1780-1830 (2000)
• he has now put his many years of coaching and research into two practical guides
Bel Canto: A Performer’s Guide (2013)
With Passionate Voice: Re-Creative Singing in Sixteenth-Century England and Italy (2014).
He has also written a textbook, Recording Classical Music (Focal Press, 2019), for one of the
courses he teaches, “Digital Audio Recording,” a course that concentrates on the theory of
recording, stereo microphone techniques in ambient spaces, and post-production editing.
Robert has given master classes and workshops on historical principles of interpretation and
singing in Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, UK, and the USA.
In 2015, together with Dame Emma Kirkby and Nicholas Clapton (Royal Academy of Music),
he organised and taught in a summer school devoted to the historically informed performance
of vocal repertoire written between the sixteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Held at the
Royal Irish Academy of Music (Dublin), the week-long program attracted advanced students
and emerging professionals from Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, UK, and the USA.
Robert’s production company, Talbot Records, released its first recording in 2017. Inspired by
the intensely dramatic performing styles of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, its main series,
Radically Hip, connects modern audiences to the impassioned eloquence of the past. Radically
Hip artists liberate themselves from the written page to re-create the score, audaciously embracing a powerful form of expression rooted in historical principles.
Robert’s home base is in the Faculty of Music at Western University, Canada as Professor of Music.
Excerpts from Book Reviews
Bel Canto: A Performer’s Guide
“This is the book on bel canto for 21st-century performers”
(John Potter, pre-publication review)
“This is a treasure of a book ... Singers, it could change your life!”
(Emma Kirkby, pre-publication review)
“challenge[s] conventional performance practice in [a] substantial if not revolutionary
manner ... expands the horizons of bel canto in nearly every aspect and is of the soundest
scholarship” (Choral Journal)
“a must-read for singers, teachers of singing, vocal coaches, and conductors ... a
straightforward and highly readable compendium of vocal techniques ... simply and
powerfully described” (Early Music America)
“clear and precise guidelines ... imparting a sense of new life to the style of bel canto
singing” (Performance Practice Review)
With Passionate Voice: Re-Creative Singing in Sixteenth-Century England and Italy
“a unique blend of profound, searching scholarship with inspired application for teaching
and guiding young performers – from ‘Then’ to ‘Now’ Toft acts as translator and guide,
scholar and tutor with unerring perspicacity and appropriateness”
(Anthony Rooley, pre-publication review)
“this fantastc work affirms what I have done in performance and teaching over the
last 35 years ... digesting the sources and producing a wonderfully usable distillation
for all those teachers and students who are really interested in being ‘Passionate Voices’ ”
(Evelyn Tubb, pre-publication review)
“Today’s student of renaissance song is blessed: there was nothing as helpful as this in my
day – a thoughtfully and beautifully illustrated guide to performance practice that efficiently,
succinctly and logically explains evidence from fascinating and authoritative sources in a
manner readily accessible to performers ... Re-creation is the key and Toft asks us to leave
the safe compound of mere notation, entering an interpretational minefield across which he
is the most trustworthy guide.” (Choir & Organ)
Heart to Heart: Expressive Singing in England 1780-1830
“all should read this book to dispel modern myths about bel canto” (Notes)
“[this] meticulous study is more than welcome: it is essential” (Opera Quarterly)
Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart: The Art of Eloquent Singing in England 1597-1622
“required reading for all voice students” (Albion)
“important for interpreting this lost art [rhetoric] to the modern performer” (Early Music News)
Aural Images of Lost Traditions: Sharps and Flats in the Sixteenth Century
“obligatory reading” (Parergon)
“valuable for clarifying the diversity of sixteenth-century practices” (Historical Performance)