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Robert Toft is a Canadian music researcher and vocal coach best known for his books on the history of singing and for his work with singers interested in historically informed approaches to performing vocal music written between 1500 and 1830.
Studies and University Career
Toft holds a BMus degree from McMaster University, Canada and after graduation he furthered his studies in England for four years (1979–80, 1981–84), first on the lute with Jakob Lindberg, Nigel North, and Christopher Wilson in London, and then as a PhD student at King's College London. His doctoral work with Reinhard Strohm culminated in a dissertation on musica ficta in the motets of Josquin Desprez, which led to a postdoctoral fellowship, sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, at the University of Cambridge.
After living in the UK and Ireland (he was a Visiting Lecturer at University College, Cork in 1980-81), Toft returned to Canada to teach at Queen's University in Kingston and then at McGill University in Montréal. He has made Western University in London, Ontario his academic home since 1989, and he spent a year in Australia (1993) as a Visiting Lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
During his years in the UK and Ireland, Toft worked continuously as an accompanist (lute and continuo songs). He realized that he could help vocalists animate songs in exciting ways by rooting their performances in period treatises, and as very few people studied historical approaches to singing in the early 1980s, he embarked on a long and rewarding journey to recover the old principles.
Treatises from the 16th to 19th centuries document the old practices of singing, and Toft uses these sources to show performers how to complete the creative process composers had merely begun. In his 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, recitatives and arias from operas and oratorios, or choruses from oratorios.
Without altering their vocal production, performers 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, staccato, legato, portamento, tonal contrast, messa di voce, tempo rubato, and ornamentation.
Toft has given master classes, workshops, and lectures on historical principles of interpretation and singing at leading conservatories and university music departments in Australia, Britain, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, and the United States. He also has taught at the Dartington International Summer School, UK (2012–14) and teaches at the Bel Canto Summer School, Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin.
Toft has written five books on the history of singing – first, on the problems of deciding what notes performers actually sang in Josquin's motets and then on eloquence in the first golden age of English song (the Dowland generation). He next turned his attention to the bel canto style of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and he has put his many years of vocal coaching and research into two practical guides, one on the historic principles of bel canto and the other on singing in an age of rhetorical persuasion, c.1500 – c.1620.
- Aural Images of Lost Traditions: Sharps and Flats in the Sixteenth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8020-5929-5
- Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart: The Art of Eloquent Singing in England 1597-1622. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. ISBN 0-8020-2848-9
- Heart to Heart: Expressive Singing in England 1780-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-816662-1
- Bel Canto: A Performer's Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013 ISBN 978-0-19-983232-3
- With Passionate Voice: Re-Creative Singing in 16th-Century England and Italy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-19-938203-3
- For more details on his approach, see Toft, Bel Canto: A Performer’s Guide and With Passionate Voice: Re-Creative Singing in 16th-Century England and Italy, or Toft’s website, Bel Canto: Historically Informed, Re-Creative Singing in the Age of Rhetorical Persuasion, c.1500 – c.1830.
- Toft, Bel Canto: A Performer’s Guide, p. 4.
- Robert Toft (2013). Bel Canto: A Performer’s Guide. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-983232-3
- Robert Toft (2014). With Passionate Voice: Re-Creative Singing in 16th-Century England and Italy. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-938203-3