Blanche Marchesi: the legacy of practice

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In this passage of Singer’s pilgrimage, Blanche Marchesi describes her great aunt’s relationship with Beethoven and how the artistic legacy of the performance practices of his work reached her.


[…] in art there comes a day when every production of a genius will take its right place, and the man eclectic and learned enough will find beauty and joy in every garden. I confess that I worship Haydn, love Trovatore, adore Tristan, and find everywhere something beautiful that gives me happiness. It is not right you should banish the Barbiere di Sevilla because you love the Götterdämmerung, or vice versa. If you are a real art lover and critic you will enjoy every work of high order written by a real master hand. The mistake is made, as I mentioned before, in mixing styles and introducing alterations and interpretations belonging to one epoch into another, which falsifies both. This must be fought. Traditions of the wrong sort must be detected and destroyed, and the right original tradition encouraged. In this respect the gramophone will play a very great role in our days, and it is unfortunate it was not invented sooner.

It happened one day, when I sang the Fidelio air, at the Hallé Concerts in Manchester, under Richter’s conductorship, that Richter said to me, after the rehearsal: “I am astonished, Madame Marchesi, that you sing these appoggiaturas in Fidelio.”

“Well,” I said, “my dear Mr Richter, everything that I do is what my mother taught, and, as she had it from Beethoven himself, I think it must be right. I never heard any other version, and it will satisfy you to know how my mother came to have it from Beethoven. When she came to Vienna as a girl, for her musical training, she stayed at the house of her aunt, Baroness Dorothea von Erdtmann, a born musical genius, the finest pianist of her day, at whose house Beethoven was an intimate friend. She never missed one of his performances or concerts. They played often together, and he dedicated to her the Sonata No. 101. Beethoven had his place reserved at her table daily at every meal. Whether he would come or not, he was expected, and he often forgot to take his meals. He had always to be recalled to reality, and my aunt would often force him to eat when he would come to see her, nearly fainting and, pressed by her, would confess he had forgotten to eat the whole day. He confided to my aunt, always, his latest manuscripts, and they were read in her house. Often he allowed her to take them with her to Offenbach, a small town opposite Frankfurt am Main, where the very musical family Speyer lived, who used to have a weekly quartet at their house. She would announce her visit some time beforehand, would arrive just on a quartet evening at Offenbach, find the quartet ready and waiting for her, and open before her delighted friends her travelling-bag, delivering the newest quartet in manuscript of the master, after which it would immediately be read at first sight. When my mother arrived in Vienna, Beethoven had recently died, but all his traditions were alive; singers who had sung under his conductorship were still performing his works, and my mother could thus cull from my aunt’s lips all the information and directions as to how the master wanted his music to be performed, and my mother, hearing Madame Sontag, the favourite soprano of Beethoven, execute his music, could hear exactly how it had been sung with the approval of the master. And that is why I sing my Fidelio air as I do.”

Text excerpted from Singer’s pilgrimage, Blanche Marchesi, Boston, 1923.