Blanche Marchesi: singing Wagner

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At the end of twentieth chapter of her book Singer’s pilgrimage, Blanche Marchesi shares her thoughts on how the music of Wagner was incorporated in the art of singing and how it should and shouldn’t be sung.

Richard Wagner has been specially accused of having broken voices. I must emphatically deny this. The people who assert that Wagner’s music breaks the voice belong to two categories: singers who have no method at all and would break their voices over singing Annie Laurie, and are looking out for some excuse for their loss of voice, and those who are not fitted for the music they choose because their voices lack the required quality and have not the physical capacity to meet tasks which are beyond them. Long before Wagner existed there were ruined voices all round the world, and when Mozart travelled in Italy, at the age of twelve years, he complained bitterly about the shrieking and shouting of the singers —a method which always results in ruined voices. When Jenny Lind came to Manuel Garcia II, to be cured by him so wonderfully, she had never sung one note of Wagner, and had merely sinned against the immutable laws of the registers. But certainly Wagner does not avoid impossibilities in the matter of pronunciation, and it is the right of the singer to save his instrument in faking words.

When Wagner wanted his Tristan and his Tetralogy to be performed, none of the existing celebrated singers had the capacity or zeal to learn the music, which at that time seemed nearly impossible to memorise. Singers who had sung long operas like the Freischutz and Euryanthe all their lives were not able to understand the new and tremendously difficult Wagner. In our days the same thing happens: singers who have sung Wagner find it extremely difficult to learn Korngold, or Stravinsky, and some of the newest composers, who are said to write quite incomprehensible music.

When the old singers of repute shrank from the task, Wagner and the directors were forced to look out for others willing to undertake the study of this tremendously difficult work. In consequence quite young singers, who possessed great instruments but had hardly studied at all, realising that here was an opportunity for early fame and success, undertook the study of that new music. The consequence was that one heard them for several years and that they disappeared in the shortest space of time. When asked how they had lost their voices, they naturally answered: “In singing Wagner.” To this reason also may be attributed the decay of singing in Germany, as for years the directors had to take the completely untrained artists, and consequently a decadence ensued, as all these youngsters had not the slightest idea of art and tradition. From that time on you could hear groans and growls, howling and screaming in the place of singing, and you sometimes did not know if you were standing before artists or performing animals. At first the public rebelled, because they were used to the old traditional style, but by and by they began to love the singers at the same time as they began to love the work. Imperceptibly the public got used to these new ways, and it went so far that even today in many towns in Germany director and public think that a singer does not do his duty if he does not make the greatest efforts in singing. A singer who on an opera night has not uttered several heart-rending screams is considered not to have sung at all, and, as things now stand, the public really does enjoy these wild vocal demonstrations, demanding that the singer shall fill its ears with a certain quantity of sound. Voice-preservation, aesthetic method, etc. —these it does not wish to hear of; it wants noise for its money; and in Germany also it seems that certain critics give the greatest praise to those who make the greatest efforts. They say: “So-and-so, who sang last night and billed our hearts with joy, seemed to give in this one performance, in an abundance of generosity, all that she possesses of voice material. She does not bargain nor calculate nor economise. She gives all she has, and we receive it gratefully.” To me it seems like a bull-fight. If the bulls do not die and the horses do not bleed there is no pleasure. These directors and conductors who treat artists as they do in Germany and Austria ought first of all to insure singers with their own pocket-money, so that they need not go begging when the voices, ruined in their service, have gone forever.

I remember myself that the first night in my life when I sang in grand opera Die Walküre at the Royal Opera in Prague even Director Angelo Neumann, who was an intelligent man, came into my dressing-room before I started, calling out excitedly and with the best of intentions: “And now, darling friend, go and sing at the top of your lungs, scream as loud as you can and take the public by the violence of your efforts.” I was so amazed that I did not answer. But I thought to myself: “Well, I will do my best, I will sing as one should, but I will not scream or howl, and if they do not like it I will give it up.” I must say the public was much more intelligent than even the directors thought. That night many Bohemians who generally never visited the German Opera were present, and I saw Dvorak sitting with his whole family in the stalls and sending me encouraging smiles. In the beginning the public seemed a little bit astonished at the way I sang Brünhilde, without any seeming effort, and by and by I saw them meeting my intentions, understanding and grasping everything I was doing, and giving me unforgettable encouragement. Dvorak came up after the performance and invited me to his house, saying: “That is how Brünhilde, and everything in this world, should be sung.” And my dear Director Angelo Neumann wrote a page in my album at midnight, which clearly shows that he also found that one can sing Brünhilde without shouting.

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