Blanche Marchesi: on style I

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Blanche Marchesi dedicates the twenty-fourth chapter of her book Singer’s pilgrimage to the question of style in the art of singing, including the inescapable issue of tradition.

To acquire the real great style of all epochs, with its differences, mannerisms and special treatments, you must first learn music from its beginning to our own days or you will never be able to realise the various forms of music, or to penetrate the progress and diversity of styles, or to execute them in the right way. More, if you do not master and absorb the ancient styles, which, after all, are the purest forms of music, you will never be able to sing the smallest modern song correctly. When you have well acquired the great old styles and the more complicated decadent styles, modern music, especially the ballad, will seem very easy to you from the declamatory and executionary point of view. The only real difficulty that modern music offers, since Wagner’s last style —which differs from his first— is the difficulty of the rhythm and the harmonies. The ear rebels against new and unheard-of harmonies, and the nerves directing the sense of rhythm have to be trained, strengthened and exercised, so as to follow and to be able to render the varied forms and fancies of new composers. Wagner creates great difficulties for the student in introducing sudden disharmonies and changes of time, but what shall we say of Richard Strauss, who sometimes, as in Electra, varies time in every bar, robbing the ear of the advantage of an evenly flowing movement or melody, which in ancient times formed the basis of singers’ music? It is, after all, a question of training of the physical part of the voice and ear, and of getting accustomed to new and unknown fare. In the same way the public also has to be taught to listen and to understand. It is the artist, then, who is the instructor. The listening capacity of the public revolts when meeting new and strange shapes never heard before, and it is only by the regular repetition of performances of new works that the public gets accustomed to, understands and then enjoys new conceptions. What distinguishes a connoisseur and gifted amateur from the ignorant crowd —and this touches all branches of art equally— is that he is able to follow every new movement and manifestation without passing first through the phases of hatred, horror and despair, then becoming gradually converted to sincere admiration.

As in olden times there existed no gramophones, the tradition —and we must insist on this— the personal oral, vocal tradition, is the only real one, because, though you can write down some bars of music and explain how they should be executed, it is never in books alone that you will be able to grasp the meaning of the rules put down. It is what one man has handed over to his followers through centuries that forms the real treasure of true knowledge in art. There are serious books treating of musical matters, in which certain indications show you, as far as a book can, how this or that passage should be sung, but these annotations also have come down from a verbal knowledge handed down by ancestors. The few marks to be found in printed music —rest marks, rallentandos, accelerandos, fortes, pianos, crescendos— are not sufficient for an ignorant reader to get the right conception of how the thing should be sung. It may seem curious that one allegro should not be like another allegro, but, to quote only one example, an allegro in olden times was not so lively as an allegro in our epoch, and an allegro in a dramatic passage is not so quickly beaten as an allegro in a light opera. Everything is balanced and directed by the spirit of style. Time marks, in consequence, undergo a distinct change, and it lies in the genius of the reader or the conductor, and the traditions, to know the exact difference between the one and the other, the right and the wrong. Even the metronome is not a sure guide, as it is always machine work and can never be as exact as the metronome of a man’s brain. The allegro furioso of centuries ago is probably what today would be called allegro, and I am convinced that the allegro furioso did not then exist at all, except perhaps in the tarantella, which was invented much later for the purpose of chasing poison out of a man’s system who had been bitten by the tarantula spider. A wild dance only could save him from certain death. Thus the tarantella has been created and cannot be played quickly enough, as it cannot be danced quickly enough, because the faster the dance the surer the salvation. So also the f, ff, fff, and in consequence the p, pp, ppp, were different in times past from ours. The same can be said of quantity of sound. When a singer in our days has to cover and pierce with his voice an orchestra composed of all the most efficient instruments, numbering sixty to eighty men, armed, some of them at least, with the most formidable noise-producing instruments of today, the forte and piano produced by them and employed by the singer must obviously be different from the quantity of sound used by orchestras formed of twelve to twenty men, accompanied always by a harpsichord and consisting mostly of strings and amiable, small wind instruments. We must not forget that when Rossini produced his operas, which today seem very feebly orchestrated to us, he was represented in caricature chargeant le canon. What would that same caricaturist, if he could rise from his grave, say to one of our latest productions?

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