Emma Calvé: a deep musical comunion

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In her book My life, Emma Calvé remembers one of the musical moments that most deeply impressed her throughout her life in art: the communion between Franz Liszt and Gabrielle Krauss, one of Mathilde Marchesi’s first students during her stay in Vienna and a renowned soprano at the time.

While I was her pupil, it was my good fortune to hear and see the marvelous Krauss at close range, I had a tremendous admiration for this great lyric tragedian. Her voice was not beautiful, and she had occasionally a marked tremolo. Her appearance ordinarily was unattractive, even ugly; but when she sang, she was transfigured. She became beautiful, inspired! She was able to thrill even the audiences of the Opera, that public of dilettanti so difficult to please or move! I heard her in Gounod’s Sappho, in the Tribut de Zamora and Henri VIII of Saint-Saëns, in fact in all her famous creations.

On the first night of the Tribut she surpassed even herself. It was in the battle scene where, as an ardent patriot, desperately wounded, she sang a battle hymn to the soldiers that surrounded her. Dragging herself on her knees across the stage, she reached the footlights. In a final effort that seemed to lift her out of herself, she rose to her feet, singing “Debout, enfants de l’lberic.”

I and my companions were in the first row o the orchestra. It was like a sword-thrust —a physical blow. We cried out and leaped to our feet. The whole audience rose, electrified, transported, surging forward in answer to her inspired call.

One afternoon at about this same period, Krauss was singing at the home of Madame Marchesi. Liszt was present. He sat silent and unmoved amidst the enthusiastic acclamations of the rest of us. I felt that he did not appreciate my idol, and was almost indignant with him for his indifference.

In the course of the afternoon, Madame Marchesi asked him if he would accompany Madame Krauss, who was about to sing the Erlkönig. “I do not wish to,” he answered brutally. “She is too ugly, and she has a tremolo.” His hostess, however, quietly insisted. “Very well, then,” he conceded grudgingly. “I warn you now, though, that if her singing does not satisfy me, I will stop in the middle and leave.” “I am not in the least anxious,” Madame Marchesi answered.

Liszt rose and crossed the room, with obvious reluctance. I can see him now, as he sat down at the piano. His lion’s mane thrown back, his talons crashing down on the sonorous keyboard, he attacked Schubert’s admirable prelude. He, alone, with his incredible force, was as mighty as a whole orchestra.

Madame Krauss, who had heard the uncomplimentary remarks of the great man, rose to her feet. Pale but resolute, her eyes fixed on the master’s face, she began to sing. Almost immediately he raised his head, attentive, surprised. His eyes met those of the tragedian, and could not leave her face.

In a poignant communion, intense, transcendent, their spirits met and mingled. They swept us with them, in their tragic ecstasy. It was tremendous, indescribable! Little by little, Liszt had risen to his feet. As the last notes died away, he held out his arms to the inspired singer.

“Forgive me, my sister, my child!” he exclaimed, in a voice broken with emotion.

Krauss, completely exhausted by her prodigious effort, could only murmur “Thank you,” as she sank into her chair.

More than twenty years later, all the leading musicians of the day were asked in a newspaper interview to describe the moment in their lives when music had most deeply moved them. Without exception, all those who had been present on that unforgettable occasion answered: “The day, at Madame Marchesi’s, when Liszt accompanied Madame Krauss in the Erlkönig.”

I myself was so profoundly impressed that never since then have I dared to sing that admirable ballad, feeling myself incapable of reaching such tremendous heights.

Text excerpted from My life, Emma Calvé, New York, 1922.