Emma Calvé: the education of the singing artist II

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Second part of the passage where Emma Calvé describes her teaching work and the values she considers essential for young people who wish to dedicate their lives to the art of singing.


Sometimes in the evenings at Cabrières, we try out the ideas and suggestions we have been discussing during the day.

“Take this song, which originated in the Middle Ages,” I sometimes say to one of my pupils. “Sing it for me, and give me your idea of how it should be done.” If she has studied her history well, she will sing the song with the dignity and restraint which it demands. She will make us feel that she is carrying the tall veil-draped coif of the period. She will hold herself straight and still, as though she were encased in heavy brocaded garments falling stiffly to the floor.

When my pupils are tired of trying these experiments themselves, I take my place beside the piano and, with such art as I have learned through many years of study and practice, I illustrate to them how a whole period or atmosphere can be evoked by an inflexion, a gesture, the delicate shading of a tone, the slightest change in expression of voice or features.

We have many discussions on music and art and on the interpretation of various well-known arias or songs. One evening a friend of mine was present when we were discussing Beethoven. In the course of the conversation I sang one of his marvellous songs, which was greeted by my friend with some displeasure. “My dear Calvé!” she exclaimed. “You seem to forget that Beethoven is a classic! You sang that song with too much feeling, too much temperament. You should be more restrained!” “Do you remember what Busoni said on this subject?” I rejoined. “Surely you will accept the verdict of that distinguished musician, even if you doubt my ability to interpret the master! Busoni said that the classics were killed by respect!”

Indeed, I am convinced that Beethoven and Mozart and the other immortals did not write their masterpieces for the delight of musical pedants and professors of rhythm! It is a great mistake to think that they should be interpreted with systematic coldness and so-called “classic” mannerisms. Beethoven, so tragic, so human! How can any one sing his music coldly?

When we are finally tired of singing and talking, we have lessons in “deportment” and stage bearing. We make experiments in the gentle art of walking across a stage.

What is more expressive than a walk! The swing and swagger of Carmen, the modest forthright steps of Marguerite, the wandering, hesitant stumbling of poor Ophelia, the gay and mincing carriage of the eighteenth-century coquette as she ruffles along in her flowing skirts —each gesture is vividly suggestive of the character portrayed. Grace of carriage, dignity, complete and easy control of every movement are essential to the aspirant for dramatic laurels. For this reason, outdoor exercise, swimming, walking, everything that tends to develop and strengthen the body, are most valuable.

Singing, study, exercise, fill the days at Cabrières. Nor do we neglect the sister arts. The eye must be trained as well as the ear. A sensitiveness to line and colour should be cultivated as well as an appreciation of literature and poetry. I never fail to take my pupils on one or two excursions to such neighbouring towns and cities as can boast art galleries or museums. We go to Montpellier, to Arles, sometimes as far afield as Italy, whose rich heritage of art is a never-ending source of pleasure and stimulation. It is a keen delight to me to share the fresh enthusiasm of these young girls, to see again through their eyes the marvels of painting and of sculpture, the wonders and delights of the Italian Renaissance.

“You have told us a great many interesting things,” a pupil said to me one day. “You have talked of singing, of study, of music, of art and of religion. But which of these many things is most important? What, above all, is necessary in order to become a great singer?”

“My child,” I answered, “in order to sing really well, one must believe in God!”

“Ah!” exclaimed my young friend. “That is why you talk to us so often of le bon Dieu!”

“Yes,” I answered. “That is indeed the reason! I do most sincerely believe that religion is of tremendous and fundamental importance in the life of every individual. The strength, the fire, the flame which transform mere vocalisation into a transcendent, moving force, come to us from a Higher Power. We must keep ourselves in humble communion with that Power if we are to receive its blessing. That is why I say that those who wish to sing with more than average skill must keep their faith pure and strong!”

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