Blanche Marchesi: on style II

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Second part of the chapter that Blanche Marchesi devotes to the question of style and tradition in her book Singer’s pilgrimage.


The singer in olden times, as I have mentioned already in the lines of another chapter, was a powerful dictator, and would not have allowed the orchestra to be too powerful, and would in no case have permitted a conductor to try to drown his voice like all the rastaquouere conductors of our day, who, enjoying it heartily, think that they accomplish an heroic deed when a minimum of sixty men, including trombones, drums, saxophones and other modern marine-monster-like weapons, have succeeded in extinguishing the voice of the vocalist, who stands there singing for all he is worth, hearing himself, convinced that it sounds beautiful, but being unheard and becoming perfectly ridiculous, as the public can see him move his mouth, but cannot hear a single sound.

When I sang to powerful orchestral music, as in The Wreckers, by Ethel Smyth, at Queen’s Hall, with John Coates, it never happened with a conductor like Nikisch that he allowed himself such a cheap and tasteless triumph as to try to drown a human voice with an army of artificial instruments. He always did everything to make the voice rise above the orchestra as far as it lay in his power. The same must be said of Hans Richter and all the real conductors who are artists. Sir Henry Wood and Sir Frederick Cowen, also, have never tried to play inartistic tricks with vocalists. On the other hand, there have been some conceited, unscrupulous conductors who tried to kill the human voice and its work. After all, the voice should lead the accompaniment, as the head line has been given to the singer in the writing of the work; and if the human voice had been meant to be an instrument in the crowd the head line might have been given to the big drum, and then, at least, one would know the composer’s intentions. Ordinary German conductors for a long time have had a very dangerous influence on the singers engaged at their theatres. They want the voice to be at their disposal. They do not admit that the human voice has its limitations and must be considered within its limitations. Their only desire is to produce force and quantity of sound, and singers are urged, nay, commanded, to squeeze out the utmost power of their vocal instrument. If they do not obey, or are seen to economise their resources, they are dismissed or threatened with dismissal. The consequence is a wholesale slaughter of voices. The German critic, nourished on such an abnormal quantity of histrionic effort, gets so used to the noise that he actually enjoys the screaming and never criticises it. I have recently read some German critics who wrote the following words: “We are overwhelmed by the feeling and passion put into her singing, as in her wonderful temperamental generosity the singer seemed to scream out with all the force of her body and soul, keeping nothing back, like some cold-hearted, calculating vocalists. All she had and all she could give, all she gave, was as if it was her last performance in life. Our congratulations to such artistic heroism.” Heroism indeed, and paid with lifelong remorse and heart pangs. When this poor singer who here was criticised and praised will, in a short time, have given her last song, there will not be a soul in the audience able to restore not one of the notes that formed her livelihood.

One striking event lingers in my memory and falls into the very first years of my life. Madame Dillner, a dramatic soprano of the Vienna Opera, with an immense, cold and hard dramatic voice, used to scream to such an extent that my mother, who always explained in the class to the pupils the qualities and faults of the singers engaged at the Opera, which they attended regularly, warned them never to imitate her deplorable efforts, explaining how dangerous such proceedings were, and that sudden loss of voice must be the inevitable consequence. One night, singing Venus in Tannhäuser, and taking the high C in this very difficult role dreaded by all artists, she took it with such force that she remained with open mouth in the middle of the performance of her air; no sound could she utter, and the curtain had to fall. She never sang again.

Now here enters the public. Like a child, the public is what you make it. Give it such fare for years and it will not be able to appreciate proper singing. Give it perfect singing for years and it will understand when the artists are not of high order. When I sang at a concert in Hanover, and also in other German towns, I observed —Berlin always excepted, where the public is very musical, enthusiastic and clever— that for the greater part of the evening the audience had to get accustomed to my singing, not being used to my style or to the careful treatment of my voice. I realised that they sat flabbergasted, as to them a singer meant a woman with a formidable instrument, playing it out on the public like a water-hose in full spout, while I, singing after the rules of art, do not scream or get red in the face or show swollen veins on my neck or red spots round my throat or throw my eyes up or shake my shoulders to catch top notes. In one word, as the audience could see no exterior efforts whatever, they thought really that I was not singing at all, and it was only by and by, as the programme proceeded, that they began to realise what it all meant, and, to say the truth, showed me a certain amount of appreciation. Concerning style, nuance, taste, personal interpretation, vocal perfection, certainly they did not quite follow my intentions, and an accompanist of the very best reputation said to me in Berlin, excusing himself that he could not follow me easily: “Madame, your intentions and reading are so new that I must admit I cannot follow you at once; it will take me some time to enter into your views.” And this man asked me very gently to go over and over the same passages many times, to my great distress, as it was very tiring. “You see, madame, I quite understand what you mean, and now that I have heard you for a while I also begin to see that the fault lies in the artists of my country if I did not quite grasp as quickly as I should your way of treating songs. We have nothing of your art here. Our artists do not sing like you, and that is why I have such difficulty in following you, because nobody enters into details like you, but they sing their songs through from beginning to end without making such difference in tempi and lights and shades, especially as they only sing German music and have the idea that there should be no special interpretation of it, and that it should be sung exactly as it has been written down, with all the marks presented in the printed music.” The man was quite candid, very modest and spoke the truth.

I had occasion to sing to the accompaniment of several very well-known and indeed the best men that were to be had, and they all said the same thing to me the very moment they started playing my accompaniments and rehearsing privately with me. Among them there was only one, and he was Lilli Lehmann’s accompanist, who ran perfectly the first tune through my songs with me, although he also complained of my various interpretations, moods, details and renderings, exclaiming: “Well, you see, we are not used to this.”

Erich Wolf, a very popular accompanist in Germany, caused me some rather painful moments. He could not play from first sight, hated to accompany with music on the piano and, curiously enough, had to learn by heart the whole programme to be able to accompany. Once when I sang with Julia Culp at Etelka Gerster’s house at a party, at half-past one o’clock in the morning —the whole party waiting for Julia Culp and me to return from the Emperor’s palace, where we had been performing with Joachim— I saw to my astonishment that Erich Wolf was the accompanist. Julia Culp’s songs went all right, without a hitch, as she wisely chose songs that she had several times sung with him. I, being used to find, as in England or Paris, a perfect and accomplished accompanist who would read at first sight with all expression demanded and following perfectly well my intentions, had not thought of taking things with me that were very well known, and I started with the air from Tosca, which at this moment was rather a novelty. To my horror and despair, after the first part of the air, which already went very badly, Wolf overlooked the change of key and continued in major, while I was singing in minor. The result was that I had to stop in the middle of my song and could not take it up again. I took instead a song of Brahms, because I expected that he would know that, but it was a great shock to me to have to stop in the middle of my Tosca air, especially as the people never knew whose fault it was, and certainly did not suspect their countryman.

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