Blanche Marchesi: on style III

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


Today the new conductor in a German opera house does not allow a fermate, a rallentando, a diminuendo or crescendo. He will not follow the singer; it is the singer who must follow him. An idea has been established, new to me, that all the traditions in classic singing, as in Haydn and Mozart, must be abandoned, and that such music must be sung in strict time, just as it appears written, probably as strict as the military goose-step. When pupils of mine sang on German stages before the war the conductor used to stop them at the rehearsals in the middle of their phrases, saying: “What are you doing?” One day, when an English pupil of mine, Miss Tatham, sang in Nozze di Figaro at the Weimar Opera House, she was stopped in the same way.

“What are you singing?” said the conductor.
“I am singing what I learnt and as I have been taught.”
“Who taught you to sing Mozart like this?”
“My teacher, Madame Marchesi.”
“I do not care a hang for Madame Marchesi. Here it is I who give orders, and you have to sing your air straight through without making männekens” —meaning small fussing details.

And the conductor went through the whole of that delightful opera, relentless, loveless, without imagination or feeling, chasing the bars of the music before him as if they were herds of sheep that had to be simply driven home.

The French and British conductors, eager to hear modern operas, went regularly to Germany before the war for instruction. In my opinion they lost their taste for refined traditional style, and coming home tried to impose these new methods of conducting in their own countries. A very celebrated Italian conductor would not allow the artists at Covent Garden to sing as they had learnt, and as the music has been sung for endless years. Mignon Nevada in Zerlina during a rehearsal was stopped and forced to give up some details of traditional rendering.

I do not say that all that has been handed down through centuries has been kept pure and ought to be taught, but good tradition there is, and must be observed. Just as the painters of old times paint their Venus unclad, but dress her hair after the fashion of the day in which they lived, a thing which, added to small details of drapery and surrounding objects, can make you realise the epoch at which they were painted, thus have the singers through generations sung the old music, clad certainly at every epoch with mannerisms attached to the epoch. These must be well watched, and to give the interpretation of the real old style one must have studied each epoch well, must exactly understand the styles and fashions in which these compositions were written and presented, and must try to render faithfully what was done at the very epoch and nothing else, except that every artist of genius will put something of his own soul into the rendering of the aesthetic and imaginative part of the music allotted to him. It happens that singers not endowed with deep knowledge, and wishing to win public feeling and applause, constantly introduce, when singing old-time music, the idiosyncrasies of the different epochs through which the song has lived, as well as the epoch in which the artist lives himself. This is decidedly wrong, and musicians and conductors who try to fight this side of the question are perfectly right. Only to do it one must be, as I said, equipped with knowledge of tradition and must only try to evade and eradicate all that is bad, false and wrong. But this differs widely from that idea of the modern conductor who wishes to cast everything overboard that is not directly written down, and who, as it were, throws the child away with the bath-water.

If I may make such a comparison, in speaking of styles, I would call one “peplum,” one “rococo” and the Rossini epoch “crinoline.” To finish a Gluck aria with a point d’orgue firework belonging to a Donizetti air is to put a crinoline over a peplum; to finish a Rossini air with a largo style rest and portamento of a dramatic Handel aria is to put a peplum over a crinoline. How to omit the wrong details in the styles of different epochs, and how to produce the real pure style of that epoch, is the work of study and thought, of comparing and searching.

My parents, who sang to perfection, were, like their teacher, Garcia II., influenced by the fluctuations of fashion in song, and as the youth of Garcia II. falls into the worst epoch concerning purity of style, and nothing was admired then but the most violent virtuosity, they certainly learnt some errors and introduced mannerisms into the classics. But my mother never closely followed the fashions she had heard in her youth, feeling that there were exaggerated. She never allowed to be introduced into a Mozart air an ornament called point d’orgue where a fermate is marked, as many singers had done in her youth, and even in Mozart’s time, but not with his complete approval.

Here we must look back into the past for one moment. Opera, as it was performed before Haydn and Mozart, was a display of agility on the part of the singers, and nothing else mattered, as the subjects of the opera were uninteresting and the music indifferent. Every night the boxes of the little opera house attached to the Austrian Emperor’s palace in Vienna were filled with the high aristocracy, and the public in the stalls talked to each other without taking much notice of what was happening on the stage. In the boxes they were worse, frankly and openly playing cards at little tables with their backs turned to the artists. It was only when the moment had come when everybody knew that this or that renowned star was about to sing the principal air, in which there would be performed the most wonderful runs and trills, top notes, fiorituras and such sensational fireworks, that the aristocracy deigned to turn their seats towards the stage and to listen to the aria of the prima donna, applauding graciously at the end of her vocal gymnastics and resuming their game immediately after.

Ornaments were considered so important at that time, indeed the only thing worth while listening to, that the artists jealously guarded their points d’orgue, which they concocted privately at home with the greatest care, making them as long as possible, spicing them with every conceivable difficulty, and were so jealous that they only sang minor ornaments in rehearsals, revealing their real efforts on the first night, so that it was impossible for their comrades to steal their effects. How long this fashion of exaggerated, senseless, even unmusical heaping up of difficulties and culmination points, clad in ornamental musical figures, lasted, how they maintained this taste in the public, is proved by the fact, incredible as it sounds, that even Madame Viardot, the sister of Garcia II., who was not only a great singer but a great musical genius, and one of the most remarkable women of the time, had to make her success, keep her public well in hand and stamp every evening with a triumph, by introducing in Orfeo, of Gluck, a point d’orgue which fitted in that opera like a monkey’s head on the figure of the Queen of Sheba:

For long years the public taste turned towards virtuosity. Literature was not yet introduced into music; people did not look for beautiful thoughts or for interesting plots in operas. Singing was for them a display of what the vocal instrument could do. In consequence the repertoires of concert numbers of such great singers as Madame Sontag, Madame Malibran and Madame Schroeder Devrient were insipid and trivial. To prove this I have made a little collection of the songs and airs which these artists used to perform in public. To quote only one: a song often specially performed by Madame Malibran at the request of the public was simply a Tyrolean yodel song. Another of her songs is merely a concoction of runs, arpeggios and trills, which absolutely have no sense and follow no idea, a display of the most vertiginous agility ended by a top note.

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