Blanche Marchesi: on style IV

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Fourth and last part of the chapter that Blanche Marchesi devotes to the question of style and tradition in her book Singer’s pilgrimage. The singer and teacher concludes her considerations by revealing the artistic legacy of her family regarding the interpretation of Beethoven’s work.


We can be thankful that Schumann and Schubert came into this world to introduce the love of literature, to pick out men like Goethe and Heine and other poets of the same epoch, and to choose the most beautiful words with which to interweave their souls’ harmonies. From that moment, although the public still loves acrobatics in vocal displays, the longing for a literary sense in a song and a love of a beautiful libretto have taken a permanent hold in the heart of the public. This explains, in great part, the wonderful revival of French music —men like Debussy, Chausson, Fauré, Duparc, Moret, Fevrier, etc., choosing the most wonderful productions of modern literature to clothe with their genius.

To return to my parents, and speaking of their moderation in adapting the fashion of their time to Mozart’s music, I must mention that they met with many a fight, being then accused of abandoning traditions. My mother, who had a special genius for the ornament, always gave it the right place, never allowed it to be too long, had caused it to be executed with grace and rhythm, and brought it to a happy culmination, never overloading or allowing it to become tedious. She had a right measure for the ornament. Of great interest is a little booklet which she left behind among many of her beautiful instructive school books. It is entitled Variations and Points d’Orgue, and in it she has reproduced most of the ornaments that she taught her pupils and had composed for them.

In Garcia’s youth, Gluck had been banished as stiff and cold, having tried to do what Wagner and Berlioz later succeeded in accomplishing —that is, the task of tearing the opera from the rococo decadence, an epoch in which music was miniature in conception, and filigree in character. The epoch ended with Rossini, who, though he was certainly a genius, and has written pages of the first order, shaped his style to please those crowds who always in the history of music prefer to enjoy themselves without making an effort to understand. Verdi started in the same spirit, but surpassed all his predecessors, first by his immense melody-creating genius, secondly because he was able to rise higher and change his methods; thus presenting the unique spectacle of a man who wrote a decadent style in his youth and rose in his old age to the heights of an Aida, an Othello, and at last a Falstaff. He passed from one fashion into another, creating, inventing, improving and lifting his style from year to year. This was unique, because even the ripening of Gluck’s style, from his first Italian epoch to his second personal dramatic epoch in France, does not present such an astounding change in his career as a composer. I do not agree with those who think that works of art that have once been great pass out of fashion for ever. It is true that as soon as a new light is revealed, either in painting or music or literature, the connoisseurs of the hour, who turn with enthusiasm to the new works, violently reject the former ones, ridiculing and throwing them overboard. But time puts everything in its place. A style that has become tiresome, and surpassed by new art, will, it is true, for a moment suffer downfall and be nearly forgotten, but as the years pass by the connoisseurs, always loving and searching for beauty in the past as well as in the present, will discover treasures of colour or of harmony in some forgotten master, and will suddenly, by their repeated demonstrations and signs of admiration, bring them back to light and success. Fashion, it is true, exists in music, and as a beautiful dress that enchanted our grandmothers seems to us ridiculous, so a work of thirty years ago makes us smile. Let a little time pass, however, and these so-called old-fashioned, beautiful things will become beautiful once again. Distance has softened all that appeared passé and faded, and to our inner eye the real beauties enclosed will reveal themselves. There will be no more question of old fashion: the work of art will become something new, and from that moment will rank among the possessions never more to be forgotten. In consequence, in art there comes a day when every production of a genius will take its right place, and the man eclectic and learned enough will find beauty and joy in every garden. I confess that I worship Haydn, love Trovatore, adore Tristan, and find everywhere something beautiful that gives me happiness. It is not right you should banish the Barbiere di Sevilla because you love the Götterdämmerung, or vice versa. If you are a real art lover and critic you will enjoy every work of high order written by a real master hand. The mistake is made, as I mentioned before, in mixing styles and introducing alterations and interpretations belonging to one epoch into another, which falsifies both. This must be fought. Traditions of the wrong sort must be detected and destroyed, and the right original tradition encouraged. In this respect the gramophone will play a very great role in our days, and it is unfortunate it was not invented sooner.

It happened one day, when I sang the Fidelio air, at the Hallé Concerts in Manchester, under Richter’s conductorship, that Richter said to me, after the rehearsal: “I am astonished, Madame Marchesi, that you sing these appoggiaturas in Fidelio.”

“Well,” I said, “my dear Mr Richter, everything that I do is what my mother taught, and, as she had it from Beethoven himself, I think it must be right. I never heard any other version, and it will satisfy you to know how my mother came to have it from Beethoven. When she came to Vienna as a girl, for her musical training, she stayed at the house of her aunt, Baroness Dorothea von Erdtmann, a born musical genius, the finest pianist of her day, at whose house Beethoven was an intimate friend. She never missed one of his performances or concerts. They played often together, and he dedicated to her the Sonata No. 101. Beethoven had his place reserved at her table daily at every meal. Whether he would come or not, he was expected, and he often forgot to take his meals. He had always to be recalled to reality, and my aunt would often force him to eat when he would come to see her, nearly fainting and, pressed by her, would confess he had forgotten to eat the whole day. He confided to my aunt, always, his latest manuscripts, and they were read in her house. Often he allowed her to take them with her to Offenbach, a small town opposite Frankfurt am Main, where the very musical family Speyer lived, who used to have a weekly quartet at their house. She would announce her visit some time beforehand, would arrive just on a quartet evening at Offenbach, find the quartet ready and waiting for her, and open before her delighted friends her travelling-bag, delivering the newest quartet in manuscript of the master, after which it would immediately be read at first sight. When my mother arrived in Vienna, Beethoven had recently died, but all his traditions were alive; singers who had sung under his conductorship were still performing his works, and my mother could thus cull from my aunt’s lips all the information and directions as to how the master wanted his music to be performed, and my mother, hearing Madame Sontag, the favourite soprano of Beethoven, execute his music, could hear exactly how it had been sung with the approval of the master. And that is why I sing my Fidelio air as I do.”

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