Blanche Marchesi: the school of singing
In 1921, with a career of 25 years behind her, Blanche Marchesi (1863 – 1940) set up to write her book Singer’s pilgrimage, to benefit the student with her experience as an artist and as a teacher.
She was the daughter of Mathilde Marchesi (1821 – 1913), the teacher of several generations of famous singers such as Nellie Melba, Emma Calvé, Etelka Gerster, Frances Alda, Selma Kurz, Frances Saville, Sigrid Arnoldson and Emma Eames, among many others. When she felt her high notes declining, the famous Thérèse Tietjens approached Mathilde Marchesi for help and she saved her voice. Mathilde was able to dedicate her life to music thanks to the intervention of her aunt, Baroness Dorothea von Erdtmann, who was famous for her wonderful piano playing that won her Beethoven’s close friendship —she premiered his Cello Sonata No. 3 in 1809 and he dedicated to her the Sonata No. 28, Op. 101. The baroness was the centre of musical social life in Vienna and when Pauline Viardot went to sing at the Opera House, she declared Mathilde Marchesi to be on the wrong path of voice production and advised her to go to study with her brother Manuel Garcia II in London. While she was studying in London with Garcia he broke his arm and chose Marchesi to take his place and teach in all his classes. When he returned, he was full of praise at her work and the remarkable progress he noticed in all his pupils. He declared she was born to teach.
Many years later it would be Blanche’s turn to replace her ill mother with much success, when she was only eighteen years old. Though very young for the task, she already have had a lifetime devoted to the learning of the art of singing, having been constantly exposed to her mother’s lessons from her early childhood. Among her students during that time was Ellen Gulbranson, who would become a famous Wagner singer, a leading figure among the second generation of Bayreuth artists. When Blanche undertook her lessons, Gulbranson was singing in chest voice up to about B natural in the medium and the voice above was husky and hoarse in consequence of the wrong use of the chest notes and she had no top notes. During the six weeks it took her mother to return, Blanche patiently fixed the extension of the registers and returned Ellen’s voice to her natural course.
Her father, Salvatore Marchesi (1822 – 1908), was an internationally acclaimed Italian baritone who taught at the Vienna Conservatory. Franz Liszt was a great admirer of his talent and accompanied him on the piano while on tour. When Blanche went to Bayreuth for the first time Cosima Wagner greeted her with this words: “Oh, madame, how my father loved your father; he used to say of him, nobody sings Händel and Bach like Salvatore Marchesi.” Liszt had a close relationship with Mathilde and Salvatore and in one occasion called Mathilde to replace an ill mezzosoprano on that same evening performance of one of his oratorios in Vienna, where she had to sing à prima vista.
At their house, the Marchesi gathered the best of the Parisian artistic life: Liszt, Rubinstein, Ambroise Thomas, von Bülow, Delibes, Saint-Saëns, Busoni, Pachmann and Mathilde’s students performed regularly at their matinées. Blanche frequently visited Gounod at his home and he used to send for the young girl when he had finished a new song and wanted to hear it sung for the first time by her. This private artistic collaboration lasted up to his death. Another valuable relationship she had was with Pauline Viardot, who invited her several times to her house to show her songs of her composition and who was very happy when Blanche learned them.
In 1896, after having debuted in Berlin and Paris, she appeared at the Small Queen’s Hall in London. In order to take up the teaching profession with her mother, Blanche wanted to show her knowledge, style and capacity as a singer. The prominent London critics who were gathered at the auditorium that evening established her reputation with wonderful accounts of her work and set her up to a singing career. In 1898, she was chosen to sing at the Brahms Memorial Concert at Queen’s Hall and the same year she took part in a London Philarmonic concert conducted by Camille Saint-Saëns (who also appeared in a triple role as organ-soloist, conductor and composer), where she sang his ballade La Fiancée du Timbalier. After the performance, the grateful composer wrote to Marchesi: “Vous avez été divine! Vous avez rendu avec une intensité de vie et de sentiment pittoresque cette petite oeuvre que vous rendez presque populaire.”
Blanche inherited from her mother the directions as to how Beethoven wanted his music to be performed. Mathilde Marchesi was informed on this matter by her aunt and heard Madame Sontag, Beethoven’s favorite soprano, execute the music the way the master approved. In 1900, after some years of a concert career, Blanche sang La Cloche by Saint-Saëns and Leonore’s aria ‘Abscheulicher’ from Fidelio under Hans Richter’s baton. A year earlier she had also sang Beethoven’s ‘Ah! perfido’ and Liszt’s Die Loreley at Richter’s official debut in Manchester with the Hallé Orchestra. Richter had a close association with Wagner, having been chosen in 1876 to conduct the first complete performance of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. That evening of 1900, Richter told Marchesi she would make a great Wagner singer. Blanche asked her if he thought her voice would be sufficiently powerful to represent Wagner’s dramatic heroines and the maestro answered: “It is just such singers as you that Wagner desired and wished for. He wanted classic style and perfect vocal method and it is a great mistake to think that all the people who did sing his works, ignorant of methods, were to his liking.” Richter had to persuade Blanche’s husband to let her go on the stage and that is how she came to make her operatic debut that same year at Prague in the Walküre as Brünnhilde. Antonín Dvořák was in the audience; he invited Marchesi to his house after the performance and told her: “That is how Brünhilde, and everything in this world, should be sung”
Marchesi grew to be one of Queen Victoria’s favorite artists. An article that appeared in The Daily Telegraph, written by a lady-in-waiting shortly after the Queen’s death, detailed that she had “loved a few singers, above all, Albani, Jenny Lind, Calvé and Blanche Marchesi.” In 1907 she was selected by Sir Thomas Beecham to introduce for the first time in London Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.
At a time when it was most common to hear any song or opera translated to the language of the country where the representation took place, Blanche Marchesi was a great supporter of singing works in their original language and considered translations to be treasons and musically criminal. In 1932, fully dedicated to her teaching career, she wrote her second book, The singer’s catechism & creed. Up until the end of her life she remained a firm advocate of the method she received from her mother, strengthening the link she had with the true technique and tradition of the old Italian school of singing.
Bist du bei mir
Johann Sebastian Bach
Eco della Sicilia
Francesco Paolo Frontini
- Singer’s pilgrimage, Blanche Marchesi, Boston, 1923.
- Marchesi, Blanche, Cantabile-subito.de, 2017.
- Hans Richter, Christopher Fifield, Woodbridge, 2016.
- Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music, John Lucas, Woodbridge, 2008.
- History of the Philharmonic society of London 1813-1912, Myles B. Foster, London, 1912.