Maria Malibran and the state of the art of singing

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Three years after starting her career in London, young Maria Malibran made her debut in Paris. Her artistic appearance made a deep impression on the public and prompted a reflection on the state of the art of singing at that time, published in the Parisian philosophical and literary newspaper Le Globe.

21 June 1828, Paris

Théâtre Italien

Last performances of madame Malibran
Performance for her benefit
On the art of singing and its current state

The Italian theatre, brilliant and prosperous for the last few months, will soon fall back into darkness and solitude. Another three or four days, and this talent, so varied and profound, so natural and poetic, which today lends it an ephemeral glow, will have ceased to be heard there. Next Tuesday, as we know, madame Malibran’s commitment is due to expire. But the theatre director has given his audience a pleasant surprise. Don’t expect wonders though; it’s not a month, or even a week; we’re only given one more day. In fact, this extraordinary performance will have other attractions besides being unexpected: it will be given for the benefit of madame Malibran, and the beneficiary will appear in the guise of Tancredi. To pay a last homage to the young and admirable singer, to see her in a role where she will appear only this time, these are two motives of which one would certainly have been enough to ensure that on Wednesday evening the Italian theatre will be invaded by the most eager crowd that ever came to sit on its elegant benches. 1

The departure of Madame Malibran, with no promise to return soon, is not only a scourge for the director’s cash register, it is, we dare say, a real calamity for the art of singing among us. You have to have had a look at the music scene in Europe, you have to know where singers and their art are today, in Italy as well as in France and in all the other countries, to understand how marvellous it is this talent, so young and already so perfect, to appreciate all that is irreparable about its loss. Decadence is everywhere complete, we no longer see schools, there are no more conservatories: lack of preliminary studies, of originality and inspiration, this is what you find in all the so-called singers who are running around the world today. Those who have a few small ideas are incapable of performing them; on the contrary, those who have acquired a certain suppleness of throat do not have the slightest new or graceful idea. Needless to say, one of the great culprits in this degradation of the art is the man who created the modern musical system; it is Rossini himself. By writing down note by note all the embellishments, all the ornaments of his pieces; by not leaving to the singer’s fantasy the slightest point d’orgue, he has uniformed, so to speak, everything that is sung in Europe today; he has made it into a brotherhood, a regiment whose members are no more distinguishable than a monk from a monk, a grenadier from a grenadier. No doubt he has his excuse: when he started, the school was already in decline. If he had followed the wisest path to restore it, that is to say, if he had trained singers through hard studies, he would have been old before reaping the fruits of his labours, and his verve would have been frozen when his performers would have proved worthy of him. He was in a hurry to make his conquests; he needed, if not brave veterans, at least conscripts who had a certain appearance of soldiers. To give them this appearance, he took the most rapid means: he whistled at them like parrots. But what has happened? On the one hand, an unbearable monotony has invaded the musical scene: the uniformity of ornaments has become such that we imagine ourselves always hearing the same piece and the same singer. On the other hand, the preliminary studies have been completely abandoned. Who would be so foolish nowadays that he would devote six years of his life only to practice diatonic and chromatic scales, jumps of third, fourth, fifth, etc., trills, appoggiatura and so on, as the Caffarellis, the Farinellis, the Marchesis did in their youth? There is a much quicker way to become a singer: one learns how to vocalize, doing Rossini’s passages and fermate ‘comme ci, comme ça’ and, provided that one misses only two notes out of three, one knows enough to get 40,000 francs’ worth of pay. It must be admitted that such a procedure is more convenient; but what becomes of art, what becomes of poor music?

In the midst of this laxity, of this depravity, some beautiful talents have nevertheless appeared, even in recent years: they had been happy or strong enough to escape the common yoke. If they stand out from the vulgar mob of the singers improvised by the grandmaster, it is, in some cases, thanks to an extraordinary combination of vocal qualities and a natural and original taste; in others, thanks to a certain religious respect for old traditions. Thus Madame Fodor owed her success partly to the magic of her instrument, partly to a method of her own which had something distinctive and appropriate about it; while Mesd. Pisaroni and Pasta, despite their rebellious voices, created a different kind of reputation for themselves by remaining faithful, albeit from afar, to the old ways of singing.

But all these talents are either retired from the stage or ready to leave it: it is therefore on the new generation, destined to collect their heritage, that the dilettanti cast their anxious gaze, when all of a sudden a young singer came to us from Germany, no doubt a very pleasant one, but, we say it with regret, made to deprave, with a deplorable glitter, the badly assured taste of our poor audience, and capable of extinguishing what little sacred fire we have left. Perhaps we have raised the cry of alarm at this appearance with a vivacity that is hardly chivalrous; but the shadow of Mad. Catalani herself, that is to say, the shadow of the musical antichrist, would not have frightened us more; nor would the resurrection of Boucher and Van-loo have frightened more an ardent friend of painting.

Fortunately, the compensation system is not completely false; and even the good that comes after the bad sometimes does better than compensating for it. Certainly, Boucher and Van-loo can be reborn if Correggio and Titian will take the trouble to resurrect themselves too; and as for Mlle. Sontag, she should not be feared any more, since Mad. Malibran has been sent to us. Never has a prophet come more in time to revive the dying faith and to make the word of life bloom. She is like the last offspring of that great family of true singers that we already saw as extinct: one could say that she has been granted to us so that the chain of musical traditions would not be broken.

Daughter of a true artist, Madame Malibran has passed through the test of those long preliminary exercises that Porpora and Scarlatti imposed mercilessly on their disciples. The beautiful proportions of phrasing, this science so essential for a singer, vocalization, accentuation, pronunciation, all these mysteries of art, it has not been by routine that she has been initiated in them, but by means of severe studies. In a word, her education has been that of the singers of the old school; and, at the same time, by good fortune, very rare even in olden times, she received from nature a creative inspiration, a passionate soul, and a voice which, without being primitively easy, was nevertheless able to acquire great agility, and lend itself admirably to all shades of both the gracious and the pathetic.

We must now understand that our dilettanti have some right to complain, seeing themselves so abruptly deprived of a talent which, at the moment, is quite positively unique in Europe, and which seems to have been composed to satisfy all the qualities that are denied to our singers today, and whose very memory would soon fade away. To be able to sing and to sing with inspiration is what we no longer expected to see; to be rich in both tradition and personal ideas seemed hardly possible; and as for improvising while singing Rossini, to possess the energy of Garcia, and the abundance of ornaments of Velluti, the idea would not even have occurred to us to ask for such a miracle: yet this is what we find in madame Malibran; and she is barely twenty years old. There is something in such a disposition that, in its own genre, is as prodigious as Mozart’s precocious genius.

We have tried to point out what is rare and privileged, so to speak, in madame Malibran’s talent, but it is only her talent as a singer that we have discussed: so far this is only half of the marvel. We will not try to make the slightest sketch of her other talent, of her talent as an actress: one cannot grasp, let alone analyse, the infinite variety. Those who want to have an idea of all that tragic acting has to offer, the most heart-rending, the most tender, the most energetic, all that comic verve can create in terms of playfulness, mischievousness, finesse, should hurry to make the most of the few days left to them; or rather, they should join us in wishing that our stage will not be stripped of such a precious ornament for a long time. But to whom should these wishes be addressed? Is it to the singer? Is it to the director? Could it be even to Mr. Sosthenes? We don’t know; but lest we miss it, let’s address them to everyone.

1 We learn this evening with regret that the staging of Tancredi has been prevented by unforeseen obstacles, and that Madame Malibran, unable to offer the public the attraction of a novelty, has preferred to give up any benefit performance.

Text excerpted and translated from Dernières représentations de madame Malibran, Le globe, recueil philosophique et littéraire, Tome VI. Nº 69, Paris, June 21 1828.