June 7, 2011

Anna & Lilli (and a dachshund named Baby)

They were friends and colleagues. Two German ladies with a connection to the Old School, Lilli Lehmann was the great soprano who trained her lyric voice to sing dramatic roles, while Anna Schoen-René was the promising soprano who's career was stopped by illness. She became, instead, the great voice teacher of her time. Both wrote books. Lehmann's was translated into English and titled How to Sing, while Schoen-René was titled America's Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences. The lady with the dachshund in her lap had the last word.


Lilli Lehmann, Anna E. Schoen-René and Baby c. 1908 

In later life, Lilli Lehmann gave the impression of being a woman much younger than she actually was. Strikingly handsome, of a commanding grace, with lovely, classical features, her white hair contrasting with her beautiful, deep, dark eyes, she was always full of animation. 
An advocate of simple life, she was almost a vegetarian, took much outdoor exercises, and used the rest of her time and energy looking after the welfare of her pupils and of her pet animals, which, it was often said, she preferred to the majority of human beings. She was the founder of protective associations for animals, not only in Germany, but also in France and England. Once she warned me never to go to Egypt or Turkey where she had seen such mistreatment of animals that she had cut her trip there short. (It was a pleasure to remember that her little dachshund "Baby" had a great liking for me!) 
Because she was severe in her criticism and dominating in her manner, Lilli Lehmann has been much misunderstood. However, there has seldom been a singer of such unselfish and charitable nature. She was always willing to advise and encourage musicians, and was the founder and financial supporter of a hospital and institution for needy woman musicians. It was she also who originated the famous Mozart Festivals in Salzburg; their immense success is largely due to her efforts. 
My friendship with her was brought about through her admiration for Pauline Viardot. She had seen some of the unforgettable performances of Viardot's public career and had, indeed, modeled her interpretation of Fidelio on that of Viardot. 
Thus is was that I returned to Berlin to make my headquarters there, as the representative of the Garcia's, that Lilli Lehmann—who had been my friend for a long time before that—was much interested and often invited me to listen to her teaching. After such visits she invited me to share her luncheon which usually consisted of fruit, and afterwards, we talked about music and teaching. Viardot herself always praised Lehmann to me (and wrote about her) as a great musician, a Wagnerian singer par excellence, and a "Lieder" singer of unsurpassed merit. 
I remember particularly a lesson of Lilli Lehmanns with an American girl which at her request I had to attend. The singer who had a beautiful voice was struggling with the coloratura passages in the aria of Donna Elvira from "Don Juan." She seems not to get the piano passages correctly; Lehmann's explanations only served to confuse her even more, and by the end of the lesson the girl was in tears. 
Lilli, thoroughly disgusted, said to her, "I do not know why you cannot understand me. I am explaining the technique exactly as my mother, who was my teacher, explained it to me. My mother was a disciple of the Garcia's the greatest teachers of the century and Mme. Schoen-René, who herself has just returned from lessons with Pauline Viardot and Manuel Garcia, will agree with everything I had said." 
After the poor girl left I went upstairs with Lilli. She immediately began talking about her pupil's stupidity in not being able to understand her explanations. So I said to her, "I don't want you to misunderstand me, and wouldn't venture to speak of this if we were not alone, but since you have brought the matter up again, and since you call yourself a disciple of the Garcia technique, I would like to tell you exactly how Viardot and Manuel Garcia have taught the production of piano singing." 
I was relieved when she took in the right spirit what I had said, and asked me to explain it to her (the technique is, of course, to keep the same quality of the naturally produced tone—not to use falsetto, as the student did which was why she was criticized.) She saw immediately where she had been making her mistakes, and was so happy to learn about it that she threw aside the peasant-dress on which she had been sewing, and ran downstairs to the music room with me to practice exercising the mezza voce as the Garcia's had taught it. As soon as she tried the difference, she looked at me with a delighted smile, "You were right!" she said. (She herself, it is to be understood, always sang piano correctly, it was for teaching purposes that this explanation was a revelation to her.) 
I always considered Lilli Lehmann one of the greatest teachers for repertoire, style, and dramatic expression. In her long career as a singer (more than sixty years), she was able to establish a technique and style which, however, very few could execute. She described it in a handbook for singers, but I must confess that I think her explanations hard for any student to understand, and again, it has been my life-long conviction that singing cannot be learned form a book. Scientific explanations can only be grasped by singers already educated in the principles of their art. 

From America's Music Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences (1941) by Anna E. Schoen-René. 

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