February 10, 2015

The Lamperti School: Miss Lillie P. Berg's Tribute

Francesco Lamperti, the last of the really great masters of the voice, has passed away after sixty-two years of uninterrupted instruction, from 1830 to 1892. Small wonder that his name has become a household word among musicians and the music-loving people of all civilized countries. What a veritable wizard that tiny, shriveled-up old Italian, inseparably accompanied by his bamboo stick, seemed to the awestruck aspirant for future vocal honors: Think of studying with a man who had been the intimate friend of Rossini, Bellini, and for years the associate in the royal conservatory of Milan, of Lauro Rossi, Donizetti, and Mazucato, whose critical opinion was listened to with deference way back in the days of Frezzolini, Pasta, Malibran, for whose pupils Verdi and Donizetti and a score of others Italian composers of minor fame composed opera. Lamperti's experience of singers and the art of song literally dated from his birth as he was the son of an Italian singer of some reputation, and during the first part of his life often figured on the stage in processions and otherwise. His mother's voice, however left her after an illness. In a few years she opened a school for lace embroidery, making the fine black mantillas worn as headgear by the Milanese ladies, and also the elaborate gold embroidery used in priests' vestments. The skill which Lamperti derived in assisting his mother in this work served as his only means of support during eight years of bitter poverty at Milan, while struggling to obtain his musical education. Soup and bread was literally his diet for months at a time: as the old man graphically said to me: "When I was young and always hungry (con un appetito del diavolo) I had nothing to eat. Now that my table is covered with everything I attempt the appetite, behold, it is varnished!" 

At the age of seventeen he secured a place as organist in one of the churches, and soon after this became the orchestra director of the Theatre Filodramatico, the National theatrical school, from the boards of which nearly all the great actors of Italy have graduated. 

From this dates Lamperti's career as a singing master, as his fame as accompanist began to attract the attention of the great number of operatic celebrates constantly to be found in Milan, and it grew to be the fashion to practice daily with the young, red-haired Lamperti, who was nicknamed in those days "Il-Rosso." Thus the young Lamperti, through his known influence with the renowned singers of the first part this century, came to be regarded as an authority on all matters pertaining to the art of singing. He opened a successful operatic agency in connection with his singing classes, which was in later years carried on by his son, Nino Lamperti. His parlors were daily thronged by great singers, some waiting to be heard by agents from London, Madrid, Paris and St. Petersburg, while others were waiting their turn for their lesson from the already famous maestro. Lamperti's inherent greatness has forced a recognition from the civilized world, in spite, as it were, of himself, for of all unpractical geniuses he could easily take the lead. True, he was associated with the Royal Conservatory of Milan for twenty-five years as head master of the department of singing, but this offer, which meant position, worldly fame and a future pension, an honor eagerly sought for, was refused by him for a long time, so great was his dread of being bound by a business contract. He subsequently, on two different occasions, absolutely refused offers made to him by Gounod, Ambroise Thomas, and others to become associated with the world-renowned Paris conservatory. Rossini, his lifelong friend and corespondent, remonstrated with him, receiving for answer: "What do I care for glory, I don't like the French." 

Ambition he never possessed, simply an intense love for music, combined with marvelous critical powers. His sensibilities appear to have became absorbed by his music. He was absolutely devoid of family feeling, and on being told of the death of one of his grown sons, said in a matter-of-fact tone, "You don't say so," and continued his lesson. But the tears would come to his eyes every time he would describe some pathetic aria or hum a musical phrase as sung by one of the great singers some fifty years before. At a recent visit to my old maestro at his villa on Lake Como I was much impressed by the childlike indifference to fame of a man who had instructed three generations of great singers. His wife showed me a dozen different decorations given to him by royalty in recognition of his invaluable influence in preserving the almost lost traditions of the Italian art of singing. 

"You should not allow all these amateurs and would-be teachers of your method to study with you unless they remain with you two or three years at least," I urged. "Why not follow Marchesi's example? Do not accept a pupil until he binds himself to remain with you until he really sings as you wish him to. Think of the ridiculous statements which these so-called pupils of Lamperti make about you and your method." 

"What do I care?" answered the old man. "It has been my habit for sixty years to see pupils before me from morning till night. I make enough to eat and drink and live in comfort. I never in my life planned ahead of the coming day's lessons, and yet look at the result of my work," pointed with his magic wand to the pictures from many lands, each with enthusiastic, frequently reverential inscriptions to their "immortal maestro." 

When I went to Lamperti to study, Albani gave me the hint that William Shakespeare had found it necessary to listen to his lessons from morning till night to get at the spirit of his teaching, and, profiting by this hint, I accompanied the maestro's lessons for three years, hovering about him to such an extent that he nicknamed me the "fly" and "polyglot" for the fact that I served as useful translator for the many nationalities represented in his studio. It was truly the only way to gain a knowledge of his method. In the first place, the old maestro spoke nothing but the Milanese dialect so totally different from pure Italian that I frequently translated his meaning to Italians! Once his dialect understood, an impossible feat to almost all of his pupils, as it was mumbled between a set of very loosely fitting false teeth, their troubles had only begun, for it seemed impossible for him to give a plain matter-of-fact explanation. The native wit and exuberance of the fiery little old Italian wizard found an outlet in constant similes and metaphor, often lending the perplexed student miles away from the idea which he wished to convey. 

For instance, instead of using the practical term "Breath deeply," he would say "put it down" (giu"). Instead of saying "breath quietly," "take in the breath quietly," he would say "drink" ("bevi"); while after an unusually ferocious rap with that much-dreaded cane the pupil would be told that "the boat was under the water," and in many instances it was only after years that the pupils would realize that by "boat under the water" he mean that they were exploding their tones without being properly sustained by the breath. "Scappa" ("it runs away") was constantly given as an explanation of a rap from his stick, or "balla" ("the breath is dancing"), and the bewildered student would suffocate his tone in deadly fright of that stick and another furious outcry, only realizing that something was going wrong and the maestro was in a rage. Thus it will be seen that it was something like solving a Chinese puzzle to understand what the autocratic old maestro really meant. 

It would have been difficult to find a more exacting, impetuous and positively maliciously wide-awake musical martinet than Lamperti for fairly imperceptible faults in tone, time or expression. I have mentioned the abominable dialect which he spoke himself, but in singing he was simply maddening in his determination to hear the purest Italian. Often the pupil would not get beyond a half-dozen words of a recitative during an entire lesson, every inflection, every letter, being repeated before he would rest content. Italian was for him the only conceivable language for the soul; every one was commanded to speak only Italian between the lessons, with sublime indifference on his part to the fact that many of his pupils did not know enough of the language to ask their way about! 

The babel of languages which had been heard in his studio for sixty years had only served to increase his contempt for anything but his beloved Italian. And how he execrated Wagner and his influence on the singing voice! The German language to this mind conveyed a sense of fog and discomfort. "They are sclum, scluming it again," he would say, on hearing pupils talking German to each other. As for French, "it closed the throat and made squeaky voices like marionettes." He delighted in calling English "La schiuma" ("the scum of the languages"). He used to repeat the following story about the origin of the English language to every new English or American pupil: "When the good Lord was mixing the ingredients for the languages of the various peoples of the earth, he forgot all about the blond-haired English on their distant Island. When reminded of them He said at first that they would have to continue talking like birds, as His caldron was full. Suddenly He bethought Himself of taking off the scum. "There, said He, "we'll give that to the English; it is good enough for them." 

Very characteristic were the old master's description of his impression of the English. The whole nation seemed to him dead and buried, and resurrected by some mistake. "Think of saying "I love you" with face and eyes as devoid of expression as that of a dead fish!" During the first forty years of Lamperti's teaching, from 1830 to 1870, none but prospective artists or great operatic celebrities ever undertook to study with him. In 1870 he married a second time, a young German, the cousin of E. Werner, the celebrated German novelist: a Madonna-like German blonde, whose absolute devotion to the spider-like Italian, sixty years her senior, has been a positive psychological problem, a source of never-ending wonder to his students. With her advent, something like order was introduced in the utter confusion which up to that time had prevailed at his lessons. The former class lessons at which, though all paid alike, only the talented ones received the maestro's full time and attention were relegated to the past, each pupil receiving the time agreed upon, and with a firm hand the crowd of singers were swept away who had been once been wont to spend their leisure days in Lamperti's studio. Through the young wife's influence, the old Milanese maestro, who had boasted that he never would go beyond the shadow of the Milan Cathedral was coaxed to go to London for several spring seasons and subsequently it became his habit to spend his winters at Nice, Rome, Milan, Paris, Venice or some one of the capitals, summoned to "coach" artists singing in the principle opera houses. 

In these wanderings of his old age, like some prophet of old, Lamperti has been accompanied by a perfect tribe of pupils and their attendant families. It was owing to his first season in London, in 1876, that the influx of English and American students first appeared at the studio, and through them came the wealthy or titled amateur, always regarded by Lamperti with a cynical politeness which veiled contemptuous indifference. The worst feature in the last fifteen years of Lamperti's teaching has been his utter indifference as to the spirit in which his instructions were received. 

Yet what a constellation of famous artists has been evolved by his genius! A veritable artistic milky way! Let me give some of the names which I copied, either from the portraits in his studio or from his book, dating back to 1830. Among these first names I noted Patti's father and mother, about 1835. Then a picture of Clotilda Patti, a sister of Adelina's, and subsequently, with the date 1845, a picture of Nicolini, her husband. Ortolani Tiberini, Desiree Artot, the famous Cruvelli sisters, Angela Peralta, Angelica Moro, Paganini, Galli, Risarelli, Angeleri, Aldigheri, Vialetti, Marinani, Parlmiere, Everardi. After 1850 come the names of those great German singers, Therese Stolz and Waldman, Aglaja Orgeni, Taliana, Sophie Loewe, for whom Verdi composed three operas, Nachbauer, Robinson, Reichmann, Noldechen, Emmy La Grua, Catarina Eveis, Lola Beeth, Vally Schanseil, Ginele, Schmittlein, the Countess D'Edler, the morganatte wife of the late King of Portugal. Among the French singers I noted Nicolini, Paul L'Herie, Derivis, Paolina Vaneri-Fillipi, Nandin. Among the singers of various nationalities whose lessons I was privileged to hear were our own favorites, Galassi, Campanini, Perotti, Alvary-Achenbach, Emma Albani, Emma Thursby, Edward Scovel, Herbert Sims Reeves: the delicious-voiced Spanish tenors Gayarre and Aramburo, Alvina Valleria, Marcella Sembrich, Marie Van Zandt, Hope Glenn, Carlotta Elliot, Herbert Thornyke, Barrington Foote, Isadore de Larra Tellini, Grossi, Levasseur, not to forget his son Battista Lamperti, who was teaching in Dresden, and William Shakespeare, and his daughter-in-law, Madam Alpina Lamperti, who are teaching in London. But I must stop somewhere! 

New York Tribune, New York, May 20, 1892. 

*****

Lillie P. Berg (1845 - 1896) was born in New York City, and spent her childhood in Germany. Petite with curly blonde tresses, Berg attended the Royal College and Conservatory of Music in Stuttgart, studying voice and piano, where she came to the notice of the Emma Albani, who sent Berg to her teacher, Francesco Lamperti. Berg remained with Lamperti for three years as student and accompanist. Possessing a "clear soprano voice," she also studied with Theresa Brambilla, Mme. Fillipi, Julius Stockhausen, Erminia Rudersdorff, Mathilde Marchesi, and Enrico Delle Sedie. She returned to New York in the early 1880's, where she appeared in recital and private musicals. By the 1890's, she had become "the most fashionable" voice teacher within the city. In 1893, Berg's students and friends organized a "testimonial benefit," gathering over $1500 dollars ($40K in today's dollars) for the successful teacher and performer who had been ill for over a year and had fallen on hard times. Berg resumed teaching in 1894 and continued until 1896, organizing recitals and choruses—and was known for being the first woman in America to wield a baton at a public performance. Speaking five languages fluently, Berg centered her teaching on Lamperti's method, in which she was recognized as an authority. 


Photo Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

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