The Divine Sarah

She was one of a kind, Sarah Bernhardt.  Possessing an extraordinary presence, she also astonished with her voice.  That much I gathered after hearing a recording last summer at a friend's house - La Mort d'Izéil (The Death of Izéil) (1903).  We played it on my Victrola, which I've had since I was a kid.  Unfortunately, since I can't find it anywhere online, a verbal description will have to suffice. 

Bernhardt as captured by Nadar

Did Bernhardt have a beautiful voice?  No.  That's not how I would describe it.  Her lower mezzo-soprano tones were unforced and full, quite luminous actually, while the higher declamatory passages became shrill in an Edith Piaf kind of way.   Even so, her tone filled the room with a crackle of electricity.

The existence of Sarah Bernhardt remains the supreme marvel of the nineteenth century.  The astounding range she exhibited as an actress baffled the imagination of the public. Her words boomed and crashed with a superhuman resonance which shook the spirit of the listener like a leaf in the wind.  The unique sound of her voice has often been raved over; but in Sarah Bernhardt's voice there was more than gold; there was thunder and lightening; there was Heaven and Hell.  
Edmond Rostand, Le Cinema, 1923

Bernhardt at Edison's studio

Words of exultation! However another listener, the great pianist Paderewski, had a somewhat different view.

She was a marvelous actress, who always made upon me the same impression as the great French Orator, Jaurés.  There was the same lack of material strength.  She had a very limited voice in spite of her power.  In moments of calm recitation it was incomparable.  When she became very dramatic, on profoundly emotional moments, the voice became shrill and harsh and even hoarse.  She was unable to speak in a very loud tone.  I could never understand why they spoke of her voice as "golden."  In my opinion it seemed to be exactly the opposite of golden.

But Sarah Bernhardt had enormous magnetism.  It drew and held in complete thraldom her audience, wherever it was.  In that respect she was impeccable.  A divine gift of the gods!  
The Paderewski Memoirs, 1938

Magnetism vs tone?  That is something to consider.  There have been plenty of performers with ample tone who failed to move the listener, as well as others who thrilled with no voice at all.  The ideal?  Magnetism and tone together.  

Interestingly, both Paderewski (who was known for his tone) and Berndardt were friends with Manuel Garcia's representatives to America; Anna E. Schoen-René and Herman Klein.

It's a small world?


little augury said…
I love this post- I share a birthday with the Divine. I find the description of her voice by You very alive. How I would enjoy that and the photo at Edison's wonderful. It had to be both-the magnetism as we witnessed with the oncoming talkies-and the demise of some of our great silent stars. I have a bio- read many years ago, I think this fall at our days approach I will read it again. great post!! pgt
VoiceTalk said…
The bio I have is The Divine Sarah by Gold and Fizdale (1981). I stole the title for my post! Thanks for commenting!