November 27, 2010

He was a savage old fellow

THE poor singing master has a hard time of it. If he does say a good thing it is perhaps metaphorically worded and he is persistently misquoted and heartlessly misunderstood. Truly it is sometimes his fault for he is petulant, erratic, emotional and hasty, expressing what comes to his mind in a manner that at once defies contradiction.
And then it is a curious fact—for I believe it is, a fact— that some of the best vocal teachers have not had the knack of expressing themselves with clearness and precision. Indeed so true is this that a certain portion of our rather nettlesome fraternity are prone to believe that if a man writes a good book on singing he is pretty sure to be a bad singing master. Now here comes the rub. If one is finally overpowered by a torrent of ideas to the extent that he must write a book, or perhaps a publisher offers him a snug little sum to do it, what shall a poor fellow do? Shall he write it so badly that nobody can understand it, and be considered by the above mentioned set a rarely good fellow? Or shall he write in plain matter of fact English, scientific as Herbert Spencer, unquestionably immaculate in diction, and thus be beloved of the scientic vocal teacher? I pity him in either case, for his life will be an unhappy one unless be absolutely refuses to read the criticisms and vituperative letters that are sent to him.
However, to make a long story short, Lamperti wrote a book and apparently enjoyed the result enough to write another sixteen years later. Just about the time the last one appeared I wrote to a pupil of mine who was studying with Pozzo in Milan, "What do they think of Lamperti over there?" My next communication from him brought the answer: "Most people say he is a charlatan and a fraud.'' I did not break down entirely at this, but like Br'er Rabbit, "kep' on sayin' nuffin." Then I remembered asking a teacher with whom I studied three seasons, and who was for five years a pupil under Lamperti; "The old Maestro was really a remarkable teacher, wasn't he?"
"Well," he said: "he knew it all, but the difficulty was to get him to tell you anything."
Well, then I concluded he must be a miserly old "crabby " who had nailed up a store of knowledge for one or two favored kindred spirited pupils, and nailed it tight. Now I bought his first book and read it through perhaps a hundred times. Indeed I have read it to myself and my pupils until I have worn it out. You know when some ambitious Prima Donna insisted on screaming away at her upper notes contrary to all sense and reason, I could show her that delightful paragraph in Lamperti's book which expostulated with her in a different phraseology from mine. But do you know I think one pupil who preferred to scream thought to herself, "Well, Lamperti was a donkey too." How do you like the "too?" Complimentary isn't it?
Now I read somewhere quite a lot of stuff about Lamperti. I picked it up here and there. He was declared a good and patient teacher for any one who had voice enough for the stage, but of no earthly use for anyone else. Another declared that he only read a daily paper while the pupil sang. And yet another person, by the way one in whom I had much confidence, told me that Lamperti excelled all other teachers in a sensitive ear for the emission of the voice, and in the peculiar grace of his embellishments.
Here is another dreadful state of affairs, by the way. Your singing teacher of the olden time took upon himself the privilege of cutting up the arias and putting in cadenzas of his own whenever he took the notion. We do it occasionally now when we turn back to "Oh Mio Fernando" and his friends and relations. I verily believe I have a dozen or more cadenzas for poor "Fernando'' alone, tucked away on some shelf or other. But the impudent modern composer insists on writing his own music, depriving the poor singing master of his rights, and matters are come to a pretty pass. But we have Bellini and Donizetti to turn back to. Here we can have full swing and we slash right and left in the greatest glee until you would scarcely recognize the aria in a dark night. "Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish." I give my heart and my hand to the slashing process when I feel like it. Besides this a man can make a reputation in this embellishment business if he will.
A friend of mine, now a prominent singer in England, wrote me concerning a celebrated singing master: "I only went to him for cadenzas and was well satisfied in this particular, but his method was dreadful." Now I suggest to this esteemed fellow-sufferer that he paint a new sign something like the following:

Signor Spaghetti, Specialist in Cadenzas.
I really think it would be attractive to say the least, and
if he stayed in Europe where there is still some cadenza
business to be done, he might do well. But if he came to
America, say to Rochester, where the cadenza business does
not flourish, what a time he would have of it! The air
would be full of his lamentations:
"Iago, Iago, my cadenza business! 
    My cadenza business!"

But to turn back to Lamperti: You see I have not understood him yet. In addition to what I had already learned I soon added a new fact. It seems that Marcella Sembrich, the noted soprano, went to the old gentleman to take lessons after she was already a well-known prima-donna. Lamperti didn't like the way she sang and so he called her a stupid donkey. Now that must have amused her immensely, but the only way she showed that she really enjoyed it was by shedding a few tears. If there is any one thing that a pupil must enjoy, it is being called a stupid donkey. Now, if the irascible old singing-master really did use that sort of language to Sembrich who really was somewhat of a singer after all, how would he have talked to the ambitious canary who would sing within a foot and a half of the key? It would be fun to have heard him, wouldn't it?
It happened that I became acquainted with a new party, Mr. William Shakespeare, who is supposed to have understood the old gentlemen rather better than any one else, so I tackled him on the subject and spread out my doubts before him somewhat in this wise: "I have always had an idea that Lamperti knew a great deal about singing, but that it was a hard task to get anything out of him. If the pupil had a voice for the stage I suppose he took some pains; but if he didn't, he wouldn't teach him anything, would he?" He answered without the slightest hesitation: "Why yes, he would teach anybody who would learn; he taught them all.'' So, you see, we have a variety of opinions, but Shakespeare agreed with the others that he was a savage old fellow and never satisfied with anybody's singing.
But to return to his books. There were some passages which I could not understand and I supposed it was my stupidity, but I was greatly comforted by Shakespeare's remarking that it had taken him twenty years to understand them. So I take it that our embryo prima donnas will not find it easy to learn to sing from the books that Lamperti wrote, wonderful though they are; but there is no law to prevent their trying it. They are very simple; so simple, indeed,—(and now I am telling tales out of school) that the very translator of the first book could understand neither the book or the Maestro himself, so he went to Shakespeare for lessons to have the old man translated. Now, finally, when I write a book in singing—and you can never tell what the poor singing teacher will do next—I am going to say what I have to say in my own way. Perhaps I shall have half of it clear and the other half foggy. In any case before I make my final bow I shall beg my fellow teachers to let me down easy. I shall ask them to read this article first, to behold my perplexity, and then they will know "where I am at."
Rochester, N. Y. Perley Dunn Aldrich, Music: a monthly magazine, 1896.  

Perley Dunn Aldrich (b. 1863) was a student of William Shakespeare in London for three years, the latter having studied with Lamperti for five, which is alluded to in the text above. Aldrich also studied with the Parisian vocal masters Sbriglia & Trabedello, composed songs and taught voice in Boston, Philadelphia and Rochester NY. He was the chorus master for the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, wrote many articles for various musical magazines, and published a 71 page pamphlet on singing titled Vocal Economy and Expressiveness (1895), a copy of which survives here. Unfortunately, he never got around to 'where he was at.' A pity, seeing that his pithy style and probing questions could have told present day readers a great deal about the teaching of singing. Then again, to borrow his own line of thinking: he may have been a really good singing master.

Paul Althouse was one of his students.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome your comments.