March 10, 2011

A very peculiar disposition

The Musical Visitor, July 1892. 


Francesco Lamperti, the last of the really great Italian masters of the voice, has passed away after a record of sixty-two years of teaching (1830 to 1892). He was of a very peculiar disposition, with no ambition, and caring little for anything but music. He had but little affection, and occurrences that would have moved most men to tears touched him not at all. A pupil and assistant of his, in giving a sketch of his life, relates some things which show him up in a not very attractive light. He was almost devoid of family feeling, as evinced by the brutal remark when informed of the death of one of his grown sons, "You don't say so," and went on with the lesson with which he was engaged. 

Some peculiarities of his method of teacher are pleasanter to dwell upon, and these we collate for the VISITOR'S readers: 

The old maestro spoke nothing but the Milanese dialect, so totally different from the 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 loose 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 constant similes and metaphor, often leading 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" ("gui"). Instead of saying "breathe 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 water," and in many instances it was only in after years that the pupils would realize that by "boat under water" he meant 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, imperious, 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 few 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 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. 

How he execrated Wagner and his influence on the singing voice! The German language to his mind conveyed a sense of fog and discomfort. "They are schlum, schluming 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 cauldron 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.'" 

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