A Conversation with G.B. Lamperti

A CONVERSATION with the venerable singing master, Prof. Giovanni Battista Lamperti, is like opening the pages of a musical history and taking a cursory glance at the musical personages and events of nearly half a century. From his studio, in Dresden, have gone out many of the song sovereigns of the world and the reminiscences suggested by these names would make interesting reading if Prof. Lamperti should feel inclined to write his memoirs.

As the son of the celebrated Milanese maestro, Francesco Lamperti, he has had to contend with the customary disadvantages which attach themselves to the inheritance of a great name. Not the least of these has been the confusion arising from the mistaken identity of father and son, which, in some instances, has proven annoying—in others, has given rise to humorous situations. The “younger Lamperti” as people have fallen into the habit of calling him, at one time received the following amusing letter from a Polish prince:

“Dear Sir: I wish my daughter to have instruction from the younger Lamperti. Please let me know if you are the father or the son. If you are the father, will you be kind enough to give me the address of the son?"

Lamperti himself compares voice training to plant culture. A good horticulturist must understand the nature and needs of the different plants; the one must have plenty of sunshine, another thrives better in the shade; one requires frequent watering, another must be watered judiciously. The teacher who has the care of the tenderest of all plants, the human voice, must study the individual needs of his pupils and their vocal material. Above all, the voice cannot be formed; there must be the gradual development of the bud into the shoot, the shoot into the plant and last of all the perfect flower.

“It is impossible for any one to think of making a debut with less than three years of constant study.” continued Prof. Lamperti. “With the Italians it is different; they come into the world singing and it is as natural to them as to the birds. Then they have the tremendous advantage of having at their service a language composed of soft vocal sounds, which are sung with an open throat and make no demands upon the vocal chords.” (Here there came into my mind Mrs. Browning’s beautiful way of saying that the Italian vowels “do round themselves as if they planned eternities of separate sweetness”)

It is unnatural to expect an Italian to have a great amount of enthusiasm for the German language and therefore it is not surprising to hear Prof. Lamperti say that it works disastrous effects upon the vocal chords. It is not a prejudiced viewpoint, but one which radically minded singers the world over acknowledge. Once having gotten a thorough grounding in the Italian method, one can sing in any language without injury to the voice.

According to Lamperti, the hardest voice to build is a tenor. The scarcity of good tenors is due not so much to the scarcity of good material but because they too often enter upon an operatic career without being sufficiently schooled and ruin their voices by overwork, forcing registers, and pernicious use of the falsetto.

Lamperti’s studio is filled with pictures of his pupils, of whom he speaks with great affection and has some characteristic anecdote to relate, even though they are pupils of twenty-five years ago. It is as long as that since Schumann-Heink was with him, and to those who have seen this great singer’s latest photograph as the stout washer-woman in “Love's Lottery" it is hard to credit Prof. Lamperti's account that “she was then thin, so very thin”!

The name which throws the greatest halo around Prof. Lamperti’s reputation as a teacher is that of Marcella Sembrich, who under the name of Bosio made her debut at Athens; Sembrich she became when her musical activity led her into the field of German opera. Under the younger Lamperti she studied the bel canto of which she is undoubtedly the most eminent living exponent.

A true Italian standpoint is that expressed by Prof. Lamperti in his views on music in general: “Music, or rather the art of composing, is at present at a low ebb; melody is a lost art; everyone is trying to imitate Wagner, without realizing that a genius like the great Bayreuth master comes only once in a century. All others are like a tallow-dip trying to imitate the sun. . . . Wagner I like orchestrally, but the operas with the exception of Lohengrin, Tannhauser and ‘Der Fliegende Hollander’ are tiresome to me. For my part I take any opera as a recreation, not as a duty or in the way of musical ediflcation; consequently I do not want to be required to study out the philosophical situation of the long Wagnerian interludes without any action.”

And this is probably the opinion of every true Italian. if he gives honest vent to his feelings, for to the Italian, melody is as much a want of his nature as is the warmth and light of the sun. - The Etude, 1905


D. Brian Lee said…
Thanks for posting this, Daniel. The horticulture analogy comes up with several of the great teachers. It's all so fresh and applicable today.
Thanks so much for your comment, Brian. Yes- those old teachers had a way of observing nature, didn't they?