The Lamperti Lineage: Marcella Sembrich

Marcella Sembrich (1858-1935)

The brilliant coloratura soprano Madam Sembrich was quite the star in the 1880's after having studied with Giovanni Battista Lamperti, and for a short time his father, Francesco Lamperti. After her long career, Sembrich taught singing at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and then at the Juilliard School alongside Anna E. Schoen-René. Her studio on Lake George in upstate New York is worth a visit on a summer afternoon, as is the Marcella Sembrich Collection at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The latter is fascinating, if only for the many files of Sembrich's cadenzas which are mind-boggling. She made many recordings, some of which you can find here. That she was well past her prime when she stood in front of the horn? At least we have something to mull over. Sembrich gave an interesting interview to the Musical Courier in May of 1910, which is presented below.


SEMBRICH'S MEMORIES OF LAMPERTI - The Famous Singing Teacher with Whom Died the Traditions of the Old Art of Bel Canto - His Methods of Instruction and His Jealous Resentment of References to Sembrich as a Pupil of His Father

Giovanni Battista Lamperti, who died the other day in Berlin at the age of sixty-nine, was the most famous singing teacher of his school, and with him died the traditions of the old art of bel canto that had been handed down through generations. His father, Francesco Lamperti, was even a more famous teacher than his son, although they both had the same theories, and until the fame of each became to large for one country to hold them, both taught in Milan. Mme. Sembrich was in a way the pupil of both Lampertis, although her musical training was mainly the result of her early studies with the younger Lamperti. In was, in fact, after her career as a singer had begun that she took some instruction from Francesco. 

Mme. Sembrich received her instruction from the son when Giovanni was in Milan. He and his father had separated and lived in different parts of the city. It was through the advice of a Russian singer whom she had met in Vienna that Mme. Sembrich, who until that time had been studying with Rokitansky there, decided to go to the son rather than the father. 

"When I went to Milan in 1876," Mme. Sembrich said the other day, "Lamperti seems to take great interest in me, and promised to help me if I would only have confidence in him and work hard. He gave me unusual opportunities. I had no regular hours of study with him. I spent all my day from eleven o'clock in his studio. He would give me a little time here and there, let me listen to his instruction of his other pupils, and then, at the piano, impress upon me the faults and excellencies of some of the pupils he had been teaching. All this was, of course, of the greatest value to me as a student. 

"Lamperti always taught at the piano. He would play the scales with one hand, while with the other he would show the pupil how the throat, the chest and the parts of the body used in singing should be properly held and controlled. In the placing of the voice he was incomparable. He knew, too, as none other the tradition of the old Italian arias and the manner in which they should be delivered. Of course, he did not attempt to keep pace with the advance of musical taste. He was, for instance, entirely indifferent to the lied, and lieder singing did not make the least impression on him. He preferred to remain as the great exponent of Italian singing, and in that field he was long the most famous in the world, and his reputation was deserved."

After Mme. Sembrich went to Dresden to sing in the opera there and had made her great reputation as a singer, Lamperti move to Dresden and when, a few years ago, Mme. Sembrich went to Berlin, he also moved there. His book on the art of singing is dedicated to her. 

In spite of their long friendship, there was a brief interval in which her old teacher and the famous prima donna were not on good terms. This was due to a difference that arose between them as to the right of the señor Lamperti to claim her as his pupil. The younger Lamperti demanded of Mme. Sembrich that she deny ever having taken any lessons from his father. It was obviously impossible to do anything of the kind, since she had, in fact, received instruction also from Francesco Lamperti, although she always represented herself as a pupil of the younger only. 

"The summer before my son was born," Mme. Sembrich explained the other day, "I took a cottage on Lake Cuomo. I discovered that the elder Lamperti was living in the adjoining house. Naturally, he came to call on me, and we often talked of our art and the end was that I studied with him during the few months that we were there together. But I never regarded myself as any other than the pupil of the younger Lamperti. His death has removed the last of the great European teachers of the old style of singing who are of any real use to their pupils. When I get to Paris one of the first things I am going to do is to look up some good teachers for the numerous American girls who come to me and ask where they shall go to study when they go abroad. In the past I could always send them to my teacher." 

May Scheider, the New York girl who has been so successful in Germany and is now the first soprano at Zurich, is the last of the American girls whom Mme. Sembrich sent to Professor Lamperti. During recent years he had received very few pupils, confining his classes to those who seemed to have marked talent.