Manuel Garcia: An Appreciation by Hermann Klein

Manuel García (1805-1906)
The most illustrious singing teacher of the nineteenth century." Thus I have described Manuel Garcia in dedicating to him my book "Thirty Years of Musical Life in London." I think I might justifiably have gone a little further and set him down, once and for all, as the greatest singing teacher that ever lived. If there was at any period a greater, or one as great, the world has certainly failed to consecrate his deeds and his memory. But my contention is hardly likely to be traversed; and the interesting fact therefore remains that the most illustrious singing teacher of all time is also the oldest, for on the 17th of this month he beats every record of musical longevity- at any rate in the exalted ranks of the art- by attaining his hundredth birthday. 

Manuel Garcia, like all truly great men, is genuinely modest. They are making a considerable fuss in England over the occurrence of this unique anniversary, but in the performance of the various "exercises" therewith connected no one will display more calmness and reticence than the venerable maestro himself. His honors, like his years, will sit lightly on him. He told me nine months ago, when we were chatting about this event, that he anticipated it with a certain amount of interest and pleasure, but he was afraid it would prove somewhat laborious, and from that point of view he heartily wished it were over. His has been a life of exceptional activity, as well as abnormal length; and he is thoroughly enjoying the repose which is rewarding his seventy odd years of strenuous work. 

What a marvelous story would be the bare record of Manuel Garcia's life! Alas, I doubt whether it will ever be presented to the world in anything approaching complete shape. I remember asking him a long while ago if he would let me write his biography. He shook his head as he replied: "Who wants to read my biography? No. I alone should not cut a very interesting figure. But I belong to an interesting family, and I have collected a good quantity of material relation to the them, including many anecdotes, which I may feel inclined one of these days to have published." A few years later, after he had practically given up teaching, I returned to the subject, but he then told me, to my intense regret, that the material he had previously referred to had been either lost or destroyed, and that he had abandoned all idea of attempting a history of the Garcia family. Whether any other member of the family is in a position to undertake the task remains to be seen. In any case, however, a full and complete history is now out of the question, for Señor Garcia's memory is no longer reliable enough to enable him to recall minor details, or even many of the more important episodes, associated with his gigantic past. 

Those not personally acquainted with Manuel Garcia either as a teacher or as a man, may be interested to learn that there is naught about him of the laudatory temporis acti. Your average centenarian, I believe, exists more or less in the atmosphere of bygone days; he dwells upon the glories that have ceased to be, and believes little in the new or the modern. Garcia does not belong to this type. He lives as completely in the twentieth century as he did in the nineteenth, and at least in his knowledge of the world and its affairs is thoroughly up to date. As regards the human voice he quite believes the old adage "there are as good fish in the sea as ever come out of it." But where the art of singing is concerned he takes up another attitude, for he believes that the era of truly great singers has passed. In the preface to his "Hints on Singing" (published 1894) he alludes to the causes that have led to the decline of the florid style, and mentions, "as one of the most important, the disappearance of the race of great singers who, besides originating this art, carried it to its highest point of excellence." He continues: "The impresario, influenced by the exigencies of the modern prima donna, has been constrained to offer less gifted and accomplished virtuose to the composer, who, in turn, has been compelled to simplify the role of the voice and to rely more and more upon orchestral effects. Thus singing is becoming as much a lost art as the manufacture of Mandarin china or the varnish used by the old masters." 

That he is himself the last of the great teachers I do not hesitate to assert. There are no doubt some admirable voice instructors still to be found in various parts of the world, but not one, surely, who can compare with Manuel Garcia in wealth of tradition, in unerring instinct for probing to the utmost the capacities of a singer, in comprehensive grasp alike of the physiological and the aesthetic sides of his art, and in perfect mastery of every technical detail that goes into the making of a finished vocalist. His extraordinary talent as a voice teacher was made manifest by the unparalleled success of his pupils, and not the least remarkable of these examples was the triumph of Jenny Lind, who, when she went to Paris in August, 1841, was (I quote W. S. Rockstro) suffering from "chronic hoarseness and other marked symptoms of deterioration," brought on by inferior training, faulty production and overexertion. When she left him in the summer of 1842 "she had learned all that it was possible for any master to teach her." Her voice "had acquired a rich depth of tone, a sympathetic timbre, a birdlike charm in the silvery clearness of its upper register. * * * She was born an artist, and under Garcia's guidance she had now become a virtuosa." 

To this I may, perhaps, be permitted to add my own humble tribute, based upon four years' experience as a pupil and nearly a decade during which the distinguished maestro did all his private teaching at my parents' house in London. This recollection goes back, to the seventies, but it is as vivid still as if it were only last year. I can never forget the wonderful energy of the old teacher- already long past the prime of life- his amazing animation and untiring vigor, the freshness and spirit with which he threw himself into his work, the care that he bestowed upon the most minute mechanical details. He had a marvelous faculty for imparting exactly what he wanted to impart, and the inspiration by which he was moved rarely failed to inspire his pupils in turn. His voice was practically gone and his efforts were scarcely of the kind that one would dignify by describing them as "vocal"; yet when he emitted a note or declaimed a phrase there could be no mistaking what he wanted and imitation was therefore easy. Above all, he taught a style that was irreproachable in its purity, irresistible in its charm; and his treatment of the Mozart or the Rossini aria was a perfect model of the highest and most accurate tradition. He knew exactly where every turn, every gruppetto, every appoggiatura, every tiny nuance had been executed under the composer's direction, and to acquire that knowledge from Manuel Garcia was to obtain it from the fountain head and with a measure of authority that no other living being could have the right to dispute. 

The Musical Courier, March 15, 1905, 18.