Her Mother's Ears

My mother was a woman of wide culture, and she had a great many interests which she occupied the leisure left by her singing-lessons. She had mastered six modern languages, and, besides composing, she drew remarkably well. I have a landscape painted by her in sepia in her seventy-sixth year, which might easily be the work of an artist. She was a very clever caricaturist, and we possess several large albums full of the most amusing caricatures of the singers and artists she knew, and of herself; they were drawn by her, and one day will be valuable.

She retained to the last the industry which was natural to her and won for her in her childhood the nickname of "the ant." When I went to see her in 1908, I found her teaching pupils who had no means of their own, and whom she helped in this way. This was her Sunday recreation. When I read this passage to her, she interrupted me to say: "If I am the ant, you, my dear daughter, are the bee." I was deeply touch by her words, which I looked on as the greatest compliment I ever received.

The one great sorrow of her life was the death of her husband. She was so frantic with grief that she tried to throw herself out of a window, and for weeks she had to be carefully watched. It was a very long time before she recovered from the blow. But on the whole I must say that she had as easy a life as any one can desire.

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I learnt singing first by listening to my mother's lessons. Later on she gave me a few lessons, and she was very strict; sometimes she was so severe that I cried. But still I went on singing, as it was only right that I should do so. 

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I have already spoken of my Uncle Manuel Garcia. A great deal has been written about him, but there are a few anecdotes which are not generally known and which may serve to give a more complete view of his character. He played a very important part in my childhood.

He was very lively and very enthusiastic, but was also subject to outbursts of passion, a fault inherited from his father. He was a regular barrel of gunpowder, but was exceedingly kind-hearted, and possessed a strong sense of justice, and very pronounced sympathies and antipathies and obstinate perseverance. Like my mother, he was tremendously industrious. 

He used to tease me mercilessly, but was always ready to help me and take my part against others. When he came to stay with us at Courtavenal my greatest treat was to go for walks with him, and help me in his rage for destruction. He had sworn death to all climbing ivy, because he said, it killed trees. So we sallied forth, armed with knife and axe, carefully examining every tree in the wood or park. and wherever we found any ivy we cut and chopped at it till the toughest stem yielded to our blows. Every morning we met at the piano, each of us holding a sheet of music-paper with writing on it. We were composing a Mozart symphony, that is in Mozart's style and manner. The best written page was retained and next day the continuation was criticized. I was ten years old at the time, and of course the collaboration served to strengthen my love of work. 

He was full of anecdotes about his pupils which were very amusing. I will repeat one or two of them. 

A young, very pretty, but rather cross-looking English girl, was having her first lesson. "Why do you look so cross? You should look amiable when you are singing," said her master. "Just look at yourself in this glass. I am sure you will begin to smile, when you see such a pretty face, and will say something amiable. Do try." The young lady took the glass, looked at herself angrily for a long time, and finally said: "Boo jouar!" ("Bon jour!"). 

Another day a baritone was singing the well-known air from Le nozze di Figaro in Italian. Instead of singing,
Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso, Notte e giorno d'intorno girando
("No longer, loving butterfly, will you flutter about, day and night") he said: "d'intorno giardino." 

"No," said his teacher, "you are making a mistake. You say 'garden about' and that is nonsense."

The passage was repeated and so was the mistake.

"I told you that 'garden about' is nonsense; you must say 'flutter about.'"

"But," cried the pupil, "I am so fond of a garden."

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While my uncle was with us our day was fully filled up with interesting conversations, story-telling, music, acting, and amusing practical jokes. After his second marriage he spent his holidays in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and I did not see him again till I came to England myself, when I often visited him in his London home, "Mon Abri," where he and his wife always welcomed me with open arms. I invariably found him hard at work, writing music or reading scientific books. He was at that time over ninety. Though, as everyone knows, he was one hundred and two when he died, and was physically weak, his mental faculties, as I have already stated, were unimpaired. Two months before his death, he wrote to me: "I feel myself so extraordinarily venerable that, whenever I pass a looking-glass, I want to make myself a deep bow. 

He was a good and noble-hearted man, a thorough gentleman. He was absolutely devoid of all ambition, and very firm in his principles, so that he resolutely refused to have his biography written. He said, no one had a right to put himself in the foreground, and that others had no right to look into the privacy of another's person's life. 

Louise Héritte-Viardot, Memories and Adventures, Mills & Boon, Limited, London, 1913.

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Indeed, García wrote no autobiography, and the biography written by his student Malcom Sterling Mackinlay is lacking in all the things this reader wants to know; beginning with how Garcia's father came to formulate his method of singing. Of course, I have my own theories, but that's not the same thing as finding a smoking gun. 

What really interests me about this book—and it is a good book—is that Viardot-García's daughter seems to have been, like her mother, an autodidact—having the gift for observation of others as well as herself. If so, it would explain a great many things. Read it, and you will find this accomplished daughter of the great Viardot-García was largely self-taught. Self-determined too, since her parents wanted a boy.

(The 1922 English translation had been at Hathitrust along with the French original, but for some reason, is no longer available. However, you will find it here at "UR Research." You will also find a very interesting text on singing on this blog by Héritte Viardot-Garcia using the labels attached to this post.) 

I've made much of listening and singing on these pages, and posit via the work of Tomatis that autodidacts are great self-listeners, with highly developed auditory-navigational systems. They are able to zoom in on what they are hearing, which carries with it feeling, the ear providing the means for this knowledge to take place. Curiously, this is reportedly how singing was transmitted in the 18th century, with teacher singing to the student and student singing back; call and response, at once verbal and non-verbal, playing with building blocks of sound.

Have you not noticed that a student can be given an example of bel canto tone production and immediately report it back with their voice, then fail to do so again, having to find by dint of practice and application of technique what the genius of the ear does immediately and unconsciously?

This is the way all languages are learned. Theories, grammar, and technique come later.

Héritte Viardot-García must have had her mother's ears.