Great Singers of the Past

Great Singers Since starting this blog in September of 2012, I have never missed a posting, until this week, when the Weekly Warbler temporarily became the Biweekly Warbler. It wasn’t for want of words to share, but rather because I spent the last two weeks traipsing around the cold, dreary streets of London (“to show you something that’ll make you change your mind…”). Actually, I was planning on pulling out my laptop and settling down in an internet café at some point, but then was seduced by the shelves of London’s many illustrious antiquarian bookshops. My favorite discovery, a gold and blue tome, was simply called “Great Singers”, written by Anna Comtesse de Bremont in 1892. Its purchase was made even more thrilling by the fact I had to climb and balance on a real old-fashioned library ladder to access it!

“Great Singers” records the high and low points of 18 colorful opera singers’ careers, ranging from 1770-1877, all of whom were stars in their time and legends after, inspiring roles and a whole host of questionable anecdotes. Some chapters read like hagiographies, others like columns of a gossip magazine. As the phonograph wasn’t invented until 1877, the mystery and glamor of their popularity is intensified by the absence of actual sound recordings.

So how to embalm in words the ethereal beauty of a great voice? Here are a few of Bremont’s more admirable attempts:

On John Braham (1774-1856) of England

“He had that wonderful power of imparting the colour of various emotions of his song to his voice, breathing the soft, liquid tones of love, the bright sounds of hope and adoration, or the full, sonorous tones of despair and awe. Deeper and deeper still, [it] was so extraordinary in its changes of tone…that people were awed into the belief…that it was not the voice of a mortal, but the song of an angel descended in their mist.”

John Braham

John Braham

On Angelica Catalani (1779-1849) of Italy

“Her voice, a soprano of the purest quality, embracing a compass of three octaves from G to F, and so powerful no band could drown it, is described by [critics] as “full, rich, and magnificent beyond any other voice ever heard,” and could only be compared to the tones of musical glasses when magnified in volume to the same power…This power constituted an original charm and delighted her audiences with a sense as of the freshness and fullness of seaward gales bearing the fragrance of southern island groves.”

Angelica Catalani

Angelica Catalani

Such ardent devotion from the audience, while much sought after, often turned into dangerous obsession, as in the case of Henriette Sontag’s (1805-1852) admirers:

“One raconteur attributes to her the story that an admirer used one of her shoes as a goblet. This may be true, although it hardly seems original; but it is proved beyond a doubt that a set of boisterous students overturned her post-chaise into the river that nobody should use the same after her. Luckily the coach was empty at the time.”

Henriette Sontag

Henriette Sontag

Some singers, like Theresa Tietjens (1831-1877), had to deal with fan obsession more directly,

“It being a wet night, the enthusiasts made a carpet for Tietjens to walk on from her carriage, by throwing their coats on the pavement. The crowd remained outside for an hour, making repeated calls for a song… Compelled to go to the window, Tietjens addressed the crowd in these words, “I will sing you the Last Rose of Summer, provided you promise to go home immediately quiet as mice.” And when the song had ceased the crowd melted away in dead silence. The Inspector afterward remarked to Tietjens that if ever a revolution broke out in Ireland they would call for her to quell it.”Therese Tietjens

What features mark and mar the lives of the great singers? A great many of them came from musical families. Maria Malibran (1808-1836) was one such blessed. Her father and teacher was Manuel Garcia, whose driven, almost despotic bearing made him a great Don Giovanni, less so a kind father.

“With such a singing master as her father, it is not difficult to account for Malibran’s marvelous power… Garcia was a stern taskmaster. He was almost brutal in exactness, and the poor child approached her lessons in fear and trembling; but her father made her what she was – the prima donna of the world.”

Maria Malibran

Maria Malibran

Still, training and perseverance seem to figure more prominently than one’s musical lineage. Perfectionists like Giuditta Pasta (1798-1865) displayed such perseverance:

“I had no natural shake or trill,” she says. “And as the music of forty years ago was very elaborate, this was a great drawback to me. For five years I struggled to obtain the power of trilling; one day it came to me as by inspiration, and I could shake perfectly.”

Giuditta Pasta

Giuditta Pasta

Whether poverty, technical deficiencies, vocal constraints or gambling husbands, great singers were also marked by the trials they had to overcome. Bremont records this story about Gautier’s meeting with Giovanni Mario (1808-1883), the handsome Italian tenor,

“Gautier, on hearing that exquisite voice for the first time, listened in rapt attention; when the aria ceased, he seemed lost in wonder, and said… “It is a nightingale singing in a thicket…yes, he excels in the rendering of tender thoughts – love, melancholy, regret for an absent home, and all the soft sentiments of the soul.”

Giovanni Matteo Mario

Giovanni Matteo Mario

But perhaps it is the same sensitive spirit that accounts for Mario’s supposed weakness,

“Mario never got over his nervousness. ‘Gli assi, gli assi mi fanno tremare!’ he used to say. “Your footlights make me tremble, I can’t get over it!”

Next week we’ll take a look at the lives of select great singers of our era (with audio and video files to follow suit!).

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