Madame Marchesi – Some of her Teaching Principles

Madame Marchesi would strike you with interest no matter where you might see her or in what ignorance you might be of her distinguished personality. Of good height and with an erect bearing and carriage that make her appear taller, she has the light, springy step of one of half her seventy-six years. When I asked her later in our conversation what kept her so young, she said, “I adore my art. I follow the rule of a Spartan in my diet, and every night at half-past nine I go to rest to be fresh for my work the next morning.” It is only in the lines of her face that tell of thought and trouble that she shows her years, but trouble so bravely borne that the trace of it is softened. Her hair, almost white, is rolled smoothly back, her eyes are bright and searching.

In her tone and manner there is the decision and authority of one used to command. If she had been born a man she would have been a general. Being a woman, and a woman of artistic instincts, she has chosen a calling that demands those very qualities that would have made her successful in marshaling a host.

You could picture to yourself the effect she would have on a young vocal aspirant to whom discipline was as yet a stranger, and self-will the only officer in command, and you could also picture how beneficial that effect would be in helping to mold her for a profession demanding such discipline to make it successful.

Mme. Marchesi is delightfully frank in what she says, with flashes of dry humor that hold one’s attention. For instance, when I said to her, “But a singer with a moderately good voice and intelligence will get farther than one with a better voice but less mind”; she answered frankly, “I have never found singers to have any intelligence.”

One could imagine the rivers of tears that would flow from round, blue eyes at such an announcement, but it would arouse thought, and to make people think is to direct the first long step toward mental development. So the satire of Mme. Marchesi would not fall short of the mark. Personally, I would be willing to trust it a very long way.

With the trained ear of a teacher, and the logic of one who reasons out things, she catches illogical points and straightens them. “Do you speak German?” she asked of an American.

“Naturally,” he answered.

“Why naturally?” was her prompt question. She was right, he did not speak it as a matter of course.

That day, in speaking of the N, in French so nasal, she sang it with the proper Italian placing of tone, and showed it to be free from all objectionable qualities.

Her conversation is full of such points, the insisting upon correctness in detail, and readiness in practical illustration to enforce her meaning.

To talk with Mme. Marchesi is to be impressed by her thoroughness. To her the too often misapplied term, “A born teacher,” may rightfully be given. While she talks you know that she is studying you, and that when you leave her she will understand you as well, perhaps better, than you have understood her. It is refreshing to be brought into contact with minds of this type. They spur one to introspection and thought involuntarily. And what better traits than these does any “born teacher” need to inspire in a pupil? The earlier part of Mme. Marchesi’s talk with me that day was given over to a practical point of strong interest: The fact that so many pupils left America and came to Paris insufficiently prepared to begin, study there; that they all too seldom knew before they arrived what the cost of living and lessons really would be, and in consequence of the latter oversight too often stayed months when they should have stayed years. The old proverb that “Life is short and Art is long,” she dwelt upon strongly, bitterly regretting that of the many who came to her such a proportion returned home unfinished; full of promise of good achievement, but without the money to assure it. That was why she placed such stress on the fact that those who go to Paris to study should go with the means to study or not go at all.

Yet another point Mme. Marchesi touched upon before entering on technical matters, and that was that American girls do not understand French customs.

“The American girl,” she went on, “comes with her idea of flirtation, which is looked upon in one light by American men and another by Frenchmen. The two points of view are entirely different, and if the former one is harmless the latter is not. It is well for the American girl, and especially if she is coming to Paris alone, to remember this.”

Turning to the cultivation of the voice, Mme. Marchesi said: “When I was young I had talent for teaching, and an immense wish to teach others how to learn. I went to London to study with Garcia. He was then pursuing his researches. As in many important things an accident played a weighty part. His throat being so sore that he could not speak, he examined it in a glass with the aid of a hanging lamp. Then it was that he saw for the first time how his vocal chords acted. He, in turn, told the doctors, who took it in hand. I recall he had always larynxes then from the dissecting-room. These he showed us, explaining his theories, and from them, also, I made my own studies.

“I had a voice, but it had three registers. I worked and found a way to unite them. It was through great study with him, and study alone, that I came to my inventions. My pupils with difficult voices vocalize for months without singing a word. Again, pupils coming to me with broken voices have to rest three months before singing to me.

“Just this year a pupil who had been singing soprano came to me. In reality I found her voice contralto, but in consequence of her previous wrong classification she was always hoarse. After rest and proper teaching the trouble fortunately passed. The fault is often with men who do not make a serious study of women’s voices. Women’s voices are different from men’s; therefore professors should study more.

“The half-informed teach. There should be a jury in every town to examine those who would teach, and give out certificates only to the competent. They should be perfectly at home in every quality of voice, and know how to distinguish between them before they may consider themselves ready to teach.

“Singers too often sing the voice part, but not the text. Identify yourself with what you sing. Declaim the words before you sing them.

“Pupils come to me and do not understand the words they sing.

“Sing the verse, the words. Know what the poetry means, and know the mood of the song that you sing.

“I explain the meaning of the poem, and make things clearer by bringing them on the level of everyday life. The intellect, the temperament, the personality, require in the case of each pupil an individual course. No two pupils are alike. We must study them individually that we may understand them, their mentality, their methods of thought, and their needs. English is a bad language to sing—yes; but if one has a well-posed voice one can sing it well. If one has a well-posed voice one can sing any language well.

“All songs should be sung in the language in which they are written. Translators do not know the language. As to the words of Schumann’s songs, for instance, I am ashamed of the way they are translated.

“I consider concert singing more difficult than opera. In opera the orchestration is so heavy that the voice must be a strong one, otherwise it will mean ruin. But the very breadth and sweep in opera make it in one respect easier.

“The work of the concert singer requires an ultra finish and perfection of detail. It is in this latter branch, concert singing, that those with smaller voices have such excellent opportunity, with a will for hard work and determined study. But it must mean study for a sufficient length of time. Three years at least.

“Personally, I do not care to be considered a ‘finishing’ teacher. What I want is voices to cultivate from the beginning, and to develop in my own way. Many have come to me for a brief period of study, and have gone away calling themselves my pupils. That is rank injustice to me, for I do not consider them as such. Only those who are able practically to illustrate that they have mastered my method have a right to be considered my pupils.

“A song recital program should comprise ten or twelve numbers by three composers, and each song should be sung in the language in which it was written—French, or German, or Italian, as the case may be.

“One mistake that singers make who come to Paris to study is that they regard French as the only language. French has its place, but the other languages are necessary as well. In point of fact French, on account of its open vowels and nasal sounds, is a bad language for singing, unless sung in the Italian manner as I just now illustrated. In making selections for the concert repertory I teach in the German the representatives, of course,Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, and songs by Franz, Rubinstein, and Weber, who has written so many beautiful things. Among the old Italian masters Giordani, Lotti, Bergolese, and the rest, afford admirable examples. In the list of modern French composers whose songs I give my pupils, are Massenet, Dubois, Franck, Godard, Vidal, Lenepveu, and many others. To enumerate all in any branch would be beyond the space of the moment. But in this connection, perhaps, these Pupils’ Programs, taken at random, may be of interest.”

The programs mentioned are as follows:—

Massenet Program.
Seven American girls in this recital, accompanied by the composer.

L’Ame des Oiseaux, Les Femmes de Magdala, Le sais-tu? Bonne nuit, Alleluia du “Cid,” Printemps de “Cendrillon,” Le petit Jésus (poésie de G. Boyer), Ouvre tes yeux bleus, Ave Maria (Méditation de Thaïs), Puisqu’elle a pris ma vie, Le Crépuscule, Les Oiselets, Air de “Marie Magdeleine,” Les Enfants (poésie de G. Boyer), Sérénade du Passant, Chant Provençal, Regrets de Manon, Elégie, Souvenez-vous (poésie de G. Boyer), Colombine, Première danse, Air de “Marie Magdeleine,” Nöel Païen.

Cours d’opéra.
Air et Duo (St. Sulpice) “Manon,” Air “d’Hérodiade” (Il est doux), Pensées d’Automne,” Air du “Cid” Pleurez mes yeux, Duo de “Sapho,” Les Larmes de “Werther,” Air “d’Hérodiade” (Ne me refuse pas), Scène de “Werther.”

Vidal and Lenepveu Program.
Four American girls in this recital, accompanied by the composers.

Compositions of Paul Vidal: — Les Gardenias, Printemps Nouveau, Cantique, Chant d’Exil, Air de “Saint-Georges,” “La Rose que tu m’as donnée,” Le Cœur fidéle, Duo de “Guernica,” La Chanson de l’Arquebusier.

Compositions of Ch. Lenepveu:— Duo—Méditation, Arioso et Extase de “Jeanne d’Arc,” Boléro, Deuil d’Avril, Nocturne — scéne “d’Hernani,” La Jeune Captive, Duo—“O doux printemps.”

Miscellaneous Program, No. 1.
Je t’aime, Grieg; Air des “Noces de Figaro,” Mozart; Valse du “Pardon de Ploërmel,” Meyerbeer; Viens mon bienaimé, Chaminade; Serenata, Tosti; Malgré moi, Pugno; Idylle, Haydn; Bergerette, Weckerlin; Qui brùla d’amour, Tschaikowski; Ava Maria, Schubert; Air du sommeil de “Psyché,” A. Thomas; Romance de “Gioconda,” Ponchielli; Romance de “Faust,” Gounod; Air de “Marie Magdeleine,” Massenet; Air “d’Haben-Hamet,” Dubois; Air du Sommeil de “l’Africaine,” Meyerbeer; Si mes vers avaient des ailes, Hahn; Loreley,Liszt; Der Nussbaum, Schumann; Canzonetta, Meyer-Helmund; Air “d’Idomeneo,” Mozart; Air de “Lucia,” Donizetti; Stances de “Sapho,” Gounod; Le Nil, Leroux; Pleurez mes yeux du “Cid,” Massenet; Pensée d’automne, Massenet; Plaisir d’amour, Martini.

Miscellaneous Program, No. 2.
La Source (Duetto da Camera), Marcello; Le Soir, A. Thomas; Biondina, Gounod; Santissima Vergine, Gordigiani; Nymphes et Sylvains, Bemberg; Fior che langue, Rotoli; Pur dicesti, Lotti; Le Nil, Leroux; Printemps Nouveau, Vidal; Prière (Jocelyn), Godard; Air du Page (Huguenots), Meyerbeer; Air de Guillaume Tell, Rossini; Air de Mireille, Gounod; D’un Cœur qui t’aime (duo), Gounod; Prière, Gounod; Berceuse, Wagner; Obstination, Fontenailles; L’Eté, Chaminade; Air de la Traviata, Verdi; Strophe Saphique, Brahms; Widmung, Schumann; Winterlied, Koss; Invocation à Vesta (Polyeucte), Gounod; Mignon, Gounod; Pensée de Printemps, Massenet; Chant d’Exil, Vidal; Alleluia (Cid), Massenet; Chanson du Papillon, Weckerlin; Wer machte Dich so krank, Schumann; Alte Laute,Schumann; Auftrâge, Schumann; Air du Mysoli, Félicien David; II passa, Bemberg; Les larmes (Werther), Massenet; In der Fremde, Schumann; Frühlnigsnacht, Schumann; Air des “Noces de Jeannette,” Victor Massé; Jeunes Fillettes, Weckerlin; Maman dites-moi, Weckerlin; Réveillez-vous, Godard.

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One thought on “Madame Marchesi – Some of her Teaching Principles

  1. Thank you for this article, Justin. It’s notable for several reasons, one of them being Marchesi’s account of García using lamplight and a mirror to see his own glottis because his throat was sore. Other accounts mention his first attempt as occurring in full sunlight. Of course, both may be true.

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