Monday 25 August 2014

The influence of recordings.

Maria Calla as Norma in 1954
Maria Calla as Norma in 1954
Before the invention of the recording, the only way to experience an artist performing was to go to hear or see them. Just imagine what it would be like only ever knowing an artist like Maria Callas by reputation. We are so used to living with recordings that we forget about what might be the effect on performers. A singer nowadays might not learn a new piece by listening to other singers, but they cannot help but be aware of them and of the way that they performed in a way which would be alien to a 19th century performer.

Pierre Lacotte's reconstruction of La Sylphide - photo Christian Leiber
Pierre Lacotte's reconstruction of La Sylphide
photo Christian Leiber
One thing that we have lost, with our culture of complete and eternal record, is the extraordinary complexity of our memories. Humans are capable of remarkable feats and in an age without recording equipment, people would be able to remember in far greater detail. An example of this from the parallel world of ballet is Pierre Lacotte's reconstruction in 1972 of Filippo Taglioni's ballet La Sylphide from the Paris Opera of 1832. On approaching older ballet dancers Lacotte found many remarkable repertoires of steps in their memories, taught them by their teachers. These were dancers from an age when recording ballet was impossible and a dancer could rely solely on their memory.

In such circumstances teachers become highly important, repositories for knowledge which is then passed on to pupils. The 19th century in particular can be traced through families of teachers so-and-so was a pupil of Tausig who was a pupil of Liszt. And whilst Liszt's pupils were a diverse bunch (there are recordings from 21 of them), the pupils of a teacher like Clara Schumann form quite a coherent group (we have recordings from five of them including Fanny Davies's recording of the Schumann piano concerto).

Manual Garcia the Younger, by John Singer Sargent
Manual Garcia the Younger
by John Singer Sargent
Liszt and Clara Schumann were teachers because they were famous performers, but a vocal teacher like Manuel Garcia the Younger (1805 - 1906), who was responsible for influencing whole generations of 19th century singers, was a teacher because of his great pedagogical skills. He was taught by his father, Manuel Garcia senior, and his sisters were the singers Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot. Some of Manuel Garcia the Younger's pupils became teachers. Mathilde Marchesi for instance went on to teach Nellie Melba, Emma Calve, Sibyl Sanderson and Emma Eames. And Jenny Lind, Christina Nilsson and Henry Wood were among Garcia's important pupils, in fact Wood became his accompanist. Again though, if we try to gain an insight into his methods by listening to surviving recordings they are so diverse that it is difficult to gain any firm impression.

But such lineages would have been important not only for pedagogy, but for information about other performers both past and present. An example of this is the soprano Adelina Patti. Born 1843, she came out of retirement in 1905 to make recordings, so that we can hear for ourselves what a late 19th century diva sounded like. Patti was managed from a young age by her sister's husband, Maurice Strakosch who was a pupil of Giuditta Pasta and also her accompanist. Strakosch trained Patti the way he had learned from Pasta. And Patti had created roles for Donizetti and Bellini, and had sung Zerlina in London within 25 years of Mozart's death. Now, we can make too much of such links, especially as Patti's recordings are of a style and freedom which is alien to today's performers. But it is well worth bearing in mind. (You can hear hear slightly alarming Casta Diva from Norma on YouTube, and her performance of Voi che sapete from Mozart Le nozze di Figaro is below).

I got much of the above information from John Potter and Neil Sorrell's invaluable book, A History of Singing, and they also illuminate another point. The way recordings themselves have changed the way we sing. For much of the 19th century, despite the rise in the amount of control composers had, performers retained a rather flexible attitude to the notes themselves. In a society without a fixed record, aural transmission was important which brings us back to the chains of information through teachers. Only in the 20th century was it possible to put on a recording and hear how so-and-so performed the music. This has had the effect of rather fixing the music. Notes have become settled and singers less inclined to sing with a freedom.

But whilst notes have become fixed, performing styles have I suspect rather widened. If a performer can hear a wide variety of other performers, then there is greater freedom to choose. Perhaps this isn't a big point but it seems one which might benefit from further research, are the performers of today more or less diverse in style than those 150 years ago?

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