Delsarte


By Camille Saint-Saens.

Felix Duquesnal in one of his brilliant articles has written something about Delsarte, the singer, in connection with his controversy with Madame Carvalho. The cause of this controversy was the lessons she took from him. The name of Delsarte should never be forgotten, as I shall try to explain. Madame Carvalho did not refuse to pay Delsarte for her lessons, but she did not want to be called his pupil. Although she had attended the Conservatoire, she wanted to be known solely as a pupil of Duprez. As a matter of fact it was Duprez who knew how to make the “Little Miolan,” the delightful warbler, into the great singer with her important place on the French stage.

But this was accomplished at a price. Madame Carvalho told me about it herself. Her medium register was weak and Duprez undertook to substitute chest tones and develop clearness as much as possible. “When I began to work,” she said, “my mother was frightened. One would have thought that a calf was being killed in the house.”

Ordinarily such a method would produce a harsh, shaky voice and all freshness would be lost. But in Madame Carvalho’s case the opposite was true. The freshness and purity of her voice were beyond compare, while its smoothness and the harmony of the registers were perfect. It was a miracle the like of which we shall probably never see again.

But if Duprez made a wonderful voice at the risk of breaking it, I have always thought that Madame Carvalho owed her admirable diction, so distinguishing a mark of her talent, to Delsarte. Delsarte was a disastrous and deadly teacher of singing. No voice could stand up under his methods, not even his own, although he attributed its loss to teaching at the Conservatoire. But he studied deeply the arts of speaking and gesture, and he was masterly in them.

I once attended a course he gave in these subjects. He stated highly illuminating truths and gave the psychological reasons for accents and the physiological reasons for the gestures. He determined the use of gestures in some sort of scientific way. Mystic fancies were mixed up in these questions.

It was extremely interesting to see him dissect one of Fontaine’s fables or a passage from Racine, and to hear him explain why the accent should be on such a word or on such a syllable and not on another, to bring out the sense. Although this course was so instructive, few took it, for Delsarte was almost unknown to people. His influence scarcely extended outside a narrow circle of admirers, but the quality made up for the quantity. This was the circle of the old Debats, which was formerly devoted exclusively to Romanticism, but at this time to the classics—the set headed by Ingres in painting and Reber in music.  Theirs was a secluded and ascetic world in silent revolt against the abominations of the century. One had to hear the tone of devotion in which the members of this circle spoke of the ancients to appreciate their attitude. Nothing in our day can give any idea of them. “They say,” one of the devotees once told me, “that the ancients learned Beauty through a sort of revelation, and Beauty has steadily degenerated ever since.”

Such false notions were, however, professed by the most sincere people who were deeply devoted to art. So this group, which had no influence on their own contemporaries, nevertheless, without knowing it or wishing to do so, played a useful role.

As we know, the public was divided into two camps. On one side were the partisans of Melody, opera-comique, the Italians, and, with some effort, of grand opera. Opposed to them were the partisans of music in the grand style—Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and Sebastian Bach, although he was little known and is less well known now.

No one gave a thought to our old French school, to the composers from Lulli to Gluck, who produced so many excellent works. Reber showed Delsarte the way and the latter, naturally an antiquarian, threw himself into this unexplored field with surprising vigor. Only Lulli’s name was known, while Campra, Mondonville and the others were entirely forgotten. Even Gluck himself had been forgotten. First editions of his orchestral scores, which it is impossible to find to-day, sold for a few francs at the second-hand book shops. Rameau was never mentioned.

Delsarte, handsome, eloquent, and fascinating, wielded an almost imperial sway over his little coterie of artists. Thanks to him the lamp of our old French school was kept dimly burning until the day when inherent justice permitted it to be revived. In this restricted world no evening was complete without Delsarte. He would come in with some story of frightful throat trouble to justify his chronic lack of voice, and, then, without any voice at all but by a kind of magic, would put shudders into the tones of Orpheus or Eurydice. I often played his accompaniments and he always demanded pianissimo.

“But,” I would say, “the author has indicated forte.”

“That is true,” he would answer, “but in those days the harpsichord had little depth of tone.”

It would have been easy to answer that the accompaniment was written for the orchestra and not for the harpsichord.

Delsarte’s execution, on account of the insufficiency of his vocal powers, was often entirely different from what the author intended.  Furthermore, he was absolutely ignorant of the correct way to interpret the appogiatures and other marks which are not used to-day. As a result his interpretation of the older works was inexact. But that did not matter, for even if masterpieces are presented badly, there is always something left. Besides, both the singer and his hearers had Faith. He had a way of pronouncing “Gluck” which aroused expectation even before one heard a note.

From time to time Delsarte gave a concert. He would come on the stage and say that he had a bad throat, but that he would try to give Iphigenia’s Dream or something of that sort. His courage would prove to be greater than his strength and he would have to stop. He would then fall back on old-time songs or La Fontaine’s fables in which he excelled. A skillfully studied mimicry, which seemed entirely natural, underlay his reading. A red handkerchief, which he knew how to draw from his pocket at just the proper moment, always excited applause.

One day he conceived the idea of giving one of Bossuet’s sermons at his concert. Religious authority was very powerful at the time and forbade it. Yet there would have been no sacrilege, and I regretted keenly that I could not hear this magnificent prose delivered so wonderfully. Now that religious authority has lost its secular support, we see things in an entirely different way. Christ, the Virgin, and the Saints walk the stage, speak in prose or verse, and sing. It would seem that no one is shocked for there is no protest. For my own part I must frankly confess that such pseudo-religious exhibitions are disagreeable. They disturb me greatly and I can see no use in them.

 

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In order to foster admiration for the old masters, Delsarte conceived the idea of publishing a collection of pieces taken from their works right and left, and, as a result, he created his Archives du Chant. He had special type made and the publication was a marvel of beautiful typography, correctness and good taste. At the beginning of each part was a cleverly harmonised passage of church music. The support of a publisher was necessary for the success of such a work, but Delsarte was his own publisher and he met with no success at all. Similar but inferior publications have been markedly successful.

Delsarte aimed at purity of text, but his successors have been forced to modernize the works to make them accessible for the public. This fact is painful. In literature the texts are studied and the endeavor is to reproduce the writer’s thought as closely as possible. In music it is entirely different. With each new edition a professor is commissioned to supervise the work and he adds something of his own invention.

Delsarte, a singer without a voice, an imperfect musician, a doubtful scholar, guided by an intuition which approached genius, in spite of his numerous faults played an important role in the evolution of French music in the Nineteenth Century. He was no ordinary man. The impression he gave to all who knew him was of a visionary, an apostle. When one heard him speak with his fiery enthusiasm about these works of the past which the world had forgotten, one could but believe that such oblivion was unjust and desire to know these relics of another age.

Without the shadow of a doubt I owed to his leadership the necessary courage to make a profound study of the works of the old school, for they are unattractive at first. Berlioz berated all this music. He had seen Gluck’s works on the stage in his youth, but he could see nothing in them that was not “superannuated and childish.” With all respect to Berlioz’s memory, it deserved a kinder judgment than that. When one reaches the depths of this music, although it may be at the price of some effort, he is well repaid for his pains. There is real feeling, grandeur and even something of the picturesque in these works—as much as could be with the means at their disposal.

It is only right that we should pay tribute to Delsarte’s memory. He was a pioneer who, during his whole life, proclaimed the value of immortal works, which the world despised. That is no slight merit.



 

 

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