Famous Singers of To-day and Yesterday - Part 2

Part 2

Madame Grisi, who made her debut in 1823, and held her place as one of the greatest singers for many years, was the daughter of an Italian officer of engineers, and her mother's sister was the once celebrated Gra.s.sini, a contemporary of Mrs. Billington and Madame Mara.

Giulietta Grisi, as a child, was too delicate to receive any musical training; but her ambition caused her to learn the pianoforte by her own efforts, and her imitation of her sister Giuditta's vocal exercises indicated to her family the bent of her tastes.

In due course she entered the conservatoire in her native town, and was later sent to her Uncle Ragani at Bologna, where, for three years, she was under the instruction of Giacomo Guglielmi. Gradually the beautiful quality of her voice began to manifest itself. She was remarkably apt and receptive, and profited by her masters to an extraordinary degree.

For three months she studied under Filippo Celli, and in 1828 she made her debut in Rossini's "Elmira." Rossini was delighted with her, and the director of the theatre immediately engaged her for the carnival season.

The career thus auspiciously commenced, continued for more than a quarter of a century, during which time Grisi delighted audiences throughout the whole of Europe, and made a tour, with Mario, of the United States.

The production of Bellini's last opera, "I Puritani," in 1834, was one of the greatest musical events of the age, not solely on account of the work, but because of the very remarkable quartet which embodied the princ.i.p.al characters,--Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini, and Lablache. This quartet continued in its perfection for several years, with the subst.i.tution later of Mario for Rubini, and was one of the most notable and interesting in the history of operatic music.

Giulietta Grisi's womanly fascinations made havoc among that large cla.s.s who become easily enamored of the G.o.ddesses of the theatre, and she was the object of many pa.s.sionate addresses. She married in 1836 a French gentleman of fortune, M. Auguste Gerard de Melcy, but she did not retire. This marriage was unhappy, and after her release from it by divorce she became the wife of Mario, the great tenor.

Grisi united much of the n.o.bleness and tragic inspiration of Pasta, with something of the fire and energy of Malibran; but, in the minds of the most capable judges, she lacked the creative originality which stamped each of the former two artists. Her dramatic instincts were strong and vehement, lending something of her own personality to the copy of another's creation, and her voice as nearly reached perfection as any ever bestowed on a singer.

Madame Grisi continued before the public until 1866, although her powers were failing rapidly. In 1869 she died of inflammation of the lungs.

From the year 1834, when she made her debut at the King's Theatre, London, until 1861, when she retired from the Royal Italian Opera, Grisi missed only one season in London, that of 1842. It was a rare thing indeed that illness or any other cause prevented her from fulfilling her engagements. She seldom disappointed the public by her absence, and never by her singing. Altogether her artistic life lasted about thirty-five years. During sixteen successive years she sang, during the season, at the Theatre des Italiens in Paris, her engagements there beginning in 1832 with her appearance as Semiramide.

Both Grisi and her husband, Mario, were much admired by the Czar Nicholas of Russia, and it is said that the Czar, meeting Grisi one day walking with her children, stopped and said facetiously, "I see, these are the pretty Grisettes." "No," replied Grisi, "these are my Marionettes." Mario, too, is said to have been asked by the Czar to cut his beard in order to the better look one of his parts. This he declined to do, even when the Czarina, fearing that he might become a victim of the Czar's displeasure, added her request. But Mario declared that it was better to incur the displeasure of the Czar than to lose his voice, saying that if they did not like him with his beard, upon which he relied for the protection of his voice, they surely would not like him without his voice.

During the height of their prosperity, Grisi and Mario lived in princely extravagance. Their family consisted of six daughters, of whom three died quite young, and they were enthusiastically devoted to one another.

Giambattista Rubini, who was for years a.s.sociated with Grisi, was a native of Bergamo, where he made his debut at the age of twelve in a woman's part, sitting afterwards at the door of the theatre between two candles, and holding a plate into which the public deposited their offerings. During his early life he belonged to several wandering companies, in which he filled the position of second tenor; but in 1814, at the age of nineteen years, he was singing in Pavia for a salary of about nine dollars a month. Before the end of his career he was paid 20,000 a year for his services at the St. Petersburg Imperial Opera.

Rubini's countenance was mean, his figure awkward, and he had no conception of taste, character, or picturesque effect; but his voice was so incomparable in range and quality, his musical equipment and skill so great, that his memory is one of the greatest traditions of lyric art.

Like so many of the great singers of his time, Rubini first gained his reputation in the operas of Bellini and Donizetti, and many of the tenor parts of these works were composed expressly for him. The immense power, purity, and sweetness of his voice have probably never been surpa.s.sed, and its compa.s.s was of two octaves, from C in the ba.s.s clef.

He could also sing in falsetto as high as treble F, and with such skill that no one could detect the change into the falsetto.

Rubini died in 1852, leaving one of the largest fortunes ever ama.s.sed on the stage.

Another member of the celebrated "Puritani" quartet was Antonio Tamburini, a native of Faenze. Without any single commanding trait of genius, he seems, with the exception of Lablache, to have combined more attractive qualities than any male singer who ever appeared. He was handsome and graceful, and a master of the art of stage costume. His voice, a baritone of over two octaves in extent, was full, round, sonorous, and perfectly equal throughout. His execution was unsurpa.s.sed and unsurpa.s.sable, of a kind which at the present day is well-nigh obsolete, and is a.s.sociated in the public mind with sopranos and tenors only.

An amusing instance of Tamburini's versatility was shown at Palermo during the carnival season of 1822, when the audience attended the theatre armed with drums, trumpets, shovels, and anything that would make a noise. Tamburini, being unable to make his ba.s.so heard, sang his music in falsetto, an accomplishment which so delighted the audience that they laid aside their instruments of torture, and applauded enthusiastically. The prima donna, however, was so enraged and frightened by the rough behavior of the audience that she fled from the theatre, and the manager was at his wit's end. Tamburini donned the fugitive's satin dress, clapped her bonnet over his wig, and appeared on the stage with a mincing step. He sang the soprano score so admirably, burlesquing the action of the prima donna, but showing far greater powers of execution than she possessed, that his hearers were captivated. He did not shirk even the duets, but sang the woman's part in falsetto, and his own in his natural voice.

He retired in 1859, and died at Nice in 1876.

Luigi Lablache, the ba.s.so of the "Puritani" quartet, is considered by many authorities to have been the greatest artist among men that ever appeared in opera. In stature he was a giant, and we are told that one of his boots would make a good portmanteau or one of his gloves would clothe an infant. His strength was enormous, and his voice magnificent; the vibration thereof was so tremendous that it was dangerous for him to sing in a greenhouse, though why this particular danger is noted must be left to conjecture, for there is no record in history to show that it was customary or essential to sing in greenhouses.

Anecdotes of Lablache's generosity and n.o.ble character are plentiful, and there are some also which show that he was a lover of good jokes. Of these, perhaps the following is the most amusing. Once when the "Puritani" quartet was in Paris, Lablache was quartered at the same hotel as General Tom Thumb, who was delighting audiences at a vaudeville. An English tourist, who was making strenuous efforts to meet Tom Thumb, burst into the great ba.s.so's apartment, but seeing such a giant, hesitated, and apologized, saying that he was looking for Tom Thumb. "I am he," said Lablache, in his deepest tones. The Englishman, taken flat aback, exclaimed: "But you were much smaller when I saw you on the stage yesterday." "Yes," replied Lablache; "that is how I have to appear, but when I get home to my own rooms I let myself out and enjoy myself," and he proceeded to entertain his visitor.

In his student days Lablache was so dominated by the desire to appear on the stage that he ran away from the conservatorium no less than five times, each time being caught and brought back in disgrace. On one occasion he engaged himself to sing at Salerno for fifteen ducats a month, and received a month's pay in advance. He lingered two days in Naples and spent his money, apparently also disposing of most of his clothes. As he could not well appear at Salerno without luggage, he filled his portmanteau with sand, and set forth. A couple of days later he was captured by the vice-president of the conservatorium, and taken back to Naples. The impresario hastened to make good his loss by seizing the portmanteau, which, however, proved to be very disappointing.

After Lablache made his first appearance in opera his fame grew rapidly, and in a few years had reached colossal proportions. Among the honors which fell to his lot was that of being music teacher to Queen Victoria. His death, which occurred in 1858, drew forth expressions of regret from all parts of Europe, for it was felt that in Lablache the world of song had lost one of its brightest lights.

Mario, who followed Rubini as tenor in the celebrated "Puritani"

quartet, was more closely connected with the career of Madame Grisi than any other singer, for he became her husband. His proper t.i.tle was Mario, Cavaliere di Candia; but, in order to soothe the family pride, he was known on the stage by his Christian name only. When he first went to Paris, in 1836, he held a commission in a Piedmontese regiment. The fascinating young Italian officer was welcomed in the highest circles, for his splendid physical beauty, and his art-talents as an amateur in music, painting, and sculpture, separated him from all others, even in a throng of brilliant and accomplished men. In Paris he fell into debt, and, having a beautiful voice, he accepted the proposition of Duponchel, the manager of the opera, and entered upon stage life. Though his singing was very imperfect and amateurish, his princely beauty and delicious, fresh voice took the musical public by storm.

Mario will live in the world's memory as the best opera-lover ever seen.

In such scenes as the fourth act of "Les Huguenots," and the last act of "Favorita," Mario's singing and acting were never to be forgotten by those that witnessed them. Intense pa.s.sion and highly finished vocal delicacy combined to make these pictures of melodious suffering indelible. As a singer of romances he has never been equalled; in those songs where music tells the story of pa.s.sion, in broad, intelligible, ardent phrases, and presents itself primarily as the vehicle of violent emotion, Mario stood ahead of all others of his age. For a quarter of a century he remained before the public of Paris, London, and St.

Petersburg, but he did not finally retire until 1867.

The story of Mario's life reads like a romance. At times he was steeped in the depths of poverty; at others, he enjoyed great wealth and lived in princely style. Shortly after his first arrival in Paris, he found himself deeply in debt, and so poor that he was obliged to sleep in a very cheap lodging-house where several people occupied one room. One night he awoke and found a man kneeling over him, to rob him. "What do you want?" asked Mario. "Your money," was the reply. "Take all you can find, my friend," answered Mario, "but please let me continue my dreams and my sleep."

Mario was as careless in regard to time as to money. It is related that once upon a time he arrived half an hour early, to keep an appointment.

n.o.body was more surprised than Mario himself, and, after investigation, he discovered that he had mistaken eleven o'clock for five minutes to twelve, and would have been the customary half hour late if his calculations had been correct.

Mario had a particular aversion to writing letters, and when he received an invitation from some person of high degree he would frequently say, "Oh, I will write to-morrow," and Mario's to-morrow was the proverbial one which never came. He was nevertheless kind and thoughtful for every one, and to his personal graces and charms he owes his reputation as much as to his art, for he was always more or less of an amateur. His wonderful gifts were not developed by study, like the equally wonderful voice of Rubini, who surpa.s.sed in this respect every tenor before or after.

As an instance of the admiration in which Mario was held by the fair s.e.x, we are told that a certain lady followed him wherever he sang. She never spoke to him, never tried to press herself upon him, but never missed a performance in any part of the world in which he sang, except on three occasions when she was prevented by sickness. This continued for a period of forty years.

Like all men of similar disposition, Mario was subject to fits of wild, unreasoning jealousy, and his domestic life with Grisi was not always of the smoothest nature, though there was absolutely no cause for jealousy on either side. On one occasion, Mario is said to have worked himself up into such a state of excitement that he smashed everything in the room.

Grisi, too, once reached so great a depth of despair that she rushed out to drown herself. A fleet-footed friend followed her, and reached her just as she was preparing to make the final plunge. All kinds of arguments were used to turn her from her purpose, but in vain, until her rescuer pictured to her how dirty and muddy she would look when taken out of the river. This argument prevailed, and the prima donna deferred her demise.

In spite of the large amount of money earned by Mario, he retired from the stage a poor man. His improvidence was magnificent. Twice the public subscribed for his needs, and once, the old unthriftiness about him still, he flung away his capital and was royally penniless again.

At Rome, in which city he spent his last days, he was given the post of curator of the Museum; but the glory of his past still adhered to him, and he was surrounded by a host of admirers, who enjoyed hearing the old man talk about his adventures. He died, in 1883, in the arms of Signor Augusto Rotoli. His life had been triumphant beyond the lot of all but the most fortunate, and the memory he left was singularly kind and beautiful.

A memorandum, published at the time of Mario's retirement, states that during his career he gave, in London alone, 935 performances, of which 225 were in operas of Donizetti, 170 Meyerbeer, 143 Rossini, 112 Verdi, 82 Bellini, 70 Gounod, and 68 Mozart, the remaining 65 performances being operas of seven other composers.



Contemporary with Sontag, Malibran, and Grisi, was Madame Schroder-Devrient, who was one of the earliest and greatest interpreters of German opera. Though others have surpa.s.sed her in vocal resources, she stands high in the list of operatic tragediennes, and for a long time reigned supreme in her art. Her deep sensibilities and dramatic instincts, her n.o.ble elocution and stately beauty, fitted her admirably for tragedy, in which she was unrivalled except by Pasta. Her voice was a mellow soprano, which, though not specially flexible, united softness with volume and compa.s.s. Her stage career began at the age of six, but she was seventeen when she made her debut in opera. Her highest triumph was achieved as Leonora in the "Fidelio."

Her marriage with M. Devrient, a tenor singer whom she met in Dresden, did not turn out happily. Madame Devrient retired in 1849, having ama.s.sed a considerable fortune by her professional efforts. Her retirement occasioned much regret throughout Germany, and the Emperor Francis I. paid her the unusual compliment of having her portrait painted in all her princ.i.p.al characters, and placed in the Imperial Museum. She died in 1860 at Cologne, and the following year a marble bust was placed in the opera house at Berlin.

Madame Devrient must be cla.s.sed with that group of dramatic singers who were the interpreters of the school of music which arose in Germany after the death of Mozart, and which found its characteristic type in Carl Maria Von Weber, for Beethoven, who on one side belongs to this school, rather belongs to the world, than to a single nationality.

f.a.n.n.y Persiani, who was contemporary with Grisi and Viardot, was the daughter of Tacchinardi, a tenor singer of no small reputation.

Tacchinardi was a dwarf, hunchbacked and repulsive in appearance, yet he had one of the purest tenor voices ever given by nature and refined by art, which, together with extraordinary intelligence and admirable method of singing, and great facility of execution, elicited for him the admiration of the public.

His daughter f.a.n.n.y showed a pa.s.sion for music almost as an infant, and was carefully trained by her father. At eleven years of age she took part in an opera as prima donna at a little theatre which Tacchinardi had built near his country-place just out of Florence. She had a voice of immense compa.s.s, to which sweetness and flexibility were added by study and practice. She married Joseph Persiani, an operatic composer, at the age of twelve, for her father did not wish her to go on the stage, and thought that an early marriage would change her tastes. For several years she lived in seclusion at her husband's house; but at last an opportunity offered to sing in opera, and she was unable to resist it. Madame Persiani belonged to the same style as Sontag, not only in character of voice but in all her sympathies and affinities. Moscheles, in his diary, speaks of the incredible technical difficulties which she overcame, and compares her performance with that of a violinist, for she could execute the most florid, rapid, and difficult music with such ease as to excite the wonder of her hearers. Aside from her wonderful executive art in singing, Madame Persiani will be remembered as having contributed, perhaps, more than any other singer to making the music of Donizetti popular. Her death occurred in 1867.

The name of Jenny Lind will be remembered when Malibran, Grisi, and many of the greatest singers have sunk into oblivion, because of her good works. Besides being one of the few perfect singers of the century, her life was characterized by deep religious principles and innumerable charitable works, of which not the least was the use of the fortune of over $100,000, which she made during her American tour, in founding art scholarships and other charities in Sweden, her native land.

Jenny Lind was born in 1820 at Stockholm, and was the daughter of poor but educated parents, her father being a teacher of languages and her mother a schoolmistress.

From her cradle she showed the greatest delight in music, and at the age of three she could sing with accuracy any song that she had heard. Her musical education began at the age of nine; but, notwithstanding the brilliant career predicted for her by her friends, her life for many years was a history of patient hard work and crushing disappointments.

When she was presented by her singing teacher to Count Pucke, the director of the court theatre at Stockholm, with a view to getting her admitted to the school of music connected with it, she made no impression on him, and it was only by great persuasion that he could be induced to accept her.

In this theatre she appeared in child's parts while scarcely in her teens, but when she was about thirteen years old her voice suddenly failed. She continued patiently with her other musical studies, and in four or five years her voice returned as suddenly as it had left her.