photo of Rosa Ponselle as Reiza in Oberon

Of course my account of “the vocal scene” is not by the late George Jellinek—that cultured gentleman of Hungarian background.  He had an extensive, even encyclopedic knowledge of the history of singing.  His presentations of The Vocal Scene were the best things of their kind I have ever heard or heard about, and those were not the only services to this country that Jellinek performed.

But since we have to survive without George Jellinek (1919-2010)—at least for a while—then we would need to know something to restore the sense of perspective that he exuded.  We would have to know something to give us what we miss in his absence from the old WQXR, broadcast from New York City, or his syndicated shows.  Things have changed as the ideals of music have shifted and the financing of musical access has been rewritten.  Toward the end of his career, Jellinek declared that not only was he becoming older, but his audience was, as well.  He was a realist and could see where things were heading before we experienced them and lived them out—and here I am thinking of the changing status of music and its presentation on disc and on the radio and the Internet, as well as in the recital hall and the opera house.

We can hardly fail to understand at least something about the implications of George Jellinek’s biography of Maria Callas (Portrait of a Prima Donna, 1960) and of another volume on history as refracted on the operatic stage (History Through the Opera Glass, 1994).  In the one case, we have an account of a great singer lacking a flawless voice, and in the other, a demonstration of opera’s displacement of history and legend, as we first knew it in mythology, in epic poetry, and in tragedy.  Jellinek declared that his favorite opera was Verdi’s Schiller-derived Don Carlo, a judicious choice indeed.  But that imposing work provokes two other thoughts besides the one about the various versions.  One is to consider the effects of that provocative work when Rudolf Bing and the New York Metropolitan Opera presented it as mounted for Jussi Björling and others in 1950.  There were bitter demonstrations and protests in the modern city against an anticlerical libretto that dated back more than a century and a half before.  Another thought is to recall that there is another Don Carlo in the Verdian oeuvre, one also derived from the drama of a formidable Romantic writer, in Ernani.

But perhaps at this point, we may reflect also on the implications of Jellinek’s extensive knowledge of music, or even on our own modest attainments in that regard.  I mean to say that the function of memory itself is a bit slippery and even deceptive.  I once asked a performer about the security of her memory on stage and whether that was ever a concern.  Her answer was a firm “No!”  She said that if a player learns a piece, studies it and practices it, then it is already memorized—there is no separate practice of “memorization.”  And this made sense to me.  After all, for the musician, there are multiple channels of funneling the experience of music: in the eye through the score; in the ear through the sound; and in the fingers or really in the brain, as practice requires.  But then I thought again and realized that musicians are not the only ones who absorb music into their memory—we mere listeners do that as well.  And why should we not, and how could we not?  For if verse is a mnemonic device, then music is also, and even more so—it is a memory-creating and self-justifying system.  And if it is not, it is a failure and it “dies”—it disappears from memory.

Memory is arbitrary—often we cannot choose what we remember or what we don’t.  I remember the scene but not the substance in which I provoked a certain lady—one who herself had impressive powers of memory—who asked me how I could have possibly remembered something that now I have forgotten.  My reply was as obvious as it was true: The reason I remembered was simply because I couldn’t forget—then.

All of us have memories of music going back even to early childhood: the first recording that you paid attention to, music from your parents’ radio and the car radio, enjoyable music from the popular realm.  After early years of violin study and chamber music, the young George Jellinek was overwhelmed by his discovery of opera, and suddenly he couldn’t get enough of it.  In two seasons in Budapest, he saw 300 stagings!  Surely that was a base upon which he constructed a system of memories, and he began collecting rare recordings that wound up in museums and libraries.  For his cultural services, Jellinek was internationally recognized.

Internationally unrecognized, I have nevertheless had some gratifying musical memories, reinforced by repetitions going on for a lifetime.  One of the best ones was recognizing the aria “O sommo Carlo” as it emerges from Liszt’s second paraphrase of Verdi’s Ernani.  And when I did recognize that gorgeousness, it was being sight-read on a grand piano by a man himself named Carlo—Carlo Lombardi—and he was a “sommo Carlo” himself, as well.  That’s saying a lot, because the original phrase was addressed to the legendary Charlemagne, and that by the King of Spain who would become the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

The enduring presence of Charles V asserts itself more often than we remark upon it.  Edgar Allan Poe’s citation of Hernani in “The Masque of the Red Death: A Fantasy” (1842) was written with a consciousness of Victor Hugo’s Romantic drama of 1830, not of Verdi’s derivation of 1844—but the awareness of Charles V (1500-58), both King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, was already there in the French original, set in 1519.  There is a presence of the Emperor in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus of 1594, and leaping ahead in centuries, a pointed and historically accurate reference in Chapter 13 of The Maltese Falcon (“The Emperor’s Gift”) by Dashiell Hammett.  We must admit that the Emperor does get around.  His name is not explicitly stated in the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays, but the puns on the Diet of Worms in Act IV, Scene 3, of Hamlet do insistently evoke the Emperor, Charles V.  The Verdian treatment of Schiller’s work obscurely shows a monk at the end—possibly Philip’s father, the retired Charles V—who keeps Don Carlo from the Inquisition.  And that is not the only connection between Ernani and Don Carlo.

But a musical need as well as a particular memory keep me from allowing my disregard for Hugo’s play Hernani to discredit the highly pleasing opera that Verdi made of it.  There is a lot of musical substance that is written unforgettably for the tenor, baritone, bass, soprano, and chorus, perhaps the most obvious being Elvira’s first aria, “Ernani, involami,” a great challenge to the soprano, one which was interpreted by its first listeners—I think wrongly—as an allegory of the emotions of the Risorgimento.  Some of the greatest of singers have left their recordings of “Ernani, involami,” but I think that the bass’s aria from that same first act has also been sung in a way that we cannot part with.  I refer to Boris Christoff’s version of “Infelice!  E tu credevi,” and I have to mention that it is easily accessed on YouTube.  I never heard better singing in my life—what more can I say?  Only that Christoff as Silva must be heard with full attention, all the way until the silence after the last sound, before the cabaletta—and you will know why I say this when you experience it for yourself.

But that reminds me: To hear if not behold Elvira confronted with the three male voice-types is quite a treat for the ears, and over a century ago, there had been so many recordings of the parts of Ernani that it was the first Verdi opera to be recorded completely.  And it has continued to be recorded since then, of course, so that Ernani would do as well as just about any other work to expand one’s awareness of the great voices of the past—the Vocal Scene, indeed.

We can surely point to certain names as being foundational and hardly subject to dispute.  Among baritones, for example, there would be “the Voice of the Lion,” Titta Ruffo, whose sobriquet says much about his powerful sound.  And you would have missed even more if you never heard Mattia Battistini, who was considered by many to represent the best practices of the 19th century as they faded away.  I will add that Americans have long been outstanding baritones: Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, Sherrill Milnes, and Thomas Hampson have had few equals.

The tenor Enrico Caruso is referred to as the most famous of singers, even today.  His successor, Beniamino Gigli, had a distinctive voice and a beautiful one.  When Gigli’s career ended, Jussi Björling took up the slack.  But a name like Lauritz Melchior reminds us that there are different sorts of tenors with distinctive repertoires.  Tito Schipa and Alfredo Kraus remind us of idiosyncratic possibilities and even charm.

As for the ladies, Rosa Ponselle was all by herself.  Kirsten Flagstad showed that the affinities of the sopranos are as distinctive as the identities of the tenors.  Some think that Maria Callas was really a mezzo, and others that she was a singing actress.  Shirley Verrett was a fine mezzo who then sang heroic soprano roles.  And we could continue with examples, but the point is, the violin and the piano and the French horn notwithstanding, the human voice is the best of instruments—the one we need the most.  We can never be satisfied, too far away from the sound of the trained and focused voice.  And when that sound is denied us, as it is in popular culture today, then we must take measures—by any means necessary.  If that means watching out for Charles V and listening to Ernani, then so be it.