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Tenor: History of a Voice 1

a year on…

My tenor book has been out for year now, so I thought it a good time to look back at some of the fascinating responses that have come my way since publication. To avoid a mega-long post this will be split into two, with the second following shortly.

Press has been gratifyingly good (the selection of reviews at The Omnivore will give you a flavour). Several reviewers pointed to a couple of howlers, the most embarrassing being my aside that ‘Di Quella pira’ is from Tell (it’s actually Trovatore). Wrong composer and wrong work is pretty comprehensive; I must have been on another planet for that one. And I had James Joyce and John McCormack meeting in 1829, which would have surprised their grandfathers. But some of the most interesting responses have come directly from readers, many of whom are far more knowledgeable than I am about certain aspects of the topic, and who have generously shared their thoughts.

Many people wrote in  suggesting other tenors that I should have looked at. The Tenorography (or Biographical List of Tenors as Yale insisted on calling it) seems to have been greatly appreciated by most readers but there will always be favourite tenors who slip through the net. I do hope the suggestions will keep coming (and they’ll all be acknowledged in any later edition).The original suggestion (from my son Ned, who did much of the initial work on it) was to make it into a wiki, so that it would become an ever-growing resource that anyone could contribute to. We eventually realised the manpower implications of this, and opted instead for an online pdf that I would update from time to time. I’m looking forward to doing a major revision when I leave the University of York this summer, and in the meantime you can find it on Yale UP’s site or various online pdf viewers such as pdphone

I shall certainly be adding all those that readers have suggested. Barry Cave was disappointed that I hadn’t included Welsh tenor Arthur Davies;  Peter Richards pointed out that I’d overlooked Rudolf Schock, and Stuart Tarbuck drew my attention to the problems of pinning down the origins of singers called Calleja. There were several careless mistakes apart from the Verdi and McCormack horrors : Jonathan Ansell sang with G4 and not Il Divo as Pat Matthews pointed out, and Larry Lustig reminded me that his indispensible publication is THE Record Collector (the omission of the definite article risking confusion with a much less edifying magazine). Steven Ziegler drew my attention to YouTube examples of the famous Bellini high F (and tactfully didn’t mention that I misspelt his name in the English fashion on page 215). With similar tact, Michael Bott hinted that Gillis Bratt, the teacher of Joseph Hislop, may not have been a pupil of Garcia (he wasn’t…). Some people simply didn’t agree with some of my judgements (Chris McQuaid thought I overrated Domingo and several reviewers thought I over-estimated the talents of Andrea Bocelli).  There were, inevitably, all sorts of typos – a particular risk when dealing with so many languages.  I should have run the text past my German and Italian friends, and I have to thank Thomas Schreiber and Franco Viciani for drawing my attention to several infelicities which I hope to put right in a future edition.

One thing that was difficult to put in the book without sounding too personally anecdotal was my own encounters with some of these great singers. As a chorister at King’s College Cambridge I spent most days of the week singing with two extraordinary tenors, Brian Head and Robert Tear. Both were lyrical and inspirational singers, and  hearing them I naturally assumed I’d become a tenor myself (which, in due course, I did). While I was there the choir recorded the St John Passion. I was about 12 and unsure of who was who, and I strode up to Benjamin Britten and asked, can I have your autograph please Mr Pears…I later got to have the odd lesson with Peter Pears and later still sang with him at Aldbrough, sharing the arias in Handel’s L’Allegro.  Around the same time  I had a close encounter with Richard Lewis.  I sang in the choir at a memorial service in St Brides Feet Street (I think), possibly for a poet, and probably in the late 70s. The great tenor was due to sing an aria but was a bit out of sorts and asked if I’d stand on the end of Cantoris men and put in his top C just in case.  A terrifying experience, but one you don’t forget. More recently I’ve taken part in a BBC TV documentary with the amazing Rolando Villazon, but more about that on another occasion.

The second part of this post will bring together three readers with whom I have ongoing correspondence: my old friend Franco Viciani on Italian tenors of his acquaintance, Larry Josefovitz on Louis Danto and the Cantorial tradition, and Marjan Kiepura on his illustrious forbears.

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5 Responses to “Tenor: History of a Voice 1”

  1. Phil Ventura says:

    Boy, tenors. What a topic! Like encompassing the history of the world, I should think.

  2. John Potter says:

    The world after a certain point! But yes, it’s a huge topic and I only reckon to encompass bits of it (some in more detail than others).

  3. Larry Josefovitz says:

    I’m grateful a few comments on a book I enjoyed seem to have generated so much interest, John. To clarify your words, that ‘baritone’ isn’t what the cantorial art is about, it is an inaccurate statement. I wrote to correct the vocal category of Neil Shicoff’s father, whose tenor voice was very special, but baritones are certainly amongst the best. Evelyn Lear’s grandfather, Zavel Kwartin, Rosenblatt’s contemporary, was amongst the very greatest, Leibele Waldman, one of the most loved, and Yiddish stage personality Moishe Oysher excelled on film and record. A cantor isn’t merely a soloist, but rather an almost endless flow of religious expression for the voice, some elaborate and sophisticated, capable of other-worldly ecstasy. Jan Peerce said officiating on the High Holydays was his longest role! Finally, I wish to place Louis Danto amongst the outstanding classical singers of the 20th century. George Jellinek, the respected opera critic, described Danto as the possessor of the best vocal technique of any tenor engaged in opera in America, at a time when the field enjoyed tenor legends in their prime. Whenever I click Lemeshev, or Koslovsky, or others on Youtube, I hunger for Danto’s contribution as well.

  4. John Potter says:

    Ah yes, sorry Larry – I didn’t express myself very well. Point taken – there are indeed some fantastic cantors who are also baritones. I also agree with you about Danto – an amazing singer who is certainly the equal of Koslovsky and the other Russians. YouTube is a great resource for exploring and comparing singers. Your definition of what a cantor does is well represented there.

  5. Larry Josefovitz says:

    With great sadness I note the recent passing of Louis Danto.

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