:: Tenors

Singing Book, Syd Barrett & Braunschweig Blues

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

The Book

…is finished…sort of.  As with all books, you don’t ever actually finish – you just get to a point where it seems OK to stop. Neil Sorrell and I have finally got there and it’s on its way to Cambridge University Press and we now await editorial fall-out from some of the fireworks we may have set off, and a publication date.


The Plainsong & Medieval Music Society  symposium

I gave a paper entitled ‘Finding a Voice: the medieval singer in the 21st Century’ at the Birmingham University PMMS symposium hosted by Mary O’Neill.  I was focusing on the early 13th century repertoire that Jan Walters and I did in Braunschweig last season, so to get an idea of the difficulty of being anywhere near right when you perform music from 800 years ago I played an old demo of my blues band in 1964, then fast-forwarded the conference to 2811 and tried to reconstruct the song from the scrap of paper on which I’d written the words and chords… distressing some German musicologists in the process (and they weren’t even alive in 1964).  But I think it made the point – that worrying over the niceties of pronunciation, syllable counts, mode and the like are as nothing when you have no idea what the singers actually sounded like. After all, music is for listening to, and it doesn’t really matter what it looks like.

The Sound & the Fury


We recorded five new masses at Karthause Mauerbach (2 by Caron and 2 by de Prioris – who was new to me – and one by Pierre de la Rue). These sessions are always inspirational (though sometimes a bit awkward, with our wonderful resident musicologist sitting in like a member of the politburo representing the dead composers). We also did the usual live broadcast – this time preceded by a spontaneous performance of ‘Flow my Tears’ with Evangelina Mascardi.

John Potter & Evangelina Mascardi

The two of us were caught by Bernhard Trebuch having a quick run-through in the corridor 2 minutes before we went on air.


Constant Penelope & Syd Barrett: unlikely contemporaries…

David Sloan played the legendary Gentle Power single at his daughter’s wedding (having thoughtfully rejected the idea of asking us to do it live…), and we hear that the album Circus is in real  danger of being re-released.  Sixties freak beat (as it’s apparently called now) is  commercially viable in a way that it obviously wasn’t in the sixties. There won’t be any reunion tours though since we only get together when one of us dies, and hopefully that won’t be for a while yet. Cambridge memories came flooding back with the new Syd Barrett book by Rob Chapman. I didn’t know the Floyd members, though my wife Penny was at Cambridge Art  School (the famous Tech) with Syd Barrett and actually introduced me to the then unknown Dave Gilmour whom we encountered on our way to the Arts Theatre for one of my very rare opera gigs. Syd Barrett: a Very Irregular Head mentions Syd and Dave swapping Chuck Berry licks in the Cambridge Tech canteen, which is exactly what Penny remembers (the Chuck Berry bit, that is) and which none of the other Floyd histories mention). ‘Memphis Tennessee’ was a favourite, apparently. Penny’s folio contains at least one  fascinating sketch of an arty guitarist  but we don’t think it’s Syd, sadly.  This is one, though, is unmistakably the Barrett head:

When I taught at the University of York several of my postgrad students were Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd fans, but unfortunately none of them wanted to do a  PhD in Prog Rock.

Tenor updates/obits

Now that the history book is finished I have time to update the tenorography for the Yale tenor book web page. Very sad to hear of the death of Robert Tear, who was a choral scholar at King’s Cambridge when I was a treble there. It was hearing him (and fellow tenor Brian Head) sing day after day that convinced lots of us that we’d be tenors when we grew up. Robert Ponsonby’s Guardian obit perfectly captures the man.

Videos with Harp

Jan Walters

Back in January Jan Walters came up to York and Mick Lynch filmed the two of us in St Denys church (which has some of the oldest and finest stained glass in the country). It was very cold and one of the cameras packed up, but Mick did a great job, aided by  Ambrose Field as sound man. Jan did a solo Cantiga and we did spontaneous performances of an anonymous Minnelied and song by the troubadour Bernhard de Ventadorn.   There’s clip from our 2009 Braunschweig performance here, but the acoustic was a bit much for one singer and a tiny harp.


April Diary/site updates

I will be updating the  other pages when I have a minute.  There have been interesting developments in my ECM vihuela project and all sorts of things are bubbling away for later in the year. There are two interesting projects this month. The practical experimental sessions for the SouthamptonUniversity  Conductus Project finally start.  Chris O’Gorman and I will begin looking at facsimiles and finding out how to declaim 13th century Latin, and we’ll be joined for some of the sessions by Rogers Covey-Crump.  Ambrose Field and I will be be doing an interview down the line for RTE Lyric FM’s  The John Kelly Ensemble on Thursday 14th April ahead of our gig on the 16th at the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork. The interview goes out on the 15th in the afternoon. This is an exciting new venue – a  converted and restored church – and it’ll be the Opening Weekend. Tickets are free and expected to be in short supply, so grab one while you can.

Much of May will be spent exploring France, Italy and Germany, ending up with PhD viva-ing in Gothenborg and a conference on the Tenor in Schwerte. That’s followed in rapid succession by coaching the vocal ensemble Versio in  Helsinki and returning to chair the ensemble contest at the Tampere International Vocal Festival.

There’s an internet radio festival of the music of Gavin Bryars on the New York based radio station Q2 from April 14 to April 20.


Ensemble Singing, Singing Teachers and the Pavarotti syndrome

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

British universities (not just Oxbridge) produce a huge number of outstanding  ensemble singers, who for decades have sustained  successful professional choirs from the Monteverdi Choir (recently described on Radio 3 as the best choir in the world) to The Sixteen and a plethora of creative ensembles from the Hilliard Ensemble to Juice. Conservatories don’t really do ensemble singing (being still geared to the mass production of conventional soloists); nor do most singing teachers anywhere: they seem only to be able to think in terms of increasingly over-powered solo singing. Has your teacher ever tried to engage with a line of Ockeghem, the Berio Sinfonia, or considered tuning problems in Lassus? But then you may well have learned with one of those teachers who used the same book of arias for forty years, so maybe not.  Strange how there are colleges all over the world dedicated to churning out the same old stuff, but so many singers actually earn their living in rather creative ways that don’t have much to do with what they were taught. There are hundreds of British non-opera singers who, like me, earn their living mostly in mainland Europe (where the work is) so tend not to figure on the UK radar. We do lots of creative stuff, often with European colleagues, and in many ways we’re a great British export. One thing we tend to have in common is a sense that very little of what we were taught by our singing teachers has been of any use to us in our professional careers.

You were born to sing Bach, Mozart, Schubert…Puccini?

To over-simply only a little, our singing teachers had a very sure idea of how we should earn our living, and they were almost without exception wrong. I had some very distinguished teachers. One told me I was a Mozart singer, another said I should focus on Bach and Handel, yet another wanted me to do Lieder full time. One spectacularly misguided one even had me singing Puccini (he was also rumoured to have danced with Diaghilev).  What they all had in common was that none of them could envisage my doing anything else. None of them knew anything about the professional world that I or my more adventurous contemporaries would later work in. One didn’t let me sing any music at all – just exercises, week after tedious week. He never told me what they were for, and he was such a distinguished teacher and I was so green I didn’t dare ask him. The then principal of the Guildhall School once told me that it was his duty to ensure that I became an opera singer as within ten years nobody would be singing anything else.

Having just emerged from a decade in a university (which included three years as an eternal examiner at a major UK conservatoire) I can confirm that nothing much has changed: most singing teaching continues on its traditional path (some teachers still claiming unique links to a glorious past) oblivious to the realities of a fast-changing profession.

Generic teachers produce generic singers

Singing teachers are too often out of touch with the profession as it currently is. Some  teach because they simply don’t have enough work as performers (or are simply past it). How many are familiar with the huge amount of research that’s been done in performance and education?   The older (and generally more distinguished) ones base their pedagogy and their predictions on the world as it was when they were younger, and on skills they acquired from their own teachers. This narrowness of experience means that so much teaching is still teacher-centred (do it my way) rather than student orientated (explore your own potential).  There is also an assumption that everyone wants to be a success in the mainstream, so if you’re a tenor you aspire to be the next Pavarotti or whoever, and you always sing the repertoire that your teacher is familiar with from when he aspired to be Pavarotti’s predecessor. A very narrow skill-set is taught, in an effort to get the student to conform to generic norms – you have to sound like a TENOR: it’s no good sounding like YOU!  At its worst (in the USA, often) it narrows still further, as your teacher insists that you stick to your chosen (by him/her) Fach. Not only are you programmed only to be an opera singer, but to specialise in a tiny, fixed number of roles. How different from 200 years ago, when singers were some of the most creative performers ever known.

Educating for unemployment?

Conservatories are very successful by their own (self-justifying) criteria – and these great music factories are now so efficient that they can turn out top class soloists  just as easily as  the pop industry can create  boybands. Boybands have a limited life-span, partly because it’s so easy to create them once you know how,  and partly because there are so many of them that the market very soon becomes saturated.   The pop industry is entirely at the mercy of market forces, and is therefore genuinely self-regulating. Conservatories aren’t – as long as they can secure funding (from the state, students and private sponsors) they can continue to produce more singers than the market can actually absorb. A few years ago I was part of a big research project which aimed to discover how you create better performers. No one asked why we need to know, or what we’d do with the information if we found the answers.  It didn’t occur to anyone that if everyone could perform Beethoven Sonatas like Barenboim, you wouldn’t need to pay someone to do it for you.

A new European model?

Most British conservatoires are still in denial (though you will hear slightly embarrassed talk of portfolio careers), but on the European mainland there are signs of fresh thinking.  Some music colleges are beginning to ask themselves if they should perhaps focus on developing individual creativity rather than insisting on the time-worn standard repertoire and dooming so many to unemployment. In Oslo, for example, the conservatories produce up to 50 world-class opera singers every year. There are five professional opera companies in the country. The figures for the UK are quite similar, so both countries have, in effect , to absorb huge numbers of brilliant singers every year, or export them. Where do they export them to? Germany, the USA, and other European countries, some to the Eastern hemisphere – Japan and Australia. But all of these countries have the same problem – vast over-production of singers. The Norwegian government, though, makes a point of directly subsidising a very wide variety of creative work, which includes the many great Norwegian choirs, and ensembles such as Trio Mediaeval and Nordic Voices. That’s a start. Incidentally, if you want to know what non-generic voices can sound like, have a listen to Sweden’s Real Group or the Finnish Rajaton (or any of the winners of the contest for vocal ensembles at the Tampere Vocal Festival over the last twenty years).

Are university music departments becoming second-rate conservatoires?

You’d expect universities to be able to do rather better in all this. After all, they’re filled with clever people and students go there to think, not just to sing.  But the university world  now too often mimics elements of the conservatoire system, to the extent that many music departments sometimes look like second-rate conservatories, with their Solo Recitals and arcane assessment criteria. Such a shame there’s so much focus on product (they call it ‘outcome’ – and it has to be easily be measured, however bizarre this may seem from the outside). You’d have thought universities would have the wit to understand that music is not quite the same as  biology or physics, or doing your accounts.

There is a benign effect of all this seemingly pointless teaching though: quite lot of singers are probably a bit better than they would otherwise have been, and many of them become fine choral singers. Ironic really, as many conservatoire teachers forbid their pupils from singing in choirs and certainly wouldn’t teach them how to do it. I personally don’t think it’s either healthy or creative to lean on your teacher for ideas or inspiration, or to be told what repertoire to specialise in, but it works for some.  It’s also OK if you really are the next Pavarotti. But it’s not much use if you don’t want to sing opera or what we used to call oratorio, or you want to record for ECM or Nonclassical, start a professional  ensemble or do creative work beyond the mainstream. And that’s where you will need to work if you want to make an impact (unless you’re the next Pavarotti): the core of the profession is full to bursting, so anyone who tells you that you can make living singing Bach, Handel or Lieder is way out of touch. Yet all too often univesities are suckered into shelling out huge sums on singing teaching in response to teachers’ insistence that they need to see students once a week for three years to work on their Lieder or whatever. It’s simply not true. They wouldn’t dream of stumping up for weekly maths coaching.

It’s not surprising that many of my contemporaries who stuck to the tried and tested path now find themselves underemployed: there’s no point in a promoter paying vast sums to an established ‘star’ (unless they’re very big box office) when a newly graduated conservatoire product will do the same job for a fraction of the price. Even those who are initially successful in the mainstream are always at risk of being undercut by the next ever more brilliant generation, and unless something is done to address the problem, even quite successful singers are probably doomed to very short careers.  The ultimate logic of all this is that a generation or two down the line highly trained young singers may well have driven down the cost of  a Messiah or a Manon so far that the mainstream will be a virtually amateur ‘profession’.  But on the bright side, there should be some fantastic choirs…

The best singers invent themselves

Pavarotti would have made it whoever taught him. He was the first Pavarotti, after all. Like many of the great singers of history (Fischer-Dieskau springs to mind) he invented himself. That’s what ‘ensemble singers’ do too, with their vast repertoires, sophisticated skill sets, their ability to interact rather than compete with each other –  and not least, their creative entrepreneurship.  Sadly, many talented singers, seduced by the singing teacher sales talk, will never discover that. They’ll go on singing the Schubert and Bach they were ‘born to sing’ until it’s too late. Or, like ensemble singers of my generation, they realise that it was all a bit of a waste of time and money, and just get on with unlearning what they were taught.


Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

This is my first autumn back in the real world…and November has an unprecedented 5 gigs in England, including new works by Gavin Bryars at King’s Place and the first London performance of Being Dufay…

October 3

Robert Kirby memorial event

Cecil Sharp House, London

October 15

Sound & Fury live broadcast from Mauerbach ORF 22.00

October 15- 19

Kloster pic
Sound & Fury recordings (Vienna)

Josquin Desprez: Missa Gaudeamus & Missa Sine Nomine

Marbrianus De Orto: Missa Mi mi & Missa L’homme armé

November 3

Dowland Project (Prague)

Strings of Autumn Festival

November 6

Gavin Bryars Ensemble

King’s Place (London)

to include new versions of Madrigals by Gavin Bryars to poems by

Blake Morrison

November 11

A Musicall Banquet (Birmingham) with Ariel Abramovich

Birmingham Early Music Festival

November 18

Being Dufay

The Albany, Lewisham

part of the Sampler Festival

November 24

Roger Marsh 60th birthday concert (York)

to include new works by Ed Jessen and Morag Galloway

November 25

Launch of UYMP Songbook (compiled by John Potter & David Blake)

Birmingham Conservatoire

Tenor: History of a Voice in paperback

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Yale University Press has now published the paperback version of Tenor: History of a Voice. This isn’t an update and the great Lanza/Caruso sheet music on the back cover has been replaced by a long list of flattering press quotes, but it does have the typos etc corrected from the hardback version, together with an extra paragraph acknowledging those who wrote in with corrections and suggestions. I hope I haven’t left anybody out – do let me know if so. I’ll be doing the first update of the tenorography as soon as I have a spare day or two, and the plan is still for a 2nd edition in a few years’ time. I’m still thinking about additional chapters as well as updating the existing material. South and Central America, South Africa and Australia, as well as the eastern Europe countries are obvious candidates, but other ideas will be keenly looked at so do let me know (Comments button or email) or maybe get some discussion going on Amazon.

Having escaped academia I now have more time not only for performing, but also doing that thing that academics fantasise about but rarely have time for: research. I’ve completed two chapters for CUP histories over the summer and Neil Sorrell and I are scheduled to finish our singing history by Christmas. I’m also writing a chapter with Liz Haddon on university instrumental teaching for the book of the IMP project, and there’s an article on Peter Pears’ voice in the pipeline too.

I found myself in a car in Slovenia recently with two people who’d read Vocal Authority, which must be some kind of first. I suppose what isn’t so surprising is that I get more feedback about my first book than anything I’ve written since. Although it came out of my PhD (written on the road with the Hilliards over a very long period) it was before I got really entangled with academia, so it’s much more of a polemic than a 21st century PhD would probably get away with. It’s very old now, of course, but I’m still touched when people tell me what it has meant to them (and sometimes people quote whole chunks of it at me, which is rather disconcerting). Next year I want to begin a sequel, which will take up the story where Vocal Authority left off.  As I’m now released back into the community it won’t be an academic tome so I may have to venture further afield to find a publisher. The working title is Classical Singing and the Death of Creativity. That may be a bit pessimistic – one of the things I hope to enthuse about is the fantastic potential the 21st century has to offer singers.

Villazon, horses and toothpaste…

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Well he was quite something, wasn’t he? What struck me, apart from his tremendous energy, humour and complete lack of divo-like arrogance, was his taste in tenors – Juan Diego Florez and Jonas Kaufmann  in particular – both not only supremely elegant singers but reflective and creative artists. It was great to see clips of old and young Domingo, and to be reminded of the influence of Mario Lanza (particularly apt in view of Marjan Kiepura’s comments further down these pages). There was a bit too much Verdi for me, and not enough Wagner (a bit of Ben Heppner wouldn’t have frightened people too much). Bizarre to have Alagna speaking in French when he’s perfectly competent in English. Rolando singing into the horn was a great idea (and his reaction priceless) – it really gave you a sense of what’s missing from early recordings.

I liked the format. I’m not sure my little contribution added very much – a lot of what I said in the original recording was actually illustrated very engagingly by Villazon himself and it was much better TV that way. It’s a pity I didn’t think to ask him if I could post the cartoon he drew of the two of us, because it’s absolutely him – you can almost hear it.  And it had all been rather tidied up – I remember lots of twinkly bits that didn’t find their way into the final cut. The best bits were where his spontaneous reactions were left in. But what a phenomenon – and that lovely bit at the end which could so easily have been tenor ego-mania in full flood but was just him being almost childishly amazed at what he was doing…

Tenors, texts and TV…

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

What makes a great tenor? Rolando Villazon does…

If you’re near a TV set on June 2nd at 9.00 in the evening you might catch me being interviewed by the amazing Rolando Villazon on BBC4. I had a wonderful time at the Royal Opera House; Villazon is a real powerhouse and has an incredibly quick brain. When I arrived he was sitting on the floor doing a piece to camera on Franco Corelli. At the end of the first take I couldn’t resist suggesting he mentioned Corelli’s legs, which were reckoned by some to be the best pair ever seen on a tenor. He began again: …and Franco Corelli, he had it all, including two of the best pairs of legs in the business…immediately realising what he’d said, he added…though he only used one pair at a time, of course. I don’t suppose that will find its way into the final cut.  It was all enormous fun, with Rolando fizzing away the whole time. So much energy! I’d taken the precaution of bringing along my copy of his Massenet & Gounod album – one of my favourites – which now has on the liner a Rolando cartoon of the two of us talking tenor stuff.

Tenor paperback

Tenor: History of a Voice is to be reprinted by Yale as a paperback in September. There won’t be any updated content, but I hope I have  corrected most of the misprints etc – so thank you to all those whose sharp eyes caused me all sorts of embarrassment. There may well be a substantially updated 2nd edition in a year or two, so I hope people will keep sending suggestions for updates.

Screen tenors: Kiepura and the Polish question

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Jan Kiepura tneor

One of the difficulties of writing any sort of history is that you’re always at risk of colouring your narrative with the ideologies of the present. In Tenor: History of a Voice I had a small section on screen tenors and commented that history has tended not to look kindly on successful opera singers who later went on to have commercial success through recordings or films. Mario Lanza, Richard Tauber and Jan Kiepura were among those whose reputations seemed to have suffered in recent times in part because of spectacular success in their own lifetimes, reaching beyond the opera world with wider repertoires in different media.  I was taken up on this point by the pianist Marjan Kiepura, who is the son of Jan Kiepura and the great soprano Marta Eggerth.  Marjan reminded me that success on the screen (or with lighter material) in no way diminishes what these singers achieved in the opera house. He pointed to the example of the Three Tenors, whose legacy is surely to broaden the appeal of good singing, and who certainly wouldn’t have turned down the opportunities their commercial success brought them. Kiepura was ahead of his time in this respect: in the 1930s film was the new cutting edge medium, and no singer would have passed up the chance of screen stardom.  Of course, we can’t imagine what a reputation would consist of without all its constituent elements, but I wonder if in the case of Kiepura, Lanza and others our sometimes rather snobbish attitude to commercial success has coloured our judgement of their place in history. Kiepura, in contrast to Lanza who hardly set foot on an operatic stage at all, became a screen star as a result of his successful career in European opera houses. He happened to be blessed with the kind of full visual package that the new medium was crying out for, and the studios could expect considerable benefit from his already stellar reputation.

Kiepura arrives in Warsaw

Most tenor enthusiasts would acknowledge the art of Kiepura as equal to the finest examples of his time. In his native Poland his reputation was close to that of a national hero, with streets, monuments and even stamps and trains in his honour (if you want to travel from the UK to Poland by train, you take a lunchtime Eurostar to Brussels, a high-speed train to Cologne, then the overnight sleeper ‘Jan Kiepura’ from Cologne to Warsaw).

Kiepura was, of course, successful all over the world (becoming an American citizen in the 1940s), but the old division of Europe into East and West has often resulted in the marginalising of composers and performers from the central and eastern republics. The former Soviet bloc, by isolating the East from research into both the post-war and pre-Soviet period, effectively prevented the development of a coherent historical narrative.  I’ve touched on the cantorial tradition, the roots of which go back into and beyond the history of eastern Europe, but I also hope to give much more attention in future to the wider tenor history outside the conventionally recorded West.

I’m extremely grateful for the assistance of Marjan  in writing this short post.The family’s history is an extraordinary Marjan Kiepuraone, and YouTube will provide hours of audio and video of Jan Kiepura and Marta Eggerth, and indeed of Marjan himself. A good starting point for those wanting to explore the Kiepura legacy is Marjan’s own website, where you’ll find details of his own Chopin recording and a double CD of Marta Eggerth.  The latter, ‘My Life in Song’ is a wonderful compilation of Eggerth recordings between 1932 and 2002 (when Marta was 90) and features both Jan and Marjan. There are YouTube clips of Marta performing at 80 and 90, and many clips of Jan, ranging from Verdi and Puccini to operetta. I will update the Kiepura entry in the Biographical List of Tenors in due course, though there are surprisingly few authoritative sources.  Open Library contains links to books and articles, and there is a biography (in Polish) from 2006 by Wacław Panek. You’ll find a short web biography at History of the Tenor which also has some sound clips. The German Wikipedia entry is more comprehensive than its English counterpart, but both are eclipsed by the Polish entry.  CD Re-issues of Kiepura’s substantial catalogue are not extensive so far.  Volume 2 of the Pearl collection My Song For You (GEMM CD 9079) is also available; the Lebendige Vergangenheit site has a detailed breakdown of their Preiser compilation.

KiepuraThe NME site gives access to a huge number of audio and video clips of Kiepura singing in various languages. Almost all of them are examples of his exquisitely lyrical sound and fine control, especially when combining a diminuendo with a rallentando.  There are extraordinary clips of Marta Eggerth singing as freshly as ever at  80 (video) and 90 (audio), accompanied by Marjan Kiepura.

If anyone would like to add more info about recordings and literature on Jan Kiepura, do use the Comments box.

photo of Marjan Kiepura by Diane Brown

other photos by kind permission of the Kiepura family

Tenor: History of a Voice 2

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

The Cantorial Tradition

I have to confess to being only dimly aware of cantorial singing until I read Stephen Banfield’s chapter on stage and screen singers in the Cambridge Companion to Singing that I edited for Cambridge University Press ten years ago. I suspect that this extraordinarily rich seam of tenorial magic hasn’t really found its way into the mainstream and I hope I can expand on its history in the future, both in an updated tenor book and in the History of Singing that Neil Sorrell and I are writing for Cambridge at the moment.

I was delighted to get an email from the distinguished cantor Larry Josefovitz soon after Tenor: History of a Voice was published.  He got in touch initially to give me a gentle reprimand for referring to Neil Shicoff’s cantor father Sidney as a baritone, believing that ‘baritone’ doesn’t give a true sense of what cantorial singing is actually like. Our subsequent correspondence ranged over the current state of cantorial singing and its glorious past, and Larry pointed me in the direction of a number of cantors of East European origin which he felt deserved as much recognition as the great Russian opera singers. He urged me to track down an LP of Shicoff senior’s cantorials  (which I haven’t yet managed to do). Sidney’s father actually came from Kiev (there is a brief online biography of Sidney together with a picture of the album). Larry actually heard him live and was captivated by his rich sound, but he died before Larry (then still a boy soprano) could study with him.

Danto, Alexandrovitch and Rosenblatt

Larry suggested trying the Florida Atlantic Library Sound Archive for an audio example of Sidney Shicoff. I wasn’t able to find him there,  but among the many fine cantors you can listen to on this fascinating site, you’ll come across Josef Rosenblatt, Louis Danto and Misha Alexandrovitch, all of whom Larry introduced me to, having explored YouTube in pursuit of Russian vocal traditions.  All three came originally from Eastern Europe: Rosenblatt from the Ukraine, Danto from Poland and Alexandrovitch from Latvia.  Alexandrovitch is also to be found on the Three Yiddish Tenors CD (Israel Music 313-04197834) alongside Moshe Koussevitzky and Leibele Waldman.  These last two are also represented in the Florida Archive; Waldman is the only one of this quintet of cantors born in the USA incidentally (Koussevitzky was born in Lithuania). These are all remarkable tenors, and they are only the tip of a vast cantorial iceberg. What is immediately noticeable is that they all have rich voices but tend not to chest high notes in the macho operatic fashion; instead they spin the voice into the head in a way that summons up a much older singing tradition. Larry Josefovitz draws a parallel between Danto and Adolph Nourrit, one of the last great singers in the ‘old’ Italian style before it was superseded by the post-Duprez generation of ‘modern’ turbo-charged tenors. He suggested watching Danto’s contribution to the Moshe Koussevitsky Memorial Concert, where I would discover Danto’s voix mixte and elaborate ornamentation. This is indeed a vocal tour de force – extravagant, powerful, subtle and sophisticated yet nothing like a modern opera singer. Danto’s discography is impressive, with performances in many European languages as well as Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian.

Some cantors have had success beyond the Jewish world. Misha Alexandrovitch had a successful career with the Bolshoi (his contemporaries included Lemeshev and Kozlovsky) until he emigrated first to Israel and then the USA.  Josef (Yossele) Rosenblatt made many recordings, was admired by fellow tenors Caruso, McCormack and Schipa, and appeared as himself (looking remarkably like Arvo Pärt) in the first talkie (The Jazz Singer, 1927) . Rosenblatt’s technique is extraordinary. He has the trills and portamento that characterise all cantorial singing, but he can use either head or chest voice on high notes. The YouTube clip of him singing Yahrzeit Lied has an exquisite falsetto moment towards the end, which again might be a window on an 18th century sound. If you want to know more about his life and music, there’s a biography by his son Rabbi Samuel Rosenblatt (I’ve just bought the last copy of the 1954 edition on Amazon.com – sorry) and a volume of his music published by Tara Books (1997).

Larry’s latest email recommended more YouTube videos of remarkable cantors. The phenomenal Gerson Sirota (who died in the Warsaw ghetto) can be heard in a scene from The Dybbuk (1937) and in a Stradella arrangement (audio plus old photographs). Mordechai Hershman has a wonderful mezzo voce and silvery head voice, and the comments below the clip include several from collectors of cantors who give lists of singers that are well worth investigating further.

As I mentioned in the book, some cantors went on to successful international operatic careers, but most seem to have felt that the obligations of their calling prevented them from taking such a big secular step. The result has been a tenorial evolution that has not quite paralleled the mainstream, but retained elements that the twentieth century opera stage heard less and less frequently – the histrionics, the huge dynamic range, virtuosic trills and runs, fulsome portamento, an ability to sing almost unfeasibly quietly at the top of their ranges, and a soulfulness that is distinctly uncool (and perhaps rather over the top for today’s audiences). The genre has probably benefited from a lack of institutional (conservatoire) training, with the style and techniques passed on in the time-honoured manner of master and apprentice. It is, by its nature, a conservative tradition, and long may it continue to preserve its links with an extraordinary history.

Larry, thankyou: I wouldn’t know anything about any of this if it hadn’t been for you. Leave a comment and tell me where I’ve got it wrong!

Tenor: History of a Voice 1

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

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.