French soprano of Italian-German descent, 1863 - 1940
(courtesy of Charles B. Mintzer)
Born in Paris, but of Italian-German descent, Blanche Marchesi was virtually ordained at
conception to a musical life. Her father, Salvatore Marchesi (1822 – 1908), was an internationally known Italian baritone who also taught at the Vienna Conservatory, wrote a voice methodology and
translated the librettos for Tannhäuser and Lohengrin (among others) into Italian. Her mother, of course, was Mathilde Marchesi (1821 – 1913), the German-born
mezzo-soprano whose Paris voice studio included an array of female students who went on to become the most famous singers of their era. Dame Nellie Melba, Emma Calvé, Etelka Gerster,
Ilma de Murska, Frances Alda, Selma Kurz, Frances Saville, Sigrid Arnoldson and Emma Eames (whether she liked to admit it or not) were all products of the famed "Marchesi School," as were
many others, including Blanche herself. She worked in her mother’s studio as an accompanist, but also taught; the Wagnerian soprano Ellen Gulbranson, Bayreuth’s only Brünnhilde from 1897 –
1914, was for the most part the product of Blanche’s tuition.
She herself wanted a career in opera, but despite the fact that she was extraordinarily well
versed in her mother’s methods and possessed remarkable musical intelligence, her voice was simply not large enough for the rôles she chose to sing. She began her career as a recitalist in
Paris (1895) and made her operatic début as the Walküre Brünnhilde in Prague (1900). Marchesi sang this rôle, as well as Santuzza, Isolde and others as a member of the Moody-Manners
Company in London when it visited Covent Garden in the autumns of 1902 and 1903. In opera, she received little critical acclaim, and was only slightly more successful on the more intimate
concert platform, which better suited her talents. She settled in London, and taught almost till the day she died.
A "wit" once referred to Blanche Marchesi as "the greatest singer in the world without a voice."
After one of her first New York recitals, Richard Aldrich, this time unable to rely on the "crib" notes he appears to have kept on more perennial Carnegie Hall singers, was forced to think of
something original. She definitely lost in his translation. "Mme. Marchesi’s tone is not merely unbeautiful," he wrote, "it is for the most part positively ugly, with a streak of commonness in
the tones." Harsh words indeed, but he, like most critics after him, was obliged to take note of her interpretive and musical skills, even calling her (in the same review!?) "a consummate artist."
Blanche Marchesi is of great importance in the history of classical singing. For obvious reasons, she was most likely the finest exponent of her mother’s teachings. And here the links to the
earliest years of 19th century musical styles and standards begin. Mathilde Marchesi had studied with Manuel García II (1805 - 1906); his sisters Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot are
legendary names in operatic history, and his other pupils included Sir Charles Santley and Jenny Lind. More remarkably, if one chooses to go back a generation to the elder García, it is certain
that musical values of the 18th century were handed down, father-to-son, then mother-to-daughter, by these two amazing families.
As Brünnhilde in ”Die Walküre”
Blanche Marchesi made her first records in Berlin early in 1906. Her second ventures into the recording studios were in 1936 – 37, by which time she was well into her 70s. She later
remembered that during the first session, she was distracted by the aroma of beer coming from the steins under the orchestra members’ chairs, but she managed to leave some fine souvenirs
which somehow don’t quite substantiate critical comment on her voice. Perhaps the narrow confines of the recording horn better suited her more refined style, as did the intimacy of the
concert stage. There are flaws, to be sure, but the "positively ugly" voice Aldrich referred to is nowhere to be heard on the records.
Examples of this contradiction are easy to find. From the 1906 series, a "sound" argument can be made by listening to Marchesi’s recording of Tosca’s "Vissi d’arte." It stands perfectly well
against the same music recorded by Emma Eames, a more successful Marchesi student who enjoyed a sensational career in opera. Here, Marchesi’s tone is warmer than Eames’, the words
more poignant under her care. Chaminade’s "L’Eté," so popular with concert-givers in its day, is delivered more cautiously by Marchesi than by others, but it is an enjoyable recording none the
less; here she displays the famed "Marchesi School" trill quite thrillingly. Less effective is her
recording of Bach’s "Bist du bei mir," but in Goldschmidt’s "Im Mai" she displays breath control that is nothing short of extraordinary, even though the tone is not always quite on the mark nor
By far, the recordings from the 1930s are more remarkable. They were made just a few years
before her death, and nature had darkened the shading of the voice. It is important to remember when listening to any of them (mostly song titles and oratorio excerpts) that the singer was in
her 70s; they become all the more impressive with this thought in mind. Saving the best for last,
Marchesi’s famous recording of the "Sicilian Cartdriver’s Song" is a revelation. Best described by John Williams, "the interpretation is almost unbearingly moving." Here, the fact that the voice
sometimes sounds a bit elderly and weary only adds appropriate dramatic intensity to the words. The voice is remarkably steady once she gets going; her trills and adept negotiation of scales
are positively spine-tingling and haunting. Like a great master before a canvas, Blanche Marchesi creates a masterpiece, carefully applying her voice like dabs of paint to a great work of art
until she is sure the colors and texture are just right. This is a "desert island" record, without doubt one of the finest ever made.
Due to her historical importance, Marchesi is well represented in this CD era. Those wishing just a sampling (including the "Sicilian Cartdriver’s Song") may turn to Pearl’s "The Marchesi School" issue
, which also includes recordings of Suzanne Adams, Frances Alda, Sigrid Arnoldson, Blanche Arral, Emma Calvé, Ada Crossley, Yvonne de Tréville, Emma Eames, Selma Kurz, Miriam
Licette, Nellie Melba, Elizabeth Parkina, Ellen Beach Yaw and Frances Saville. The transfers are superb. A larger selection of Marchesi’s recordings are included on Symposium’s “Harold Wayne Collection – Vol. 25.”
Sicilian Cart Driver’s Song (arr. Sadero / IRCC 1936)
My warmest thanks to George Parous and Charles B. Mintzer
(1821 - 1913)
...and some of her famous students...
Sigrid Arnoldson, Blanche Arral, Emma Eames
Dame Nellie Melba, Susan Adams, Frances Alda
Ellen Beach Yaw, Emma Calvé, Selma Kurz