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A Talk with Alberto Randegger, By William Armstrong

Taking advantage of exceptional opportunities of observation and very early realizing the importance of an exact chronicling of the results, Mr. Alberto Randegger has made his life an unusually useful one. With a solid musical foundation and a quick, ana­lytical mind he has, in the last fifty years, gathered a vast deal of musical knowledge through contact with great singers.

No one realizes more keenly than the man whose calling brings him into daily association with noted mu­sicians the value of that association; but few make the privilege of prac­tical value to others as well as to themselves. In this respect Mr. Randegger has been an exception. With score and pencil in hand he has attended rehearsals of the oratorios sung in England during the last fifty years, marking every phrase and nuance of the great soloists who have passed before the public in half a century. Certain of these arias he has published from time to time with the annotations made in the moment of performance. By this plan he has gathered the best from an authorita­tive source; for the soloist of worth is bound to give deep thought and long study to works demanding sound artistic interpretation. This has been but one phase of Mr. Randegger’s musical activities, the others, teaching and conducting, have served to apply and to extend his fund of knowledge.


Had not unexpected events turned  the course of his career toward Lon­don, New York would have been his field of labor; for, accepting an en­gagement of Max Strakosch as opera conductor, he got as far as England on his way, when a cholera epidemic prevented his sailing for America. That was in 1854; and since then he has found London a congenial home. There Sir Michael Costa became his friend, and through him he obtained at once an opportunity to begin the study of great works in their re­hearsal and performance, works in many instances that were given a first hearing under the composer’s direction.

In 1868 Mr. Randegger took the position of first singing teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, a post which he has held uninterruptedly since. From 1880 to 1887 he conducted at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in the earlier days of Mme. Melba and Mr. Jean de Reszke at that institution. Again in 1898, under Sir Augustus Harris, he was recalled to the same position, mainly for Mozart performances. In 1881 he assumed the conductorship of the Norwich Triennial Musical Festival.

Born at Trieste in 1832, he will be seventy-two on the thirteenth of next April, bearing his years well as people do who are kept young by love and pursuit of their art.

It was in the studio at his home in Northumber­land Place, a room made to work in, that he talked with me for the benefit of the readers of The Etude. The walls are lined with bookshelves holding his scores, many of them closely annotated; above hang autograph portraits of Liszt, Saint-Saëns, and many of their contemporaries, and of Mr. Randegger’s pupils who have made their way in the musical world. In the center of the large, high-ceiled room is the grand piano where it catches to the fullest the light of the hazy, London day.

Conversation turned at once to the oratorio style, on which Mr. Randegger holds broad views; and the better to enforce his ideas at the outset he took up Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” at the scene between the prophet and the widow at the moment of her son’s resurrection from the dead.

“Too many sing oratorio piano and forte,” he began, “without any trace of insight or knowledge of the meaning of the words, when it demands, in­stead, every element of the lyric and dramatic.

“Take this scene, short, full of strong contrasts, capable of such range of emotion in delivery. The widow at sight of the prophet exclaims in rage, and grief-stricken: —

“‘What have I to do with thee, O man of God? Art thou come to me to call my sins unto remembrance? To slay my son art thou come hither?’ Then, still unconvinced of his supernatural powers, but clutch­ing at escape from her misery, she supplicates:—

“‘Help me, man of God! my son is sick! And his sickness is so sore that there is no breath left in him! I go mourning all the day long; 1 lie down and weep at night. See mine affliction. Be thou the or­phan’s helper!’

“Then, when the miracle has hap­pened and her son is restored to life, comes the passionate outburst of full conviction, to be delivered with tre­mendous faith:—

“‘Now by this I know that thou art a man of God.’

“It is necessary to read, to study, and to ponder on the text of such passages to get at their full sub­limity and dramatic import. With­out a complete knowledge of the text, the ability to read it under­standingly and to carry to the hearer its full meaning, no singer can expect to sing with convincing authority.

“I do not mean by that to exag­gerate or to overdraw, but to give the meaning completely as if the idea had spontaneously developed in our own intelligence and under the condi­tions in which its delivery is placed. Ability to read in this way is of pre­eminent necessity to the singer not alone of oratorio, but of all musical works down to the song where all is in miniature and to be approached as such.

“Those capable of only a colorless reading will convey simply the im­pression of reciting by rote; they make nothing indi­vidual or spontaneous in expression. There is no bet­ter test of the intellectual and emotional powers of a singer than the reading of some such sublime passage as that quoted from ‘Elijah.’ Here, too, comes into play to high advantage purity of diction, which carries to the hearer the value of the word in its true sense. Until a singer is capable of reading a passage with absolute finish it is wiser to leave the words unsung; for without a correct reading there can be no correct singing of it. To this very reason may be attributed the lack of success of so many who go upon the false lines that to deprive the text of dramatic value is to give it what some are pleased to call the ‘oratorio style.’

“As I just now asserted, in oratorio singing every element of the lyric and dramatic is required accord­ing to the situation.

For fifty years I have attended rehearsals and performances of the oratorios, score and pencil in hand, and have marked every phrase, every breath, every cadence of the great singers. Of details I have been a careful student, realizing the importance of gaining an exact knowledge of the immense study which these great singers have given to numbers that they have interpreted. A knowledge of these things is a firm foundation to build upon, and such a method of study pondered over, and redeveloped, as it were, by our own intelligence, gives us the best of insight and traditions.

“My whole life long, from my early years, observa­tion has been the keynote of my studies. I have learned from the great singers with whom I have come in contact. A knowledge of the importance of observation has always remained with me. I have not trusted to memory, but followed at the moment with my markings every phrase as it was delivered. I have kept the scores with these same markings for the last fifty years. Some of them I have given out in print, but always with a preface which stated that I was merely a transcriber of the thoughts of others. By this course of observation I have developed my own knowledge; but I hold that there are no hard and fast rules in the singing of oratorio. The char­acter of the work must be understood. Scan the words thoroughly; put your heart in them. Take, for instance, the passage in ‘Elijah’ between the prophet and the widow, full of dramatic power and contrasts. Yet what would even this passage be without intelligent appreciation.

“In teaching I make my pupils read the words first, to see their intelligence, and the power of their emo­tions; then I read them aloud myself that we may to the fullest extent get at the meaning and import. Without complete knowledge of the declamatory value of the text no singer can command either an intelligent delivery or one that will impress his audi­ence. But here again extreme thought must be exer­cised. You must discriminate between the small lyric and the large dramatic. You cannot put into a miniature that which you would put into a big pic­ture. It is in singing as it is in painting: You may use the same colors, but you must be true to nature; the atmosphere is quite different in painting indoor subjects and those under a broad, free sky.

“Guided by the teacher the good student will find out how things should be done; but he will never appear before the public as a good pupil. He will get all from the teacher that that teacher can con­vey, but he will make that all his own. And he must make it so completely his own that it will be spon­taneous.

“Much has been said of relying upon the impulse of the moment, but there should be no such thing as waiting for the impulse of the moment to give us our inspiration. That inspiration may be heightened by the conditions of the moment, but it must be devel­oped and thought out beforehand.

“Tomaso Salvini, the great tragedian, once gave a forcible illustration on this same point. It was dur­ing a dinner, and a noted tenor who sat next us was speaking of the tremendous impression that Salvini had lately made upon his audiences, carrying them with him by some unpremeditated piece of acting done on the spur of the moment. Salvini smiled and said:—

“‘Have you been on the stage so long and yet tell me that I do these things on the impulse of the mo­ment? Nothing is left to the moment. I may act no scene twice alike; but every detail, every move is thought out before I do it, and is the outcome of sleepless nights.’

“Mme. Pistori, of all great actresses, was the most difficult to act with, for the reason that she placed immense stress upon tone quality and value. The end of every speech that preceded hers had to be de­livered in a quality of tone that led up to and blended with her own, and gave that which followed it fullest effect. Over and again the luckless player who lacked insight had to repeat his lines until she was satisfied. What a hint lies in this to the singer!

“English is a good language to sing, no matter what is asserted to the contrary. Personally, I class English, next to Italian, as the best language for singing. But the worst of the matter is that so few speak it properly. Quite unfortunately the English do not study English diction, yet they should study it as they study spelling and grammar.

“It was once my fortune to listen to a series of lectures by a distinguished English clergyman. When he was through I congratulated him not on their contents, for of the intellectual standard we were assured as a matter of course, but on the diction of their delivery. It was the purity of that diction, absolutely musical, that had so charmed me.  Untion (sic) in English as is the case in other languages, and as to the pronouncing dictionaries, nobody consults them. Avoid conversational English in singing; for that is English in its worst form.

Keep your ears open; hear the beginning and end. of every syllable. People listen with their ears and mind, and not with their eyes.

“English is music, if you only know how to speak it. The Italian as a singing language I place, of course, first; the English next; French, pretty for small songs, and distinguished by elegance and re­finement of diction, I place third; and German, a great language and forcible, I place fourth. But a tender song is not good sung in German; for songs of that type the English language is far more beau­tiful if properly spoken.

“America has good voices, good teachers, and good methods. That the females have better singing voices than the males I attribute, not to the inferior natural quality of the American male voice, but to the fact that speaking nasally, while it injures the deeper voice of the man, has no effect upon the higher voice of the woman. Yet I have numbered fine American men singers among my pupils, the elder Whitney, Charles Adams, and Alberto Lawrence be­ing of that class.

“To begin right is with the singer an all important matter. Many have fine voices, yet they do not de­velop as they should. One of the great drawbacks to which this is due is neglect of a sound system of respiration.

“Learn gradually, master one difficulty at a time.

“Do not overstrain.

“Develop the technical and the esthetic hand in hand. Cultivate the mind as well as the voice.

“Use your powers of observation, and apply to your needs the example of great artists to whom you listen.”

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