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Success in Concert Singing - An Interview with the Distinguished English Contralto Mme. Clara Butt


[Editor’s Note.—The exceptional popularity of Mme. Clara Butt not only in England and America but in South Africa, Australia and on the European continent easily makes her one of the best known singers of our time. Endowed with a wonderful contralto voice, splendid stage presence and constant experience in singing since childhood she naturally has an interesting message for Etude readers. Mme. Butt was born at Southwich, Sussex, England, February 1, 1873. After studying with Daniel Rootham, she gained a scholarship at the Royal Academy, where she went under the tuition of Mr. J. H. Blower. Later she studied in Paris with M. Bouhy and in Berlin with Mme. E. Gerster. Her debut as a mature singer was made at Albert Hall, London, December 7, 1892, in the role of Ursala in Sullivan’s Golden Legend. She became associated in her concert work with Mr. R. Kennerly-Rumford, whom the Grove Dictionary describes as “a baritone singer of remarkable excellence.” They were married in 1900, and have since toured jointly with immense financial success.]

Thumbnail image for clara_butt.jpgHEALTH AND SINGING.

“It must be obvious to all aspiring vocal students that splendid good health is well nigh indispensable to the singer. There have been singers, of course, who have had physical afflictions that have made their public appearances extremely painful, but they have succeeded in spite of these unfortunate drawbacks. In fact, if the young singer is ambitious and has that wonderful gift of directing her efforts in the way most likely to bring fortunate results, even physical weakness may be overcome. By this I mean that the singer will work out some plan for bringing her physical condition to the standard that fine singing demands. I believe most emphatically that the right spirit will conquer obstacles that often seem impassable. One might safely say that nine-tenths of the successes in all branches of artistic work are due to the inextinguishable fire that burns in the heart and mind of the art worker and incites him to pass through any ordeal in order to deliver his message to the world.


The cruel part of it all is that many aspire to become great singers who can never possibly have their hopes realized. Natural selection rather than destiny seems to govern this matter. The ugly caterpillar seems like an unpromising candidate for the brilliant career of the butterfly, and it oftentimes happens that students who seem unpromising to some have just the qualities which, with the right time, instruction and experience, will entitle them to great success. It is the little ant who hopes to grow iridescent wings, and who travels through conservatory after conservatory, hoping to find the magic chrysalis that will do this, who is to be pitied? Great success must depend upon special gifts, intellectual as well as vocal. Oh, if we only had some instinct, like that possessed by animals, that would enable us to determine accurately in advance the safest road for us to take, the road that will lead us to the best development of our real talents—not those we imagine we may have or those which the flattery of friends have grafted upon us. Mr. Rumford and I have witnessed so much very hard and very earnest work carried on by students who have no rational basis to hope for success as singers, that we have been placed in the uncomfortable position of advising young singers to seek some other life work.”


The eternal question, “At what age shall I commence to study singing?” is always more or less amusing to the experienced singer. If the singer’s spirit is in the child nothing will stop his singing. He will sing from morning until night, and seems to be guided in most cases by an all-providing Nature that makes its untutored efforts the very best kind of practice. Unless the child is brought into contact with very bad music he is not likely to be injured. Children seem to be trying their best to prove the Darwinian theory by showing us that they can mimic quite as well as monkeys. The average child comes into the better part of his little store of wisdom through mimicry. Naturally if the little vocal student is taken to the vaudeville theatre where every imaginable vocal law is smashed during a three-hour performance, and if the child observes that the smashing process is followed by the enthusiastic applause of the unthinking audience, it is only reasonable to suppose that the child will discover in this what he believes to be the most approved art of singing.

It is evident then that the first thing which the parent of the musical child should consider is that of teaching him to appreciate what is looked upon as good and what is looked upon as bad. Although many singers with fine voices have appeared in vaudeville, the others must be regarded as “horrible” examples, and the child should know that they are such. On the other hand, it is quite evident that the more good singing that the child hears in the impressionable years of its youth the greater will be the effect upon the mind which is to direct the child’s musical future. This is a branch of the vocalist’s education which may begin long before the actual lessons. If it is carefully conducted the teacher should have far less difficulty in starting the child with the actual work. The only possible danger might be that the child’s imitative faculty could lead it to extremes of pitch in imitating some singer. Even this is hardly more likely to injure it than the shouting and screaming which often accompanies the play of children.

The actual time of starting must depend upon the individual. It is never too early for him to start in acquiring his musical knowledge. Everything he might learn of music itself, through the study of the piano or any other instrument, would all become a part of his capital when he became a singer. Those singers are fortunate whose musical knowledge commenced with the cradle and whose first master was that greatest of all teachers, the mother. Speaking generally, it seems to be the impression of singing teachers that voice students should not commence the vocal side of their studies until they are from sixteen to seventeen years of age. In this connection, consider my own case. My first public appearance with orchestra was when I was fourteen. It was in Bristol, England, and among other things I sang Ora Pro Nobis from Gounod’s Workers.

I was fortunate in having in my first teacher, D. W. Rootham, a man too thoroughly blessed with good British common sense to have any “tricks.” He had no fantastic way of doing things, no proprietary methods, that none else in the world was supposed to possess. He listened for the beautiful in my voice and, as his sense of musical appreciation was highly cultivated, he could detect faults, explain them to me and show me how to overcome them by purely natural methods. The principal part of the process was to make me realize mentally just what was wrong and then show me what was the more artistic way of doing it right.


After all, singing is singing, and I am convinced that my master’s idea of just letting the voice grow with normal exercise and without excesses in any direction was the best way for me. It was certainly better than hours and hours of theory, interesting to the student of physiology, but often bewildering to the young vocalist. Real singing with real music is immeasurably better than ages of conjecture. It appears that some students spend years in learning how they are going to sing at some glorious day in the future, but it never seems to occur to them that in order to sing they must really use their voices. Of course, I do not mean to infer that the student must omit the necessary preparatory work. Solfeggios, for instance, and scales are extremely useful. Concone, tried and true, gives excellent material for all students. But why spend years in dreaming of theories regarding singing when everyone knows that the theory of singing has been the battleground for innumerable talented writers for centuries? Even now it is apparently impossible to reconcile all the vocal writers, except in so far as they all modestly admit that they have rediscovered the real old Italian school. Perhaps they have. But, admitting that an art teacher rediscovered the actual pigments used by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt or Raphael, he would have no little task in creating a student who could duplicate Mona Lisa, The Night Watch or the Sistine Madonna.

After leaving Rootham, I won the four hundred guinea scholarship at the Royal College of Music and studied with Henry Blower. This I followed with a course with Bouhy in Paris and Etelka Gerster in Berlin. Mr. Rumford and I both concur in the opinion that it is necessary for the student who would sing in any foreign language to study in the country in which the language is spoken. In no other way can one get the real atmosphere. The preparatory work may be done in the home country, but if one fails to taste of the musical life of the country in which the songs came into being, there seems to be an indefinable absence of the right flavor. I believe in employing the native tongue for songs in recital work. It seems narrow to me to do otherwise. At the same time, I have always been a champion for songs written originally with English texts, and have sung innumerable times with programs made from English lyrics.


The idea that concert and recital work is not as difficult as operatic work has been pretty well exploded by this time. In fact, it is very much more difficult to sing a simple song well in concert than it is to sing some of the elaborate Wagnerian recitatives in which the very complexities of the music make a convenient hiding place for the artist’s vocal shortcomings. In concert everything is concentrated upon the singer. Convention has ever deprived him of the convenient gestures that give ease to the opera singer.


The selection of useful material for concert purposes is immensely difficult. It must have artistic merit, it must have human interest, it must suit the singer, in most cases the piano must be used for accompaniment and the song must not be dependent upon an orchestral accompaniment for its value. It must not be too old, it must not be too far in advance of popular tastes. It is a bad plan to wander indiscriminately about among countless songs, never learning any really well. The student should begin to select numbers with great care, realizing that it is futile to try to do everything. Lord Bolingbroke in his essay on the shortness of human life shows how impossible it is for a man to read more than a mere fraction of a great library though he read regularly every day of his life. It is very much the same with music. The resources are so vast, and time is so limited, that there is no opportunity to learn everything. Far better is it for the vocalist to do a little well than do much ineffective.

Good music well executed meets with very much the same appreciation everywhere. During our present tour we shall give almost the same programs in America as those we have been giving upon the European Continent. The music-loving American public is likely to differ but very slightly from that of the great music centres of the old world. Music has truly become the universal language.


In making a repertoire the student might look upon the musical public as though it were a huge circle filled with smaller circles, each little circle being a center of interest. One circle might insist upon old English songs, such as those delightful tunes of Dr. Arne, Carey and Monroe, another circle might expect the arias of the old Italian masters, Carissimi, Jomelli, Sacchini, or Scarlatti, another circle would want to hear the works of the great German lieder writers, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, Franz and Wolf; still another circle might go away disappointed unless they heard something of some of the ultra modern writers, such as Strauss, Debussy, or even the latest freak of “musical cacophony” Schönberg. However diverse may be the individual likings of these smaller circles, all the members of your audience are united in liking music as a whole. The audience will demand variety in your repertoire, but at the same time it will demand certain musical essentials which appeal to all. There is one circle in your audience that I have purposely reserved for separate discussion with the readers of The Etude. That is the great circle of the concert goers who are not skilled musicians, who are too frank, too candid to adopt any of the cant of those social frauds who revel in Reger and Schönberg just because it might stamp them as real connoisseurs, but who really can’t recognize much difference between the Liebestod, Tristan und Isolde and Rule Britannia, but the music lovers who are too honest to fail to state that they like The Lost Chord and similar pieces. Mr. Plunkett Greene, in his recent work upon song interpretation, makes no room for the existence of songs of this kind. Indeed, he would cast them all to the waste paper basket. This seems to me a huge mistake. Surely we cannot say that music is the monopoly of the few who have schooled their ears to swallow strange dissonances with delight. Music is perhaps the most universal of all the arts, and with the gradual evolution of those who love it a natural audience is provided for music of the more complicated sort. We learn to like our musical caviar with surprising rapidity. It was only yesterday that we were objecting to the delightful piano pieces of Debussy, who can generate an atmosphere with a single chord just as Murillo could generate an emotion with the stroke of the brush. It is not safe to say that you do not like things in this way. I think that even Schönberg is striving to be true to his muse. We must remember that Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner and Brahms passed through the fire of criticism in their day.

The more breadth the singer puts into her work the more likely is she to reap success. Time only can produce the accomplished artist. The best is to find a joy in your work and think of nothing but large success. If you have the gifts it will surely come to you.


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