Memories, Caesari and the Bel Canto Tradition

My father's dream was that his eldest son would fulfil his own thwarted ambition and find a career as a classical don in some Oxbridge college. To achieve this end, he was anxious enough to encourage my all-absorbing passion for music and obvious facility as a pianist, which he paraded at every possible opportunity to my great embarrassment and so developed a distaste for any superfluous display in performance, and use it as a passport to a great English Public School with an established reputation for both Classics and Music. The choice of school - one for which I retain an enduring affection both for its humanity and scholarship - was unfortunate: its musical reputation was built upon a choral tradition with an important link to King's College Cambridge, and the Music Director hated Beethoven and all opera with equal venom. And so the child who, since the age of six, had dedicated himself to his piano and violin playing and practised five hours a day, who, at eleven, could learn and master Beethoven's Piano Sonata Opus 2 No 3 in a week, who had so impressed Edward Dunn (the conductor of the Durban Symphony Orchestra) and Sir Thomas Beecham (on tour) that both had insisted that he should be sent to England and who had been welcomed and encouraged to demonstrate his talents in BBC studios by both his uncles by marriage - the conductors Stanford and Eric Robinson - found himself struggling with Herodotus, Euripides, Caesar, Virgil and Horace, condemned to the rugby pitch most afternoons, and allotted three paltry twenty minute periods for piano practice per week: and however he contrived to get round the restrictions (missing school periods, slipping out in the evenings), the course was set.

There were compensations. I had a superb piano teacher for a while in Ronald Styles, who had been a long-term pupil of the great Scottish pianist Frederick Lamond - Liszt's 'last' pupil - and after his death of Louis Kentner to whom I was introduced and from whom by observation I learned much. There was also an introduction through Eric Robinson to Leff Pouishnoff, whose encouragement and support were unstinting. By this time, I had discovered opera: the film 'The Great Caruso' made as great an impression upon me as it did upon each of the 'Three Tenors' - Domingo, Pavarotti, and Carreras - the sheer exuberance and magnificence of Lanza's voice in that medium quite obliterating the deficiencies in his production and style, and so introductions, again through Eric Robinson, to Luigi Infantino. Joan Hammond, and Beniamino Gigli were essential counterbalancing influences - particularly in the case of Gigli whom I heard in the flesh and not through film and amplification. And Oxford provided the opportunity to explore opera further - I remember illuminating lectures by Stansfield (from America) on Verdi's use of Elizabethan melody in 'Otello', experiencing the early direction in production of John Cox, and the jovial supervision of it all by Professor Sir Jack Westrup whose racy translations were hilarious:

'Now the emperor's dead - God speed him -
There's a chance I might succeed him...'

The downside - though even this had its positive dimension, as I believe everything has - was vocal disaster, the result of the kind of destructive tuition that is so very common in this and probably every age. That positive dimension was the determination to reclaim as much voice as possible, and to do whatever I could to help others in this same condition and prevent novices from any such unnecessary experience. In 1959, I was introduced to Edgar Herbert Caesari, whose early work 'The Science and Sensation of Vocal Tone' I had read (and then had it misinterpreted to me by my voice teacher at Oxford), but whom I assumed either to live in Italy - or from guessing at his age, to be dead. And the irony was that he lived in Kilburn opposite a house that I had visited on several occasions in 1956!

Portrait of Maestro E. Herbert Caesari

E.Herbert Caesari, summer 1968
(photo by HP)

Caesari was - to my mind - the greatest, most logical, most patient, most persistent of teachers, known world-wide for his written work, his battles against cant and incompetence, and his loyalty to a tradition of singing that had genuine claim to represent Italian 'Bel Canto' at its best. His contemporary students at Santa Cecilia were Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and Beniamino Gigli, and all three studied for a year under the great baritone Antonio Cotogni. Then Cotogni retired, and each of the three young tenors was allotted other teachers. Caesari's was a disaster - his experience and mine were in this sense parallel - but he found in Riccardo Daviesi, the great Sistine Chapel singer, both salvation and knowledge. Lauri-Volpi famously walked away from his teacher declaring 'This is not how nature intended me to sing' and taught himself. Gigli and Caesari remained close friends and associates until Gigli died in 1957, and the measure of their co-operation is to be found in the introductory chapter which he wrote for Caesari's masterful book 'The Voice of the Mind', in which he dealt with that fundamental process which so many singers make so difficult for themselves - breathing - and one or two matters of style.

Caesari's books, 'The Science and Sensations of Vocal Tone', 'The Voice of the Mind', 'The Alchemy of Voice', 'Tradition and Gigli', and 'Vocal Truth' have long been recognised as amongst the few, very few, seminal works on singing. Indeed, I have pupils who tell me how their tutors at College refer them to these books - particularly 'The Voice of the Mind' - if, (I quote) 'you want to know all about it', and then proceed to instruct them in ways diametrically opposite to those they have apparently just recommended!! And even worse is the case of the language and voice coach who tried to dismiss Caesari on the grounds that he never worked with important singers. Now granted that the coach in question is young enough to dismiss an entire generation of performers because they precede his own, that he dismisses the essential principle of vowel modification on an ascending scale (even though his vocal hero, the late Luciano Pavarotti certainly grasped and preached that principle), and that I have every reason to doubt his ability even to recognise when a voice is 'on voice', as it were, or not, and one will perhaps begin to realise the kind of arrogance and stupidity with which poor students have to deal. In the following simple list of Caesari's pupils, associates and, colleagues, anyone with a modicum of historical sense will recognise a very celebrated cross-section of Twentieth Century operatic life:

Marvine Betch: Tom Burke: Sir Frederick Cox: Bruce Dargavel: Peter Dawson: George Endsley: Edgar Evans: Marcello Feroni: Mary Garden: Beniamino Gigli: Dinh Gilly: Marcella Govoni: John Hargreaves: John Hauxwell: Joseph Hislop: Lorenz Hofer: Shure Hoeglund: David Hughes: Giovanni Inghilleri: Brian Kemp: Malcolm King: John Larson: Kenneth Neate: Afro Poli: Rosina Raisbeck: Meston Reid: Robert Rounseville: Tina Ruta: Tito Schipa: Margaret Sheridan: George Shirley: Paolo Silveri: Luisa Tetrazzini: Ada Tunks: Jess Walters - and in the 1950's a young accompanist named Richard Bonynge worked in his studio where he was led to explore the Bel Canto repertoire and the technique relevant to its performance, an experience which enabled him to help his wife, Joan Sutherland, to her great triumphs in this field.

I worked with Caesari for ten years, often travelling up to London from Brighton after a full day's teaching four times a week, and walking from Victoria Station to Kilburn to save the Number 16 bus fare back in the evening. I was always his last pupil of the day - he preferred it that way, so that his customarily strict half hour limit could be extended at his leisure into the hour or more: and if I let it be known that I was staying in London overnight, he would quickly order me back at 7.00 the following morning to make the most of the occasion! It was always hard work - I, with all the vocal problems invested in me, was determined to prove that whatever I developed was right, and he, in his eighties and undoubtedly tired after his usual twelve hour stint of daily teaching and writing, still managed to provide patience and encouragement and a degree of personal involvement that I have never forgotten and always referred to in the development of my own teaching principles which I hope have come close to his. Teaching is a commitment to one's pupils - I once had a pupil who was told by her previous teacher 'Of course, go for an audition, but never say that you have been taught by me!' - and Caesari's commitment included going to as many of his pupils' performances as he could, to be there, and to be seen to be there. He had no time for gratuitous and unnecessary compliments upon achievement - if he didn't stop you, it was OK - and if that little quiver moved the left hand corner of his mouth, then you knew that you had done something very special and worth-while, and the accolade was 'I think that you've done enough for today.'

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