Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The magic of the human voice

In the world of Opera there is a term which covers a strange happening in the singing of an aria when it appears that the quality is enhanced through some medium which is unaccounted for in the practice of singing - particularly, this is called a "moment" - a moment which cannot be accounted for in rational terms.

When we think of the great Pavarotti singing the "anthem for the Soccer World Cup - "Nessum Dorma" in his homeland of Italy;the scenes of Joan Sutherland in 'Lucia di Lammermoor' - the soprano voice of Elisabeth Schwartzkopf in the Beethoven "Ode to Joy" at Beyrueth in 1951 -and the unforgettable 'Casta Diva' of Monserrat Caballe in Bellini's 'Norma' - or Beverley Sills as Anne Boleyn as she sang her farewell to life the evening before her execution in Donizetti's 'Anna Bolena'.

We have all probably had 'moments' in our lives but possibly one of the strangest I ever had was when we were waiting to move upto Montecassino for the push into the Liri valley after the fourth battle had just ended in the middle of May 1944. We were between Presenzaro and Cassino and the noise was indescribable in it's ferocity as every gun on both sides seemed to be firing in quick succession one after the other - it was an nightmarish cacophany. I was standing in front of my Tank in the early evening watching the firefly's weaving their patterns around the mosquitoes, when suddenly an awesome silence descended and not one gun was firing. The silence on a Battlefield is something strange in itself as not even a cricket would chirp when - suddenly a sound impressed itself upon me..... and the moment revealed itself as the Song of the Nightingale !

I wonder if anyone else had that wonderful experience ?


Blogger Ron Goldstein said...

Regrettably, I can't remember ever hearing a nightingale on the battlefield but, just like Tom, I can remember being equally bemused by the forces of nature.

Strangely enough it was also in the Monte Cassino area, around March 1944.

My unit was perched on a hillside just across the Liri Valley and I was stretching my legs after a long session inside the wireless truck.

The time was the early hours of the morning and it was quite dark except for the almost constant shell and mortar flashes coming from the direction of the Monastry.

What was different was that there was also a storm going on and to my utter bewilderment I realised I could not tell the difference between the lightning flashes and the artillery flashes.

What I quickly accepted however was the fact that the lightning flashes were, statistically anyway, unlikely to harm me and the end result is that to this day I am quite happy to walk in the park during a storm !

Wednesday, 12 April, 2006  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Frank -
I think I know what you mean - I seem to remember being a bit shocked when I first heard it in Tosca with Tito Gobbi belting it out when he had allegedly been beaten to a pulp by his captors - with James Bowman leering away at Maria Callas who then recognises her fate and sings her theme song in the hope that her lover can be spared - "Vissi di arte" - her life for love and art - which somehow reflected hers insamuch as her own life was given up for her love for Onassis who betrayed her in marrying Jackie Kennedy, at a time when her voice was going and she finished up in an apartment in Paris - completely alone and abandoned by all of her so called 'friends' - particularly
Di Stephano.
Many popular songs have their base in Opera - When you think of Amapola and Violetta - they came from Verdi's La Traviatta - and to hear a couple of street urchins sing these as we dis-embarked at Naples - was something else! Nessum Dorma(none shall sleep) is from Turandot a most colourful Opera.... and there are many more !

Wednesday, 12 April, 2006  
Blogger Tomcann said...

This is where I can get carried away with " moments" such as hearing the Roman housewife who claimed that she could sing as well as most of the current singers - so she took lessons for a couple of years and blossomed as Renata Tebaldi - who kept Maria Callas in the shadows for too many years - now to hear her sing "Ebben" from Catalina's "La Wally" is to realise that the funny feeling crawling up your spine - is sheer joy.
Or to celebrate your 21st birthday in the Parthenon Piazza in Rome and watch the funeral cortage of your Mother's favourite composer Pietro Mascagni, whose "Cavaleria Rusticana" and the Easter Hymn is so apropos this week.
or to slide into the bombed out Stadtopernhaus in Vienna and listen to a most beautiful soprano voice before being thrown out - and not realising for two long years that you had been listening to the very young Elisabeth Schwartzkopf. Or equally the two hour long concert by Beniamino Gigli singing for our Brigade near Caserta. Or Patrica ? sitting on his bed for two hours singing "you'd be so nice to come home to" to a chap who had both his legs blown off at the Ancona hospital.With the rest of us in tears !
These were the great moments which keep fresh in my mind of happy memories of an exciting time of my life.

Wednesday, 12 April, 2006  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Frank -
you were not alone when you say that you thought Maria callas's voice was underated by the media - it was by me also as I always put her alongside Tebaldi and Callas always lost.
I think the problem was that she was "in the wings" for too long before hitting the high spots - kept there by the wondefful voices of Tebaldi - Nilsson and others who were top of the heap after the war - particularly in the Metropolitan which didn't have to recover from a war !
Tragically for Callas she made her debut in Greece in 1941 with Tosca and it was not until 1947 at Modena when she was noticed but not again until 1952 did she make her debut at Convent Garden and in the US in 1954 - just as Nilsson and Tebaldi were retiring...she became big time just after that but was fired from the Met - when she joined a famous band of firees from the Met - this now includes possibly the best soprano to-day - Kathleen Battle who could care less about the Met in the same way as Beverly Sills on returning from many years in French Opera, was not wanted as they "didn't know" her - she then started up the New York Opera Co which still gives the Met a rough time !Opera can be as big a battlefield as Cassino or Coriano was !

Wednesday, 12 April, 2006  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Hello folks,

Very interesting reading all your memories on this line. And nobody mentioned singing "The Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers"! For Scottish Regiments the sound of bagpipes rising above the sound of battle, or even the sound of silence always seemed to be a defining sound.

It was strange you should mention about the nightingale. One of the songs I remember my older relatives used to play or sing was 'A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square'. Looking back now there always seemed to be something emotional about it, which those of us born after the war never understood.

Could anyone imagine a more peaceful song about a lone nightingale singing in the the middle of London during the Blitz? Then last year, while writing up one of the accounts I posted to the "People's War" project I learnt why the song was usually listened to in silence. The Ministry of War Transport in WW2 was based in Berkeley Square and they sent out the letters when Merchant Seamen were lost at sea. Two brothers, close friends of my relatives (Billy and George Acton) went down in a Merchant Vessel in 1942 after being torpedoed. In fact another brother was married to my Dad's cousin.

Billy had just been married before going off on this final voyage. Anne Shelton's song about the nightingale seemed to bring back so many memories and emotions, good and bad, happy and sad. Just goes to show the power of song.

Wednesday, 12 April, 2006  
Blogger Peter G said...


The old Italian fisherman's ballad Vieni sul mar ('Come on the sea') predates 'Two lovely Black Eyes'

Wednesday, 12 April, 2006  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Ritson mentions the ballad of the D day dodgers - frankly this was more of a joke against Lady Astor rather than a sentimental thing until the last verse - which was heart tugging.
The sounds of the Pipes playing a lament at too many gravesides was never a moment to be enjoyed.
Peter's song of the sea as a traditional fisherman's song comes closer to the reality as in many cases too many operatic arias became too popular - and obscene - or otherwise and were dropped from the Opera. I am thinking particularly of the Dvorak's Ruelska Opera - the only song to survive was his "Song to the Moon" - the whole Opera was dropped ! Many traditional songs were composed by many famous composers who then slid them into the traditional area as just being "discovered"
I should expand on my comments of Callas in my last comment - I underated her simply for a fault in her voice which is imediately recognised in the aria from Bellini's "Norma" and the singing of "Casta Diva".
On listening to Monserrat Caballe sing this aria, one thinks - when does the lady breathe ? Mind you she has a bigger frame to hold lots of air - then listen to Callas sing the same aria - she of the smaller frame and too many breaths. An even smaller frame is owned by Kathleen Battle who holds a reservoir of air in her mask - i.e.her face cavities - which makes her look like a salmon coming up to spawn. But what a voice - she was born for Mozart's works.

Wednesday, 12 April, 2006  
Blogger Peter G said...

... and here is the full version of Vieni sul mar sung properly by Tito Schipa. It's a very old Neapolitan song.

There are more old Neapolitan songs here.

Wednesday, 12 April, 2006  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Fantastic stuff Peter - Schipa of course was the link between Caruso - and Gigli - while Pavarotti was still at school in Modena with that other great soprano Mirella Freni.
Sadly I only have a re-mastered disc of Schipa with Mafalda Favero singing "suzel de nube" which was recorded in 1937....he is with all the greats though on this disc with the likes of Schumann-Heink - Tetrazinni -McCormack - Galli-Curci - Ponselle - Muzio - Gigli - Tibbett - Turner - Tauber and of course Caruso !
All fascinating stuff in the days when singers didn't need to eat the micrphone in order to be heard mumbling !

Wednesday, 12 April, 2006  
Blogger Ron Goldstein said...


What a cracking site!

I'm referring of course to italiamerica.org and those beautiful Neapolitan songs.

You may be interested to know that when Nita & I were married back in 1949 the waltz we opened the ball to was "Santa Lucia" and this has become 'our tune' wherever we have travelled.

Romantic, innit?

Thursday, 13 April, 2006  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Frank is so right about music being able to solve many problems, and this is why I think that to-day the young are starved of the good music of the past and are surrounded by the satanic cacophany which sends them into so much unusual trouble with society at large.
There is a constant beat to the so called music of to-day which appears to be hypnotic to them and leads them into "new" experiences which invariably ends up with early deaths and the employment of so many "counsellors" who don't seem able to solve the problems but just gloss over them.
This is being assisted by the fact that the up and coming singers 1.e Church - Jenkins - Sissal et al can make more money from making just one disc with a mixture of good and bad music than slogging it out every night performig Aida or Butterfly !
For myself I can become lost - as Frank did in that square at Larnaca, by turning on Beethoven's 6th symphony and walking once more through the Vienna Woods whistling the various themes, the happy gathering of the peasants - the bubbling brook - the cuckoo - the postal van - the storm - the thanks offered after the storm - along with the music.
It's the best pacifier that I know, and sets me up to face anything. Yes Frank - I know what you mean !

Thursday, 13 April, 2006  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Frank – et al….
I gave you what is known as a “Bum Steer” over here when I told you that the “Two Loverly Black Eyes song came from Puccini’s “Tosca” – It does not ! so apologies all around. Simple explanation for this apparent gaffe.
We have three public TV channels over here which you may know something of , the first and probably foremost is GWBH of Boston – the other KCTS of Seattle and we have one here in Burnaby near Vancouver called the knowledge network’
These three are generally the best for classical programmes as they depend on donations
which appear to flow freely into their coffers thus allowing them to buy the best programmes available – and this is where I can back up my library of music – for free !
It would appear that sometime in the past – I recorded a programme of Operatic excerpts this particular one being Tosca. Now I always shut down the recording as I do not need to record the fact that Jenny Sims was the wardrobe mistress nor Jimmy Bailey was the gopher who fetched the beers. Thus leaving the tape available for the next programme of excerpts.
Obviously I had forgotten this fact – changed the channel – and recorded Tito Gobbi singing the Neapolitan song which we now know as “Two Loverly Black Eyes.” And on replaying this tape at a later date being amazed that this song should appear as an excerpt from Tosca.
So many apologies – the tape now displays the Scotland Vs England match where Gazza whips the ball over the centre half’s head and thumps it past his Rangers teammate goalkeeper Goram for the winning goal ! Which reminds me of the old Jewish chap on his death bed requesting that he be buried in the Gazza Strip. Later his nephew demanded tp know why his uncle was wearing the Glasgow Rangers Football uniform !

Thursday, 20 April, 2006  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Frank -
Paul Gascoigne was one of the greatest footballers of our time but unfortunately he had a father who must have been a complete idiot to allow and even encourage his son to spend spend spend - on booze.
WE had a similar display by the late George Best.
Thinking about your area you had Len Shackleton - who didn't know how to handle a knife and fork and so was rejected by the England manager.
One of the greatest of course was Wilf Mannion - the quiet genius who was the humble soul at the end of his career that he started with. Not to mention George Hardwick the England stalwart for so long.
WE can only hope the the current genius'of Gerrard - Rooney - Lampard - Terry remain in control of themselves and bring back some honour from Germany in the summer.

Friday, 21 April, 2006  

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