DIVAS: Mathilde Marchesi and her Pupils by Roger Neil – out now Danielle de Niese’ pedagogical parentage traced back to Marchesi and Porpora



by Roger Neillon June 1, 2017 (June 1, 2017)

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts


When Mrs. Helen Armstrong auditioned for Mathilde Marchesi in Paris in 1886, Marchesi immediately called out to her husband Salvatore, ‘J’ai trouvé une étoile’ – ‘I’ve found a star’. Mrs. Armstrong was to become Dame Nellie Melba.

In fact, Marchesi had already been turning out leading prima donnas from around the world for three decades at that point and she was to continue to do so for a further twenty years – so many of them from North America and Australasia. Her fifty-year-plus career was altogether an astonishing achievement, one completely unmatched by any other singing teacher before or since.

Although her own early teachers included composers Felix Mendelssohn and Otto Nicolai, the turning point in the German-born Marchesi’s life came when in 1845 she became a pupil of the younger Manuel Garcia in Paris. The consequence of her years with him was that she was to devote her life to coaching singers – women only – who would become leading performers in the ‘Golden Age’ that ran between around 1870 and the First World War.

The hallmark of her greatest pupils was complete mastery of the bel canto style, which, ironically, went into decline over that very period, the musical reins being taken up by the emergence of verismo in Italy ‒ led by Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini ‒ and of Wagner and his followers in Germany. Nevertheless, many of her best pupils became divas, not only in the bel canto repertoire but also in verismo and Wagner.

The Golden Age that coincided with the late nineteenth century was not the first such, but the third. Her teacher Manuel Garcia II provided for Marchesi a bridge to the previous one, whose leading lights included Garcia’s father (the tenor Manuel Garcia I), and Manuel II’s two legendary prima donna sisters, Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot, plus a host of other great names – Giuditta Pasta, Giulia Grisi and Jenny Lind among them. And before that Golden Age of the early- and mid-nineteenth century was an even earlier one in the eighteenth century, featuring singers such as the castrati Farinelli and Caffarelli, and the founding fathers of the teaching of bel canto – Nicola Porpora, who taught Giovanni Ansani, who taught Manuel Garcia I, who taught his son Manuel II, who taught Mathilde Marchesi.        

In Marchesi’s earliest years as a Conservatoire professor in Vienna and Cologne, her pupils came overwhelmingly from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, among them several who went on to become famous divas of the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s ‒ including Gabrielle Krauss, Ilma di Murska, Etelka Gerster (who for a while became a serious rival to Patti) and the great Wagnerian Katharina Klafsky. One of her Austrian pupils from this period was the soprano Elise Wiedermann, who, following a brief career in Europe performing mostly Wagnerian roles, emigrated with her husband to Australia, where she taught a generation of young singers in Melbourne and proselytized there for Marchesi. 

One of Marchesi’s greatest pupils, Ilma di Murska, had already toured Australasia accompanied by massive media coverage. And she was followed there by a steady stream of other Marchesi pupils, both foreign and Australian, most prominently Nellie Melba herself. From Marchesi’s first years as a teacher, young women were also coming to her from America, the earliest of these including the contralto Antoinette Sterling and sopranos Emma Abbott and Emma Nevada.

When she left her role at the Conservatoire in Vienna in 1878 to set up a private studio in the city, pupils started to arrive from many other parts of Europe, notably the Russian Nina de Friede and the Swede Sigrid Arnoldson. Both of them was to benefit in due course from the newfangled technology of sound recording. They are the earliest Marchesi pupils that we can still hear today, each of them demonstrating clearly the characteristic markers of the Marchesi method.     

Marchesi moved her school to Paris in 1881 and twenty-eight of her pupils from Vienna traveled with her. While many of her early pupils in Paris fell by the wayside, several others succeeded, either as performers or as teachers, the most significant of them including the definitive Carmen of her generation, French soprano Emma Calvé, the Belgian Blanche Arral and the leading Brünnhilde at Bayreuth, Swedish dramatic soprano Ellen Gulbranson.

Then, following the arrival of two of her greatest students in 1886 ‒ the American Emma Eames and the Australian Nellie Melba ‒ young women came in droves, including many more from America, Australia and New Zealand, in search of the magic formula which might lift them to prominence, among them Americans Suzanne Adams, Sibyl Sanderson, Yvonne de Treville, Estelle Liebling, Elizabeth Parkina and Felice Lyne, and Australians Frances Saville, Amy Sherwin, Ada Crossley, Amy Castles, Frances Alda and Evelyn Scotney.

The only British-born singers to achieve prominence from Marchesi’s Paris years were the Scottish Mary Garden (briefly) and the English Miriam Licette. And, having started her teaching practice five decades previously with a class filled with singers from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, among Marchesi’s last crop was the great coloratura soprano from the Court Opera in Vienna, Selma Kurz.

How many pupils in all did Marchesi have over the five decades that she taught? When I first started thinking about this some twenty years ago, the Australian musicologist Professor Jeff Brownrigg, gave me a list that he had of those then known to him. There were thirty-nine women on that list and my immediate response was that this number seemed too high and that several young ladies may have wishfully embellished the truth about their musical education. Intrigued, I started to the process of verifying the names – were they really all pupils of Marchesi? Then I went on to see if there were others who might have been pupils too.

It seems that indeed nearly all those named singers had been Marchesi students. What is more, new names kept turning up and, to date, I have a list in excess of 500 pupils of Mathilde Marchesi, some 140 of them coming from North America and a further 60 from Australia and New Zealand. And more undoubtedly will emerge from the shadows in coming years. So many of these young women, in turn, started to teach others that Marchesi’s legacy runs into thousands, all over the world. Among her pedagogical grand- and great-grandchildren are Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Gladys Moncrieff, Sylvia Fisher, Maria Jeritza, Gertrude Lawrence, Beverly Sills, Kiri Te Kanawa, Danielle de Niese and Meryl Streep.

The last-named of these, Meryl Streep, was taught by one of Marchesi’s later pupils in Paris, Estelle Liebling, so her lineage goes straight back to Porpora in the early eighteenth century. Known primarily as a great actress, Streep has recently sung extensively in three musical movies ‒ Mama Mia, Into the Woods and Florence Foster Jenkins. The young Australian-born bel canto specialist, Danielle de Niese, has a longer line connecting her to Marchesi (and Porpora). She is a pupil of Kiri Te Kanawa, who in turn was taught in New Zealand by Sister Mary Leo, a pupil of Irene Ainsley, who was taught by both Marchesi and Melba. 

So what had happened to make this particular woman such a magnet for talented young singers from around the world? Who was Mathilde Marchesi? How had she managed to become such a byword for vocal excellence? What was her winning formula? And why was it that she seemed to polarise response from her students – some idolizing her unreservedly, while others rejected her?  

Although Marchesi wrote some fascinating memoirs (which came out in three successive versions between 1877 and 1897) and, although since that date there have been biographies of several of her most prominent pupils, including six on Melba alone, until now there has been no published exploration of the life and work of Mathilde Marchesi and the resulting careers of her finest pupils. This book is a first attempt to fill that gap.   



Roger Neill

King’s Sutton


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