T. L. (Thomas Lamb) Phipson.

Voice and violin : sketches, anecdotes, and reminiscences online

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it was proposed that they should both play in the
same concert.

" I excused myself," said Paganini, " alleging
that such experiments were highly impolitical, as
the pubHc invariably looked upon these matters as
duels, and that it would be so in this case ; for as he
was acknowledged to be the best violinist in France,
so the public indulgently considered me the best of
Italian violinists. Lafont, not looking at it in this
light, I was obliged to accept the challenge. I
allowed him to arrange the programme.

"We each played a concerto of our own com-
position ; after which we played together a duet by
Kreutzer. In this I did not deviate in the least from
the composer's text whilst we played together ; but
in the solo parts I yielded freely to my own imagina-
tion, and introduced several novelties, which seemed
to annoy my adversary. Then followed a Russian


air with variations, by Lafont, and I finished the
concert with my variations called Le Streghe,

*^ Lafont probably surpassed me in tone, but
the applause which followed my efforts convinced
me that I did not suffer by comparison."

This appears to be the most modest, and at the
same time the most truthful account of this affair,
many singular versions of which were published in
the French and Italian newspapers.

It is well to note that on this memorable occasion
both violinists played upon instruments by the
same maker, Joseph Guarnerius, of Cremona. It
has been long known that Paganini's violin was by
that maker ; indeed, it was his playing that brought
forward the name of Guarnerius. It has been re-
cently shown by Mr. John Day, the senior member
of her Majesty's private band, and a distinguished
pupil of De Beriot, that Lafont also played upon a
violin by that maker.

Mr. Day also informs us that the instrument on
which Lafont played at Milan in 1816 was, after
his death, purchased for the sum of ;^30o by J. B.
Vuillaume, of Paris.



As a lad I went to the Opera whenever opportunity
occurred. It occurred in various ways. Perhaps
my father gave me five francs, and hinted that some
of it should be spent in that manner, or he took
me himself ; or sometimes my music master had
got two tickets, and kindly asked me to accompany
him ; or, again, some English friends on a visit to
Brussels, to whom French was not very familiar,
requested me to accept a seat in their box.

So, for some five or six years, during which the
Italian and French operas were particularly good
in the Belgian capital, I suppose I must have gone
to the Theatre Italien or the Theatre de la Monnaie
about three times a week on the average.

It sometimes grieves me to think that in England

we rarely have a chance of hearing the beautiful

music in which we revelled in those days — that is

to say, between 1849 and 1859. ^^^ ^^^ ^^^^ place,

the same operas are never on the bills ; or, when

some of them do happen to be announced, the

prices are quite forbidding. We should be ruined,



unless we only went to the Opera when tickets are
given away ; and that kind of present, somehow,
always comes at most inconvenient moments, just
when it is quite impossible to go to the theatre with-
out sacrificing some other important engagement.

During the period mentioned I was fortunate
enough to hear the best productions of the modern
Italian and French composers. Rossini's // Bar-
biere was the first opera I ever saw, then his Gazza
Ladra, Mathilda di Sabran, and William Tell ;
Donizetti's Elisire d' Amove, Anna Bolena, La Favo-
rita, and Lucia di Lamermoor ; Bellini's Sonnambula
and // Pirata ; Herold's Zampa and Pre aux Clercs ;
Auber's La Muette de Portici, Dianiants de la Cou-
ronney and Fra Diavolo ; Mozart's // Seraglio ; Cima-
rosa's // Matrimonio Segreto ; Adolf Adam's La
Poupee de Nuremberg ; and, after a little while,
Meyerbeer's Robert le Viable, Le Prophete, and
L'Etoile du Nord ; Verdi's I Lombardi and // Trova-
tore ; Gaveaux' Le Bojiffe et le Tailleur ; Halevy's
Mousquetaires de la Reine, and many other pieces.

The orchestras in the Park, or in the concert hall
of La Grande Harmonic, distinguished themselves
by their performances of the overtures to Rossini's
William Tell and Weber's Oberon, which they played
in magnificent style. I have heard a good deal of
symphonic music since then, but, candidly, nothing
to equal these compositions, or even to approach


One night I went with a fellow-student to see Fra
Diavolo for the third time. It was on the occasion
of the part of the ^' Englishman " being played by
an actor from Paris, and I was fortunate enough to
witness the most ludicrous scene that ever occurred
on any stage in Europe.

The house was crammed. The white and gold
decorations of the boxes, the handsome chandelier,
and the elegant drop-scene were delightful to look
upon. The ladies' toilettes in the balcony were
most elegant, and among their white dresses, be-
decked with flowers and jewels, were seen, here and
there, a few military uniforms, and the dark blue
coats of the pupils of the Ecole Militaire, which
contrasted with the monotonous black evening-dress
of the men.

The orchestra played the brilliant overture with
much dash and expression. We could fancy we
saw troops of brigands marching mysteriously over
the distant mountains depicted on the drop-scene,
whilst the opening bars were being played with all
the delicacy and charm of which those excellent
musicians were capable.

All went well — exceedingly well — until the scene
where the English Milord is informed by the little
captain of the gens d'armes that the brigands are in
the immediate neighbourhood.

The scene is on the first floor of an hotel; a window
at the back of the stage is wide open (for it is a


warm summer night in the South), and through it
is seen the top of the spire of the Httle village church.

Milord, who is excruciatingly comic, is in a dress-
ing-gown and red slippers, and when told about the
brigands he is terribly frightened ; he is so terrified
that he starts backward, alarmed, and throwing out
his arms. In the '' business " of the piece. Lord
Allcash, in his highly terrified condition, has to re-
tire suddenly backwards towards the open window
and nearly fall out, saving himself from such an
accident by spreading out both his arms, which
invariably creates much laughter.

But in the present case the window on the
Brussels stage was rather wider than that on the
Paris theatre, where the actor had previously played,
and instead of saving himself by striking the backs
of his hands on the sides of the window-case, his
hands never reached the sides at all, and he fell
clean out, backwards, leaving nothing exposed to
the audience but his red slippers and the lower
parts of his legs poking up at the open window,
and having for a background the top of the spire of
the village church !

An uproar of laughter such as is seldom heard,
greeted this singular accident — it was the most
ludicrous sight imaginable, though it might have
proved serious to the actor. The orchestra stopped
playing ; the second tenor (the little captain) rushed
to his friend's assistance and pulled him back on to


the stage by his arms, whilst the whole house was
convulsed. The " Englishman " came up looking
ghastly pale and evidently half stunned. For some
moments it was feared that the opera could not be
continued, but after a few signs from the two actors
the piece was resumed amidst the continuous un-
controllable laughter of the public.

Every now and then in the course of the evening
a recollection of this incident would spring up, here
and there, in various parts of the house, and a titter
would arise, which soon spread with marvellous
rapidity throughout the theatre, the artists on the
stage and the members of the orchestra themselves
joining in the general hilarity. It was singular to
observe the magnetic influence of a slight titter thus
begun and at once spreading over the whole house.
This occurred three or four times at intervals be-
fore the piece was ended. Nextj day, every one I
met in the streets complained of sore ribs or painful
sides, as an effect of excessive laughing the previous
night. One man said he had never in the whole
course of his life laughed so much, or suffered such
pain in consequence ; he had not had a wink of
sleep all night. I am glad to say that, except for a
severe contusion at the back of the head, the artist
who played the part of Lord Allcash did not suffer,
apparently, from any serious after-effects.

Another rather ludicrous thing occurred at the
same theatre some months afterwards. It was at


the conclusion of Robert le Viable, when Robert and
Bertram were singing their final duet. The tenor,
wishing to sing his part with exceptional effect,
found the bass getting rather too slow for him, so
he stamped with his foot to accentuate the time.
The men underneath the stage took this for the
sign to lower the trap-door on which the duet is
sung, and at once began to let down the two singers
before they had concluded their parts, which caused
them to stagger into each other's arms, and to dis-
appear amidst a blaze of blue fire several moments
before the song was ended, creating considerable
amusement, and the opera ended with roars of



At the University of Brussels there was once a fine
old professor of Comparative Anatomy, Dr. Meisser,
who was very fond of seeing foreigners in his class.
He himself had studied at Padua as a foreigner,
and afterwards he awarded to his own foreign pupils
the same kindness and attention which he had for-
merly received at the old Italian University.

It was my good fortune as a young man to study
for some years under this worthy old professor, who
became in time a valuable friend as well as a master.

One day, as the examinations were approaching,
I met this learned old gentleman in the street. He
stopped and spoke.

'^ I heard this morning," he said, ^^ that you were
singing last night at Madame van der Maaren's."

"Yes, sir," I replied, " I sang one song ; but pray
do not think I go out often ; I am working hard for
my examination — it was quite by accident that I
was at Madame van der Maaren's, and I shall accept
no other invitations between this and the examina-
tion time "



" It's not that, it's not that/' he interrupted; "but
I thought you were a vioHnist."

" Yes, sir, I am studying the vioHn."

** Well, my dear pupil," said the worthy doctor,
" you must drop one or the other ; " and then, after
a slight pause, he added, " If you sing, it will take
you away from your instrument, and if you play
the violin it will destroy your voice; so you must
give up one or the other if you wish to excel in

As years rolled by I have often thought of those
remarks, and, moreover, I have had ample proof of
their truth.

In time I fancied I had discovered the reason.

Dr. Meisser assured me that hard practice on the
violin or the piano (and probably on any other
instrument) would eventually ruin the best of voices.
Only exceptionally strong constitutions may, here
and there, be found capable of undergoing the
double study, after the preliminary period of the
solfeggio is passed.

The reason of this appears to be that in playing
an instrument the nerves which govern the vocal
chords are incited, so that the person who plays
sings inwardly, more or less, the whole time.

A person in good health, possessing a tolerably
fine quality of voice, who attempts to sing a song
after playing upon an instrument, will find his voice
very much fatigued, his notes will be thin and


harsh or husky, and less under control ; besides
which, there will be a feeling of powerlessness,
especially in the lower register.

It is evident that this results from a strain upon
the nerves of the vocal organs during the perform-
ance of the instrumental music ; and if such a
practice were continued for any length of time, it
would end by injuring the quality of the voice.

Another reason why a would-be violin or piano
virtuoso should never attempt to shine as a vocalist
at the same time, resides in the fact that the public
— the ^' ungrateful public " — will never give any one
credit for being proficient in both. We have known
more than one lady who has sometimes appeared
in concerts both as a solo pianist and as a vocalist
on the same evening, and very clever she undoubt-
edly may be ; but people say, ^^ Considering how
well she plays, she sings wonderfully ;" or, "Con-
sidering how well she sings, she plays wonderfully ;"
which is, at best, "damning with faint praise," as
the saying goes.

It is a well-known fact that people will never
admit that the same person can acquire great
eminence in any two branches of virtuosity, and
nothing will ever induce the public to change its
opinion — vox populi vox Dei !

A curious fact occurs to me with regard to sing-
ing inwardly whilst playing. I have more than
once noticed violinists of eminence who, on coming


off the platform after performing a concerto, spoke
to their friends in quite a husky voice, very different
from their usually clear speech. This is not simply
due to the excitement and fatigue of the moment,
but to the fact that their vocal organs had undergone
a severe nervous strain whilst playing.

It is perhaps more pronounced in the case of
violin-playing than with any other instrument, as
the tone and expression of the violin more nearly
resemble those of the voice, and exert a more intense
sympathetic action upon the nervous system of the
vocal organs.

Another curious fact also comes to my recol-
lection. I know a lady, the wife of an accomplished
violinist. She always had a luscious mezzo-soprano
voice, and sang a few ballads with taste and ex-
pression. For many years she has played the
accompaniments to her husband's brilliant violin
pieces, but practised her singing very little indeed
since she left school. Occasionally she might be
heard humming snatches of the violin music, but
that was all. Nevertheless, in the course of a few
years she became a very fine singer ; not only her
style improved wonderfully, but her powers of exe-
cution and expression increased in a very remark-
able manner. I can only explain this by admitting
that all the time she was engaged in playing the
accompaniments to the violin she was singing
inwardly ; and a very little practice of the scales


in her leisure moments has sufficed to make her
a most charming vocalist.

The g\-Q?Li prima dojina Madame I\Iara, who shone
before the time of Paganini, began life as a wonder-
fully clever child-violinist/ as many another eminent
songstress has done, among whom we may mention
Sembrich, Singelee, and Isidora Martinez, and she
used to recommend a preliminary training on the
violin as being of the greatest advantage to a singer.
But there is a great difference between a preliminary
training and the constant practice of the instrument
and the voice at the same time. It may be true that
a few years devoted to it in early life, before a course
of vocal study is entered upon, would prove in many
cases highly advantageous ; but when once the voice
has been chosen for cultivation the violin must not
be allowed to interfere with it. On the other hand,
the student of the violin must likewise go through
a course of solfeggio before he begins the violin, if
he wishes to become a perfect musician.

^ See my ** Famous Violinists," &c. (London, 1896).

■> > J > J > >



With regard to violins, it is unfair to '' narrow our
minds to three or four makers," as Charles Reade
expressed it. Let us frankly admit and honour
merit where it really exists. Stradivari himself was
not always absolutely the same ; Xicolo Amati varies
in quality, and so does every member of the Guar-
neri family.

Sebastian Kloz (pronounced Klotz^ the z of the
Tyrol being articulated as in Italian) is, perhaps, the
only maker who ever equalled, or even surpassed,
the great Stradivarius ; and whilst some of his
violins have been sold for hundreds of pounds ster-
ling, and occasionally as Stradivari instruments,
other members of his family rarely fetch more than
f^io to X20.

The tone of the violins made during the first half
of this century by Pressenda, Rocca, and Vuil-
laume has caused their prices to rise of late years
by leaps and bounds ; and in Great Britain the in-
struments of Maucotel, Chanot, and Withers, and
other contemporary makers, are rising in esteem
more and more.



•'iViH d ta.CT mat age tells upoii a well-made in-
strument and improves it, especially when it is
in constant use ; but a badly constructed violin,
supposing it could have been found in the Egyptian
Pyramids, would always remain as bad as it origin-
ally was.

Travelling in Waldeck some years ago, the worthy
Burgomaster of Bergfreiheit, near Wildiingen, lent
me for a month an old violin which he told me had
belonged to his '^ blessed father " (an expression of
affection used by the Germans when alluding to
lost parents), which instrument, on close inspection,
was proved to date back at least one hundred and
fifty years. Yet it had nothing in the way of tone
or appearance to indicate that it was ever intended
to be used otherwise than for the music of the village
dances — those exhilarating exhibitions of terpsicho-
rean art which break out occasionally about three
o'clock in the afternoon, to finish at nine P.M., and
do not much interfere with the agricultural or
mining labours of the following day.

It is generally thought that whilst the bow has
improved, the violin has deteriorated in manufac-
ture ; but I believe in progress, even in violin-
making. The utterly bad modern instruments are
easily accounted for : they are manufactured whole-
sale at ridiculous prices, and are only intended for
village orchestras or toys ; and as far as solo-playing
is concerned, they might as well be used for lighting


the fires on cold winter mornings when faggots
happen to be scarce.

But I am going to write a few lines on a violin by
Bertolini. Who was Bertolini ? An Italian, doubt-
less, by the name. But when did he live — where
did he work — how did I find him out ?

I will endeavour to explain all this.

Not very long ago a worthy matron residing in
London, having given her companion six months'
holiday, advertised for a young French lady to fill
the vacant place. In due course there came to
reside with her a handsome girl of nineteen years
of age, from Paris, who played a little on the violin,
and who brought her instrument with her to

I made her acquaintance by mere accident, and
shortly afterwards invited the two ladies to a little
musical evening at Casa Mia. The young Parisian
was kind enough to bring her violin, and played two
or three pieces. She also sang one of Gounod's
songs, accompanying herself upon the violin. It
was a very clever performance, and gave great satis-
faction to all present.

Had I been a sensitive young man — but, alas ! I
have arrived at that time of life when, as Byron
says, "all passions cease, or mellow into virtues."
It was not the handsome young lady, whose elegant
figure, dark tresses, and expressive eyes were
worthy of the greatest admiration, but the violin,


which fascinated me ! The tone of that instrument
was so beautiful, even in the hands of a very inex-
perienced performer, that I at once asked permission
to examine it, inquiring at the same time if she
knew the name of the maker.

" Oh yes," she said, '^ it is by BertoHni."

BertoHni ! That name was quite new to me.
Yet the instrument appeared to be a good age.

" It was not made yesterday," remarked a friend
who was standing near.

Nevertheless, it was in very good preservation.
Let me try to describe it.

The model was flat, and the sound-holes neatly
cut, but in no way remarkable ; the wood not par-
ticularly handsome — rather plain, on the contrary ;
but, like most old instruments, this violin was very

'^As light as a feather," said another lady, who
held it for a moment in her hand. This is a common
symptom of age in a well-made violin. The back
and table were each in two pieces ; the peg-box
and scroll good, but not remarkable at all ; there
were no cracks visible ; the varnish was very thin,
and even (which is one of the characteristics of
old Cremona violins) of a pale reddish-brown tint,
rather dull. But this dulness may have been
due to the fact that the surface of the violin,
back and front, was decidedly dirty. I did not
mention this to the young lady ; but it was like


a child that had not had its face washed for a

Extending in a broad expanse from the bridge to
the right shoulder, was a rather thick layer of black
rosin — the accumulation of ages — black as coal,
which totally hid the varnish, and showed not only
that this instrument had been played upon for a
great number of years, and that the performer had
never wiped away the rosin dust as it accumulated,
but that this performer, whoever he may have been,
must have been self-taught, or, at least, must have
held the violin in some peculiar fashion, to have
caused the deposit of rosin to have spread in such
an extraordinary manner, all on one side of the

Some days later I paid a return visit to these
ladies ; we had some music, and perhaps a little
innocent flirtation. I played a piece on this Ber-
tolini violin.

Of course, if I were to say that it was equal to a
fine Stradivarius, I should not be believed, and I
should be accused of being interested in the beauti-
ful young lady, as well as in the violin ; but, in point
of fact, it was quite as rich in tone as the best
Cremona violins I have ever heard, though less

The name of the maker of the instrument was
only just visible in the inside. It was printed in
characters nearly one-eighth of an inch in size, in


an oval horizontal form, not apparently upon a
label, but impressed upon the wood ; it was very
faint, and the underpart of the oval, on which would
have been the address of the maker and the date,
was quite obliterated and invisible.

Since I had seen this violin for the first time, I
had ransacked all my books and catalogues, with
the view of discovering who this Bertolini could be.
But the labour was in vain. I passed over hundreds
of violin-makers and bow-makers, but no such
name came up to refresh my weary sight.

I can only conclude, from the general appearance
of this instrument, that it probably dates from the
latter part of the eighteenth, or very early years of
the present century.

The next point I endeavoured to elucidate was
how my handsome dark-eyed friend became pos-
sessed of this precious violin. I gleaned in the
course of our conversation that she had a music
master in Paris, who had given her a modern instru-
ment that had cost sixty francs (about £2^ ids.),
which she informed me was ^'horrible," and I
believed her.

One day, as this music master was coming to give
his lesson, he heard an itinerant violinist playing
near the church of La Madeleine. He was struck
by the fine tone of the instrument, and asked the
man if he would part with it. The latter replied
that any violin was good enough for his outdoor


work, and he readily consented to take the young
lady's sixty-franc " horrible " violin and two gold
pieces in exchange for his.

That is how my young French friend became
possessed of one of the finest-toned violins I ever
heard ; and that violin was made by an unknown
man, named Bertolini !

I may add to this that one evening, whilst on my
way to dinner in the Palais Royal, I heard an
itinerant violinist playing in a courtyard the air of
Ange si pure from La Favorite, and taking a separate
bow to each note. The tone of his vioHn struck
me as being the finest I ever heard in Paris ; but I
did not stop to inquire who may have been the
maker of the instrument — I suppose I must have
been hungry — perhaps it was this very violin by

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Online LibraryT. L. (Thomas Lamb) PhipsonVoice and violin : sketches, anecdotes, and reminiscences → online text (page 6 of 19)