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Friday, June 12, 2009

Alfred Piccaver: A Great English Tenor Fom Long Ago

The phrase "Great English Tenor" is close to being a contradiction in terms—like "Jumbo Shrimp" or "Government Intelligence," but in fact Alfred Piccaver was a superb operatic tenor. There is no other English-born tenor I can think of who even comes close. The reason his name is not much known now is largely that he was born 126 years ago, in 1883. He was born in Northern England, and emigrated at a young age, with his parents, to America. I believe the family name was Peckover, a fairly common northern English name. He spent his early youth in the US, and studied in New York. He never felt at home in America, however, and later became an English citizen. Another reason he is not well known now is that his career was almost exclusively in Vienna, where he made his debut in 1910 and was an instant success with the opera-loving Viennese. He would go on to sing over 25 years at the Staatsoper, enjoying an enormous success there. He was so fond of Vienna, and the Viennese way of life, that he essentially became a permanent resident. Gatti-Casazza, general manager of the Metropolotan Opera, reportedly offered him a very lucrative contract in the 1920's to sing at the Met, but he declined, simply because he was so happy in Vienna. The result of this snub was that he was never again offered an opportunity to sing at the Met. This might sound like a head-strong and foolish move on Piccaver's part (today it certainly would be) but one needs to remember that the Met was not the international house then that it is today. On the contrary, Vienna, a major European cultural center, would have out-ranked it.

Puccini had the opportunity to hear Piccaver sing, and was greatly impressed. He said that Piccaver was his "ideal Rodolfo." Extraordinary praise indeed for an English tenor from an Italian composer! Piccaver of course had to leave Vienna eventually, when the war clouds began to gather. He went back to England, and did a fair bit of singing and some teaching there. He returned to Vienna after the war, and died there in 1958. He was given a state funeral, so permanently had his memory been etched upon the Viennese.

One of the best recordings of Piccaver on the web is Floristan's beautiful and poignant aria from Beethoven's Fidelio, "Gott, welch dunkel hier!" In this selection you can hear vintage Piccaver: the style, musicianship, vocal fluidity and impeccable diction all combine to make it a real listening treat. This aria is exceptionally beautiful to begin with, and then declamatory at the end, when Floristan, in prison, sees a vision of Leonora beckoning him to Heaven. Many tenors ruin it by screaming at the end, as though they were singing Wagner instead of Beethoven. Not Piccaver. I consider this an almost perfect execution of this touching, superb piece of music. Notice the transition at 4:10 into the dramatic part of the piece. He never breaks the style, he never shouts, he simply sings, as though he were singing Mozart, which is a much better mode for singing Beethoven than any Italian dramatic kind of singing would be. The video has English subtitles, so it is easy to follow:

Isn't that beautiful! He was already 45 years old in 1928, when this recording was made! The velvety smoothness of the singing (and he sang Wagner the same way) was a hallmark of the era and one of the things we have lost today. Piccaver dated to an era when people actually listened to lyrics, because much opera (Puccini, for example)just wasn't that old. Halls were smaller, orchestras were smaller, and the darker Italian singing, with its low-larynx, heavily covered, roaring sound, was not yet developed, and not much in vogue generally, and certainly not in Vienna. Piccaver's voice, like almost all the voices trained at that time, is "white," and employs an open kind of phonation which greatly facilitates pronunciation. It is not as easy to sing very high with this kind of voice, but Piccaver could, in his youth. He had a high C, which he used in Bohème. His recording of "O paradiso!" has two stellar B naturals in it.

Here is Piccaver as a man of about 61, singing a popular patriotic English song of World War II:

Finally, here he is singing for wounded war veterans, in l932, in an ancient film. Here you can actually watch him as he sings "For You Alone."

Yes, Virginia, there really is such a thing as an English opera tenor—very few, to be sure—but at least one great one!


corax said...

LOL! 'jumbo shrimp'!

so much for the english. [i recall your commenting on an englishwoman, long ago, that she had a 'small but unpleasant voice.']

now, what about *irish* tenors? so near and yet so far ... ? is it the difference, in a nutshell, between the teutonic and the celtic?

Edmund said...

Bingo! You nailed it, as usual. Teutonic and Celtic. Yes, that's it, essentially, but with a slight twist: there are many really good male Germanic opera singers, but almost no (good)English male opera singers. Since the Anglo-Saxons are so close to the Germans, I have always wondered why, and I think it boils down to two things: distinct cultures and different languages. German is actually not as bad for classical singing as people think, because of the umlauts. The "er" (think of the sound of the "r" in the word "bird") conduces to good vocal production. Take the umlauts away, however, and you get into the English language problem, which is that if you umlaut a sound unnaturally, people laugh, and if you sing it flat out, it's brassy and generally uglier than hell. That is THE problem with singing in English. Piccaver spent so much time in Vienna (his German is perfect) that he actually developed a slight German accent in English, his native language. It was a smart move on his part to live and sing in a German speaking environment. It helped him a lot. On the cultural side of the coin, the expansiveness of opera does not suit the 19th and early 20th century sense of upper or upper middle class English manhood, which is stiff, and understated. There is a marked disdain for anything overtly emotional. They were very good at sniffing and harrumphing at that kind of thing. OK for foreigners, but, well, you know..........stiff upper lip, and all that, old chap.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article; the comments are very interesting too.
He was great. A very cultured singer with a fine voice.Are there any recordings of complete operas with him?
“Piccaver spent so much time in Vienna (his German is perfect) that he actually developed a slight German accent in English, his native language.”
This is exactly what I thought , when I heard him! It’s easy to mistake him for a German singer.
“There is a marked disdain for anything overtly emotional.” Or maybe they considered profession of an operatic singer too “low”?

Edmund said...

There are no full operas featuring him. He goes back in time too far. It would have taken a stack of records 1 meter high to hold a full opera:) Probably his best years were 1912 to 25; there is one recording available that featues recordings from that period.

It is very hard to say what the lack of great male singers in England means. I do think it has something to do with the English temperament. They tend to be reserved. The other cultures in the British Isles--especially the Irish and the Welsh, are just the opposite--they have produced great singers, and they alsol tend to be seen by the English as overly-emotional.

Neville Mackinder said...

Just for the record I write as a
'native' of Long Sutton which is most definitely not in Northern England. It is actually situated on the Wash in the fens 3 miles from the Norfolk border in South Lincolnshire. I knew the Piccavers (pronounced by the locals as Piccayver,although also sometimes with the stress on the first syllable, but as Piccarver on
the international scene. Long Sutton parish church has a marble bust to its almost unknown son which was presented in 1986. The
Piccaver family home as I knew them is still there in Long Sutton I plead as guilty as every-
body else in my ignorance of my fellow Suttonian, not discovering him seriously until my middle age although training as a professional
musician at the G.S.M. Even now, the clips I am able to play on goog
le are totally unbelievably amazing. Neville Mackinder. Norfolk

Neville Mackinder said...

I have just checked the 1881 census
3 years before Alfreds birth. It gives a farmer in Bourne south Lincolnshire with the name PICCAVER, related or not I have to find.Where did the PECKOVER idea come from? The facial similarity to the Piccavers I knew with Alfered's photographs is truly remarkable.


It is diappointing that your Amnerican writers think there were never any great English tenors - what about Walter Widdop, one of the greatest Wagnerian tenors: what about Joseph Hislop, whom the Swedes considered one of the finest ever - he even taught Jussi Bjorling! What about Heddle Nash, who was compared to Caruso by one of the foremost critics of his day. Walter Midgely - he who swallowed his (false) mustache during an operatic appearancew but still manfully struggled on to the end! I could go on, bu suffice it to say that although we do not sing the praises of our singers as do the AmerIcans, seek them out and you will be surprised. Eric Taylor

Edmund St. Austell said...

Very good point. Thank you very much, it needed to be said!

Svensk Spinto said...

Thank you for your thoughtful posts. I wonder, however, if there may be some confusion regarding Puccini's remark. I believe the great composer made that comment after hearing the wonderful Scottish tenor and teacher of Jussi Bjorling, Joseph Hislop, in his 1920 Covent Garden debut in Boheme. It is referenced here:

Edmund St. Austell said...

I'll certainly look into it! Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

Edmund StAustell