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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Set Svanholm: The Many Sides of a Great Musician

Today it is my great pleasure to present another in our series of guest commentators, Dr.Marie-Louise Rodén, whose photo appears to the left. Professor Rodén is Swedish but grew up in the United States and received a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. She is currently Professor of History at Kristianstad University in Sweden, and her research specialty has been the political development of the Roman Papacy in the Early Modern Period. She also has a background in classical music and is currently, together with Daniele D. Godor, preparing a biography of Set Svanholm, which will be published in 2014.


No one living in Sweden can have failed to notice that 2011 marks the centenary of the popular Swedish tenor Johan Jonatan “Jussi” Björling (1911-1960). Jussi fan clubs across the country have had a field day. Radio programs, television documentaries and biographical works have literally rained on his compatriots this past spring. I thought it might be time to redress the balance by introducing readers to another renowned Swedish tenor, Set Svanholm (1904-64.)

Early Years

Set Svanholm was born in Västerås as the second of three sons to Viktor Svanholm and his wife Beda. Viktor Svanholm came from a poor family in Västergötland and signed on as kitchen boy on a cargo boat at the age of 13. An accident with firearms cost him his sight, and two years later he was enrolled at the Manilla school for the blind in Stockholm. When he returned home after completing his education, a sermon by a visiting preacher made such a deep impression on him that he decided to become a clergyman himself. Viktor Svanholm thus became a preacher in a free-church movement, the “Evangelical Foundation for the Fatherland (EFS)”. In an essay about his father from 1963, Set Svanholm recalled that it was his task, even as a schoolboy, to play the organ in religious services. The hymns sung at these services, “with tones from Zion” made an indelible impression on him and shaped his musical sensibilities.

Set Svanholm graduated from gymnasium in 1922 and almost immediately obtained his first position as organist and choir director in Tillberga. In the following years, he completed both elementary and advanced degrees in organ and church music, as well as a general teacher’s certificate and one in music education. In 1929 he obtained the prestigious post of cantor in St. Jakob’s Church in Stockholm, which he retained until 1950. Here is his earliest known recording, (1934) where he is featured as conductor, leading the St. Jakob's choir in the Bach chorale “Jesu, nådens källa (Jesus, Font of Grace.)” It is a brief selection, but provides a good introduction to his musical sophistication and mastery of classical form. He was, from the beginning, a formidable musician:

St. Jakob’s Church was conveniently located right opposite the Royal Opera, and during his first years as conductor Svanholm had a promising tenor among his choristers – Jussi Björling. As Björling’s operatic career prospered, he started skipping rehearsals or just “marking” notes instead of singing with full voice. When Svanholm reprimanded him, Björling quit abruptly by stomping out of the church, slamming the door behind him, only to open it again. He stuck his head in to say: “Get yourself a better tenor – if you can!”

From Church Musician to Opera Singer

Both Svanholm and Björling were voice students of the well-known baritone John Forsell (1868-1941), as was the soprano Nini Högstedt (1909-98) who became Svanholm’s wife in 1934 and gave up her singing career. She then bore him six children, as Anna Russell would have put it.

Svanholm made his debut in 1930 as a baritone, as Silvio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and became a member of the Royal Opera’s ensemble in 1932. All on his own, he began reworking his vocal technique to make the transition from baritone to tenor roles. He was a lyrical Italian baritone, known as “Kavalierbariton” in German, and had always had an easy high register. One day he telephoned his old teacher and announced that he had a promising new tenor that he would like to present – and surprised Forsell by coming to the appointed meeting all on his own!

Svanholm made his debut as a tenor in February of 1936, as soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. His operatic debut followed on September 22 of the same year with Radames in Verdi’s Aida. In the fall of 1937 he began to sing Wagner, with Lohengrin as his first role. In a short time he added Siegmund in Die Walküre, Tannhäuser, Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and both Siegfrieds to his Wagnerian repertoire. Here is Svanholm as Siegmund, in an exceptionally good live recording from 1954:

Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962), the greatest Wagnerian soprano of the age, remarked in her memoirs: “For me there was only one Siegmund . . . that was Set.” It is hard to disagree with her. The baritonal, metallic quality of Svanholm’s voice was a perfect match for this role. A commercial recording from 1957 (Decca) of Die Walküre, Act I, also presents Svanholm at his very best and Flagstad as a surprisingly youthful and convincing Sieglinde – at the age of 62!

Swedish Heldentenor in the Third Reich

Svanholm’s career outside Sweden began in 1938, on the eve of World War II. Bruno Walter had heard him in Stockholm, and invited him to Vienna where he made his debut in Lohengrin. Performances in Germany, Austria, Zürich, Budapest and Prague soon followed. In 1942 he became the first Swede ever to sing at La Scala in Milan (Tannhäuser) and, in the same year, became the only Swede to appear in a major role at the Kriegsfestspiele in Bayreuth. Many vocal artists from politically “neutral” Sweden sang in Germany during the war years: Jussi Björling, Sigurd Björling, Torsten Ralf, Sven Olof Sandberg, and Zarah Leander are names that come to mind. But apart from Leander, who was criticized severely after the war for her activities, Svanholm was probably the Swedish artist most active in the Third Reich during these years. He was a member of the ensemble of the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin and did not leave the German stages until 1944.

There is no real indication that Svanholm was sympathetic to the political policies of the Nazi regime. One plausible explanation for his desire to remain in Germany was the opportunity of developing his interpretations of the great Wagnerian roles in collaboration with Heinz Tietjen (1881-1967), artistic director of the Bayreuther Festspiele from 1931 to 1944.

But Svanholm also had firm invitations from the Metropolitan, Chicago Lyric and San Francisco operas and in 1946 finally crossed the Atlantic for a glorious decade as the foremost Wagnerian tenor of the post-war era.

International Acclaim

Svanholm’s trans-Atlantic career began in South America, where he sang Siegmund and Tristan in Rio de Janeiro. His debut at the Met was on November 15, 1946 in the title role in Wagner’s Siegfried. Svanholm was to remain under contract to the Met until 1956.

The American critics and audiences saw Svanholm as the self-evident successor to Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973), who was nearing the end of his career. Svanholm was unanimously appreciated for his athletic physique (he was only 5 feet 8 inches tall and quite trim at around 136 lbs), but above all for his intelligence, sophisticated musicianship and scrupulous adherence to the score: all of which stood in sharp contrast to the interpretations of “the Great Dane!"

To an international public, Svanholm is primarily recognized as a great Wagnerian, but in fact, his repertoire, both in terms of art song and opera, was broad and diversified. As a last excerpt, here is his interpretation of Schubert’s Der Erlkönig. This recording comes from a Liederabend in 1949 at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Svanholm is accompanied by the fantastic Arne Sunnergårdh:

During his decade in the Americas Svanholm continued to sing at home and performed many roles from Italian and French repertoire, as well as Swedish rarities such as De Frumerie’s Singoalla and Atterberg’s Fanal. By 1956 he was weary of traveling, wanted to spend more time with his family, and thus accepted the position as General Manager of the Royal Opera in Stockholm. Svanholm’s years as manager, too large a subject to discuss here, can be summarized as follows: New music, Swedish music, Niche music. Many works from the modern (Britten, Berg) and older operatic repertoire (Lully, Händel, Mozart’s Idomeneo) were performed in Stockholm for the first time and the most significant premiere of a new Swedish opera was Karl Birger Blomdahl’s Aniara.

There are several reasons why “Set Svanholm” is not a household word, even in Sweden, in the sense that “Jussi Björling” is. Björling’s repertoire was more accessible to a large number of casual opera listeners than the more specialized and demanding roles that Svanholm performed. Above all, Björling made over 240 commercial recordings while Svanholm only made 15. In the aftermath of World War II Svanholm’s main repertoire was, with a few exceptions, ignored by the major record companies. A Wagner “Renaissance” eventually occurred partly thanks to the commercial success of the Solti Ring, where Svanholm only participated as Loge in Das Rheingold. However, many live recordings of this important musician have been preserved, and a number of them are available on labels such as Music & Arts, Gebhardt, Golden Melodram, Bluebell, Preiser, and Caprice.

With thanks to Edmund for inviting me to “blog” and in the hope that some of his readers will either discover or re-visit this glorious voice.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Salvatore Baccaloni: The Best of The Buffos

Not all famous opera singers are tragic heroes or heroines, or archetypal gods and goddesses. Neither are they matinee-idol heartthrobs or possessed of great voices which have to be heard to be believed. No; enter the 300-pound, ludicrously attired Salvatore Baccaloni, who first waddled onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in December of 1940, as Dr. Bartolo, in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. He was to remain at the Met for the next 22 years, making both a great career for himself, and a great deal of money.

The man who would go on to become generally acclaimed as the greatest of the basso buffos was born in Rome, in 1900, where as a child he attended the Sistine Chapel choir school, and later went on to private vocal studies. He studied architecture in school, but music was his true love and he took the first chance that presented itself to try to make a musical career. His first appearance was as Bartolo, at only 22 years of age, at the Teatro Adriano, in Rome. He seems to have done quite well from the beginning, because a mere four years later, at age 26, he was singing at La Scala, in a virtually unknown opera, Pizzetti's Debora e Jaele. Baccaloni demonstrated a willingness, even as a very young man, to take small parts, or appear in obscure operas, because he loved acting and singing, and wherever there was a job, he was up front and ready to do it. This tendency remained with him for his entire life, and it was this willingness to take small parts, with any respectable company, even when he was famous, that made him one of the highest paid singers in opera. He was at the time of his death a very well-to-do man.

Like many, he owed his early success, at least in part, to having been heard and given advice by Arturo Toscanini, who was conducting at La Scala when Baccaloni was singing there. Toscanini's advice was simple: forget the serious roles—stick to character roles and supporting roles, where your comedic acting can shine. Baccaloni was very intelligent; smart enough to know, even as a very young man, that it was the better part of prudence always to follow the advice of a successful man if you want to be successful. In other words, never invest your money on the advice of a poor man. Do the opposite. And it paid off: Don Giovanni, Elisir d'amore, Don Pasquale, Falstaff, Gianni Schicci, the Sacristan in Tosca, Benoit in Bohème, Alfonso in Cosi Fan Tutte, Leporello in Don Giovanni, and on and on. His repertoire is reported to have exceeded 160 roles! He was, when he chose to be, an excellent musician. He could also be outlandish and musically careless on stage, when moved by the comedy of the moment. It should be added that he was, additionally, quite a scene-stealer! But who cares, basically. It goes with the turf. Prima donnas can be demanding, tenors can be maddening, and so on—a great comedian has the right to be silly de temps en temps!

One of Baccaloni's great roles was Dr. Dulcamara, in L'Elisir d'Amore: Here is the huckster selling his snake oil medicine in "Udite, o Rustici!" (You might want to read the comments I put under this video when I posted it...I was having a little fun with it. Comedy is infectious:)

That has to be one of the best versions of this famous comic aria ever recorded. Baccaloni's enunciation is so perfect that it almost seems anyone can understand it, even if they don't know Italian! Coupled with his remarkable acting skills, it must have been a real joy to watch.

It is very important, I think, to realize that one of the things that made Baccaloni more than so many other buffos was that he could actually sing. His genius may have been comedic, but it was based on solid musical and vocal ability, witness Leporello's famous aria from Don Giovanni:

That is not only musically solid as a rock, it is fine singing by any measure.

Finally, something that fascinates me very much, and that is the quintessential understanding Baccaloni had of his own artistic historical roots, which is commedia dell'arte. I have been deeply interested in this artistic tradition from the time I saw my first Punch and Judy show when I was a small child, nearly 70 years ago. I am far from the only one—Agatha Christie was so intensely interested in commedia dell'arte (also from earliest childhood) that it was close to an obsession for her. Her entire series of Harley Quinn stories—which are both mysterious and mythical in nature, reflect this near obsession. The theater of Europe was influenced for nearly 400 years by the commedia dell'arte characters and plots, and it is likely that in their earliest incarnation, which is to say Italian street theater, they go back in part well over a thousand years, perhaps even to the days of ancient Rome. Italian opera composers were certainly well aware of the tradition, and it is very evident in Don Pasquale, which is classic commedia dell'arte. Notice the pathos in Baccaoni's rendition of "Vediamo, a la modista cento scudi....," the duet in which the silly old Pasquale (Pantalone), stupidly obsessed with the idea of marrying the very much younger Norina (Columbina), reacts with horror at the way she is treating him and squandering his money after having been falsely "married" by the devious notary (another stock figure, Scapino). The marriage is obviously unconsummated (she's too busy shopping:) and will soon dissolve, so that she can marry the young Ernesto (Pierrot). While we laugh at Pasquale, it is a bittersweet awakening on his part, and we can actually feel sorry for him. Baccaloni understands this:

Laughter and tears: the buffo's ancient art!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sara Scuderi: I Lived For Art!

Sara Scuderi was born in Sicily in 1906. Her debut was in 1925, at the tender age of 19, in Novara, playing no less a part than Leonora, in Il Trovatore! It is inconceivable today that a 19-year old girl would sing such a role, but it was a different operatic world in 1925, especially in regional theaters, and, to judge from her subsequent success, she can be assumed to have done a pretty good job. She was later signed to a 7-year contract at La Scala, where she attained fame, especially for her interpretation of Tosca, which was, by all accounts, quite spectacular. She went on to sing in all the important theaters in Italy, and throughout Europe. She was particularly well received in the Netherlands, where she was engaged for a long period. She is perhaps not so well known in the United States, as most of her career was in Europe, with some occasional forays abroad, most notably in South America.

She enjoyed a fine career, largely in the 1930's and 40's. She retired at the end of the 40's. Toward the end of her life she lived at the famous retirement home founded by Giuseppe Verdi, the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, where a rather extraordinary film was made of her in 1984, part of which we will see in a moment.

First, her signature role, for which she won widespread recognition:

Isn't that just wonderful!? All the elements are in place; the voice is well suited by color for the part, and the vocalism is excellent, but that is far from being the whole story. Notice the immaculate enunciation. Every single word can be clearly understood, and this leads to stylistic perfection; every important word is stressed, and no shade of emotion or meaning is sacrificed to pure vocalism (something that cannot always be said of sopranos in this role!) What comes through most clearly is fine artistry imbued with intense emotion and, let it be said admiringly, a dash of strong melodrama. This is Italian opera, after all! It is hard to see how this presentation could be improved upon.

It was in Scuderi's portrayal of tragic heroines that she excelled, and a second fine example would be this poignantly tragic rendition of "La Mamma Morta" from Andrea Chenier:

Much the same can be said for this presentation as was said for her "Vissi d'Arte": admirable vocalism and stylistic excellence, blended with what might be called a dignified melodrama (yes, there really is such a thing, at least in opera.)

And now, speaking of melodrama, a real treat. I would like to offer you, as a final testament both to Scuderi and the melodrama of Italian theater, this very moving film clip, made in 1984, when Scuderi was resident at the Verdi Rest Home For Musicians. To me at least, it speaks most eloquently about the very essence of Italian opera, and exactly how Italian singing actors are able to feel about their music, their theater, and their art. I urge you to watch it all—it's just 9 minutes long. Starting around 333, it is all about Scuderi. The entire clip, however, is most interesting:

Vissi d'Arte! I lived for art!