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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Edmond Clément, The Quintessence of Elegance

Edmond Clément was born in Paris in 1867.  As a young man, Clément entered the Conservatoire de Paris, where it quickly became apparent that he was possessed of a very beautiful high lyric tenor voice.  At the relatively young age of 22, Clément made his stage debut, as did so many artists, at the Opéra Comique, in Massenet’s Mireille.  He very quickly began to earn a reputation as a superbly elegant and polished singer.  He remained a leading tenor at the Opéra Comique for the next twenty years, until 1909.

During this crucially important period, Clément perfected what was going to become the core of his essential repertoire, including Ottavio, Roméo, Werther, Hoffmann, Almaviva, Tamino,and, perhaps most importantly, des Grieux.  Also, given the era in which he sang, he had the opportunity to take part in première performances, including Falstaff, Butterfly and Saint-Saëns’ Hèléne.

By this time, when Clément was in his early 40’s, he began to spread his wings, as it were, and appear outside Paris.  While today we assume that it is natural to move abroad as opportunities present themselves, this was not always the case in the early years of the 20th century.  For one thing, travel was expensive and difficult then, and there is nothing like a transatlantic trip by steamer to wear one out.  Not everyone is constituted to be able to tolerate long trips by boat and rail.  It was common enough for artists who lived in Paris to have their entire careers and never leave Paris, even then considered by many, if not most, to be the world’s greatest city.

However, for Clément it was off to Madrid, Monte Carlo and Brussels.  He did not sing at Covent Garden, but he did manage the big transatlantic trip to New York, to perform in the 1909-10 season at the Metropolitan Opera. This was, however, the heyday of Enrico Caruso, the star tenor of the Met’s roster, and verismo singers such as Enrico Caruso were all the rage at the time, and were basically polar opposites to elegant bel canto tenors such as Edmond Clément.  Clément and others certainly had their audience also, but it was not, shall we say, that of the Italophile Met and its New York Italian immigrant fan base.

He found a very much more appreciative audience in Boston, at the Boston Opera House, where his extremely elegant and polished singing, coupled with his equally refined stage presence,  were greatly applauded. He was a natural Roméo, and a good Don José.  It should be mentioned at this point that  Clément was a superb musician, and a very handsome man, with considerable acting skills.

The year following his Boston triumph saw the outbreak of WWI and Clément, a patriotic Frenchman,  returned to his homeland and joined the Army.  While he did survive, he was  wounded, and was never quite the same after the war.  While he did sing a little, it was nonetheless a period of decline.  He gave a recital at age sixty and died in 1927,the following year, in Nice.  He is remembered, even today, thanks to his records, as one of the most precious and elegant of tenors, the very exemplar of French elegance.

To begin, here is Clément in what may be his signature role, des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon:


Talk about elegance!  That is certainly one of the finest recordings of “Le Rêve” to be found.  Clément scores at every important point in the aria: style, legato, precise enunciation, and simplicity, something often overlooked, which should not be, because it is the bed-rock foundation of elegance!  It is too easy to be excessive, but the true test of an artist’s ability to demonstrate with perfection the intentions of the author is to adhere to a clean, precise simplicity, and at this Clément excels.

Here is a piece that shows an uncommon breath control and command of legato singing, the tenor aria from Boieldieu’s La Dame Blanche, “Viens, gentile dame:

If we can imagine a very long string, or piece of thread, wrapped into a ball, unwinding from the first note of the aria to the last, we have a very reasonable visual image of the legato line extending from the beginning to the end of the aria.  It reminds me a bit of McCormack, but even finer.  This is an elegance that can only be called remarkable.

Finally, here is a song, and while it is not an operatic aria, it is what I always refer to as the oldest continually sung love song of them all, Martini’s “Plaisir d’amour.” Written in 1780 by Jean Paul E. Martini, “Plaisir d'amour” is a very good candidate for being the greatest love song ever written. It has been sung constantly from the moment of its creation until the present day, which is now over 230 years.  It has been sung by folk singers, great opera singers, pop singers, including Elvis Presley, and countless thousands of amateurs.  The song is an absolute classic of beauty, elegance, structural perfection, and essential text: “I loved her, she said she loved me, but she ran off with someone else, now I'm miserable.  The joy of love lasts only a minute, its pain is life-long.”  It doesn't get much more basic than that.  In a word, it is a song tailor-made for Edmond Clément:




Anonymous said...

Yes, Plaisir d’amour is a masterpiece! Thanks for the article, Edmund, I never heard on him before. Now I understand why some opera lovers think that Lemeshev ‘s singing was close to French school:). Edmond Clément is a wonderful lyric tenor, his skills , musicality and legato are perfect, and Russian lyric tenors worked out the same qualities in their singing.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Natalie! So good to hear from you. I agree with you on both counts; Plaisir d'amour is eternally attractive because it fulfills all the requisites of a perfect love song. And Edmond Clement fulfills all the requisites of the French school of elegant singing. That's the essential reason I put that video together; he and that old song just seemed a match made in Heaven! Thanks again, my friend!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Edmund. I did not know about the other Edmond:-) But he was wonderful! I don't know if anyone else has this impression, but he sounds very much like John McCormack to me. Well, not exactly, but pretty close!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Hi Martha: I have had several people tell me the same thing. I don't hear it so much myself, but it's only because I have such a sound in my head of what McCormack sounded like. But I think I know what qualities people are referring to when they make that comparison: the legato, the fine high head voice, the breath control, the sense of style. Many qualities are the same. Thanks, Martha!

JD Hobbes said...

Well, I am not sure about McCormack. I hear Gigli in his sweet voice. I enjoyed this very much!

Thanks, Sir Edmund.

Jing said...

This article and selection of songs seems perfect, and very pleasing, especially since Clément is totally new to me. You are so right, Edmund, about the centrality of simplicity, which under girds everything. When songs like these selections are performed in any other way so much is lost. Since all those here are in French, I would love to hear how he sang Fenton in Falstaff, such a elegant and romantic role (but maybe he sang it in French). The comparison with McCormack is interesting. Stylistically they seem similar, but vocally, apart for the common range, Clément sounds warmer to me, while McCormack seems more intensely focused somehow, more controlled. Whereas Clément manages such beauty even when he approaches a whisper. Perhaps in person they both sounded different, given the old acoustic recording devices. Or maybe any difference to be found is between Irish whiskey and French cognac. To my ear at least, Clément is the more intoxicating.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed, Mr. Hobbes. I always look forward to your comments. You are such a faithful reader! Yes, the Gigli comparison is interesting, although some might say that Gigli's voice had the characteristic Italian "darkness", heavy on squillo, whereas Clement has the "whiter," more open sound of the characteristic French and English tenors. No doubt about the sweetness, however. Clement had one of those voices one could listen to all day long and never grow tired of it. It was so beautiful. Thanks,Mr. HObbes.

Edmund St. Austell said...

For Jing: Thank you so much my friend. Hope all is well with you and your family. Thank you for a fine comment. You are spot-on, and I'm glad we agree about the centrality of simplicity in the "elegance" phenomenon of which Edmond Clement was such an exemplar. Singers with fine techniques and very flexible voices are often tempted to go in for complexity and florid effects, which do of course attract attention, but if overdone even a bit can "make the judicious weep." Simplicity never does that. Like plain vanilla ice cream, some things are hard to improve upon:-) Thanks, Jim, very much!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations and thanks for such an insightful article, coupled with such exquisite recorded selections, regarding the tenor Edmond Clement. The Italo-American soprano Nina Morgana (1892-1986), who toured the U.S. in concert with Caruso during the later years of his career, heard Clement in his prime in Europe and said that in her judgment he had no peers in the French repertoire. In addition to the superb selections heard in this article, Clement's 1912 Victor recordings with his colleague Marcel Journet (perhaps especially their Red Seal disc of the "Pearl Fishers" duet), and those he made with Geraldine Farrar in 1913, still exert their magic with listeners today.

James A. Drake

Edmund St. Austell said...

Dear Jim: Thanks so much for your comment, which is wonderful. I really appreciate the quote by Nina Morgana, and I also appreciate the mention of Marcel Journet and Geraldine Farrar. I really should have mentioned those collaborations in the article, and put up at least the Pearl Fishers duet. Thanks again for the comment; a positive comment from someone of your extraordinary critical reputation is always a great personal pleasure for me. Again, thanks!

Darren Seacliffe said...

One of the best French lyric tenors of all time...There are lyric tenors during Clement's time with the same elegance and refinement in their singing like David Devries, Michel Villabella etc. but none of them had a voice as beautiful as Clement's.

The album I heard several years ago may have some pieces I was ambivalent to at that point of time but Clement made the listening experience a pleasurable one. His voice and singing truly made a great difference.

Many thanks for bringing this legendary tenor to our attention.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much for your comment, Darren! It is characteristically excellent and very much to the point. Good to hear from you, and hope all is going well!

Anonymous said...

Just read your blog re Clément. Love it when folks remember him. I fell in love with that voice while still in high school and then have never had him far from my ears...his is the voice in my mind's ear when I hear much of his répertoire.

I recall some years back that his appearances being mostly at the ¨mini-MET¨ on Columbus circle were in a theater which was one-third the seating capacity of the 39th St. house and thus perfect for his voice, and that he had quite the following and critical success, but that Gatti was just not very interested.. pity. needless to say, the venture did not last and was considered to be bit of a drain. Not sure when they put an end to it. What with ongoing performance at BAM and Tuesdays in Philadelphia, they were mighty busy at the MET back in those days! In the final analysis, it was almost certainly not Gatti's brainchild, but that of the previous administration and a tactical move given the rivalry w/Hammerstein during their last years...'til 1908, to siphon off some of the fashionable French-opera audience.

Lovely post..thanks
FR Cornelius Mattei

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Father. I really appreciate that comment. You have such an amazing range of knowledge of the old days in opera, whereas I had completely forgotten about the mini MET on Columbus Circle. I only knew about what a big hit Clement had been at the Boston Opera and in recital. Thank you very much for stirring our memory!

Anonymous said...

There was another very great light lyric tenor...blessed with a substantially longer career, who was an almost exact contemporary of Clément and of whom I remain ALMOST as fond: Léon David, who authored what is almost certainly the most informative, articulate and delightful autobiography ever a tenor wrote, unless I missed something, which is possible. As a young singer he was in a sense taken under the wing....hilariter the elderly and still enormous Marietta Alboni, none other, of whose latter day activities he gives precious testimony. Do you know his recordings? If not....this one is really, really worth your while, Edmond. But all Clément appreciated gratefully.

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Gerhard Santos said...

Great job Sir Edmund! A really great photo and info. I appreciate it.Thank you!

Gerhard Santos said...

Thank you Sir Edmund for sharing your wisdom and expertise.! Have a wonderful evening!

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