Lotte Lehmann and the Bonding of the “Registers”⏤Part 1

One of the advantages of writing a blog is that, while one remains alert to events in the here and now that seem to demand attention, one is not obligated to them, and can instead choose as subject something of more fundamental and lasting interest. Today’s post, the first of two on this subject, does in fact respond to a recent event, but not one that would gain much traction as a “hook” in the journalistic world at large. That would be the release of a four-CD set of the acoustic recordings of Lotte Lehmann from the Marston label, done with the exemplary technical restoration and documentation we’ve come to expect from that source.

There are a hundred compelling reasons to listen to Lehmann, foremost among them the sheer enjoyment and emotional reward of hearing interpretations that, besides being for the most part wonderfully sung, are among the most personal and dramatically urgent ever recorded. So upon reconsidering her, it’s very tempting to write about her as an interpreter, especially with respect to the roles for which she became internationally famous (the Marschallin, Sieglinde, Fidelio) and the Lieder she sang so inimitably. That’s how she’s usually written about. Here, though, I’d like to focus on a question of functional technique, the actual structuring of her voice, without which Lehmann’s most precious qualities—her directness of expression, her sense of a spontaneous release of emotion and intent like that of a great actress standing on the cusp between the old elocutionary style and the modern acting sensibility—would have been compromised. (Or, as the megastar teacher Mathilde Marchesi said—and more on her below—”Every art consists of a technical/mechanical part and an aesthetical part. The singer who cannot overcome the difficulties of the first part can never attain perfection in the second, not even a genius.”) Marston’s superb compilation, which starts with her earliest and rarest recordings (two Lohengrin excerpts from 1914) and ends with a few electrical Odeons that extend to 1932) afford us the chance to hear those qualities and examine that structuring, that “technical/mechanical part,” in the early stages of her long career.

In my own thought and work, I’ve been trying to rid myself of the word “register”—hence the quotation marks. That isn’t because I’m a denier. It’s for two reasons. First, a “register” doesn’t sound like an activity of the elastic, fluid human body. It sounds like either something fixed and mechanical (the term was apparently drawn from keyboard parlance, where⏤thinking of the organ and pre-pianoforte keyboard instruments, it makes some sense, and does refer to “mechanisms,” a word Garcia used), or something visual, as in pre-digital printing processes (“Those plates are out of register”). The human body doesn’t have mechanisms. It has processes, co-ordinations. Second, “register” has too many associations with old debates about sources of timbral groupings, particularly “chest” and “head,” and sometimes (see below) “middle.” The early Italian pedagogues spoke of “voices,” as in “voce di petto,” “voce di testa,” and in some later elocutionary tracts (what would come between your chest and your head?) “voce di gola.” But “having”  two or three voices sounds like growing two or three heads that now have to be somehow combined, and anyway a voice is more something we do than something we “have.”