Today, through a random Google search, I learned that more than nine months ago, the great contralto and teacher Mary Davenport passed away in Albuquerque. She died on my birthday, January 17. She was ten days shy of 91.
I am profoundly saddened by her loss. In her memory and honor, I quote in full my chapter on her from The Twilight of Belcanto.
"Sundays in Golders Green"
“It’s too easy to describe the singing of Mary Davenport as a miracle. God did indeed bestow a uniquely lovely timbre on her, the brightest and most golden of all deep contralto sounds, without a trace of what Kathleen Ferrier used to call the ‘goitrous hoot’ of the species.
“But that is not what has enabled Mary Davenport to preserve that timbre, unblemished, through more than four decades of singing, preserve the perfect evenness of scale, the clarity of the sound's definition, the absolute steadiness of tone — some of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody sounded as if an angel had granted a pipe organ the ability to sing legato and phrase poetry with feeling. That is technique and discipline.”
Richard Dyer (Boston Globe, 12 April 1986, p. 20)
Like Patricia Craig, Mary Davenport was a teacher who had had a successful career on European and American stages as a singer. (It’s always refreshing when voice teachers actually sang somewhere!) In 2003 I telephoned the 84-year-old mezzosoprano, to whom I hadn’t spoken in several years. The voice I heard sent shivers down my spine. It was a young voice, shiny like silver, with not a soupçon of age. In pitch and clarity, this voice could have been 35, or 25. My wife also heard the voice on the machine and said, “How old did you say she was?”
This is no accident. Many singers have thought about healthy speech placement. Mary Davenport devoted her life to it.
Davenport was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1919. At age 19 she studied as an exchange student at the University of London. She studied voice with a very nice man at the Royal College of Music, with whom she also studied privately. The nice man’s name was Alberto García (1875-1946), the grandson of Manuel García II and great-nephew of Malibran and Viardot! Alberto was the last in the García singing legacy.
The teenager spent many Sundays with Mr. “Garsha” (as the Brits pronounced it) and his family in Golders Green (a section of London). Alberto spoke often of his famous aunts, grandfather, and of course their father, Manuel García the First (1775-1832). Manuel I was born in Seville. He was baptized “Manuel del Populo Vincente Rodriguez.” Manuel I’s opera troupe — including his three famous children — traveled to New York, and on 29 November 1825 gave the very first Italian opera ever to be heard on the soil of the New World. The work was Il Barbiere di Siviglia; the Almaviva was Manuel I, who had created the role. Due to a rival claque, this New World premiere was an utter fiasco. García attempted to salvage it by singing a Spanish song, accompanying himself on the guitar.
With particular fondness, Alberto remembered the 101st birthday gala for his father, Manuel II, held at Royal Albert Hall in 1906. Alberto told Mary that his father sang a song on the occasion (!). I wondered if such a thing could be true. Sure enough, García’s biographer confirmed that there was a 101st birthday gala on 17 March 1906 and that the old man sang a song. But he added a spinetingling detail: The song in question was Spanish, and García accompanied himself on guitar … exactly as his father had done 81 years previous. Could it have been the same song?
Davenport returned to America, where she studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Her teacher was one of the most famous soprani of the day, Elisabeth Schumann. Ms. Schumann taught mostly soprani and very few mezzisoprani; however, Mary was no ordinary student, and Schumann accepted her. Ms. Schumann was probably not one of those teachers who did much vocal or technical woodshedding (which Mary didn’t much need anyway). What she did have, Mary remembers, was an extraordinary musicality and musical mind. And she couldn’t have hurt Mary’s ease in the high register.
In New York, Davenport made a triumphant debut recital, which was reviewed on the front page of the New York World Telegram & Sun. A career in radio began in the ’40s, when she succeeded Eileen Farrell on the CBS program Invitation to Music. Davenport was accompanied by the CBS Symphony, conducted by Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann (1911-1975) was a famous film composer who wrote the scores for many Hitchcock films, as well as for Citizen Kane, etc.
Farrell and Davenport remained long-time friends, and when the latter was shopping for a new teacher, Farrell said, “Why not Mrs. Mac?” Mary was curious to try out “Mrs. Mac,” who had in Mary’s words “saved” Farrell. “Mrs. Mac” was Eleanor McClellan.
I remember clearly the story of Mary’s first lesson with McClellan, despite the decade that has elapsed since I heard it. Mary was in her 20s. McClellan was at least 90. Mary sang a piece; McClellan said nothing. She went up to Mary, touched her abdomen and said, “You’re holding. Let go.” For the next half-century, Mary kept that advice in her heart.
McClellan also stressed the speech aspect of singing and the huge importance of speaking correctly. Advice that also stuck.
Davenport went on to perform in opera (including many performances of The Medium), concert (appearances with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra), and recital. She enjoyed a successful operatic career in Germany and Switzerland, including thirteen seasons at Zurich’s beautiful opera house. Other operatic engagements in Europe included Barcelona but, unfortunately, did not include any Italian cities.
From there, Davenport returned to Massachusetts and joined the voice faculty of Boston University, where she would remain for 32 years. Gradually she devoted more time to teaching and less to performing. But she did sing with the most important orchestras in Boston, including the Boston Symphony (the first time in 1944, the last time thirty years later). A Mahler performance with Ben Zander’s Boston Philharmonic also remains in the concertgoer’s memory.
Though music critics generally limit their fraternization with musicians, the Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer was unable to conceal a well-justified fondness for Mary, as a musician and person.
Her tone fused brightness with depth, and long past the age when most singers retire, Davenport still commanded a tone that was large, steady, and glowing. What turned out to be her final local appearance was in Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody at Boston University in 1986, her voice still radiant and expressive, the legato technique recalling the golden age of singing. Her students in more recent years report that during lessons Davenport still rang out commandingly over a three-octave range. She was an imposing and elegant presence at concerts, and her unsparing views were never a secret because this was a voice that carried. (Boston Globe, June 20, 1997, p. D16)Notice that Dyer used form of the word “command” twice in one paragraph. This was appropriate. There was something commanding about Mary. Yet despite her aristocratic upbringing, I always found her to be an affectionate, gentle person uninterested in keeping up false appearances. She just was someone who relished quality, in people and in things. If she had a clock, it was a beautiful clock. If she had a dress, it was one her seamstress made for her. Her library contained the best books, in the best editions. It was as if her stomach couldn’t quite take anything, or anyone, that didn’t exude quality.
As for her silvery mezzosoprano, Dyer’s description of it corroborates my memory exactly. It really was three octaves, low C to high C. I never heard the high C, but I heard many effortless B-flats. Every note in her range had the quality of being firm yet floating. In my earthly existence, I have never heard a singer with such an evenness from top to bottom. Almost stubbornly even. There was not even a vestige of a register break anywhere. And there were no fabricated tones. You never felt, “On that note she sounded like a soprano,” or “On that note she sounded like a contralto.” It was HER VOICE, round and beautiful, at every point in her range.
Never in my life did I meet a person so diametrically opposed to the pushing of the voice. She’d rather cut off her arm, one felt. On the other hand, Mary hardly needed to push. Her voice was so well-placed that she would talk barely above pianissimo, and you could hear her down the hall. Even on the phone the voice was magisterial. Her whole life and heart seemed completely dedicated to placing the vowels. This is why she could be heard without difficulty against an orchestra, why she still had a high Bb and C at age 75.
Mary recorded not a fraction of that which her talent warranted. She did record a major work with Jan Peerce and Martina Arroyo. And I wish I could say that the major work they recorded was Verdi’s Aïda or Trovatore or Requiem. Instead, it was Handel’s Judas Maccabeus. Yuck! I adore Handel, but that piddly little role of the Israelite woman barely gave a taste of what Mary could do.
[Footnote: But the tenor role was meaty, and Jan Peerce really wanted to do it. The recording sessions took place in Vienna. “We were in the control room,” Mary remembered, “and Peerce said to me, ‘Where have you been all my life?’ Peerce was very encouraging to young singers.” (Conversation with the author, October 2003).]
Other recordings which are not on CD include a L’Enfance du Christ recorded for Columbia, with Léopold Simoneau, Martial Singher, and Donald Gramm, conducted by Tom Scherman.
Perhaps Mary’s best recording — at least the one with which she herself is happiest — is the aforementioned Alto Rhapsody, performed at Boston University and conducted by Thomas Dunn. The singer was 67 years old. Though never released commercially, this recording would quickly become a collector’s item were it to be made available.
The major labels should have broken her door down and fought over who would get to record her in a corpus of Brahms and Mahler and Verdi and Duparc and repertoire in English. That they didn’t is to the eternal detriment of their discographies.
As a teacher, Mary was extremely gentle and empathetic — on a personal level. On a musical level she could be terrifying. She let nothing go by, sometimes stopping the student after every note. This was hard on some students, to say nothing of the piano accompanists! I loved every second of it. It sharpened my ears considerably. Often I felt as though I was the one receiving the lesson. I think that’s why Mary took to me; I exhibited some of the enthusiasm that ideally the students would have demonstrated.
It’s not for me to speak of Mary’s “method” or “technique.” Cedo maiori. But I’ll offer a few observations that made an impression on me.
Mary was not vague about what she wanted: She wanted five pure vowels, legate, and in all the languages. And believe me, her French sounded French, her German sounded German, and (as the critics pointed out) one couldn’t have hoped for more beautiful or understandable English.
Of the brilliant mental images that Mary conjured for her students, the two that I most vividly remember are the concept of “dropping in” to the note and that of letting the brain take care of pitch.
With “dropping in,” Mary had the students imagine that the sound was coming down into the placement from above, not up from the throat. Schipa, I later learned, gave similar advice; the tone, he said, should come down “from heaven.” And when Corelli spoke of the “curve” that the sound must make in the cavity, the concept was not dissimilar.
Of course there are two presumptions: (a) the vowels and posizione are correct, otherwise there’s nothing to drop into; and (b) the breathing is correct. Mary would say, “The breath is ready, and you coordinate it with the placement.” (Of course, to make the breath “ready” but not “held” requires study.)
The other notion, that of letting the brain, not the throat, worry about pitch, I felt was extremely useful. When the student thinks, “Oh my God, the high note is coming!” the throat tightens, the tongue tightens, everything tightens. But if the brain negotiates pitch on its own and the students worry more about posizione and breathing, whether it’s a low C or a high C, an easy emission and fluid legato become possible. Mary practiced what she preached: If you were deaf and looked at her when she sang, you could barely tell if she were singing a low note or a high one. That is contrary to what many teachers teach about making a huge opening, in order to “let the sound out.” However, there is no biological reason why a mouth has to be open wide in order for the voice to be heard. Audibility and oral aperture are not directly proportional. If they were, ventriloquism would be a physiological impossibility.
Without my knowing it at the time, Mary’s focus on the vowels was very much in the Italian Belcanto tradition. Like Vittorio Marciano, she spent a good part of the lesson purifying her students’ vowels. She didn’t talk so much about physically shaping the lips, and she avoided any mumbo-jumbo about the tongue. Mary was a firm believer that if you could hear the correct vowel, you could sing the correct vowel. Also like Vittorio, she sang a lot during the lessons. How happy were my ears!
We discussed old-time singers quite often. She’d talk about hearing recitals by Gigli and Tauber in London, or singing Aïda with Helge Roswaenge. “He was about sixty at the time,” Mary remembered. “Amneris, of course, comes on the stage right after Celeste Aïda. He sang the aria so beautifully that when I came on, I almost couldn’t sing.”
Mary’s memories go back even further. “When I was born,” she said, “Caruso was still alive.” She was two when he died, but even into her youth he was “still very much talked about.” She had contemporary knowledge about things that I know only from books. Caruso’s interpretation of La Juive … Lawrence Tibbett’s divorce … I know about those things because I read about them. She knew about them because she heard them being talked about! I know the old recordings as CD re-releases. She owned the original 78s. This was the privilege it was to work on a weekly basis with such legends as Iride Pilla and Mary Davenport. And Mary, who as recently as today was forming five beautiful vowels, is living proof that the twilight of Belcanto has not become night.
The above from The Twilight of Belcanto (Copyright © MMIV, MMV Leonardo A. Ciampa. All rights reserved.)