Paris Life. The Comtesse de Guerne

   It is quite remarkable that one of the two or three great figures in music before whom true artists unanimously bow belongs to what we may be tempted to call, if we attach more importance to accidents of birth than to real talent: "the world of amateurs". Indeed, a long time ago the Comtesse de Guerne received note for her very great artistic naturalness; and in nobody's opinion, no more for artists than for society people, is she in any degree an amateur, but one of the two or three greatest living singers. But curiously, at first sight, and in the end quite naturally, it is artists who perhaps take this less into account than people from society.
   No doubt society people are conscious of the wonderful talent that elegant interiors have brought forth and which has been evoked in the name of charity. But that which has the most refinement, almost uniqueness, quite often escapes them and is barely perceptible other than to artists. Quite recently I had the opportunity to hear Mme de Guerne sing in front of a pure musical technician, professing a horror of society and stating, not without some sadness, that even in the concert halls and theatres how rare it is to hear fine singing. I cannot say for certain whether he imagined that he would hear, in Mme de Guerne, a lady from society more or less agreeably gifted as a singer.
   He had heard the testimony of too many great and pure artists. He was expecting to hear a true and great singer, but not unlike plenty of others to whom he had been drawn by their reputation but disappointed by their talent. Mme de Guerne sang. Standing erect, in a motionless attitude to which her dramatic expression and her inspired gaze gave a sort of Pythian character, she allowed to escape, as if from a becalmed storm, notes which seemed, so to speak, extra-human. I say that she allowed these notes to escape, because the voices of other singers are voices produced in the throat, in the chest, in the heart, which seem to retain something human from this moving contact, something almost carnal, so material are they, that they only reach us like a perfume which drags along in its wake a few petals from the plucked corollas. There is nothing of the sort with Mme de Guerne. Here we have what is probably the unique example of a voice without physical support, a voice which is not only pure, but is so spiritualized that rather it seems to have a kind of natural harmony, not, I would say, like the sighs of a flute but more like a reed in the wind. Confronted by the mysterious production of these indefinable sounds, the musician who I was talking about stood motionless with a smile of ecstasy on his lips. Meanwhile the singer continued to pick out "a dazzling swarm of unequal notes". But is it possible to speak of a singer when we stand before this harmony which seems less the product of human artifice than the emanation from a landscape and in its ancient grace makes us insuperably think of Hugo's verse:


Come, invisible flute
To sigh in the orchards.
The most peaceful song
Is the song of shepherds.

   Mme de Guerne would not be the most moving singer of today simply because her voice sounds like the voice of a calm Grecian landscape. No, she seems rather to express the soul of Monticelli's lunar landscape than the landscape of Theocritus, she is rather the musician of Verlaine's "silence" than that of Moschus. In this way the ancient charm of her art assumes something of the strangely modern. And there is no doubt that she interprets nothing so well as Le Clair de lune, Fauré's wonderful masterpiece.
   No music, one is almost tempted to say no diction, intervenes in it creating the feeling which is only disclosed in the impressive quality of sound. It is the supreme distinction of this art to avoid facile nuances and commonplace transitions. It is no less profound for all that. Blow away the noble ash that voluntarily covers these notes, which are like silver urns: inside you will find the tears of the poet piously enclosed and faithfully protected.
   Anyone who has once heard Mme de Guerne can only mistake with very few other voices the tediousness of no longer hearing hers, and no one, in any case, can create from it exactly that particular sweetness, that gentle flash of silver. In certain ancient idylls like Reynaldo Hahn's wonderful Phyllys, it is the very flute of Pan that appears to be accompanying the charming verses of the poet from deep within a sacred wood

... the natural lyre.
The muse of pastures, furrows and cornfields.

   it is a sorrowful lyre that expresses the melancholy of love and death. It would be naive indeed to believe that this impression of strangeness, the natural quality of Mme de Guerne's voice, combined with the power of her musical sense was sufficient to make it so. There still has to be a deep knowledge about singing, hidden but essential, from which we gather the sweet harvest in golden resonances. And by being content with a purely material aspect of the art of singing, those who have not heard her sing the great duet from Sémiramis with Mme Kinen, have no idea that she knows how to vocalize like La Patti. I would be unjust not to associate the name of Mme de Guerne with that of Comte Henri de Ségur, her brother, who is perhaps in musical understanding and culture the equal of his sister, but who, in his religious admiration for her, has restricted all his own ambition in order to be her perfect and faithful accompanist. Since the death of her father, the Marquis de Ségur, whose title is now borne by the talented evocator of Mme Geoffrin's salon, a future academician, Comtesse de Guerne has lived with her husband, the Comte de Guerne, in a graceful dwelling on avenue Bosquet - where we first heard the choruses from Esther, the most beautiful that M. Reynaldo Hahn had written so far, in which all the grace of the bible stories and Racinian tragedy are transposed and thus exalted, - a dwelling ennobled by all the tokens of admiration which composers have given to the artist, from Gounod, who dedicated his melodies to her, through to Hébert who created her portrait; supported by delicate Corinthian columns, resonating now with the sound of the lyre, now with the harp, and with a voice too which has the charm of one and the emotion of the other, this dwelling resembles at one and the same time the house of the sage and the temple of the muses.

   Echo.

Article appeared in Le Figaro, 7 May 1905 and reprinted in Chroniques (Libraire Gallimard, 1927).

 


 

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