Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A response to Edmund St. Austell's post, 'Agustarello Affre'.

This first post was never supposed to be a blog entry at all. Rather, it was a reply to another blogger's post, which grew to such monstrous proportions that it needed a blog to itself! The original post is a brief overview of the records and career of Agustarello Affre, the legendary French tenor of the Golden Age, with perceptive contributions from Father Cornelius Mattei. You can read it here:

Edmund-may I call you that?- thank you very much for such a joyful celebration of such a terribly underrated singer. I heard him first on 'The Record of Singing' years ago and was immediately struck by the beauty and individuality of his timbre and his strikingly unusual phrasing. I didn't delve too deeply into his recorded legacy until a year or so ago, and I realised that here is a very special singer- one of the greatest of the great, who curiously doesn't seem to get the recognition he deserves, at least not from reissue companies nor from traditionally published media such as The Record Collector (excepting the latter's marvellous 1948 article by Affre's daughter, which I'm impressed to see that Fr Mattei is familiar with.) So, it is wonderful to read that (contrary to the dismissive references to him one sometimes comes across) 'He knew what he was doing, and he was an excellent musician and stylist'- yes, a thousand times yes!

One minor quibble: as in the title of his Wikipedia entry (which I have been unsuccessful in amending) you call him Affré, with an accent. In almost all other sources he is Affre-no accent- in common with every other bearer of that surname I've found, including his illustrious near-namesake Archbishop (Denis) Auguste Affre, the 1848 martyr. The final proof of the correctness of the accentless spelling is of course the spoken introductions on many of his records, in which the tenor very clearly introduces himself as '(Monsieur) Affre,(de l'Opera)'.I won't bore you here with the possible origins and proper spelling of 'Agustarello'!

The question of fach (to use a probably anachronistic term) is a difficult and confusing one at the best of times, never more so than when applied to historic singers. Affre was a 'fort tenor', roughly analogous to the frequently used terms 'dramatic' and 'heroic' (the precise differences between which Ionly imperfectly understand) or at least those dramatic/heroic roles which made it into the standard French repertory of that time. So examples such as Del Monaco and Giacomini, with their extravagant covering and larynx-lowering, really have no place in our understanding of the world of the fin de siecle, when such singers such as those did not exist. In any case, the Del Monaco style was a kind of posthumous growth on the Italian singing tradition, and had nothing to do with the French tradition, which successive forms of verismo singing eventually supplanted.One more thing about
the nineteenth century tenor fort: such roles as Arnold and Raoul demand powerful, ringing top notes and a facility in coloratura such as later twentieth century heroic tenors did not have, but which Affre certainly did. Baritonality is another quality assumed to be an essential property of today's heroic tenor, but the tenors who sang their roles in Affre's day frequently lacked it: Tamagno is the most obvious example of a totally unbaritonal heroic tenor, and among the French, Scaramberg had no noticeable baritone quality and neither did Cossira, who sang heroic roles not only without baritonality but apparently with a good deal less raw power than one would expect; but he did nevertheless have a marvellous, ringing top, which seems to have been the vocal sine qua non of the nineteenth century heroic tenor. Affre's bottom and middle were powerful and dark and could be called baritonal, in contrast with the trumpet like brightness of his top, and this makes for an intriguing sound. He does, thanks to perfectly controlled vocal power and squillo and a certain grandeur of phrasing, project a 'heroic'quality better than almost anybody else: his 'Sous le Beau Ciel' is almost the equal of Tamagno's 'Esultate', as different as it is. What an Otello he would have been! His top notes, as recorded, are often but not always huge: sometimes he uses a voix mixte which may have been less prone to 'blasting' than a high C sung in full voice. The latter was, as we know, often
'handkerchiefed' by the recording engineer, to Affre's annoyance. Far from a dramatic quality being imparted by the recording process itself as JD Hobbes surprisingly claims, Affre was frequently ill-recorded.(Rolando Villazon made a BBC tenor documentary in which he acoustically recorded his 'Amor ti Vieta', with woeful results- no flattering effect imparted there!) Pathe's idiosyncratic process tended to make the singer (whoever it may have been) sound tinny and distant, and his vibrato seems
exaggerated on their records. Odeon achieved a more acceptable sound, spoiled only by a tendency to record the singer rather backwardly, accompanied by an overloud and brass-heavy 'orchestra'. G&T, Zonophone, and of course his own short-lived APGA label all captured his voice more forwardly and better, with the G&Ts in particular capturing a mellowness and beauty that we can only attempt to reconstruct imaginatively when listening to his Pathes.I do not think that the latter achieved a sound
quality remotely comparable to Edison's, though Pathe had an infinitely superior (though overlapping) roster of artists. Edison himself was a philistine, known for his impatience with big time singers and for his very Anglophone intolerance of prominent vibrato: given the latter factor, it's not surprising that he did not go out of his way to record Affre, if that is indeed what happened.Personally, I wish our tenor had recorded for Italian Fonotipia: think of the quality of Escalais' records- no handkerchiefing there- and imagine Affre as clearly and vividly recorded as that!

Thank you, Edmund, for highlighting Affre's personification of 'the best traditions of the [now] distant past, both vocal and dramatic'.His dramatic gifts are particularly well displayed by the two complete operas, which we are amazingly fortunate to have: how many singers of the front rank (which Affre was, in spite of his limited forays outside France) who were born in the 1850s, can we hear in a complete role? If only they had been made a year or two earlier, they would have captured
him in his astonishing vocal prime. As it is, we have a singer who, even with somewhat reduced range, power and purity of voice, can still sing better than anybody else, and act marvellously without recourse to tacky verismo effects. He is at his thrilling best in the more vehement moments, such as when his Don Jose exclaims 'Eh bien, damnee!'- causing me to quite literally jump out of my seat in fright the first time I heard it.When I hear his Romeo, I do not pine for Jean de Reszke's: it is
impossible to imagine the role being played any better, in the more heightened dramatic moments at least.He was a famous Canio, and what a disaster that was never recorded: with his facility for drama and for conveying white-hot jealous rage in particular, what a Pagliaccio this verismo-eschewing French belcantist would have been!

As your reader 'Curzon Road' so aptly puts it, 'Affre is amazing'.There is almost no other singer of whom I would believe the story of the deathbed miracle related by his daughter. Affre had apparently always expressed the wish to sing his own requiem, and after suffering the stroke that would kill him in less than two days, the 73 year old tenor miraculously regained the power and beauty of voice he had possessed at his zenith, allowing him to sing his requiem perfectly, just before his mortal life was over.I wonder what Fr. Mattei, who is familiar with the source material, makes of this 'miracle'? What a story- and I feel such a sense of the singer's physical presence when I listen to Affre (more than eighty years dead though he is) and such a kind of spiritual ecstasy that perhaps I am not disinclined to believe in miracles after all!


  1. I don't know what happened to the formatting in the post above. I wrote it on an unfamiliar laptop after my Hudl suddenly died on me!

  2. Thank you for your generous remarks and your insightful and erudite details in re. the prevalent acoustic era recording methods. I too am a fan of the Fonotipia. It is as if the singer is right before you.
    I am also entirely in accord with your assessment of Affre.....sans accent, we are agreed...and with your spot-on remarks about tenor singing technique and style. The lowered laryngial position....holding it lowed at all times, was taught to those fellows in Italy by Melocchi, who seems to have picked it up from a Russian. I have myself come accross that sort of thing expounded by Russians who use it to extract the opposite: the low bass tones, by the way...specifically a man with such a voice who was the choir director at my former parish in the 1990s. He had previous lived nd tught at the Barnaul Conservatory in Siberia, where one of his pupils was Dimitri Hvorostovsky...small world!
    Lest I forget, may I remark that there were tenors who used a lowered-larynx method for top tones....called then ¨voix sombrée¨ ar 2 of th Italian school: Signorini and Antonio Paoli...who both straddle the 19th & early 20th century period.Paoli was, by the way, a cousin of my grandfather. He passed away before I came 'round, but my parents knew him...papa also knew his sister Amalia.

    Is thre any way I could see that article containing the letter by Affre's daughter? I cited tht from long-ago memory...probably read it during my university years 45 years ago. It would be greatly appreciated.
    Please do not hesitate to contact me directly at:
    Mille fois you speak/write French?
    Thanks again.....
    Fr. Cornelius

    1. Thank you very much for your comment and for that fascinating information! I'm very keen on both Signorini and Paoli. My French is self-taught and very poor, although I can read a little. I began learning the language at the beginning of last year, so that I could read Victor Maurel's writings in the original. At the moment I'm ploughing through the second volume of librettist PB Gheusi's 'Cinquante Ans de Paris', a gossipy but interesting account of fin de siecle Paris. It has several very informative pages on Affre, and particularly on the jealousy of his second wife, who went to great length to keep adoring women away from her beloved tenor!

      I have the article written by Mrs. Vellacott, Affre's daughter, and I would be pleased to scan and send it to you- hopefully tomorrow if I can get to the library in time, or failing that, next week. I think the quote from her letter about the deathbed miracle may be from the next issue, as she wrote in to clear up a mistake she had made regarding the date he died. It's a fascinating read, and the warmth of her personality shines through.

  3. Thank you in advance. Waiting to read the article with bated breath.

    Fr. C.

  4. I appreaciate your writing and would be glad if you would write more about your thoughts about ancient singers!

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