Kirsten Flagstad - a personal kaleidoscope

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Kirsten Flagstad - a personal kaleidoscope

Our lives were interwoven from my childhood until her death. My career as a composer and musician were during much of that time a reflection of her artistry.

My earliest memory of the Flagstad voice was her performance of two Norwegian songs in the late twenties, accompanied by the composer Eyvind Alnæs on a 10" disc issued by the local branch of "His Master's Voice". It is one of the loveliest of all Flagstad recordings and without comparison the finest of her early electrics, released before fame struck. On it you hear a young, rather slender voice of disarming simplicity - less ample than the voice the world came to know so well a few years later, but with the unmistakeable Flagstad timbre already in evidence. Great purity of sound, crystal clear diction, unerring musicianship in phrasing and that wonderful sense of line, supported by a seemingly endless reservoir of breath, characterized her renderings of this period and were to become the hallmark of ger performances ever since. After hearing that first astonishing record, I became a Flagstad enthusiast for life.

At fifteen I had more than a hundred songs to my credit, most of them written for soprano and all of them for the Flagstad voice as I then knew it. So closely had I tailored these songs to an exceptional voice that most other singers, as I found out later, had great difficulty in achieving what she could do with ease, and often pleaded with me to make changes of notes or vowels in my manuscripts.

I first heard her in the flesh in the summer of 1937. My parents took me to Oslo for her first recital with orchestra at the stadium of Frogner after her return to Norway as "the world's greatest soprano". The sport center as well as the surrounding streets were crowded - more than 10,000 were present, including the Royal Family. And there was the diva in silver-blue gown, singing to a hushed public, quite unprepared for such an unleashing of vocal splendor.

That summer I sent Flagstad my first songs. She graciously replied that she had sung all of them with the then chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, Olav Kielland at the piano, and that they both agreed about the quality and yes, she would be pleased to perform them. When I showed this to my parents, I finally obtained their permission to become a musician after finishing high school.

In 1939, when she gave her second recital in Oslo, I heard Flagstad again, and this time I went backstage to meet her. All I could say was: "Why didn't you sing Ho-yo-to-ho tonight?" I must have looked accusingly at her, for she was so taken by surprise that she went completely blank for a moment -then she started laughing, managing to say: "0h no, I couldn't - I have sung such a big program, you know, and feel tired now".

And then the war came. Flagstad returned to Norway to be with her family, stubbornly resisting to perform for the Nazis, living quietly in the country with her husband, Henry Johansen, seeing only her closest trusted friends. Three times during the occupation she left Norway and sang in neutral countries, but never in her own.

Peace finally came to the World and Norway - injustice and much suffering to Flagstad.

At an evening concert of the Oslo Philharmonic I saw Flagstad again for the first time after the war. The moment she entered the vestibule, conversation stopped and people just stood there, staring at her, while she walked through the room without haste and into the main hall to find her seat. But it was her face that evening I shall always remember: it was like sculptured in stone - a mask of defiance and indifference. Her eyes looked at nobody, firmly fixed at the point she was heading for. She carried herself regally. While I was following her with my eyes, there was a tap on my shoulder and a commanding voice: "Young man, will you give me your arm and take me to my seat!" I turned abruptly - and there was the great Brünnhilde of another age: Ellen Gulbranson, still erect and queenly in spite of her 80 years. When we walked slowly up the aisle, I ventured to ask her: "Did you see Flagstad's face?" "Yes," she answered: "Hur elaka menniskan är". ("How disgusting people are").

During the months to come I often saw Flagstad again, walking through that hall alone or accompanied by her sister or sister-in-law. I never dared speak to her: She looked completely unapproachable. Then one evening, when she arrived together with her sister, Karen Marie, I gathered my courage and went up to them. Hearing my name and being told that I had often seen her at concerts, she looked puzzled and asked: "Then why didn't you talk to me?" "Because you looked so forbidding", I retorted.

There and then began our friendship.

And so, during the next year and a half we saw each other often indeed. She seemed to trust nobody. But she came willingly to see me and my family whenever she was in town. She soon found out that I had a certain fondness for the opening phrase in the recitative to Rezia's aria in "Oberon", and when she discovered that I was especially taken with the very first note, the glorious E-flat, she one day sat down at the piano, started to play and intoned "Ozean, du Ungeheuer" with the longest "O" I have ever heard in my life. She held that first tone for what seemed a blissful eternity to me: attacked it lightly but firmly, swelled it to a near fortissimo and then slowly, slowly reduced it to a soft, yet commanding mezza voce, aiding the phrase -with perfect poise in spite of the huge span of breath needed to carry it through at that speed - then she went through the whole aria. When she had finished, she turned to me with a smile and said: "Ihis I'm doing only for you - I don't sing it that way in public, you know". Time after time during our future meetings, she would look at me with a gleam in her eye and intone the recitative anew. We made lots of music together those afternoons, went through operatic arias and songs of all kinds: I would accompany her in the music I knew, and she would take over when we came to pieces I was not so familiar with.

The persecution, the confiscation of her properties, the death of her husband, whom she would not be allowed to meet alone although he was dying, the fight for the restitution of her passport so that she could start her career afresh, the vilification of the press, the distortion of her attitudes towards mankind in the light of her experiences, are all matters of history. I had the good fortune to be able to assist her during this difficult period; it was I who arranged with Emil Stang, Chief Justice of the Norwegian Supreme Court (and a bitter enemy of the Nazis) that Flagstad should receive his testimony to the effect that "during the entire period of the last war she has shown steadfast patriotic attitude". It was I who had the sad duty to inform her that her husband suffered from advanced cancer and had only a short time left to live. And it was on my advice that she turned to Anneus Schjødt (the prosecutor of Quisling) with the petition that her passport should be restored. And so it was. In the beginning of December, 1946, she left Norway.

A few years later I myself left Norway, never to return. But Flagstad and I kept on meeting and working abroad until the year of her retirement. Many memories from the years I knew her come back to me in a kaleidoscopic way as I am preparing this contribution to the album set commemorating her 80th birthday:

I remember us making music together one evening in Stockholm with Swedish friends present and only a frail spinet at my disposition - how I burst several strings on that occasion in my effort to keep up with Flagstad's fortissimi in Brünnhilde's Battle Cry: if I didn't have a photo of our joint efforts that evening with which to refresh my memory, I might have thought I was dreaming the whole thing...

I remember rushing to the Paris Opera, just off the train from Nizza, identifying myself as "Flagstad's brother", hurrying in at the back of the stage, dangerously close to be seen by the public against the transparent back curtain -a young, thin man with Borsalino and umbrella on the verge of entering Wagner's Valhalla! As Kirsten and her partner turned around after the last bow, she came to a standstill with a gasp: "What in the name of the Lord are YOU doing here?" When I told her she now had a younger brother, she burst out laughing, led me to her dressing room, where I was treated to a double cognac on an empty stomach. On my way home that night I remember seeing all the trees on the Champs-Elysées triple!

I remember a raw and cold October in Copenhagen and a reserved audience at Flagstad's first Lieder recital there. But they all warmed up some days later when she gave her operatic best - a young lady next to me got so excited during the awesome splendor of the final notes from Isolde's Curse, that she grabbed my arm and dug her nails deep into my flesh! And how we worked that week in Copenhagen - three to four hours an afternoon, studying the 40 odd songs and settings of mine to be recorded later that year in London.

I shall never forget December, 1952, in that great city of smog. Gerald Moore was out of his element: the sound was too sweet, there was too much pedal and the line was kind of soupy. My impression was that he was unwilling to accept instructions at all, though he was visibly performing prima vista and had not done his homework properly. Rushing to Moore's defense, an embarrassing scene followed with Walter Legge, who, on the contrary, "knew" how the music should be performed. Whereupon I left. In my absence Kirsten had to coach Moore every day afterwards on how to interpret my 17-18th century settings. Day after day for the next three weeks Flagstad patiently went through with me every single bar of the piano scores to be recorded a few hours later: tempi, accents, phrasing, plus all those things that cannot be written into a score, only demonstrated, were scrutinised and committed to memory. And every time Kirsten left for the studio the manuscripts were black with markings and instructions, just so that Mr. Moore should perform correctly and not waste the sessions. When I received a copy of the record one day, I cried. Out of the sacred German songs in my settings there was only one successful joint effort: "Ich lass' dich nicht" - the opening hymn: the only one I had supervised myself. When I think on how Bonneau, Baldwin, Newmark or Katchen would have done the job, I could cry even today.

Paris, spring, 1953. Flagstad's last recital in that lovely city where, among other things, she gave a moving account of the Wesendonck Lieder. During the performance she seemed continuously to be licking her mouth in every fraction of a pause in the singing. "I felt at once completely dry in my mouth and was thinking desperately on lemons to get rid of the tickling in my throat. It didn't help". She evidently was able to separate any personal discomfort suffered during a performance.

That spring in Paris was the last time we met. Afterwards letters took over. But we did talk to each other over the phone sometimes and the last time I remember only too well: I called her up in a hurry one morning, just back in my Paris Hotel from Barcelona, where I had come across an English newspaper in which I found an unbelievable statement released to the press by a spokesman for the record company she had been associated with for more than thirty years: "The great Flagstad voice has gone to seed and developed a huge wobble". When I quoted this statement to her, there was a long silence and then a faint, small voice reaching my ears: "Det er det værste jeg har hørt" ("That's the worst I have heard"). The next day Flagstad cancelled her contract. Her cancellation, however, was refused - a fact that prevented her from recording with another company for much over a year. And she was approaching sixty at the time. The rest is history: she later signed with Decca and made some of the greatest records in her career.

I have often been asked what Mme. Flagstad was like as a person. Listen to her voice - it reflects her basic human qualities: naturalness, simplicity, integrity. Then listen to her interpretations and you will discover other characteristics that also belonged to her as a human being: straightforwardness, sincerity and total musical honesty. She often used to say that life and art should be a unity. She achieved this fusion, though she was probably not aware of it herself.

As a musician she was one of the most self-effacing, most co-operative artists it has ever been my good fortune to work with. She was a complete professional and had a terrific respect for the written score. She never deviated from it - and she never wanted to sing songs in other keys than the original, if she could help it. She definitely didn't like to transpose. She had perfect pitch and what that really meant didn't dawn on me until 1952 in Paris when she was giving a private recital in memorian of the great French patron, Helga Gelis-Didot (a friend in common), and decided to devote half of it to my songs and settings, I did not have the sheet music to all the songs needed, and gave one of them to her in manuscript and in a lower key. "But you don't want me to sing it in that key, do you?", she asked "That's the only copy I have - what difference does it make: you know the tune", I exclaimed. She looked at me, reassuringly: "Never mind - it doesn't matter; I'll have to transpose it as I sing", she said. That's what perfect pitch did to Flagstad!

She was very conscious of line and of not breaking up phrases if breathing could be avoided. And with her huge reserves of breath she could of course spin out seemingly endless lines of firmly supported sound. This is what made her Wagner so exciting and convincing - the moulding of vowels, bridged by consonants into words and sentences, sounding as natural as spoken by a master actor, would make it a special treat for another singer to listen to the marvellous way diction and vocal line united to phrases without seams and delivered without the slightest sign of effort. The secret of her fabulous legato was just this: she achieved it singing straight through the consonants, like they were vowels. You can especially appreciate this in her German, which has a clarity, a flexibility and a nobility you seldom hear from native singers of the language. Her way with consonants always fascinated me, and once I asked her if she would sing through certain words in German for me in "slow cinema" so I could follow the technical process more closely. She did, and it was a rare lesson in the art of singing which also - as often is forgotten - incorporates faultless diction.

When walking staircases, Flagstad was often breathing heavily. It cost her effort. But you could never see Flagstad breathe when she was singing. Her chest didn't move and only at the loudest top notes did she ever open her mouth wide. Whenever she sang in the middle register, you could hardly see her lips move, so gentle yet so crystal clear was her diction. She formed the vowels, so to speak, behind closed lips, her intake of breath was extremely rapid and short - just enough to get through the phrase with some reserve left. You had to stay behind her to see her breathing: her back expanded and contracted with unfailing regularity like the pectoral of a whale. Without the slightest effort she could produce a tremendous, slow crescendo, absolutely even up to a majestic fortissimo and then reduce it in perfect diminuendo into her kind of piano. I stress her kind of piano, because the sheer size of her voice prevented her from scaling down to the pianissimi of a Milanov or a Caballe. But because it was so perfectly proportional in relation to the dynamic extremes, her piano actually created the effect of a pianissimo, especially in the concert hall. I remember a particular instant when we worked on one of my early songs, later to be included in her LP recital of my works; it was a simple, folklike tune called "Gurdrid stod ved stoveglas" ("Gudrid stood by the window"), where each of the three verses should be sung one degree softer (mf - mp - pp). In the middle of the last verse I interrupted, asking for a softer effect, "No", Flagstad answered, f"then I cannot sing this song, because if I sing any softer now, the timbre will leave my voice. But we'll try it another way". Then she started the song much stronger, but not louder, due to a lovely velvet quality she suddenly brought out, then verse for verse reducing the dynamics one solid step, ending up giving the illusion of a pianissimo while actually singing a mezzo-piano. On the record it comes out almost like that.

Many singers choose to change vowels, even whole words if they happen to rail on a difficult note in the higher register: Madame Flagstad never asked anybody to change the words, far less the notes - she had, as I said, that integrity and that tremendous respect for the written page and the composers wishes, which never permitted her to stray from the score, I remember one occasion when we were discussing a difficult E flat in a Bach-setting of mine, she finally decided not to record, because she was not satisfied with the sound of the top note. "You know how that and that soprano would get around a thing like this", I asked her; "she would just fit the music to her present limitations". Flagstad turned abruptly and looked at me: "That I would never dare to do", she said. "That, would not be honest".

She was, as already mentioned, the easiest person in the world to work with, though she knew perfectly well her own worth, once in London, going through a certain phrase, I asked her: "I would very much like that phrase sung this way, if you think you can do it". "I can do everything you ask me to", she retorted in her deepest, most sonorous voice. And so she did.

The Flagstad career, vocally speaking, is one of the most astonishing developments within recorded memory. One tends to forget that she was not always Flagstad. She became Flagstad. And because she recorded between the age of 19 and 64, it is possible to follow the unique development of her voice from its tiny, not particularly promising beginning in 1914 ("Aagot's Mountain song") up to the incredible LP's of 1958 where the voice possessed an incomparable richness in the middle and lower register and where the top was still intact up to a high B flat, ringing out with a splendid young quality in Lie's "Bats letter" on the last record she made in her life. She had total command, but achieved it instinctively. One could say she possessed vocal genius: she knew perfectly what to do with her voice at all times and always achieved the effects she wanted; yet she could not explain it in technical terms. For that reason she probably would never have made a good teacher. But she could give invaluable advice in general terms. She never was interested in teaching really - she only wanted to sing: that's what she indicated when her Swedish voice-teacher asked her at her first lesson what she wanted to do: sing or also teach, "I only want to sing," came the answer. "Good", said Dr. Bratt, "that way we can proceed much faster". This man, a throat doctor turned voice-teacher, laid the groundwork for the Flagstad voice as we know it. The slow, steady progress, plus the fact that Flagstad never really needed to sing for food, made the rest, The voice grew and grew because the way she had been taught to use it was correct. She never had to unlearn anything and never had to rush from one heavy role to another until the voice was fully developed and settled. The longevity of her career goes back to this.

She had her vocal ideals; the Norwegian soprano Borghild Bryhn (Langaard), Emmy Destinn and Elisabeth Rethberg were the voices she most admired throughout her life. She found Tebaldi preferable to Callas and had great admiration for the artistry of Güden. She admired Thorborg, but thought Branzell the finest Brangäne she had ever sung with. Though she had tremendous respect for Kathleen Ferrier and Marian Anderson, she never felt comfortable with their voices, nor with Supervia's - it probably had to do with their rapid vibrato, which she felt foreign to as a singer. I have often wondered what she would have thought of Mazzoleni! Melchior remained her favorite Heldentenor in spite of their differences, but she preferred Max Lorenz as an artist. One singer puzzled her though: I remember entering the living room of Bernard Miles, the actor, one afternoon for rehearsal, back in 1952, when Kirsten walked up to me with a strange expression in her face: "You know, today I have listened to something absolutely extraordinary, something that made me feel very uneasy, itching all over - just imagine: a man who sounded like a woman!" I realized she must have been listening to Alfred Deller, the remarkable English counter-tenor who, at that time, had just recorded some extremely beautiful plum label 78's for HMV. "Yes, that was the name" she said, "and it was quite fantastic - I don't see how he can do it but my, how uncomfortable I felt!"

I remember that word "uncomfortable" - she sometimes used it referring to singing, and singing only. Once in Oslo in 1946 she dropped in at her mother's when her sister was rehearsing the role of "Elsa" with Maja at the piano. Kirsten just arrived in time for the big scene with Ortrud, and launched into it with shining, glorious sound, "Why haven't you ever sung it in public", I wondered, "Because it doesn't feel right, it's not for my voice - it's very uncomfortable" she answered. "But Gulbranson did it", I ventured. "Yes, but she also sang Amneris - her voice was darker than mine". The reason why Flagstad felt uncomfortable as Ortrud was probably because the vocal center of the role differed from the vocal center in the Flagstad voice but corresponded exactly to Gulbranson's - her Ortrud was supposed to have been "einmalig" according to Knappertsbusch.

Flagstad also professed great admiration for Povla Frijsh after having heard her inimitable rendering of Grieg's "I love Thee" - she was completely taken with Frijsh's Grieg interpretations, so different from her own, and also loved her rendering of "With a Waterlily" - a song she herself performed with considerable success during her career. I did not have any Lilli Lehmann records at hand the evening I played Frijsh for Flagstad, but had the occasion some years later, at the home of the great Danish collector, Knud Hegermann Lindencrone, to enjoy some of her finest Mozart records in the presence of Flagstad, who found it one of the most remarkable pieces of singing she had ever listened to.

Though her life and her art formed a unity, Flagstad distinguished sharply between herself as a singer and herself as a private person. I think I have never met anybody who craved privacy moro strongly than Flagstad. She was, outside the theatre, an intensely private person and wanted nobody to interfere with her privacy: friends, family or enemies. This was what fame did to her -it was also what injustice did to her. She appeared to many a lonely human being, but she wanted it that way. What she went through inevitably left scars -it hardened her, made her bitter and often suspicious as to the motives of those who sought her acquaintance. She needed to be alone in order to overcame the weight of injustice in her own heart. She had long periods where she refused to see practically anybody - even long time friends. And because the reasons behind her refusal were not understood, many took offence. A pity, because there was nothing personal behind her wish to avoid human contact - only an enormous desire to be left alone. In her solitude she felt safe and never lonely. She simply did not need people around her anymore. She had her music and her books -trusted friends who carried her through the years following her departure from Norway in 1946 and the first years after her retirement as a singer. When she was asked to become the first director of the newly established Norwegian Opera, she felt ready to face people again without resentment. And only illness forced her to abandon office. Through all this her voice never abandoned her. It remained with her, unspoilt by the ravages of disease until the day her physician forbade her to use it any more. She obeyed him with a heavy heart and waited for the end with the same stoicism with which she had always accepted what life brought her of good or evil.

The world knew Flagstad as the great singer and unapproachable celebrity, larger than life. We, who knew her intimately, were aware of another Flagstad: warmhearted, generous, bashful at times and taken to blushing furiously if embarrassed or angered. In most ways she was like other people, only she had more courage, more dignity than most and feared nothing. She was not politically inclined at all and her Lutheran upbringing made her rather conservative in her outlook at life. She respected most conventional values and had very old-fashioned views on morality. She was totally honest and could be frightfully frank if needed. She helped many a colleague willingly and unselfishly both with contacts and money, asked not for thanks - and rarely received it. She even assisted those whom she knew were against her and slandered her in private. She had great pride and a fair degree of stubborness. She rarely showed her feelings except among few and close friends. She could not be flattered because she knew her own value and needed no praise. She rarely commented on colleagues and never disparagingly. She liked to relax with a glass of old cognac or a bottle of champagne - she thoroughly enjoyed her liquor and held it. She liked good food but was perfectly content with simple, ample dishes, like those she knew from her childhood. She liked comfort but scorned luxury. She was generous but economical. She had great sense of humour but did not like frivolity of any kind and detested scenes. She did not take 'no!' for an answer and did not at all appreciate hearing about other peoples difficulties. She felt she had more than enough with her own. She was definitely not a prima donna, but could be very abrupt if irritated or provoked. If angered, she kept her feelings to herself but the effort could be visible, and she had a long memory. If she felt offended, she remembered it for years. She had an amazing self control that she rarely let go. As a singer, she never spared herself, always sang in full voice and never quibbled about repeating words and phrases, if asked to. She was punctual, never made any fuss and never broke her word. She came of strong, healthy peasant stock and grew up in a period and in an atmosphere where moral values were still intact and unquestioned. It gave her a basic feeling of security which stood her well in hours of need. These qualities which she inherited from her ancestors never left her. The branches of her art and her life sprang from that root and secured her survival both as an artist and as a human being. Had she been alive today, she would still have sung.

Sist oppdatert: 09.10.2017 09:52. Nettansvarlig
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