Romance of This Remarkable Sing&r Who is Still Active
T. P. O’CONNOR, M. P.kMarch151922
De Reszke As He Is Today
Romance of This Remarkable Sing&r Who is Still Active
T. P. O’CONNOR, M. P.k
IT SEEMS difficult to Comprehend that Jean de Reszke, one of the world’s most famous singers, and noted as a music teacher of renown, is still with us in the flesh, active and in possession of his faculties. Perhaps most musicians know that Jean de Reszke was an extraordinarily heavy smoker and to-day his name, unfortunately, may be associated in the minds of many with a cigarette which has been named after him, rather than with his artistic attainments.
T. P. O’Connor, M.P., who has been for half a century a journalist and is now the “Father” of the British House of Commons, tells in the London Daily Telegraph of a visit which he recently made to Jean de Reszke. Mr. O’Connor says that for years he had been longing to see “that romantic figure of my youth,” once again, and particularly to see how the years had sped with him and how he had survived the ghastly days of the War. Although de Reszke now lives in a sphere of artistic isolation, in irreparable^ bereavement, he consented to see Mr. O’Connor, and the doyen of the British House of Commons spent a wonderful afternoon with the old singer. Mr. O’Connor writes: “As I journeyed along the sea coast between Monte Carlo and Nice I saw as in a vision the man, and the past of the man, whom I was going to see again. It is only those of my own generation who can quite realize all the dazzling glory of that paît. For de Reszke had many kinds of glory in those great days of his. His genius as a singer and an actor had about it a dazzling effect almost unprecedented. Who that was ever present at de Reszke’s entrance as Faust, as Lohengrin, or in any other of his great parts, will ever forget that strange pause of admiration and of anticipation that brought the whole house to an expectant hush? Except some few great orators, I have never known anybody who had this extraordinary power of de Reszke of producing that sepulchral silence in a vast and excited audience—and everybody accustomed to audiences knows that deadly silence is a far more eloquent manifestation of profound emotion than the most ear-splitting applause.
“De Reszke, of an ancient historical Polish family, found himself naturally at home within social portals then inaccessible to the world of artists; he was an aristocrat among the most aristocratic. He insisted on this, not blatantly, of course; he would not have been an aristocrat if he had; but in the important particular that he accepted remuneration only when he appeared on the stage; never as a guest of society.
“A little anecdote will illustrate how de Reszke insisted on thus remaining a guest. A great financier invited him and his brother to one of his great banquets, and at the end, naturally, the artists were asked to sing. They did so. Then the host, who was generosity itself—it was, in fact, the late Alfred de Rothschild—presented them two blank checks. Herewith a dilemma; on the one hand two proud aristocrats asked to break their rule of accepting no fee for a performance in social life, on the other an act of seeming rudeness in refusing what was meant to be a compliment from a host. They settled the matter by accepting the checks, and sending them back next day blank and torn.
“And here, by the way, another curious little story of Jean de Reszke. He was and is a great smoker; it was one of the few joys in which his hard work and the necessary anxieties of a great artist allowed him to indulge. Suddenly he found that even this joy was about to be denied. The cigarettes he smoked were interfering with his throat and therefore with his voice. He tried every form of cigarette he could think of, American, Turkish, Egyptian; they all produced the same effect. And here entered into his life a new figure, interesting in his personality and in his career, a Russian, a fellow Slav, a devoted, sympathetic admirer for many years of the great Polish artist. This was Mr. Millhoff, who some years before, after many wanderings, had settled in London as a cigarette manufacturer. He took the case of Jean de Reszke in hand, and succeeded in producing a cigarette which the artist found he could smoke with perfect impunity.
“How would I find de Reszke? I asked myself, as I was journeying along the Mediterranean coast from Monte Carlo to Nice. Never did a great artist find an
asylum more suited to his retirement— on the one hand by remoteness from the noise, and on the other by its proximity to that throbbing life of a beautiful city in* the only perfect winter climate in Europe—than de Reszke has found in his'villa at Nice.
“I felt something like a quickened pulse as I found myself at last in the pres-
ence of the great artist who had made so many millions of hearts throb in every capital of the world for more than a generation. Like all really great figures, the artist was simplicity and modesty itself. You might take him for a goodhumored man of business, who had retired after years of hard work and prosperity, except that he had the infectious gayety
that goes with the artistic temperament— a gayety triumphant over tragic suffering. If you wanted to realize how, and to what an abyss, tragedy in the life of de Reszke had descended, you had to look first at a portrait that stood on one of the tables, and then at two of the female figures of the artist’s family circle. The portrait was of a singularly handsome youth, with features of perfect classic regularity, a sweet smile, charming mouth, and the look of triumphant youth in its early twenties. Then, as you looked from the picture to the figure close by, you found its reflection almost as though in a mirror—the same beautifully moulded features, the tiny nose, the tiny mouth, the air of aristocratic distinction and of exquisite sweetness; but not in triumphant youth, but in a face shadowed by the spectre of incurable and ever-haunting sorrow; and you knew that you were looking at the mother of the boy in the picture. You realized the tragedy at once; that the boy had died as a volunteer in the French army, leading his troops, dying at once for the liberty of France, the land of his mother, and for Poland, the land of his father.
“Then you looked at another figure, as much indicative of vigorous life as the other was of haunting despair. Imagine a young woman, broad-shouldered, fully six feet high, with a look of daring gayety, and even mockery, in the face. This was the daughter of Edouard de Reszke, the brother whom the war had killed. I cannot describe the charm of these two women.
“It was a wonderful afternoon, for John McCormack, the great American tenor, had come over from Monte Carlo to sing to that large school of young artists who are seeking instruction and inspiration from Jean de Reszke—a strange and interesting group, especially in its testimony to the extraordinarily great influence of the artist as a teacher, so long after he has ceased to appear on the stage. These pupils came from all parts of the world.
“When I think of de Reszke I see him eager, infectiously humorous, talking to everybody, leading the chorus of applause to McCormack, explaining the points to this pupil or to that, above all exercising those marvelous powers of mimicry, of good-natured caricature, which still remind you that you are with the greatest of actors as well as the greatest of tenors of his generation. You mention a singer, and at once de Reszke poses with mock heroic splendor, begins to sing in a ridiculous voice with ridiculous gestures, and yet so lifelike is the caricature that you see the singer he is imitating before your eyes and in his habit as he once lived. And when the great tenor has ceased there comes along that glorious, tall, laughing tomboy, Mlle, de Reszke— the gigantic father Edouard de Reszke weirdly reproduced in that splendid daughter, as sometimes happens. Assuming the deep-throated voice of a typical baritone, she rolls out some aria until you are tempted to scream. Even the pallid face of Madame de Reszke relaxes and a sweet smile illuminates the beautiful features. And her uncle, spurred almost to rivalry by his niece, then gives you another imitation.
“There was now and then a recurrence of a sad note in the conversation of de Reszke, with all the sorrow behind. ‘My brother,’ he said recently, ‘is dead and almost forgotten; my son has died and is also almost forgotten; soon I shall be dead and I shall be forgotten. The only thing to carry on the name is this,’ and he pointed to a box of ‘De Reszke’ cigarettes.
“But let me not end on this sad note. The most abiding impression I took from this interview was the magnificent courage with which de Reszke has conquered the worst strokes of fortune and the abiding influence he is still able to exercise on the memories of the old and the future destinies of the new generation; for when I recall the incidents of that gorgeous afternoon I find I think more of its gay than of its sad side.
“Think then, of de Reszke in retirement if you want to picture him as he is, not in the sombre silence of a tragic home, but amid something I am tempted to call the clatter of pupils eager to learn from a master who is as eager to teach. De Reszke has rallied round him the living and the young, and they bring to him their ambitions and their talents, and keep him also young, eager, active, almost gay.”
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