The Music Criticism of Hugo Wolf

By Henry Pleasants; Hugo Wolf | Go to book overview

27. A Vocal Mystery

November 16, 1884

We have heard Herr Bötel1 from the Municipal Opera in Hamburg for the first time as Lionel in Flotow's Martha. His rather small, slender, almost delicate figure, bashful in its bearing, sometimes awkward in its movements, and rather too restrained than too active, we found uncommonly appealing in its touching helplessness. Herr Bötel has only recently turned to the stage, and his modest manner becomes him as a beginner. Indeed, it is striking, especially since this amiable characteristic is rarely encountered among tenors, be they neophytes or seasoned veterans. Herr Bötel had no cause for such constraint upon the stage, as he may be only too certain both of his adequacy and of his triumph. Whoever has heard the resounding gold in this throat might well wish that his entire being were one enormous ear. Nor, had every enthusiast a good fairy at his side, ready to fulfill his every wish in the twinkling of an eye, would such an ear be a misfortune. If a nose can go for a walk as a privy councillor (see Gogol's The Nose), one could, as an ear, circulate in respectable society without sacrifice of station or rank.

To describe Herr Bötel's voice is a ticklish proposition. We shall hope to do it succinctly by reporting as follows: Take " The Last Rose of Summer," whose cursed popularity must answer for the greatest possible number of suicides, melancholiacs, hydrophobes (because of the enormous pressure on the tear ducts), deaf mutes, poisoners and heavens knows what else. Now, when we certify in all seriousness that, despite the obvious peril to which we might be exposing ourself in so doing, we could hear this melodious opiate sung by Bötel twenty times with delight, then our relish in this singer's magnificent organ approaches the freezing point of acknowledgement (which, as everyone knows, is as good as no acknowledgment at all). Should we, after such praise, still look for a batch of appropriate adjectives with which to depict clearly the character of Bötel's voice? Should we compare it with the sobbing of the nightingale, the song of the finch, the pealing trill of the lark, the -- heavens, with what else should we compare it?

"I could supply you," said the stranger who, I know not how, had materialized behind my back and read the last words of my manuscript -- "I could supply you with a fitting comparison. Do you have the Collected Works of Grabbe handy?"

"Yes, no!"

-79-

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