Benjamin Ivry

I Sang the Unsingable: My Life in Twentieth-Century Music

8:00, 17th December 2017

by Bethany Beardslee with Minna Zallman Proctor
Boydell & Brewer
418 pages, £25

Born in 1925 in Michigan, the American soprano Bethany Beardslee collaborated with Igor Stravinsky, Milton Babbitt, George Perle, and Peter Maxwell Davies, and sang music of the Second Viennese School to lasting acclaim. Her small, sweet-toned voice maintained allure even in the sternest new music, such as Babbitt’s Philomel (1964). Her detailed, plain-spoken memoir, co-written with her goddaughter, addresses sources of her inspiration, even those she later discarded. Early on, she grasped the charm quotient essential in popular singing through exposure to the coloratura Lily Pons and screen idols Jeannette Macdonald and Deanna Durbin.

Beardslee retained a youthful seductiveness in her timbre, especially apt in excerpts from Berg’s Lulu. Yet speaking recently to Opera Now from her home in the Hudson Valley, New York, she opined, ‘I think that I had a complete change from my early experiences as a child with Hollywood movie stars when I began to seriously study music. Then I saw those singers in a different light. I liked the singing of the Hollywood stars, but by then I was a serious musician and much more involved in art songs.’

At the Juilliard School, future opera stars among classmates included the soprano Lenora Lafayette (1926-1975), the first African-American to sing at Covent Garden, and the tenor David Poleri (1921-1967). Their abridged lives and careers underlined how singing can be a ‘fragile profession in the sense that maybe one out of a hundred really make it to be a professional,’ she notes.

Deeply imbued in opera during her years at Juilliard – Leontyne Price was another classmate – Beardslee sang in the Robert Shaw Chorale under the direction of Arturo Toscanini between 1948 and 1950 in repertoire including Aida, the Verdi Requiem, and Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Yet she was not too dazzled to notice that the soprano soloist Herva Nelli sang off pitch in the ‘Libera me’ section of the Requiem. By then, Beardslee had decided to eschew the operatic stage, for which her voice was unsuited, and focused on song literature.

In 1949, she fell in love with Jacques-Louis Monod, a French composer and conductor obsessed with the Second Viennese School of composers. Monod incited her to learn their challenging works. Had she been enamoured of an accordionist, I ask, would she have specialised instead in Edith Piaf songs? Beardslee laughs, ‘Probably. No, right from the beginning with my voice teacher at Michigan State University, I knew that I wanted to be a recitalist. I was very much in love with Jacques and believed in the music he loved and went along with it.’

This led to a permanently challenging new repertory, although the marriage broke up in 1955. Monod, a martinet in the rehearsal room, browbeat Beardslee while preparing a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Wouldn’t anyone’s marriage break up over tormenting a spouse with Pierrot Lunaire, I ask. Beardslee replies: ‘I don’t think it was the piece; it was the authoritarian manner of Jacques’s working me very hard. And we were very poor. We were always behind in our rent. I just wanted to get out of the relationship.’

Preferring composers as keyboard accompanists, she was disappointed by a collaboration with the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who asked her to perform Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon with him in 1956. I Sang the Unsingable notes that Gould had ‘strange musical ideas that he imposed on the performance. He didn’t always seem to feel beholden to a composer’s intent, or if he did, he went about realising it differently than anyone else.’

Able to switch deftly from singing the medieval Play of Daniel to Stravinsky’s Threni and Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, Beardslee programmed Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens in a single recital. Why? ‘Well, I just happened to like the idea of two cycles back to back’.

Finally, in her sixties, her career wound down, after one recital partner, the pianist Richard Goode, cancelled a scheduled lieder program in extremis during a rehearsal because she was singing flat. As she recalls, with age a singer’s muscles grow weaker and ‘for me, it resulted in flatting. So Richard was right.’ By then she had achieved her goals, and won immortality through abundant, still appealing recordings.

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