A second posting from my book “Florence, Dante and Me”

March 4, 1961

Hi, J,  

 I’ve mistaken professions! The singing lessons are going great! Boy, am I enthusiastic! What is frustrating is that I am allowed to sing only at my lessons, not at home. I guess the idea is that I might ruin my voice or pick up bad habits if I try stuff on my own. If my voice develops as I hope it will, she assures me that I will be a cannonata (a big success). She is thinking of negro spirituals (and I am thinking of Porgy and Bess). I’m willing and hoping! Music has always been my major interest, maybe even more than literature, but I have never suspected all that much aptitude (apart from an excellent memory for tunes). This raises a problem about coming home in June. I should remain here for the summer and continue with the lessons to make sure that I never lose what I have acquired here. Maestra Del Vivo is not sure if I can develop the power necessary for grand opera. She thinks maybe Mozart. Well, we shall see. You never quite know what this bel canto stuff is going to find in your throat! Anyway, for the next five months it’s all scales and exercises. She also suggests I learn enough with her so that I won’t need a teacher in Vancouver. The idea is for me to study on my own. This would mean getting a piano to work with. The good thing is that once the voice is developed, it never leaves you. Even if I never sing professionally it will give me great pleasure to be able to use my voice to its best advantage in the years to come.

I have become good friends with my professor of French literature at the university. He calls for my opinion quite often in class and addresses me (with slightly ironic intonation) as “le monsieur du Nouveau Monde” or “Monsieur le Canadien”. Pierre Halbwachs is his name. He is Jewish and a victim of Auschwitz. How he managed to keep his marbles (and even his humor) after that nightmare is really amazing. His analyses, especially of Balzac and Baudelaire, are superb and a model for me to copy. We analyzed a passage from Balzac about the morning wake up routine of a cat in the pension Vauquier. Some of the words even sound like a cat. What an amazing writer! Halbwachs and I have good chats as we sometimes walk together all the way from the university in Piazza San Marco to the Palazzo Pitti area (a mile and a half?). He advises me on things to read and has loaned me books, e. g. Causeries de Lundi by a brilliant French critic, Sainte Beuve.

Halbwachs is here on a kind of exchange. He started out on the wrong foot in the course by conducting the class in faltering Italian. I was the ringleader in getting several students together to convince him to lecture in French. Thank heaven he was reasonable and saw the light! Funny that he tried to pull a fast one like this. At the moment we are reading Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio. I am not keen on it. Halbwachs mentions current events from time to time, making sure we don’t get stuck in the nineteenth century. He brought up Gagarin’s amazing flight through space the other day. What’s next? The moon?

I think that you hadn’t thought of Sinatra as being “great” because he sings popular songs. Over here Sinatra and Crosby are considered great artists in the classico-popolare genre or what we would call popular standards. I think this is because they have rich, warm voices and technical perfection of delivery—especially breath control. Sinatra’s breath control is phenomenal and it enables him to join seamlessly long, high phrases in the way Tommy Dorsey does on the trombone. I think you grossly underestimate Frank Sinatra as an artist. I see him as without equal in the blues of a reverie kind (Ebb Tide, I’m a Fool to Want You, All or nothing at all, The Gal that got away, etc.) Maybe his “popularity” puts you off and you think that his wide accessibility excludes him from the ranks of great artists. I don’t think this kind of criticism makes much sense. Isn’t it the same kind of snobbish attitude that makes some people scorn to put Puccini (who is so accessible) in the same league as Bach and Wagner?

 By living over here I am discovering singers that I would never have found out about if I had stayed in Canada. Mina, who won the San Remo song festival this year, is an example. Her big hit is Cielo in Una Stanza di Notte (Sky in a room at night):

Quando tu sei vicina a me, questa stanza non ha più pareti ma alberi, alberi infiniti…

 (When you are near me this room doesn’t have walls any more but trees, infinite trees.)

 She sings with typical Italian passion and imagination! However, she is not even close to being in the league of an Ella Fitzgerald or Peggy Lee. In the world of popular singing the Americans rule and I know of no popular singers from Europe who would cause me to change my mind. Quite popular over here is Nat King Cole and his Chiquita.

 I saw the eclipse the other morning. We were plunged into total night for a couple of minutes. It gave me the shivers and I found myself thinking of the Dies Irae and the great chorus from Verdi came rushing through my brain. At 8:37 a.m. my bridge, the Ponte alla Carraia, was packed with people. School kids with their books; stooped, wooly-capped little old men pausing with their push-carts; the knife and scissors grinder pausing on his ungainly grindstone-bearing bike; businessmen, beautifully-suited, smugly observing the phenomenon through pieces of shaded glass; the mysterious little fruit-vendor or whatever he is who wakes me up at 8:00 every other morning raucously yelling strange, incomprehensible words that sound like “Take care of me!,” that echo in the vicolo.

 I have had yet another fitting of my new suit. It’s a knockout! Annichini is a perfectionist, like Michelangelo. Also, I have just learned that one of my favorite tenors, Mario del Monaco, is a Fiorentino. I’m not surprised. Maestra Del Vivo told me a fascinating story about her youth. She lived in the country and wasn’t allowed to practice singing in her parents’ house so she explored a bit and found herself a cave—a very damp, and not too pleasant one, I gather—and practiced her vocalizi there. I guess the acoustics would have been great.  (From “Florence, Dante and Me.”   www.godwinbooks.com)

 Here is footnote number 14 which reflects back to my description of Pierre Halbwachs (paragraph two in the text above)

14 This first exposure to the subject of Nazi brutality in Italy led to further investigation on my part. I discovered places in Rome which tourists can visit to get a good idea of the brutality and terror of the German occupation (September 1943 to June 1944): the Gestapo interrogation center on Tasso Street (a few blocks west of the Lateran), which is one of the main scenes in the movie Roma, Città Aperta and the Ardeatine Caves located a few miles south of Rome, just west of the Appian Way. These caves witnessed the mass execution of a few hundred innocent Italians as a reprisal for an anti-German act by terrorists. They were tied up and shot and then the caves were dynamited shut. During my visit to these caves I was given a private tour by a Jewish man whose father was one of the victims. These are grim places but I think it is important to know about them. Dante’s Ulysses is right: to understand mankind one must know good and evil “i vizi umani e i valori.”

This is my second posting from “Florence, Dante and Me”. I will be posting more. See my website: http://www.godwinbooks.com

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