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Why Galina refused to teach me Songs and Dances of Death

The versatile, modernist mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg studied with Galina Vishnevskaya in 1994-95. It was one of the most important times of her life. We asked her to describe it. Here’s what she writes:


I came across her voice first in recordings of ‘Songs and Dances of Death’ and was inspired by her laser beam technique and her characterisation. I loved the darkness of the combination of Moussorgsky and Vishnevskya, her performance seemed to have the quality of both going right over the edge and steely control.

When I was presented with the opportunity to study with her at the Britten Pears School I asked if I could prepare these for her. She practically threw the score in my face and thundered, ‘NO! How can you possibly sing this now?! you don’t know ANYTHING! Have you ever experienced a white night? Do you know what it is to fear death? You will not sing this now.”

..and that was the end of that! She gave me some early Moussorgsky to learn also Marina’s aria and Jean d’Arc.

I studied the Russian to the very last phonetic but she was much more concerned with internalising the images and getting a really true sound. Technically she was very strict, a masterclass with her was like attending a vocal boot camp. She concentrated on developing a strong set of core muscles and would have me sing what seemed like hours with my arms raised shoulder height to get them away from my ribcage.

After a while she relented and taught me Songs and Dances.It seems ridiculous to me now that I even asked her. It was like a penny whistle trying to play a cello concerto! She would demonstrate examples to me and I could never believe the power and white hot clarity of tone that she possessed.

I remember her inviting her students back to her house to watch videos. They were of her singing Lady Macbeth and lots of Verdi arias from sound recordings from the 1950s and 60s, but the videos were made in the 1990s and were of her miming to her own voice. I wish I had asked her for a copy because at the time It seemed odd, this teeny tiny babooshka running around to the soundtrack of her own voice, but now I can see that it could be seen as actually truly an avant-garde project about separation, even if she didn’t intend it that way.

What was also seriously impressive was her total lack of preciousness. The voice worked or it didn’t and that was down to brilliant technique and had nothing to do with what direction the wind was blowing in or what she had eaten for breakfast. She would defiantly relax with a glass or two of vodka and a cigarette while her students would be nervously drinking honey and lemon and sipping mineral water.

I simply cannot believe that she has died. She survived so much. She would often say that to be a singer you had to be cool headed and like steel inside while communicating heat, and must be unaffected by the hotness that you sing. Couldn’t she sing death away?

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Comments

  1. Dr. Marc Villeger says:

    Thank you for this account.

  2. When one thinks of what the Soviet musicians went through- including others like Oistrakh, Richter, and so many of their colleagues, whether or not they openly dissented like Galina Vishnevskaya and Slava Rostropovich- most, if not all of them, could not, if they wanted to survive- it is almost too awesome to contemplate. (One should note however, that unlike Oistrakh who came from an earlier generation that suffered through the Stalinist purges and the devastation of World War II, she was beginning her career when Stalin died.)

    Re: Gilels, who was younger than Oistrakh, but close to his generation, I recall how in 1969 or 1970- I believe it was- he was scheduled to perform the Brahms Second Piano Concerto with the Hartford Symphony and that before his first rehearsal with the orchestra, while en route from New York City, he was trapped for twelve hours in unheated train that became buried in a snowdrift. He arrived late, and when entered the hall for the rehearsal with his signature brooding look, the players expected the worst. Instead, he played magnificently, as if none of this had ever happened. It was a lesson and inspiration for the orchestra, which did some of its best playing that season.

    So Ms. Lixenberg’s marvelous story of Galina Vishnevskaya and her teaching may be illustrative of the fortitude and endurance of not only Galina and her husband, but in some way of that whole school of great Soviet artists and musicians.

  3. Ms. Lixenberg, your comment was marvelous, and it sounds like your studies with Galina Vishnevskaya were a huge influence on your own technique and interpretation. So, if you are ever performing in New York City in the future, please ask Norman to post an announcement, if that is consistent with his policy.

  4. Thank you for these stories.

  5. Thanks much.

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