Alberto della Pergola (1884-1942)

...slowly the spellbound public left the concert hall. Behind me two women were talking;
"How do you like Pergola?"
"I don't know, my dear! I understand nothing about music or singers...but I do know that he is wonderful, enchantingly beautiful."

That is how the music critic, di Braila, concluded his review of the concert that had taken place in one of the halls in the city in which the tenor Alberto della Pergola had been presented for the first time.

Alberto della Pergola was a man of many parts. For some he was the "tenor" who delighted with his concerts; for others he was the "Chief Cantor" whose voice expressed joy and consolation on different occasions throughout their lives; for very many others he was the "maestro," the person who had guided them in their career or who had awoken in them a love of music and song; for a very small number and for his wife he was just "Alberto," and into that name they put all the affection they had for him; to his sons he was "Babbo" which was the Italian Tuscan term for 'father'; to the artists that he would visit in their dressing rooms after the show he was the "fan" who could offer words of encouragement and motivation to further progress without expecting compliments in return; to the public who did not know him and saw him only on stage or in the theater foyer he was a "character", reminiscent perhaps of Marcello in the opera "La Bohème;" and finally, to some he was the "father" or "father-in-law" of those two singers of the Romanian Opera who proudly gloried in his name.

Alberto della Pergola was born 1884 in Florence, city of the arts and of flowers. In that city of dreams he was able later on to marvel at the works of Michelangelo or Benvenuto Cellini, Raphael or Botticelli and attend the opera performances at the Politeamma or Verdi theatres or else at the Della Pergola theatre, admiring the art of the famous tenors of the time, the great Francesco Tamagno, Edoardo Garbin, Alessandro Bonci or Amedeo Bassi. In the narrow streets of bygone days he could follow the footsteps of Tuscan civilization, the rule of Guelf and Ghibelline, Cosimo de' Medici or Lorenzo the Magnificent, recognize the traces left by Dante Alighieri or Savonarola and listen to the "stornelli" of lovers' serenades or admire the grand panorama of the city from the Piazzale Michelangelo, Fiesole or the top of Giotto's tower.

His passion for opera and for singers developed gradually as he became older. In his typical Tuscan accent Alberto della Pergola would tell the following story:

"I was part of the children's chorus when Otello was put on for the first time in Florence in the interpretation by the creator of the title role, the great Francesco Tamagno. For some reason I'm not aware of, the company had the idea that the children should take part not only in the section of Act Two where they have a singing role, but also in creating the "tossing waves" in Act One. This meant that at the beginning of the opera the little singers had to stand under an immense canvas which, when moved, created the impression of the "tossing waves" and foaming sea through which Otello's ship had to pass. So, the whole group of children was standing under that canvas and, bending over, by moving rhythmically but uncoordinatedly, managed to stir up...the Mediterranean Sea. In my eagerness to create this movement, I lost one of the shoes from the pair that the wardrobe assistant had given me. Seized by fear, I timidly confessed what had happened to me to the head of wardrobe who was very annoyed and 'administered' a couple of slaps. Inevitably, I began to cry and at the sight of those heart-rending tears I was approached by the great (in every sense of the word) Francesco Tamagno: 'What's up, my little one, why are you crying?' the great tenor asked in his Piedmontese accent. In between sobs I explained to Otello the reason for my tears. Immediately Francesco Tamagno summoned the 'administrator of these slaps' and without hesitation offered the head of wardrobe a coin that would easily cover the cost of the shoe, adding 'But this is not enough! You've recovered the cost of the shoe, but you've...also wasted a couple of slaps on this child,' and without pausing for breath and on the same basis he "conferred" a slap on the wretched man, saying: 'Right then, now everything has been restored to you!; then, in the same spirit of generosity he gave a gold coin to me as well."

Later on, when his voice underwent its natural change, Albert's great passion for opera and the theatre led him to work behind the scenes as "assistant dresser" that is, as the person who brought the costumes to the dressing rooms and helped the singers to dress. Here is how Alberto della Pergola described that episode: "At that time there were various ways of creating illusions, simple, to be sure, but not lacking in ingenuity. In the opera 'Faust,' Faust's transformation from an old man into a youth was carried out right in front of the audience. A trap-door would be placed in front of the chair in which the tenor sat and from whose costume there ran a system of strings that ended up in the trap-door inside which there was 'someone' who, at a given signal, would pull on the main string and...the costume together with old Faust's wig and beard would disappear somewhere, without it being apparent where, that is to say into the trap-door. I hardly need to tell you that that little assistant dresser was me and that, what is more, I had produced magnificent results. Again and again the audience would applaud that special effect. One evening the tenor singing the role of Faust was obviously unwell and, even more obviously, was vexed by certain impediments that were inconveniencing his throat and which he found it quite natural to expel...far way over there into the trap-door and without caring that there was 'someone' down there. I performed miracles in dodging this 'surprise bombardment' and...I put up with it as far as possible, but at a certain moment I lost patience and...went home! It goes without saying that that evening Faust remained an old man until the end of the first scene and that I was never again to resume my profession as 'assistant dresser.' "

In his "Dizionario Musicale Illustrato (Illustrated Dictionary of Music)" compiled by the blind musician, A.L. Ivela, Ivela writes the following in the paragraph in which he speaks of himself: "That organist and chorus director at the Spanish Synagogue, has written a collection, entitled 'Iubal', of more than 200 traditional Sephardic religious songs, both adapted and original, for Organ, Orchestra, Chorus and Soloists, in great part inspired by and composed for the rare vocal qualities of the famous tenor Alberto della Pergola, Chief Cantor at that Synagogue."

When in the depth of the winter of 1909, Alberto della Pergola arrived in Bucharest for an audition for the post of Chief Cantor at the magnificent Spanish Temple, in addition to the Executive Committee of the Congregation, there were two musicians present, A.L. Ivela and M. Cohen-Linaru (who had studied music in Paris under Victor Massé, Georges Bizet, Dubois and Félicien David). On that occasion Ivela confessed: "If this young man knew what a voice he had, he would not have come here, to the Spanish Temple." The truth was that Alberto della Pergola was well aware of that gift and of how much fervor he would have brought to an operatic career, but he was 25 years old, married and already had a son. When he thought of the responsibility he had towards his family, he could not allow himself the risks of a career in the theatre which – apart from its glitter – also has its distressing side. The career of Chief Cantor for a rich congregation would give him a peaceful and secure life and also allow him to develop his voice. For all that, the desire to create a respectable career while at the same time preserving a peaceful family life, he was not constrained from widening his field of activity with numerous concerts both for the Bucharest public and for that outside the capital.

Endowed with a stupendous tenor voice whose range covered the necessary two octaves, he brought to his musical phrasing an ardor that coupled style with a perfect comprehension and interpretation of the text, to which he added a facility to project astonishing high notes which – if necessary and in good taste – he could "spin", reduce to the minimum required for song.

Within a short space of time he became an exponent of that "bel canto" style which was granted only to great singers.

In these concerts at the Romanian Athenaeum, Lidertafel, National Theatre, Lyric Theatre or at the Palais de Glace, Alberto della Pergola had the opportunity to display the full range of his potential alongside singers such as Jean Athanasiu, Giorgio Folescu, Gregorio Teodorescu, Tamasescu, Cutavas, Alessandra Feraru, Constanza Dobrescu and others. Religious services at the Spanish Temple were also concerts and became famous; specially written for della Pergola's vocal range, enchanting melodies unfolded under the inspiration of Ivela. These services would quite often be joined by Umberto Pessione on the organ, Marica Pessione on the harp, Giorgio Folescu, Jean Athanasiu, Costanza Dobrescu, Josef Thaler on the cello and many others. The Friday evening services would be attended by not only by members of the Spanish Congregation and neighboring congregations, but also by a whole procession of musicians from the beginning of the century. There are still a few who can remember the concert given at the National Theatre in order to celebrate the end of the First World War and which included all the singers of that time, Romolo Vrabiescu, Jean Athanasiu, Gregorio Teodorescu, Mihailescu -Toscani, Alessandra Feraru, Dragulinescu-Stinghe. The program concluded with the final act of "Carmen", sung by Enrichetta Rodrigo (later on the wife of Jean Athanasiu) and Nicolae Leonard and conducted by Egizio Massini. Before the concert Alberto della Pergola received an "anonymous letter" in which it was threatened that he would be booed "if he dared appear on the stage of the National Theatre". In the face of such pressure and "advised" by his colleagues not to appear, Alberto della Pergola plucked up courage and walked out onto the stage before a packed house. There was an unimaginable noise and as well as the threatened boos there were cries of "Tosca", "Martha", "Africana", "Carmen", "Pescatori", "Manon" or "Lucia", a part of the repertoire with which Alberto della Pergola had pampered the Bucharest public. He sang "Bianca al par" from the opera "Gli Ugonotti" and generously responded to the encores that were requested. Later on it was discovered that the "anonymous letter" had been written by a...colleague.

From his very first years in Bucharest, Alberto della Pergola was accepted as a "guest scholar" in Popovici-Bayreuth's opera classes and had as his class companions Michele Nasta, Mircea Lazar, Michele Vulpescu, Alessandro Lupescu, Giorgio Folescu, Gregorio Teodorescu and many others. Here he completed his studies and perfected his style, adding to it that natural "bel canto" that he had brought with him from radiant Italy. In his appearances at the Conservatory he was always accompanied by the famous Glattauer and later on in his concerts at the Athenaeum by Umberto Pessione, a devoted friend with an enormous concert repertoire with which he recorded the first records for the "Lyrophon" and "Angel" companies.

In addition to the entire tenor repertoire, he added recordings of numerous "Neapolitan songs", those enchanting melodies from the city of Naples whose characteristic dialect he had absorbed during his military service in that city of song. He also recorded a certain number of Romanian romances ("Un dor ascuns", "Steluta", "Mindrulita de la munte", etc.) to which he lent his charming Italian accent. He also recorded the religious melodies of the Spanish Temple, not only those written by Ivela, but also those by his successor, Josef Rosenstock, who was at the same time Chorus Master at the Romanian Opera. The record companies requested recordings with increasing frequency and issued them in increasing numbers, both secular and religious. In this way Alberto della Pergola put his mark on the pages of the history of Edison's machine, beginning with those primitive recordings (a small room in which singer and pianist were perched on top of chests and performed the music in front of a tube) and then later on in larger halls furnished with electrical equipment and microphones, prodigious inventions. The quality of the recordings was constantly improving (although they were far from that which can be obtained nowadays) as the significance of Alberto della Pergola's artistic and interpretative maturity became increasingly evident.

During the war he was asked by the great George Enescu to join a company of singers who would comfort the wounded soldiers in the hospitals with their music – on these occasions George Enescu also provided the piano accompaniment. The ties of friendship and admiration remained firm even after the end of the war and it was George Enescu who introduced Alberto della Pergola to the Royal Palace on various occasions. "I had been invited to sing at the Royal Palace by Carmen Sylva, the Queen Elisabeth", related Alberto della Pergola. (Translator's Note: In the latter part of her life, Queen Elisabeth of Romania took to writing popular novels under the pen-name of 'Carmen Sylva' [Song of the Forest.])

"Among the singers there was also the tenor, Bajenaru, who had already been here at the Palace several times before me. On that occasion he advised me that on being presented to the Queen I should not speak without being addressed first. As a matter of fact, at the reception that followed the concert, Carmen Sylva came up to me and in perfect Italian asked me where I came from. Of course, I replied without going into great detail and to her other questions replied with a plain 'Yes, ma'am' or obsequious 'Yes, Your Majesty.' Bajenaru who was nearby gave a tug on the end of my coat-tails. When I replied in the same way to another question, Bajenaru tugged so hard on my coat-tails that the material came away in his hands. For the rest of the evening I had to walk around with my hands behind my back and keeping close to the walls!"

There was a certain fascination in the way in which Alberto della Pergola narrated these short episodes from his life. They were always tinged with that Florentine irony, but an irony combined with a sense of the ridiculous, which thereby made itself the butt of the joke.

The clouds of war disappeared, the soldiers returned to their homes and the wounded began to recover. Bucharest threw away the dark glass of the street lamps and the dark-blue paper was removed from the windows. The summer gardens re-opened, once again orchestras played in the restaurants and evening strollers restored to Calea Victoriei (Victory Way) its lively rhythm. Traders began once more to travel and to bring back to "little Paris" (Bucharest's nickname) the choicest and most elegant merchandise that good taste could offer. Life reacquired its throbbing rhythm and prosperity reigned.

In the summer of 1920, Alberto della Pergola travelled to Italy, his first visit after an interval of 12 years. He would see his parents, brothers and sisters and relatives and childhood friends. He was returning now as a mature man of 37. Physically he had not changed: his hair was still black and curly, his short beard had grown smaller and his face still retained the same smile and brightness. His way of dressing had changed: now he wore a bow-tie and a wide-brimmed hat. Seeing him on the street, it was impossible not to pause in admiration.

The Naples of his military service was also among the cities that he visited. While on a trip to Capri, the enchanted isle that looks toward the city of song and toward Sorrento, he observed on the steamer a figure that he recognized, but he could not remember where he had seen it. A travelling companion explained: "That's Enrico Caruso". Yes, it was the greatest tenor, the singer whose records he listened to every day, the man "with the golden throat" whose songs bore the unforgettable warmth and perfume of Italy, the tenor whose style of singing he would so much have liked to imitate but did not dare, was there on the boat together with the other passengers. Without hesitating for a moment, he went up to him and introduced himself, and the great Caruso replied courteously to him, explaining that the next day he was to have an operation in a Neapolitan clinic, under a Neapolitan doctor, the best in the world! Enrico Caruso had put all his hope on his fellow countrymen to whom he had remained faithful. He was pale and rarely let slip a playful remark and in so doing betrayed his apprehension.

A few days later, 2 August 1921, Enrico Caruso passed away. The music world was in mourning and the citizens of Naples, representing the whole world, went to the funeral. From dawn Alberto della Pergola occupied a place in the church where the funeral service was to take place. It was an unforgettable moment: Titta Ruffo began to sing Stradella's "Pièta Signore" but his tears suffocated the sound; the prayer was taken up and finished by the celebrated tenor, Fernando De Lucia.

The war was over...but the war against a sickness that is without mercy was just beginning and its victims were chosen at random.

The Italian singers who came to Bucharest always found an open door at Alberto della Pergola's home. Without warning and to his wife Alice's despair, he would bring them home to lunch or dinner, often to both. The "Compagnia di Castellano" found food and lodging at Alberto della Pergola's home, and the bonds of friendship with the young orchestra conductor, Egizio Massini, that dated from that time were to remain unbreakable. The tenor, Ippolito Lazzaro, the baritone, Umberto Urbano or Angelo Capovia, the tenor, Attilio Perico, the baritone, Giuseppe de Luca, the tenor, Fullin and finally the renowned Leo Slezak, all frequented Alberto della Pergola's home. A unique atmosphere reigned there: the walls of the music room were filled with photographs of famous singers, the centerpiece being that famous photograph of the celebrated trio of Caruso, Titta Ruffo and Chaliapin. The Italian tricolor held sway over the piano and slightly to one side there stood the wind-up tube-gramophone which every hour played the records of Caruso, Titta Ruffo, Didur, Anselmi, Schipa, Stracciari, Selma Kurz, Leo Slezak and Alberto della Pergola, as well as purely symphonic and instrumental music alongside Italian songs. As regards the collection of records sung by Caruso, he had almost the complete set and they were devoured by family and friends alike. Every time that he brought home the latest record sung by the great tenor, nothing else would be listened to for that week and the record would be pronounced "the best yet" sung by the great Neapolitan. Alberto della Pergola's four children (another three had been born in the meantime in Bucharest) had become famous for their performance of the quartet from "Rigoletto" accompanied by their father. They only rarely got into a muddle...and then the "pianist" would hastily play a final chord which would give the signal for the well-deserved applause! It was, then, no wonder that the children knew Rigoletto by heart. During the period before the World War Alberto della Pergola began to give singing lessons at home and together with his pupils he prepared and presented in public the two final acts of "Rigoletto" and "La Traviata."

Another era was drawing to a close in the career of Alberto della Pergola; that of 'maestro di canto'. To hear those who have just begun such a career, one might imagine that giving singing lessons is something easy and enjoyable; professional experience, however, demonstrates that the responsibility of nursing the fragile voices of the young, of those students who have placed all their faith and hopes in the shrewd guidance of their teacher, is very great. It might prove enjoyable only when the resulting fruits become visible and succeed in satisfying the teacher. Time and again Alberto della Pergola would plainly and sincerely declare "it is not the teacher who builds up the pupil, but the pupil who gives strength to the teacher." Furthermore, it is well known that nobody is interested in, nor can be bothered to remember, the name of the teacher of a famous singer; nobody wants to know who Caruso's or Maria Callas' teacher was; if the student manages to become "someone," it is he or she that receives all the praise and the teacher must remain in the background. Of the immense number of pupils that were guided by Alberto della Pergola, there are some who succeeded in making a good career, others an average one and…a few who did nothing at all, or almost nothing. What, then, is the point of the teacher? Della Pergola used to say: "I can give you indications, an objective for you to aspire to, a love of the art of singing, but I cannot create you; this is up to you yourself, with your talent and perseverance, with your gift of knowing your own instrument and the art of how to guide it. Up to a certain point I can show you the way and encourage and help you, but you and you alone can smooth the way to fame and possibly glory; if, guided by certain moral principles, I have not destroyed your voice (as many do!), then believe me, I shall consider myself happy and will acknowledge myself to be capable, perhaps even successful; I can show you the road yourself must embark on the way!"

Shortly after the war, while the Opera was still unable to restart, Alberto della Pergola prepared a production of "Cavalleria" and "Pagliacci" performed by all his pupils. The production was conducted by Umberto Pessione and staged by Mitu Dumitriu. The artist invited for "Pagliacci" was the baritone, Jean Athanasiu who did not think twice about appearing in public alongside some apprentice students. The respect and admiration that he had for his colleague from the Conservatory and fellow singer in the duets from "La Forza del Destino" that they had sung in so many concerts, was guarantee enough for the celebrated baritone. This recital introduced for the first time several singers who later on were to devote themselves to the stage of the Romanian Opera: Eliachim Algazi, and Ottavio Calmuski (later a tenor under the name of Ottavio Arbore). Another public appearance of the students was in two other opera acts (Tosca, Act III and Aida, Act III), a production that highlighted the exceptional talent of a child that subsequently was to conduct in the great theatres of Europe, in Vienna, Zurich, Milan, Bologna, Naples, Lugano and many others, namely Otto Ackerman. (Translator's Note: In 1902 the Romanian government withdrew its subsidy from the Romanian Opera which thereupon was forced to close down and was not able to start up again until 1921.  Consequently, these performances produced by Alberto della Pergola would have been far more important than they perhaps seem, providing the Bucharest public with some rare opportunities to listen to opera.)

If we were to compile a list of those pupils that went through Alberto della Pergola's classes and who succeeded in making a career, we would commit an injustice if we were to omit anyone. However, we shall recall those who made a name for themselves at the Bucharest and Cluj opera houses: Eliachim Algazi, Michele Arnautu, Ottavio Calmuski-Arbore, Leo Calmuski, State Botez, Giorgio Stefanovici, Roberto Shilton, Nicolae Secareanu, Josef Rainer-Tautu, Thea Joanin, Gaby Sefanescu-Augustin, Ion Manolescu, Spiridone Dumitrescu, Edith Della Pergola, Luciano Della Pergola.

In 1926, after several years of teaching song at the Stoenescu Academy, he joined with Egizio Massimi to found the "Egizio Massimi Conservatory" in the palace of the Spanish Congregation in Negru-Voda Street. Here they began to be productively active and in accordance with the wishes of Alberto della Pergola: to create the possibility of presenting in public, as frequently as possible, acts from the opera repertoire. In one of the rooms of the Conservatory a platform was erected, a drop-curtain installed, some scenery constructed, costumes brought in and seats for the public arranged, and so a miniature theatre was created. Admittedly, the productions were presented with piano accompaniment only, but not without scenery and make-up. Performances took place almost every week and the students applied themselves to study as quickly as possible the scenes that were to be presented. In this way a faithful public was built up that regularly filled the small theatre hall. The music critic, C.C. Nottara, observed in one of his reviews: "By the light of an oil-lamp, in the same way as our forebears, art finds itself a place and takes shape to deliver the thrill of a real performance." Many of the artists noted above took their first steps on that stage, with emotions, hopes and worries comparable to the great stages that they would subsequently appear on. Behind the scenes the maestro would spur them on, assuring each one that "the next time" they would do much better because progress very much depends on frequently appearing on those "magic boards". It was no coincidence that, in his enthusiasm for the Opera, Alberto della Pergola was among those who paid taxes to the Tribunal for the Foundation of Romanian Opera. This stance was rewarded with a permanent seat in the stalls for performances presented by the Romanian Opera and from this selfsame seat he carried out his work as music correspondent for the weekly Milanese paper, "La Rivista Melodrammatica e Teatrale."

At the age of 44, Alberto della Pergola was widowed; his lifelong companion, Alice, the Florentine girl with whom he had shared the joys of family life, and who trembled and rejoiced at every service in the Temple as at every concert, encouraging him and always offering constructive criticism; Alice, his devotee to whom he had been engaged for 6 years and married for 20 and with whom time and again he would reminisce about their sentimental strolls along the Arno or on the Ponte Vecchio, passed away after a long illness. There remained his children who supported him in all his activities. He continued to be the director of and inspiration behind the Conservatory which, although it bore the name "Massini," was in reality his. In his widowhood he completely neglected his health and threw himself with all his ardor into his daily activities as a singing teacher.

"With a face out of a story by Alfred de Musset," said Victor Eftimiu, the famous poet and writer who at that time was Director General of Theatres, "or perhaps more accurately, the painting of de Musset, nature endowed him with a spellbinding voice, an art that revealed his personality and a smile in which there shone forth the wonder of the Italian sun." These words were pronounced at the beginning of a commemorative production in memory of Alberto della Pergola, presented at the Romanian Opera and which, in accordance with the "recipe", created by the Maestro, presented several opera acts with his ex-pupils. There were students from former times and from the latest group there to sing two acts from Trovatore and the final act from Bohème. Those taking part were Edith Della Pergola, Michele Arnautu, Nicolae Secareanu, Luciano Della Pergola, Thea Joanin, Ion Manolescu, Gaby Stefanescu-Augustin, the Chorus of the Opera etc.

In 1934 the health of the singer and teacher, Alberto della Pergola was shaken for the first time. A congestion of the brain reduced his activities and his doctors forbade him to sing or give lessons, but our Florentine would not give in and, recovering in some miraculous way, continued to sing at the Spanish Temple and recommenced his lessons at the Conservatory. The Second World War was approaching and with it those persecutions that inflict deep wounds. The entire palace of the Congregation was afflicted by them and so the Conservatory had to find another site, which was utterly disheartening. A wild mob of fanatics set fire to that magnificent Cathedral that had been a holy place and in which the art of Alberto della Pergola, Ivela and Rosenstock had raised hymns of glory to humankind and to Him who had created them. Such were the sorrows that afflicted Alberto della Pergola but which he rose above by devoting himself even more to the profession of teacher, to such an extent that it was during one of these lessons that he suffered his second, and fatal, stroke. His transfiguration lasted only a few days and then absolute darkness closed forever those eyes that, perhaps during their last moments, attempted to see once more the blue sky of his Florentine birthplace. It was 16th January 1942 and, in the teeth of an intolerant winter, people of every race and religion, ex-pupils, admirers, colleagues and musicians, gathered at the Spanish section of the Bellu Cemetery struggling against an equally intolerant mentality that was full of menace for them. A tear shook the frost-frozen faces and their spirits rallied. A colleague, himself also a singing teacher and avowed competitor, declared in a gentle voice: "Many professional defects may be ascribed to Alberto della Pergola, if we wish, but one thing is certain, he never made a mistaken diagnosis. If he told someone he was a baritone then, without question, he was a baritone. So...there can be no one who can complain that Alberto della Pergola ruined their voice...while as for us...may God have mercy on us!"

Alberto della Pergola put his mark on an epoch, that of the beginnings of the art of song in Romania and he was proud of this epoch. Perhaps in some home, in some isolated spot, you can still find a record made by Alberto della Pergola, and then, from the depths of the grave, there will resound a "Mindrulita de la munte," a "Serenata" by Toselli, an opera aria or religious song. Whatever the song may be, the listener will try to make out from amidst the roughness of these primitive recordings the splendor of that voice that reigned over the concert halls at the beginning of the century and which with its brilliance raised up hymns and honor to Nature.

Written by Luciano della Pergola in November 1977.

Courtesy of Felicity Blatt. Translation from the Italian by Michael Aylward.

Copyright 2008 - 2012, Joel Bresler

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