My inability to write to order was never more strikingly demonstrated than by my song "1822," which has cost me more work than anything else in my life. It is a light, "story"-song, and has in it a great many modulations. To produce these I worked very hard, and sat up half the night for many nights together. Messrs. Chappell, my publishers, were pressing me for it, and I was receiving constant letters from them asking when it would be ready. At length, they sent me this telegram: "Is it a song or an oratorio you are writing? "Their impatience was natural, but 1 could not give them the thing until it was as complete as I wanted it to be. Eventually, I did get it just as I wanted, and then I sent it to them.
In contradistinction to the time I took over "1822" was the rapidity with which 1 set "The Perfect Flower."
One day Mr. Teschemacher, who has written the lyrics of so many of my songs, came to see me. He brought some verses with him, and I was greatly taken with them. He left me at a quarter-past five with the words, "I shall hope for good news of that song soon." As soon as he had left, I went to the piano and began the song. In little more than half an hour it was finished, for at five minutes to six I wrote him a letter of four words - "I have done it." Although "The Perfect Flower" has never been a popular song I have always regarded it as one of the best of my quiet songs.
"Because," which is, I suppose, my most popular song - some two hundred thousand copies having been sold in the five years which have elapsed since it was published - was composed almost as rapidly. In part, it owed its origin to the fact that Mr. Denham Price used to sit by the piano and egg me on to write it. Indeed, he left me no peace until I did write it, and that may have stimulated me to the work.
Although I have said I rarely change anything after a song is once written - I often
The Arts work up the harmony later - yet in "Because" I did make a change in the setting of the line "Because you speak to me in accents sweet," which, by the way, most singers hurry unduly instead of singing it smoothly and roundly.
When a song is finished, I try it on certain people. Most people will probably recall the fact that when Moliere had written a play, he read it to his housekeeper and listened carefully to all the criticisms she made, for he knew her opinions would reflect the spirit of the audiences to which his work had to be presented. I have a maid who has been with me a long time and for whom I have a great regard. I often try my songs on her and get to know in advance the probable reception of my work, for she is a very admirable barometer, as it were, of the public taste. When I was writing one of my latest songs, "Come," which finishes with the words "Come, come, come," the last word going up on the "fifth" instead of coming down on the "tonic," as is more usual, my maid heard me singing it and begged to be allowed to make a remark about it. 1 willingly told her she might say what she chose.
"Well, madam," she replied, "I do want you to come down on the last note." It was one of the few times when I was not able to comply with her desires.
The way I came to have a method of writing songs at all always seemed to me to be curious, for it was by the merest chance that I began composing professionally.
My mother was very musical and was one of the great Signor Garcia's favourite pupils. We lived in France in an old castle. I was born with a gift for music and could play by ear whatever I heard other people play. My mother sang all the operas, so that I was brought up on them. I can hardly remember the time when I could not play the chief airs, simply from hearing her sing them.
When I was about six or seven I thought it would be nice to have some tunes of my own, so I began making up waltzes and polkas, and used to play them standing at the piano. Hearing the church bells go, it occurred to me, in my childish way, that I would play them, too, on the piano. I did so, to the great delight of my mother, who would often tell me to go and "do my bells" when friends were calling.
When I grew up I used to play the 'cello, and sing as well, and in that way got all the satisfaction I needed for my musical hunger.
One day, when I was a young girl, just out in society in Paris, I was reading Victor Hugo's "Contemplations." Certain verses struck me as very beautiful, and I set them to music, but did not write out the music. One evening, I was at a party at which that great operatic artist, Victor Maurel, was present. I sat down to the piano and hummed over the song. When I had finished, he came up and asked, "Where can I get it?"
"Nowhere," I said. "It is not written." "Then write it," he replied emphatically. I went home and wrote the song. He sent me a letter to a publisher, who agreed to take the song, which was called "Sans Toi." That was how I began composing.
I believe that the fact that I sing myself and teach singing has had a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a composer. Being a singer myself, I know exactly what the voice is capable of doing, and so I write "vocally," if I may use the word in that sense.
The Romance of a Lyric
I always write the music to the words, and never write the music first in the hope of finding words to fit them. Some musical comedy writers, such as Mr. Adrian Ross, whose work is in such demand, can fit words to music; but few, if any, of the lyric writers who write for song composers are able to do that, so far as I know. Still, I dare say it might be possible to find people who could do this from the vast number of writers who inundate one with words. Every week I receive between 250 and 500 sets of lyrics. Of course it is impossible to answer all the senders myself, although I try to read the work in case I should miss a good idea, but this entails an immense amount of work.
Occasionally, there are little romances attached to these lyrics. A few years ago, for instance, I received from a girl a lyric called "My Heart Will Know." In the letter enclosing it she wrote that she was about to undergo a serious operation and she felt she could go through it better if she thought I would set her song.
The words appealed to me very strongly - so strongly, indeed, that I actually sat down there and then and composed the music. I wrote to her that night that I had done so, and she went to her operation in a happy frame of mind, and, I am glad to say, she came through splendidly.
While the words of a song are usually my inspiration, there have been occasions when, sitting at the piano, I have struck a chord and it has occurred to me that I can do something with it. So I make a note of it, and, later on, I build a song.
A Word of Advice
When, however, the song is written, it has to be sung in order to make itself tell with the public. In doing this, expression, especially facial expression, is a great element in possible success. So many singers sing about the "sun" and the "shade" in exactly the same tone and with exactly the same expression. If the face does not light up and give a meaning to the words, what is the use of words? If I may give a parting word of advice to singers, 1 would urge them to get a little sob in the voice which you always hear when French artistes sing of "tears," and the bright look which accompanies the singing of "smiles."