You are about to hear a tape in which Alfred Wolfsohn speaks about his work, elucidating it with vocal examples. Allow me, beforehand, to tell you about a little miracle. This tape has survived nearly 50 years in the archives, under the most awful conditions. Paul Silber, one of our Roy Hart teachers, who is now looking lovingly after these archives, was able to put the tape on a CD. My joy, my astonishment, to hear this fresh, this almost young voice. This for me was a great gift, because all the other tapes we possess of Wolfsohn, were made in later years, when his voice had become, through the many years of illness, hoarse and brittle. We can no longer ascertain exactly in which year the tape was made, but in any case, it was after 1953, as he speaks about the transgressing of limitations, world records, fantastic achievements, which excited mankind at that time and which gave him new incentive to rank his explorations on the human voice, with these illustrious records. As Wolfsohn mentions the conquering of Mount Everest by Tensing and Hillary, we know that the tape was made after the 29th May 1953. This was the date. Eugen Herrigel's Book, "Zen in the Art of Archery" came out in London in the same year. Wolfsohn marked a passage in it, which could serve as a motto for my experiences as his pupil.
"The teacher-pupil relationship has belonged, since ancient times to the basic commitments of life and therefore presupposes, on the part of the teacher, a high responsibility which goes far beyond the scope of his professional duties".
When I met Alfred Wolfsohn in 1949, he was a man of 53 years and I had just turned 21. I had fled from the eastern zone of Germany and was, thanks to a labour permit, allowed to enter Great Britain.
During the first two years, I saw him only now and then, and we had merely long talks. I had gained, perhaps some maturity through the war experiences, but otherwise I was rather unformed and had no idea of what to do with my life. Now I was allowed to listen to a man, who had built up something in the midst of the post-war destruction, which showed a way which was life giving and life affirming. There were, as yet no workshops, only single lessons. In a tiny little studio, I heard for the first time how Wolfsohn worked with his pupils. I was impressed by the virtuosity of their voices, their wide ranges and different timbres. What moved me most deeply however, was what happened between teacher and pupil. It was the give and take on both sides, an incredible concentration and intensity emanating from both. It was the physical exertion, the supreme effort which seemed to transform facial expression and posture. And then came the day I had my first singing lesson. The experience was of such a nature that I knew, I must follow this way. I believe we all have, once in our life, such a central experience, which touches us in the deepest roots of our being, an experience where heart, soul and mind are so equally engaged, that it can radiate over our whole life.
Alfred Wolfsohn expresses this, this way.
"Here I want to stress once more that when I speak of singing, I do not consider this to be an artistic exercise, but the possibility, and the means to recognise oneself, and to transform this recognition into conscious life. Singing is, however, the primeval field of the application of music, the gift, bestowed on everyone by nature in order to express himself. For the communication between mankind takes place through language, which does not just consist of a neutral combination of sounds, but is used in an up and down of a musical movement. In my attempt to discover the secret of singing, nothing has compensated me more for all my searching and worrying than the discovery that, that which I had one sidedly understood as expression in its symbolic and spiritual sense, had to be taken in its literal meaning. I found that the sound of the human voice, gained its fullest expression exactly at the point, when the singing person, having found the right balance of concentration and attention, could express it bodily. However simple it may sound, important are only three factors which constitute the elements of singing: concentration, intensity and, as a result thereof, expression. Whoever is convinced, like me, that exactly the simplest things in life, contain the most complicated problems, also knows that the mastery thereof, leads to the desired goal.".
I lived through, even contributed a little, to the era of the fifties, which we also called the pioneer years. I would like to add to the terms of concentration and intensity, yet another: ENTHUSIASM. This was of the utmost importance, as it was, once again, a time of crisis.
Arthur Koestler formulated it thus:
"We live in an age of uncertainty, an age where the accelerating process of technology has led thinking man to the question whether mankind is perhaps a mistake of evolution".
At the time, it was the atomic bomb which could have been thrown and quickly and thoroughly extinguished the human race. Not much has changed. Today we have the climatic catastrophe and various plagues, which promise the same. How topical are Alfred Wolfsohn's thoughts even today. If we really are only a mistake, if life is utterly meaningless, if there is perhaps, no God, then we have two possibilities: either, we resign that things take their course, or we give this seemingly senseless life, a sense. That is to say the possibility to occupy ourselves with what happens in our inner being, in our bodies and heads. He believed that the means for this internal journey was the exploration of the human voice which was given to everyone of us. This apparent simplicity of his philosophy is rather overwhelming. Maybe it has to be so, in order to counteract the hypothesis, that we are totally in the wrong place. Out of deepest suffering, out of experiences of two World Wars, he created a life affirming philosophy. He invented nothing new, but went back to the ancient wise sayings: "Recognise thyself" is one of them.
He taught us pupils to take ourselves seriously. He taught us to bring art into life, and life into art, knowing very well, that art without love, is like an empty shell. And that love, if it is not integrated into constant repetition, in the creation of rituals, in the ability to bear pain, all that what theatre could mean, is but a sensation.
Singing means, to learn to love. All this is very far removed from perfectionism, but rather allowing for the human vulnerability and fallibility, in the search for his voice, the only instrument which is not subject to technology. It was his great concern that we commit ourselves to uphold the dignity of man, the inviolable dignity of man, which we, who continue his teaching, affirm and testify to up to this day."
Marita GŁnther for "Roy Hart Theatre Archives"
Marita Günther index page
Writings about Alfred Wolfsohn index page
"Human Voice" index page