Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

Adieu Cuenod

It is with great sadness that today we bid farewell to the greatest tenor nobody knew in my generation. For many the name Hugues Cuenod is but a footnote. A short search on Google would tell you that he is the tenor who sang Emperor Altotum in the met’s DVD of Turandor that preserves Eva Marton , Placido Domingo, Leona Mitchell and Paul Plishka’s assumptions of Turandot, Calaf, Liu and Timur respectively.

If that is all you know about this artist, there is still so much more that needs to be known…

Hugues Cuenod was born  in Switzerland on June 16th 1902. That would make him 108 at the time of his death and not content with living to that ripe old age, he was an artist who never stop growing performing. Not long ago I was reading about some guy who at 98 was declaring himself the oldest tenor still performing. Cuenod could have easily challenged the gentleman’s assertion. His last public appearance was as Triquet in  Onegin at 92 and I would not be surprised if he did a private performance here and there pass that and well into his 100’s. So solid was his technique that he could perform at that age with a solid command of style and voice.

Among maestro Cuenod’s many accomplishments, he was the oldest tenor to debut at the Metropolitan Opera when at over 80 he was cast in that fateful Turandot. He was also a stalwart at Glyndebourne, where he sang starting in 1954 and appears in several of his recordings. After hearing several of his landmark recordings of early music Stravinsky asked him to sing a role in his new opera  that would debut at La Fenice. This opera was of course Rake’s Progress and the role was that of Selem the auctioneer. A recording of one of the performances testifies to the splendid vocalism that characterized Cuenod through his career.

Cuenod sand everything from Back, Elizabethan songs and Stranvinsky. He was said to be a fantastic sight reader and a musician of the first order.  His simplicity of delivery, sweet voice and unaffected singing was a model for the Early Music revival that was in its early stages in the 50’s; so if you are an early music specialist, you owe Maestro Cuenod a debt of gratitude.His recordings of Elizabethan songs and of French melodies should still be required listening not only to those who aspire to sing early music, but to those who dream of success in the concert stage as well.

Hugues Cuenod did not rest with being some old guy who sang in the 50’s and left some recordings;  he a trailblazer throughout his life. Not only did he participate and help opening the doors in the early music movement, in his old age he became a gay icon as well, when at the age of 104 he married his long time partner in a civil ceremony when the laws in Switzerland gave gay couples a measure of equality.

For all of these reasons and for many more that escape any attempt to memorialize this amazing artist he will be remembered. Maestro Cuenod will live in the hearts and minds of those who love singing from the heart.

Rather than ending it there, let’s hope that some examples will lead some of my readers to explore more of this amazing artist. For starters, an search reveals 4 pages of recordings of this artist; one of them the famous Glyndebourne Figaro where he sings Basilio partnered by none other than Sesto Bruscantini, Sena Jurinac, Rise Stevens and Graziella Sciutti.

What better way to pay homage to a great artist than to play his recordings and make sure that they are heard by the new generation? let’s do just that.

First, from my own personal collection here are a couple of items. First selections from a recording of Debussy songs he made at age 70. From the Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire we will hear Le Balcon, Recueilllement and then the ever popular Nuits D’etoiles.

(Titles link to translations of the text. To follow the score click here for Nuit D’etoiles and here for Baudelaire)

Next we will get several other selections from other recordings starting with Anna Magdalena Bach’s Bist du bei mir (Translation / Score) with Albert Fuller in the harpsichord  and John Dowland’s Come again, sweet love (Text / Score) with Joel Cohen in the lute:

And just in case you are thinking that Maestro Cuenod was only good for the early stuff, here he is in some Lied from the height of the romantic period with Schubetr’s Der Wanderer an den Mond (Translation / Score) and Schuman’s Du bist wie eine Blume (Translation / Score page 46).

And last, one of my favorite songs, Gabriel Faure’s Automne… (Translation / Score page 10)

YouTube, the great equalizer it is, also proves fertile ground for anyone who wants to explore Hugues Cuenod’s artistry. Here are some examples that I hope will wet your appetite:

First his recording of Cypriano de Rore’s “Vergine Pura.”

And here we havehim in a scene from Wozzek, sung in Italian with Tito Gobbi in the title role:

And here is in a magnificent recording of Jour et Nuit from Offenbach’s Les contes de Hoffmann

For those who can not get enough, here is a small file that we owe to the generosity of legendary collector Mike Richter with several LPs of Hugues Cuenod singing through the years. In the file you will get the following LP’s, most with texts included:

  • Italian Songs of the 16th and 17th Centuries – Hermann Leeb (lute)
  • Spanish Songs of the 16th Century – Hermann Leeb (lute)
  • Songs from Shakespeare Plays – Albert Fuller (hps)
  • Bach: Anna Magdalena Buch – Albert Fuller (hps)
  • Songs from La Fontaine – Albert Fuller (hps)
  • Fauré: Cinq Melodies de Venise
  • Faure: Le bonne chanson

What else is there to say but Merci, merci beaucoup Maestro Cuenod…


December 7, 2010 - Posted by | In memoriam


  1. I sang in a few master classes with M. Cuenod at New York’s Maison Francaise. He was a pleasure, a marvel (breath control) and very gracious.

    Alice Tully called him Hu-gey.


    Comment by Donald Collup | December 7, 2010 | Reply

  2. Mille grazie for such a lovely tribute. I first heard him as the Basilio on that Glyndebourne Nozzie and then had the privilege of seeing him in Sussex in a small role in Werther but more memorably in La Calisto. He played an old horny old nymph in a marvellous Peter Hall production surrounded by Janet Baker, Ileana Corubas, James Bowman and other exceptional singers. Though it was almost 40 years ago I still remember that evening – and fortunately it was saved on disc and, though never published commercially, video.

    A wonderful man and incredible artist.

    Comment by Willym | December 8, 2010 | Reply

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