Two Dallas Music Teachers Are Topping the Classical Charts With Songs by a 19th Century Frenchman

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Jared Schwartz and Mary Dibbern don’t exactly look or act like international chart-topping musicians. Schwartz, draining excess oil from his salad dressing, cracks jokes about avoiding “the stereotypical opera singer physique.” Dibbern speaks softly of her globe-hopping adventures, uncovering lost music and meeting the descendants of classical and operatic composers.

And yet the Dallas duo’s album series is an improbable success story. Schwartz, a true bass with a voice that seems to only grow clearer the farther down it goes, and Dibbern, a pianist who serves as education director at the Dallas Opera, are shedding light on long-forgotten songs from turn-of-the-past-century France — and people are listening.

The impetus for the recordings, and for the sheet music publications which accompany each CD, is expanding the realm of music which basses can sing. As Schwartz points out, deep-voiced men are typically forced to play villains and other humorless types. “Basses really never get to be happy. We’re the one whose wife just cheated on them, we get that kind of stuff.” Few composers have written songs specially for the low voice. “You either have to sing things that are too high,” he says, “like wearing a pair of pants that’s too small, which, you could, but why would you? Or you have to pay to transpose it, which gets very expensive very quickly.”

Since they are teachers when not performing, Schwartz and Dibbern are concerned first and foremost with righting that wrong. In their first collaboration, they adapted songs of the beloved Frenchman Gabriel Fauré. (Dibbern served as artistic director but did not perform.) That disc was an unlikely sensation, hitting the Billboard Traditional Classical Top Ten and, on Amazon’s classical chart, No. 1.

This fall, they’ve turned to Ange Flégier, a forgotten name who, in the late 1800s, turned out hugely popular songs in France. Flégier’s reputation faded for several reasons; most of his songs for women, for instance, were written for students, with lyrics by his sister which Dibbern describes as “corny beyond words.” (Jared Schwartz adds: “He has another song about wine, and each verse goes through — it’s like a singing grapevine, the tree says, please cut me down so you can put me into a wine press, and then the press sings ...”) Worse still, Flégier died after a particularly gruesome streetcar accident, not long after World War I and modernizing musical trends left his style behind.

The Flégier songs Schwartz and Dibbern perform are tremendously dramatic. There’s even a breakup ballad. Naturally, the musicians are enthralled. “What I love about Flégier,” Schwartz explains, “is, when you have a bigger voice, you don’t often really get to pull out all the stops, so to speak.” Here he gets a chance to be dramatic, to emote, to get in the listener’s face. Before the recording session, Dibbern traveled to France’s national library, dug up the original century-old published sheet music and photographed them on her iPad. “I couldn’t believe that he’d been sitting there for 100 years,” she marvels, “with all this gorgeous music.”

Recorded at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral on Ross Avenue, the Flégier album debuted in the Billboard’s classical top twenty, an impressive achievement, since it’s the first all-Flégier CD ever, and since Billboard has no idea what classical music is. (As of Nov. 2, the top “classical” album was by Elvis Presley.) The performers, modestly, are more interested in how people respond to the music. “People love Flégier’s music,” Schwartz says, in lieu of bragging about himself.

They’ve heard from one fan already: the composer’s great-niece. Dibbern received a note from the great-niece, who hadn’t heard any of the songs since her father sang them at home. Schwartz still marvels at that: “I think it’s amazing that she grew up hearing these songs that no one else was hearing. And now the whole world gets to hear them.”

What’s next for the Dallas duo? They’ll be performing March 25 at UT Dallas. The Flégier songs are being published for other bass singers to try. Mary Dibbern continues to globe-hop in search of more obscure music, and in search of Flégier’s missing memoirs. The duo’s next album will focus on little-known songs by the legendary Franz Liszt, chosen in part because it’s good business to alternate more- and less-famous composers, but also because, Schwartz jokes, “For the next album, I thought, who can we do that doesn’t have a giant mustache?”

The Liszt album will continue the duo’s overarching goal of building a legacy for young bass singers, like Schwartz’s own voice students. These performers are less concerned with their own albums than with the published sheet music and critical attention, which will give low-voiced men more songs to sing for generations to come.

Dibbern is emphatic about that. “Yeah, it’s great to perform them, it’s even great to record them, but you’re not leaving a legacy if you just make a recording but no one can find the music and no one else can sing it. That’s like you’re keeping the art to yourself. And that’s not the way we work.”

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