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ClassicsOnline Home » MELCHIOR, Lauritz: American Recordings (1946-47)
The Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior established himself as one of the world’s leading Wagnerian tenors after being invited to Bayreuth by Siegfried Wagner. Besides his career on the opera stage, Melchior became a popular ‘cross-over’ artist and household name, appearing on radio and in films. While he was making films in Hollywood – “I like a little vacation from Valhalla” – Melchior made the 27 tracks featured on this disc. In addition to well-known arias from Tosca and Pagliacci, Melchior sings Schubert, selections from operettas, popular songs by Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, and Scandinavian songs.
By David Denton
The male menopause does some strange things, in the case of
the great Wagnerian tenor, Lauritz Melchior, he tried to reinvent his overweight
ageing frame as a matinee idol. The very thought of this star of the Metropolitan
Opera crooning his way through popular songs was to bring him considerable oddball
popularity in radio and films. That he was not very good at his new style is
here much in evidence, yet in a way it made a fitting end to a strange career
that had started out as a baritone of promise, moved to a tenor singing the
Italian repertoire with rather less success. A period of vocal retraining before
being reshaped as the greatest heldentenor of his era, his number of appearances
being quite prodigious. Of course Richard Tauber did much the same with a voice
no more suited to this lightweight repertoire than Melchior, the difference
being Tauber's feel for the music totally eluded the great Dane. He certainly
tries to change his voice as he goes through ballads and lieder eventually arriving
at Puccini and Leoncavallo in performances that are pure oddities. Though made
in the mid-1940's when editing was far from common there appears that some took
place with the voice changing position. In his notes the restoration engineer
speaks of the difficulty in finding satisfactory pressings, but he has done
a wonderful job in resuscitating them.
Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973)
American recordings 1946-1947
Fifty years after Lauritz Melchior's retirement from opera and 27 years after his death, Opera News of April 2000 described Lauritz Melchior in this way: 'The jubilant tone, informed up and down the voice by that brilliant tingle the scientists tell us is the 2,800~ cycle overtone; the rock-steady position and arrogant attack; the fail-safe endurance for the Siegfried third act - beyond compare. But further, Melchior sang with a model legato, a feel for the shape and direction of a phrase, and an equalised scale that would be the envy of any bel canto tenor. Technically, his ability to gather in and poise the passages allowed him safely to hurl full energy at those notes and to move smoothly into a radiant heldentenor top; this remains unique. Finally he was a vocal dramatizer of great imagination. His relish for word-note colour effects, his contact with the in-the-scene moment, remained even in the twilight of his long and strenuous career, as did a remarkable portion of his vocal range, resonance and stamina.' Indeed, in the long interval between Melchior's retirement and present-day Wagnerian performances, the search for "another Melchior" has been unremitting. In that time not one candidate has come forward to accomplish the same feats.
Melchior was born in Copenhagen on 20 March 1890. The Melchior family had been Lutheran ministers, doctors and teachers since the seventeenth century. Father Jorgen owned a private school, and both parents were avid amateur singers. After Lauritz's mother died, the baby was looked after by housekeeper Kristine Jensen, who devoted herself to the boy for the rest of her life. When the family fortunes fell upon hard times, proceeds from her famous cookbook served as a source of money for Lauritz's studies beginning with his first voice lessons with Poul Bang and including four years of twice-weekly drama study. This work prepared him for the Royal Opera School, where he studied singing, drama and ballet.
On 2 April 1913 the Royal Opera assigned him the début rôle of Silvio in Pagliacci and thereafter formally engaged him as a tenor/baritone. Thus gainfully employed, he married Inger Holst-Rismussen whom he had met while singing the elder Germont with a touring company of Traviata. In the spring of 1916 he toured again, this time as Count di Luna in II trovatore. A former Metropolitan contralto, Sarah Cahier, sang Azucena. One evening the company soprano was loath to sing her high C in the duet with Di Luna. Melchior took the C, which he sang effortlessly. Mme Cahier, now convinced that Melchior was "a tenor with the lid on", charged the directors of the Royal Opera with the responsibility of his artistic development. They arranged for him to study with the great Kammersänger Vilhelm Herold, who, as Melchior said, "did for me the transition, the work that has to be done to change a baritone into a tenor". About that process Melchior was rather vague and noncommital: "The heldentenor voice is one that goes up with age. If you start as a real tenor and try to do heroic rôles, you bring the voice down instead of up. The high notes begin to disappear. It's different if you begin as a high baritone. That way you have only to make the middle high of the voice a little lighter. Then you put the top notes on it."
On 8 October 1918, 28-year-old Melchior made his Wagnerian début as Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera. It was greeted by a "let's wait and see how it develops" attitude, although it was clear that the voice was special and his acting ability was superior. Discouraged by the comprimario rôles given to him thereafter, Melchior went to England to try his luck, which turned out to be good. Sir Henry Wood, conductor of the Promenade Concerts and a Wagner lover, engaged him for a concert attended by the British author Hugh Walpole. From that time on, Walpole, socially prominent and lionised by the upper crust of London, became Melchior's champion. He found management for the tenor; he sponsored a sold-out, very successful London début concert; he introduced Lauritz to the royal family who accepted him wholeheartedly; he found for Lauritz a fashionable and socially prominent voice teacher, Victor Beigel, who arranged an audition with Franz Schalk, co-director of the Vienna Staatsoper. Schalk recommended that Melchior study with Anna Bahr-Mildenburg in Munich. After some study and anxious to move on, Melchior persuaded Bahr-Mildenburg to let him do a concert in Munich. This highly successful concert prompted a telegram from Siegfried Wagner: Melchior had been summoned to Bayreuth.
Singing 'The Rome Narrative' from Tannhäuser and Winterstürme from Die Walküre, Melchior made a fine impression on Cosima Wagner, "a motionless, white apparition" up in the balcony. Lauritz stayed on for a month to absorb the Wagner Bayreuth style, his work with the coach watched over by Siegfried nearby and Cosima in the balcony. "I never spoke one word directly with the old lady, but I received a bow of her head and a movement of her hand as if from the pope."
In the fall of 1923, a few days after Hitler's failed march on Munich, Siegfried Wagner announced that a new tenor, Lauritz Melchior, had been engaged for the next Bayreuth season. An avalanche of offers was showered on the new heldentenor. His first Siegmund at Covent Garden under Bruno Walter, followed by his Bayreuth début as Parsifal in July 1924 and many other engagements in German houses, led to two America débuts in 1927, one as Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera and the other singing songs in a Town Hall recital. Melchior's potential was perceived to be immeasurable, but some reservations about his lack of experience in Wagnerian style led the tenor to request a year off to pursue further 'seasoning' in Germany.
A first-rate heldentenor must sing Tristan. Melchior's prodigious efforts to learn the rôle enabled him to make his début as Tristan at the Barcelona Opera in early 1929. From that moment on, his fame on the international circuit grew rapidly, prompting headlines such as "A Tristan At Last!" (in New York). Soon he had revealed his Tristan to the Metropolitan in New York, to Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Covent Garden, Paris, Buenos Aires, Bayreuth, Berlin, Vienna, Hamburg, and Copenhagen. His Bayreuth conductor was Arturo Toscanini, who coined Melchior's sobriquet "Tristanissimo" ("the most Tristan of all Tristans"). Until 1950, when he retired from opera, Melchior routinely sang the heaviest Wagnerian operas four times a week during the opera season (cancelling only four times in 516 Metropolitan scheduled performances from 1927 to 1950), a feat of stamina and artistry unparalleled before or since. A splendid recital singer, Melchior never called a halt to his concert singing. Early on, his programmes were composed of serious song literature, but eventually the programmes included what some considered to be contemporary romantic rubbish, operetta excerpts and pop music. The Washington Post said that this kind of song was "demeaning to an artist of Melchior's standing and past achievements", but the Chicago Tribune was less disturbed by the "usual terrible programme" because Melchior had "the rare gift of communicating his personal stature and unquestioning conviction to anything he sings".
Nevertheless, these programmes reflected his appreciation of how to reach the popular audience, learned on radio and in the movies. In the 1930s and 1940s, Americans drew a solid line between serious and popular music - a line that is now crossed regularly. Melchior and his second wife 'Kleinchen' recognised that his genuine comedic talent had made him into a household name (rather like Luciano Pavarotti today), and they exploited this celebrity, with Melchior proclaiming "I like a little vacation from Valhalla."
Melchior's popular success in radio and in the movies came about largely owing to a curious connection between himself, the Wagnerian singer, and Frank Sinatra, the crooner. Having heard much about this celebrated popular singer, Melchior went to watch Sinatra at work. His rendition of 'That Ol' Black Magic' inspired the tenor to mimic the performance. Melchior's excellent imitation of Sinatra at the impromptu U.S.O. Stage Door Canteen revealed both his clowning abilities and his larger-than-life personality. Sinatra responded in the press by proclaiming that he would soon learn Tristan. The comedian Fred Allen recognised the potential appeal of this funny opera singer who did not take himself too seriously, and soon Melchior was appearing on Allen's hugely popular radio show in skits and spoofs centring on the physical and vocal differences between Melchior and Sinatra. Bobby-soxers idolised both singers. Their respective public relations representatives - identifying the lucrative nature of this relationship - played up the association in the press. An M-G-M Hollywood producer, hearing one of these radio skits, was so taken with the idea of an outsized opera singer with comic abilities that he hired Melchior for the first of five movies, Thrill of a Romance.
During the time that Melchior was making movies for M-G-M, some of his concert repertoire was recorded by M-G-M Records in seven sessions during 1946 and 1947. However, only 'Spring Came Back to Vienna' and the Swedish drinking-song, 'Helan går' were taken from a soundtrack - that of the movie Luxury Liner. The M-G-M recordings are a mix of operetta tunes, musical comedy songs, romantic favourites of the American mass audience, some Scandinavian songs that Melchior had sung for years, and a few (non-Wagnerian) opera arias.
What then – more than fifty years after Melchior's retirement from opera and more than thirty after his death - does the musical world still await? A heroic tenor voice of steely power and clarion ring that can cut handily through the biggest orchestra; a voice so strong that it never needs to function at its limit, giving the sense of power in reserve; a voice, therefore, with the endurance to triumph at the end of the opera or concert; a voice, furthermore, not only so gifted in its strength and quality but also so well-schooled in the idiomatic use of language that it reveals the poetry of the score, and so technically skilled that it can master the art of dynamic shading. Despite the vicissitudes of a singing career today, it seems clear that Lauritz Melchior would have surmounted even these problems as always, probably with power in reserve. What terrors could they hold for a man who splendidly survived 223 Tristans, 183 Siegmunds, 144 Tannhausers, 128 Siegfrieds, 107 'elder' Siegfrieds, 106 Lohengrins, 81 Parsifals, and (at the nearest reckoning) 2,100 concerts?
© Shirlee Emmons
Melchior's M-G-M recordings present a number of challenges to the transfer engineer. First, all the recordings are dubbings from some other medium (lacquer discs or film), and so are one step removed from the original source material from the start. Some of the sides appear to have been edited together from different takes, as changes in the recorded sound can occasionally be heard (e.g., just before the last "tanto la vita" in E lucevan le stelle). In addition, at least one side (O holy night) was dubbed to the 78 rpm master from a slightly off-center source.
The second problem is one of recording balance. M-G-M's engineers miked Melchior closely, in the same way they would a pop singer of the time. While this may have been necessary to amplify crooners, Melchior's vocal power would have created distortion in louder passages. To compensate for this, M-G-M's engineers used limiters, which compressed loud passages so that they seemed to be at the same volume level as softer ones. This produced, however, a rather unrealistic sameness to the volume of Melchior's voice throughout the tracks.
Finally, several of Melchior's early M-G-M recordings were only available on shellac pressings that were far noisier than the norm for the period. Sometime after the first titles came out, M-G-M began issuing their discs on quieter shellac, and ultimately on fine vinyl "Metrolite" pressings. However, some early titles could only be found on noisier shellacs. (Certainly the worst of the lot is Track 2, Without a song, which was issued on inferior shellac from an overcut, distortion-ridden dubbing.) Wherever possible, quieter shellac or vinyl pressings have been used for the present transfers.
Despite their inherent flaws, Melchior's M-G-M discs remain an important and hugely enjoyable series – important, in that so many titles were new to his vast discography; and enjoyable for the infectious delight which his big-hearted, life-embracing sincerity brought to even the least of the songs featured here.
HILDACH: Der Lenz
12 October 1946; 46-S-3001 (M-G-M 30472)
YOUMANS: Without a Song
12 October 1946; 46-S-3002 (M-G-M 30005)
GEEHL: For You Alone
12 October 1946; 46-S-3003 (M-G-M 30005)
LEHAR: Das Land des Lächelns: Dein ist mein ganzes Herz
31 December 1946; 46-S-3020 (M-G-M 30014)
F. ANDERSEN: I det frie (Danish Children's Song)
31 December 1946; 46-S-3021 (M-G-M 30006)
BIZET: Agnus Dei
31 December 1946; 46-S-3022 (M-G-M 30006)
PORTER: Easy to love
31 December 1946; 46-S-3023 (M-G-M 30014)
GRUBER: Silent Night (Stille Nacht)
16 June 1947; 46-S-3118 (M-G-M 30036)
ADAM: Cantique de Noël
16 June 1947; 46-S-3119 (M-G-M 30036)
NEVIN: The Rosary
16 June 1947; 46-S-3120 (M-G-M 30053)
BACH arr. GOUNOD: Ave Maria
16 June 1947; 46-S-3121 (M-G-M 30053)
HEUBERGER: Der Opernball: The Kiss in Your Eyes (Im chambre séparée)
23 June 1947; 46-S-3122 (M-G-M 30030)
ROTTER: Spring Came Back to Vienna
23 June 1947; 46-S-3123 (M-G-M 30136)
J. STRAUSS II: Kaiserwalzer
23 June 1947; 46-S-3122 (M-G-M 30030)
DE CURTIS: Torna a Surriento
16 December 1947; 46-S-3339 (M-G-M 30113)
KERN: The Song is You
16 December 1947; 46-S-3340 (M-G-M 30112)
STRAVINSKY arr. KLENNER: Summer Moon
16 December 1947; 46-S-3341 (M-G-M 30112)
16 December 1947; 46-S-3342 (M-G-M 30113)
SCHUBERT: Who is Sylvia?
18 December 1947; 46-S-3347 (M-G-M 30115)
DE KOVEN: Robin Hood: O Promise Me
18 December 1947; 46-S-3348 (M-G-M 30114)
BOND: I Love You Truly
18 December 1947; 46-S-3349 (M-G-M 30114)
TRADITIONAL arr. KRAMER: All mein Gedanken (Minnelied)
18 December 1947; 46-S-3350 (M-G-M 30115)
PUCCINI: Tosca: Recondita armonia
26 December 1947; 46-S-3381 (M-G-M 30308)
PUCCINI: Tosca: E lucevan le stelle
26 December 1947; 46-S-3382 (M-G-M 30308)
LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci: Vesti la giubba
26 December 1947; 46-S-3083 (M-G-M 30264)
LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci: No, Pagliaccio non son!
26 December 1947; 46-S-3084 (M-G-M 30264)
TRADITIONAL: Helan går (Swedish Drinking Song)
26 December 1947; 46-S-3085 (M-G-M 30136)
Tracks 1-4, 7-14, 16-17, 19-22 sung in English
Track 5 sung in Danish/English
Track 6 sung in Latin
Tracks 15, 23-26 sung in Italian
Track 18 sung in Italian/English
Track 27 sung in Swedish/English
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MELCHIOR, Lauritz: American Recordings (1946-47)