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ClassicsOnline Home » JENKINS, Florence Foster: Murder on the High Cs (1937-1951)
By Jen Graves
The News Tribune
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS & FRIENDS
Murder On The High Cs Original 1937-1951 Recordings
“Your Portrait In Sound”. In the days before tape recorders, the Melotone Recording
Studio at 25 Central Park West in New York was one of many establishments in
the 1930s and 1940s where you could have a recording made. Professional musicians had their
concerts recorded off the air, budding performers such as Mario Lanza recorded
demonstration discs, small record labels occasionally used their facilities;
and from 1941 to 1944, Melotone was host to the incredible vocalizing of
Florence Foster Jenkins.
Much has been written about the so-called Diva of Din in the
six decades since her death, and in 2001 she was the subject of a play staged
at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, “Viva La Diva” by Chris Ballance. Her portrait in the “Angel of
Inspiration” costume is known everywhere, sound clips and photographs are on
the Internet, and her name has long been synonymous with musical torture. But much of what has been printed is
contradictory, and even Melotone admitted to having very little information
about Madame Jenkins when it issued a memorial booklet after her death. She may have been from Philadelphia or
Wilkes-Barre, PA; she may have been a widow or a divorcee; and she may have
been born around 1868, although one account says 1864. She also did not confine her concerts
to the ballroom of New York’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, since the Gramophone Shop’s
January 1942 supplement refers to her three annual recitals, in New York,
Washington and Newport.
Even her recorded legacy is confusing. Melotone’s own brochure listed four
78-RPM discs, with the claim that “these four are the only Jenkins recordings
extant”. Those eight sides were
reissued on LP in the ’50s, re-released in the ’60s with Serenata Mexicana
omitted (it didn’t reappear till the ’90s), and were transferred from second or
third-generation dubs, one of which had removed the piano introduction to the
Bell Song. But there were five
Jenkins 78s, the unlisted one being the two-sided Valse Caressante, of which only
a couple of pressings are known to exist.
Mystery also surrounds the other participants on her recordings. Cosme McMoon was the name of her piano
accompanist on records and in recitals, and virtually nothing has been learned
about him, although he spoke on a promotional recording in 1954 and appeared on
the Jack Paar TV programme in the late ’50s, assuring us that Florence Foster
Jenkins was the genuine article.
The flute solos on her records have also been shrouded in mystery. Oreste di Sevo, who played in the New
York Philharmonic under Toscanini, appeared with her in concert on occasion,
but the typed labels on an original ten-inch pressing of Charmant Oiseau
clearly identify Louis Alberghini, whose name never appeared on later
twelve-inch pressings or reissues.
What is known about Jenkins is that she was wealthy, was a
socialite, founded and guided the Verdi Club for nearly thirty years, and that
she loved to sing. After
years of giving her own unique small-scale entertainments, she took the bold
step of appearing in Carnegie Hall on 25October 1944. Two thousand people were turned away from the sold-out
auditorium and scalpers were getting $20 for their two-dollar tickets. Columnist Earl Wilson, Jr. suggested
that she should try Madison Square Gardens or the Polo Grounds next, but
Florence Foster Jenkins died a month after her triumph.
About her recordings, Melotone’s booklet stated: “Mme.
Jenkins’ visits to the studio were a distinct and radical departure from the
customary routines of the many artists for whom Melotone has recorded. Rehearsals, the niceties of volume and
pitch, considerations of acoustics – all were thrust aside by her with ease and
authority. The technicians never
ceased to be amazed at her capacity for circumventing the numerous problems and
difficulties peculiar to recording.
She simply sang; the disc recorded. It is related, by Meletone’s director, Mera M. Weinstock,
that when first Jenkins visited the studio she made, by way of a test, an
instantaneous recording of the Queen Of the Night. On listening to the recording, she declared, much to the
director’s astonishment, that it was excellent, virtually beyond improvement,
and that all copies should be made from the instantaneous recording. The following day, Mme. Jenkins
telephoned director Weinstock to say that, after listening to the recording at
her hotel, she felt a measure of anxiety concerning ‘a note’ at the end of the
aria. ‘My dear Mme. Jenkins,’
replied Mrs. Weinstock, ‘you need feel no anxiety concerning any single
note.’ The diva was
reassured.” Except for the
Fledermaus aria and Biassy, all of Jenkins’ recordings were made from such
“test” records, with resultant loss in sound quality. Jenkins and Melotone were ideally suited to one another,
unfortunately; the reason for the shortened dub of The Bell Song was the
recording’s length, which caused the grooves to run into the label area.
Florence Foster Jenkins’ recordings could be purchased from
the singer herself, from Melotone, and from select dealers such as The Gramophone
Shop, which listed her first release under “Historical” and described it as “a
most unusual record which must be heard to be believed”. The following year it listed the
Fledermaus/Biassy release in its vocal section, stating “It will probably
suffice to say that here is a new Florence Foster Jenkins record. The soprano considers it her best. The recording clearly reproduces all
the idiosyncratic touches that have made Mrs. Jenkins’ record of one of the
Queen Of The Night’s arias from Die Zauberflote a collector’s item.” Of that
first record, Time Mag-azine (16 June 1941) said: “Last week a recording of
this air, advertised entirely by rumour, enjoyed a lively little sale at
Manhattan’s Melotone Recording Studio.
It was recorded – to sell to her friends at $2.50 a copy – by Mrs.
Florence Foster Jenkins, rich, elderly amateur soprano and musical
clubwoman. Mrs. Jenkins’
nightqueenly swoops and hoots, her wild wallowings in descending trill, her
repeated staccato notes like a cuckoo in its cups, are innocently uproarious to
hear, almost as much so as the annual song recital which she gives in Manhattan
… Mrs. Jenkins is well pleased with the success of her Queen Of The Night
record and hopes to make others. Her
fans hope so too.”
Joining the great Jenkins on this CD are a number of
renowned performers whose talents are in less doubt, although some of their
tastes in repertoire may be questioned.
Some are clearly having fun, while others probably wanted to forget that
they’d ever made these recordings.
Ukranian-born bass Alexander Kipnis (1891-1978) was renowned for his
Wagnerian performances as well as for Russian repertoire, and is the only
luminary in this group who can not be considered to be “slumming”. Baritone John Charles Thomas was born
the same year as Kipnis and died in 1960.
He made his Met début in 1934, but is better remembered as a concert and
recording artist. Josephine
Tumminia (also spelled Tuminia) is even less well remembered, although she sang
with a number of California-based opera companies and was at the Met for one
season. Her absolutely straight
performance of The Blue Danube with Jimmy Dorsey’s Orchestra sounds like a
put-on, at her expense, but a jazzed-up “Blue Danube” had been featured in the
Lily Pons film That Girl From Paris the year before she made this recording,
which Decca put on its full-priced Personality label.
Ezio Pinza (1892-1957) needs no introduction, and by 1951
was probably better known for his starring role in South Pacific than for his
decades as one of the great operatic basses. But why anyone thought teaming him up with The Sons Of The
Pioneers was a good idea will forever remain a mystery. Pinza went on to star in another
Broadway musical, Fanny, and even did a television series, Bonino, in
1953. Jeanette MacDonald
(1903-1965) went from Broadway to Hollywood before singing on any operatic
stages, and was still a major star when she was teamed with the rising baritone
Robert Merrill (born 1917) by Victor for a recording of Sigmund Romberg’s Up In
Central Park in 1945.
Merrill would later run afoul of the Met’s Rudolf Bing when he appeared
in a lamentable film titled Aaron Slick From Punkin Crick. Similar conflicts surrounded Helen
Traubel (1899-1972), the leading Wagnerian soprano at the Met in the late 1940s
but also a frequent performer with Jimmy Durante (1893-1980). Traubel’s frequent Wagnerian partner
was the great tenor Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973), and he also succumbed to the
lure of Hollywood where he made his film début in Thrill Of A Romance, starring
Esther Williams and Van Johnson.
The Harvard Lampoon chose Van as the winner of their Worst Performance
Award (Male) and Please Don’t Say No may be the single worst recording of
anything ever made by an opera star who should have known better, but the film
went on to be the fourth highest-grossing movie of 1945, so who are we to
David Lennick, 2003
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