About this Recording
8.110336 - MELBA, Nellie: American Recordings, Vol. 3 (1907-1916)

Nellie Melba (1861-1931)
The Complete Victor Recordings, Vol. 3

Long before she returned to the United States for Hammerstein’s 1907 season Melba’s records had won over hearts on both sides of the Atlantic. Like Patti (or, more specifically in America, Jenny Lind) in the generation before her, her name had a mythical ring about it, of the kind that is always ‘good for business’. Already an international synonym for bel canto when the Gramophone and Typewriter released her first official recordings (made in March 1904), she was soon, alongside Caruso, Battistini, Tamagno and a select few others, the mainstay of their prestigious catalogue of vocal stars – by 1905 there was even a top-of-the-range, inlaid, de luxe version of G&T’s Monarch horn gramophone which proudly bore her name. Few of her earliest published matrices were without technical flaws, however, and during the years that followed, with improving technology, many of the London selections were re-recorded, and with the New York sessions (from 1907 onwards), further opportunities were afforded, theoretically, at least, both for improvement on what had so far been achieved, and also to reflect recent additions to Melba’s repertoire (see Producer’s Note, Melba American Recordings Vol.1, Naxos 8.110334).

Born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond, near Melbourne, on 19th May, 1861, Nellie was the eldest child of immigrant David Mitchell, a self-employed builder and amateur bass singer who had come from Scotland during the 1851 gold rush. Encouraged by her mother to study piano, organ and singing, during her teens, at Melbourne Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Nellie received her first serious vocal training from Ellen Christian, an English-born contralto and former pupil of the baritone Manuel García Jr., the inventor of the laryngoscope. On leaving college in 1880, she continued her studies in Melbourne with Pietro Cecchi, an Italian tenor from California who had toured Australia in Lyster’s company.

In 1882 she married Charles Armstrong, a sugarplantation owner from Brisbane. Although she bore him a son the marriage was not a happy one and soon she began to pursue her career instead, first as a pianist at society functions then as a soprano. Continuing her training with Cecchi, in Australia she earned rave notices and in 1886, on her father’s appointment as commissioner to the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London, she resolved to try her luck in Europe and went with him. In London, at that time a major cultural centre, she made little initial impact but in Paris she had the good fortune to meet the catalyst to her future success in Mathilde Marchesi (1821-1913), herself a noted ex-contralto pupil of the younger García and a celebrated teacher from whose Parisian studio had emerged a long line of sopranos schooled in the ‘Marchesi Method’. Under Marchesi’s guidance Melba made a successful début, as Gilda in Rigoletto, at the Brussels Monnaie, in October 1887.

Melba’s high-profile début at Covent Garden (as Lucia, in May 1888, in a house newly refurbished for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee season) while not artistically so unqualified a triumph, brought her both royal patronage and an entrée to high society through a patroness of the arts, Lady De Grey. From 1889 onwards Covent Garden would remain the focal point of her career and ever afterwards Melba regarded it as her artistic home, appearing in almost every annual international season until 1914, and after the First World War more intermittently until her retirement in 1926. The other prestigious débuts of her operatic phase included the Paris Opéra in 1889, La Scala, Milan, in 1892, and the Metropolitan, New York, in 1893. Additionally, she was a regular attraction at Monte Carlo and a firm favourite at major opera centres in Italy, Russia, Scandinavia and Austria.

In 1904 Melba’s sojourn at the Met was cut short by indisposition (she appeared only once, in La Bohème) and, as Vincent Sheean reminds us (in The Amazing Oscar Hammerstein) by January 1907, when she was once again on the New York stage (as Violetta in La traviata) with the Met’s struggling rival, Oscar Hammerstein’s recently-opened Manhattan Opera Company, she was “a dominant figure in opera everywhere, and the curiosity over her return to America was great”. As a calculating businesswoman Melba apparently did this neither for money nor kudos (having reached the summit of opera she now knew her parabola was descending). Rather, she did it out of admiration for the German-born entrepreneur, that “most American of Americans, and the only man who ever made me change my mind”. By this time Melba’s fame, Sheean estimated, “transcended opera and even the theater itself, becoming part of the general consciousness.”

Two months later, Melba made her first Victor recordings and already the selections were beginning to reflect her gradual evolution from uncrowned queen of opera to best-selling concert attraction. Soon concerts and promotion were to be her mainstay and during the remainder of her career she would ‘sing to the masses’, making several protracted recital tours of Europe, the Unites States and Australia. Sharing plaudits with violin virtuoso Kubelik and her long-standing friend, flute obbligatist and manager John Lemmoné, especially after 1912, she made extensive tours of Great Britain, the United States and Canada. In common with McCormack and other major concert attractions she embraced popular taste without condescension.

The remaining recordings that Melba made in the United States during the late summer of her career offer some repetitions of items earlier recorded, together with new operatic material and selections from her everburgeoning concert repertoire. From the 1910 sessions (apart from repeats of Desdemona’s arias) comes the second of her two published versions of Vissi d’arte (a testament to a less than congenial role, for Tosca was always something of a bête noire for her) and the Aubade from Lalo’s 1888 tragedy Le roi d’Ys (strictly speaking this is a tenor aria, but the great diva transforms it into a showpiece, crowned with a fine Melba trill). In By The Brook, a coloratura tour-deforce, she is joined by Lemmoné.

Apart from two takes of Louise’s narration, from Gustave Charpentier’s 1900 masterpiece, Melba’s 1913-1916 sessions again fall into the category of artsong. In the aria from Il re pastore and Ave Maria, Gounod’s 1859 transcription of Bach’s First Prelude, she is joined by Czech-born violinist Jan Kubelik (1880-1940), a frequent partner in her concert tours. The chansons comprise historically compelling, if, some have felt, rather less than idiomatic, renderings of Debussy’s Romance, the first of his Paul Bourget Deux Romances, 1891, and Mandoline, 1880, the most popular of his early Verlaine songs, with re-recordings of two items items expressly written for her in the 1890s by her Parisian friend and champion Hermann (or Henri) Bemberg (1859-1931). These later retakes of Les anges pleurent and Chant vénitien first came to light through the shellac pressings issued by the American Gramophone Society in the 1940s. The ledgers also list unpublished takes of Chausson’s Le temps des lilas (C 13902) and Duparc’s Phydilé (C 13901) and Chanson triste (C 13906) and the intriguing Vocal lesson Number One (C 13909), with Melba at the piano.

The list of ballads and art-songs, all of which were indispensable features of a typical Melba recital, includes ‘repeats’ of Foster’s Old Folks At Home (1851), Tosti’s ‘warhorse’ Goodbye (1881) text by George Whyte-Melville, 1821-1878), and O Lovely Night (No. 4 from the cycle Summertime (1901), by her sometime accompanist and arranger Landon Ronald (1873-1938), this last having lyrics by balladeer Edward Teschemacher, 1873-1938), with three Scottish songs. Of these two are adaptations of Robert Burns; Comin’ Thro’ The Rye, founded on the old Scots song ‘The Bob- Tailed Lass’, is a mock-Scots bowdlerisation which, it is said, was first heard in a pantomime of 1795; John Anderson, My Jo is a setting by the French-born Maude Valérie White (1855-1937). (We ought not to forget Melba’s strong Scots background: in America, her affinities mirrored those of McCormack to the Scots- Irish element). The accompanist is Prof. Gabriel Lapierre.

For many decades a popular feature of vocal recitals by the famous and less celebrated, Songs My Mother Taught Me is No.4 of Dvořák’s Gypsy Melodies, Op.55 (1880); the English lyrics are the work of German-born contralto and translator Mrs Natalia Macfarren (1828- 1916). Magdalen At Michael’s Gate is a setting of verses by the novelist Henry Kingsley (1830-1876) by Liza Lehmann (otherwise Elizabeth Nina Lehmann, Mrs Herbert Bedford, 1862-1918). The granddaughter of Edinburgh publisher Robert Chambers, and daughter of painter Rudolph Lehmann and his wife Amelia, the Victorian songwriter ‘A.L.’, Liza Lehmann was herself a noted soprano recitalist before turning to composing and arranging.

Peter Dempsey

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