About this Recording
8.110737 - MELBA, Nellie: London Recordings (1904)

Nellie Melba (1861-1931)

The Complete Gramophone Company Recordings, Vol. 1

Melba’s first G & T discs were in all probability not her very first efforts before the recording horn; that is to say she would, like many others, almost certainly have heard her own voice on private cylinders, now long since destroyed. By 1904, when she finally capitulated to the gramophone’s commercial possibilities, she had already for more than fifteen years been an established figure on the international opera scene, and, aware moreover that Caruso, Battistini, Chaliapine and Tamagno and other illustrious colleagues had lent prestige to the "new-fangled toy", had a more than fair idea of her own worth as a commodity. There now seems little doubt that her procrastination in adding her own name to the roster was contrived as part of a well-planned strategy.

Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond, a rural suburb of the Australian city of Melbourne on 19th May, 1861, the eldest child of David Mitchell, a well-to-do Scottish immigrant builder, an amateur bass singer, who had been drawn to Australia by the gold rush of 1851. Her mother, a keen all-round musician, encouraged Nellie’s strong inclinations towards the piano, the organ, her favourite instrument, and singing. After boarding-school, Nellie attended Melbourne Presbyterian Ladies’ College where she received her first vocal training from the English contralto Ellen Christian, a one-time pupil of Manuel Garcia. By 1880, when she left college, her interest in singing had become more serious and she began taking lessons from Pietro Cecchi, a Melbourne-based Italian tenor from California and former member of the Lyster touring opera company.

In 1881 Nellie’s mother and younger sister both died and in December of the following year she married Charles Armstrong, an impoverished scion of an Irish baronetcy and a sugar-plantation manager, in Brisbane. She bore him a son in 1883 but theirs was from the start no love-match and she soon decided to put her career before married life, first as a pianist at soirées and receptions, then as a singer who, chameleon-like, swiftly evolved into the full-blown opera diva of legend. Continuing her training with Cecchi, she won national acclaim on the concert and oratorio circuits and in 1886, when her father was appointed commissioner to the Indian and Colonial Exhibition, the ambitious Nellie accompanied him to London. Her first appearance there in concert made no real impression but in Paris she was immediately accepted as a pupil at the Ecole Marchesi, and the die was cast. Nellie Mitchell-Armstrong’s voice, like the lady herself a diamond already rough-hewn by Cecchi, could now systematically be polished into that of Madame Melba.

Mathilde Marchesi (1821-1913) was a German-born ex-contralto and, another pupil of the younger Garcia, one of the most acclaimed teachers of her day. During a thirty-year period her pupils numbered many famous sopranos, most notably Emma Calve, Ilma di Murska, Emma Eames and Mary Garden, and in her Nellie Melba found the kindred spirit whom she would ever afterwards acknowledge as her true preceptor. Under Marchesi’s tutelage she made an auspicious début at the Monnaie in Brussels on 13th October 1887, as Gilda in Rigoletto. Her Covent Garden début, as Donizetti’s Lucia, on 24th May 1888, in a newly refurbished house under the management of Augustus Harris and during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee season, while perhaps not quite as unqualified a triumph as expected, brought with it the more precious cachet of royal patronage, courtesy of Ladies De Grey and Beresford, and an instant entrée to London’s high society.

Once she had ensconced herself in the British capital, Covent Garden became the enduring focal point of Melba’s opera career: with the exception of the 1909 and 1912 seasons she would be a regular feature at that theatre’s international seasons every year until 1914, and thereafter intermittently until her retirement in 1926. She made her Paris Opéra début in 1889, her Milan La Scala début in 1892 and her New York Metropolitan début in 1893. Frequently engaged at Monte Carlo, she also appeared to great acclaim in Palermo, Florence, Turin, Genoa and Bergamo and in Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Austria. She appeared in concert in Europe and the United States, and toured Australia for the first time in 1902.

In March 1904 Melba made her first recordings for the London-based Gramophone & Typewriter Company, the forerunner of HMV. In a real sense, these were the fruit of toil and tears. Much negotiation and unrelenting persuasion on the part of the Company’s American manager and recording scout Fred Gaisberg (1873-1951) had preceded their making, until Melba, after playing hard to get for many months, produced these first results, at her residence in Great Cumberland Place. These were, by prior agreement, to be regarded only as tests, to be destroyed at the diva’s whim. This explains at least in part why, although several sides were subsequently issued with her sanction, a number in many ways were, and still are, the least satisfactory of all her recordings.

With the exception of two of the items by Herman Bemberg (1859-1931), the Parisian-born son of an Argentinian banker, a society singer and one of Melba’s many lovers, who accompanied Melba in concert and wrote for her several songs and the opera Elaine, a succès d’estime first given at Covent Garden in 1892, all items from the two 1904 sessions are accompanied or conducted by Landon Ronald, earlier known as Landon Ronald Russell (1873-1938), a London-born pianist and later director of HMV. Her chosen repertoire comprised, understandably, a cross-section of selections from her greatest triumphs, Traviata, Lucia, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet and Puccini’s La Bohème, in addition to various Victorian recital war-horses, Goodbye (1881) and Mattinata (1895) by Sir Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846-1916), songs by Luigi Arditi (1822-1903) and Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947), probably the first-ever recording of Si mes vers, and Gounod’s 1859 Ave, Maria setting of Bach’s first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier. In this last she is joined by her concert-partner, the Czech violin virtuoso Jan Kubelik (1880-1940).

Whereas Melba’s state of mind at the first session might now be a matter of some conjecture, aged 43, already a well-seasoned operatic animal, revered by distinguished critics and feted by royalty, she ostensibly had nothing to prove in any artistic sense, yet it might not be unreasonable to assume that, despite all attempts at bravado following on from her earlier stage-managed reluctance, she must in some measure have been overawed by the occasion (the flawed rendition of Handel’s Sweet Bird in which her concentration momentarily lapses prompting her to exclaim "Now we’ll have to do it over again!" is vocally, if not technically, superseded by the retake which, sadly, is only of the second half.). While the recordings provide an insight for posterity into the stresses of acoustic recording upon its artists, despite certain audible flaws and imperfections, both vocal and technical, the singing is all of a piece. Even in these first efforts we may appreciate Melba’s effortless agility in cantilena (at least up to high B flat) adorned by a solid clarity of articulation, with dazzling staccati and the steady trill complementing the beautiful legato and perfectly-intoned ‘slow-scale’ which became her world-famous hallmarks and several fine examples of ‘messa di voce’ (hairpin swell and diminuendo) attesting irrefutably to the validity of the largely innate, partly superimposed, bel canto technique which, somewhat inaccurately, she was wont to attribute to Marchesi.

Peter Dempsey

Producer’s Note

Nellie Melba’s first recordings for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company were not originally intended for public release. In all likelihood, they were made as tests for Melba’s personal use as she intended to make a present of them to her father. Recorded in Melba’s own residence, these discs were not even assigned regular matrix numbers. They were simply numbered 1 to 28. Judging by the variations in the playback speeds of these discs, one may presume that they were made over three or four sessions although no specific date information exists. Of these twenty-eight sides, Melba approved fourteen for publication. In the case of the Act One aria from La Traviata, (matrix 3), the inner grooves containing Follie! and Sempre libera were covered by a metal plate when pressing the master so only Ah! fors’è lui was originally issued. Much later, a few copies of the entire disc were pressed which now permits us to hear the aria as Melba originally recorded it.

From the very outset, these records evince a delightful spontaneity as we hear the engineer shout "go!" before the music begins. Melba’s voice is fresh and exuberant, permitting us a small glimpse of how she must have sounded in her absolute prime. At 43, Melba still possessed much of her vocal agility but it would not be long before signs of age would begin to appear. Remarkably, however, Melba’s voice never wore out. It remained strong and steady never succumbing to the wobble that has afflicted so many opera singers of recent memory. This four volume series will chronicle Nellie Melba’s Gramophone Company’s records beginning with these first recordings and concluding with her electrical discs made twenty-one years later.

The transfers heard here were made from 78rpm pressings struck from the original stampers. In all but one case, I had access to at least three mint condition discs for each selection. The one exception is the unique test pressing of Handel’s Sweet Bird (track 8) during which the flautist plays an incorrect passage causing Melba to falter and then exclaim "Now we’ll have to do it over again." Many years ago, a primitive transfer was made from this disc and this has, unfortunately, been my only available source. I have paid special attention to pitching Melba’s voice properly since even a slight deviation from the proper speed will cause her voice to sound unnatural.

Ward Marston

In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy Award for his production work on BMG’s Fritz Kreisler collection. According to the Chicago Tribune, Marston’s name is ‘synonymous with tender loving care to collectors of historical CDs’. Opera News calls his work ‘revelatory’, and Fanfare deems him ‘miraculous’. In 1996 Ward Marston received the Gramophone award for Historical Vocal Recording of the Year, honouring his production and engineering work on Romophone’s complete recordings of Lucrezia Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mint’s Arturo Toscanini issue and BMG’s Sergey Rachmaninov recordings, both winners of the Best Historical Album Grammy.

Born blind in 1952, Ward Marston has amassed tens of thousands of opera classical records over the past four decades. Following a stint in radio while a student at Williams College, he became well-known as a reissue producer in 1979, when he restored the earliest known stereo recording made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932.

In the past, Ward Marston has produced records for a number of major and specialist record companies. Now he is bringing his distinctive sonic vision to bear on works released on the Naxos Historical label. Ultimately his goal is to make the music he remasters sound as natural as possible and true to life by ‘lifting the voices’ off his old 78 rpm recordings. His aim is to promote the importance of preserving old recordings and make available the works of great musicians who need to be heard.


The Naxos historical label aims to make available the greatest recordings in the history of recorded music, in the best and truest sound that contemporary technology can provide. To achieve this aim, Naxos has engaged a number of respected restorers who have the dedication, skill and experience to produce restorations that have set new standards in the field of historical recordings.

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