About this Recording
8.110780 - MELBA, Nellie: London and Middlesex Recordings (1921-1926)

Nellie Melba (1861-1931)

Nellie Melba (1861-1931)

The Complete Gramophone Company Recordings, Vol. 4


By the end of 1903 the Gramophone & Typewriter Company’s celebrity list already included Battistini, Caruso, Chaliapin and Tamagno, and another hit was scored when the 43-year-old Melba, doyenne of the sopranos, finally acquiesced to Fred Gaisberg’s persistent cajolery. Yet few singers on record, then as now, have elicited more contrasting reactions, even during her lifetime. While her detractors complained of whitish tones, an apparent lack of emotional involvement and an often rather wilful coloratura (Beecham, rather scathingly, underestimated that her popularity was ‘confined to England and those other Anglo-Saxon communities where the subtler and rarer sides of vocal talent are less valued’) her devotees, not least the exacting American critic W.J. Henderson, repeatedly focused on the silver purity and brilliance of her vocal timbre and praised the firmness and evenness of her scale-passages.


Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond, near Melbourne, on 19th May, 1861, the eldest child of an immigrant, David Mitchell, a self-employed builder and amateur bass singer who had come from Scotland during the 1851 gold rush. Her mother encouraged her to study piano, organ and singing and 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 and preceptor, the younger Manuel García, inventor of the laryngoscope. After leaving college in 1880, Nellie continued her studies in Melbourne with Pietro Cecchi, an Italian tenor from California who had toured Australia in Lyster’s company.


In 1882 Nellie married Charles Armstrong, a sugar-plantation owner from Brisbane. Although she bore him a son the marriage was not a happy one and she soon decided 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 Nellie 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 Lady De Grey, a patroness of the arts. From 1889 onwards Covent Garden would remain the focal point of her career and ever afterwards Melba saw 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.


After 1910 Melba gradually evolved from opera diva to best-selling concert attraction. Concertising and promoting concerts became 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 Jan Kubelik, between October 1912 and March 1914 she toured the provinces throughout Great Britain, the United States and Canada. In common with McCormack and other major concert attractions she embraced popular taste without condescension and whilst she may not quite have heeded her own counsel to Clara Butt to ‘sing ’em muck’, she was populist insofar as a good proportion of her programmes reiterated what the public were already familiar with from their Melba records.


Melba’s recording venue of May 1913 was to be her last session at the Gramophone Company’s London headquarters for eight years, and although she made recordings at the affiliate Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey, in 1913 and 1916, little was actually passed for release from a list which essentially repeated her existing disc repertoire. In 1914 her Covent Garden season was interrupted by a call home to Australia to be near her ailing father and in August the Great War began and Covent Garden would remain closed for its duration. In company with Ellen Terry and others, in Australia as well as in America and Canada, Melba was kept busy at patriotic rallies and fund-raising concerts for war charities (she claimed to have raised over £100,000 during the period) and in 1918 she was created a Dame of the British Empire.


Early in 1919 Melba returned to a less Edwardian London than the one she had left for the first postwar Covent Garden season and soon received an invitation from the Gramophone Company (by then better known to all as His Master’s Voice) to make more records. Protesting that she was ‘too tired to sing’, however, she sent her young Australian protégée Stella Power (alias ‘The Little Melba’) to record instead. Having during the Great War, in Australia, set up her own training school devoted to passing on her García-Marchesi method, she was keener than ever to promote people and things Australian. She remained forward-looking, however, (she was, by some accounts, fascinated by jazz) and being commercially minded was receptive to new technologies (in 1920 she made a pioneering broadcast via ‘Wireless Phone’ from Chelmsford in Essex).


In May 1921, just before her sixtieth birthday, the ageing diva finally agreed to grace HMV’s Hayes studio to make what some critics have since opined were her least impressive records. Certainly the session, accompanied by HMV’s music director, her old colleague Landon Ronald (1873-1938), was short and contained no real surprises. Only five masters, of which only three were released on 78s, were produced. One coupled the Ronald compositions Away on the hill there runs a stream (No.1 of his 1904 cycle Four Songs of the Hill, she had first recorded this to the composer’s accompaniment in 1905) and Down in the forest (subtitled ‘Spring’, No.2 of A Cycle of Life, 1906). Another repeated Annie Laurie (an 1838 Lady John Douglas-Scott setting of older lyrics by William Douglas of Fingland, this favourite Victorian ballad was appropriated by Melba as an encore aimed at the Scots contingent in Australia and America, where she first recorded it, in 1916). Among the other items, all of which now on re-hearing may strike a nostalgic chord, were Chanson hindoue. Later jazzed up by Paul Whiteman as ‘Song of India’, this Indian Merchant’s song from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Sadko (1898) was originally scored for tenor. By the waters of Minnetonka, by Iowa-born Thurlow Lieurance (1878-1963) is a once-famous encore that shows the influence of the native American Indian melodies of which Lieurance was a collector.


The development of the electrical recording process during 1924-1925 opened new horizons, particularly from 1926 onwards in the context of ‘live’ recording of great performances and historic events. One such was Melba’s ‘Farewell’, at Covent Garden, on 8th June. From a longer, unrecorded, programme the sections preserved included Melba’s definitive versions of arias from Verdi’s Otello and Puccini’s La Bohème, works which had earlier won her global acclaim. The voice shows little deterioration and rises easily to the challenges of the taxing climaxes, and in these extracts she is ably supported by, among others, her fellow-Australian protégés the tenor Browning Mummery (1892-1974) and baritone John Brownlee (1900-1969).


This session also captured Melba’s historic speech to her Covent Garden audience. ‘Goodbye is of all words the saddest, the most difficult to say’, she falteringly exclaims and, whilst a certain measure of stage-management can be assumed, the emotional charge on leaving what had been for almost forty years her avowed alma mater seems genuine enough. But it was by no means the last the world heard of Melba, and there were further farewells (including, most notably,  two unrecorded events in London, the first a Farewell Concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 25th June and a charity concert on 7th December 1926) as well as various opera appearances and concert promotions with her name attached, and before she died in Sydney, on 23rd February1931… one last recording session.


On 17th December 1926, in HMV’s studio above the Queen’s Hall, she was joined by Brownlee and her English accompanist Harold Craxton (1885-1971) for four selections – two solos and two duets. Beautifully gauged in dynamics by both singers, a feat aided in some measure by the electrical process, the duets must surely rank among the crowning glories of the Melba discography, while the overall technical security Melba displays remains a testament to the solidity of the 65-year-old soprano’s vocal method. Un ange est venu by her old friend Herman Bemberg (1859-1931) was a repeat of an atmospheric Melba ‘creation’ first recorded in New York, in duet with Charles Gilibert, in 1907. Haunting, too, are Clair de lune, a setting by Jósef Szulc (1875-1956) of Verlaine’s ‘Votre âme est un paysage choisi’ and, in its way her swansong, Swing low, sweet chariot. Dating from 1917, this best-known Negro spiritual was one of many from the pen of the Pennsylvanian baritone-songwriter Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949).


Peter Dempsey



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.

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