|About this Recording
8.120711 - JENKINS, Florence Foster: Murder on the High Cs (1937-1951)
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 judge?
David Lennick, 2003
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