Article by Roger Neill

Forty-two years old, Melba was still in her prime. Many now feel that these are the finest recordings she made. One possible reason for this is that sound recording engineers had not yet become terrified of “blasting”, so that performers were still allowed to stand relatively close to the acoustic horn. “For the florid pieces, we must certainly go back to the London series of 1904-6,” wrote the critic, Desmond Shaw-Taylor, “not only because they show the voice in a fresher and more brilliant state, but also because, when properly reproduced, they sound more natural than her later American ‘retakes’.” Together they encompass four major strands of her repertoire – leading operatic roles from the established repertoire, roles she had learned directly with the composers, songs by contemporary composers – Tosti, Bemberg and Hahn – the first two being close friends of the diva, and British songs, old and new. “ The 1904 series catches her in her prime,” John Steane has written. “ The real merit lies in the sound of her voice and the habitually free and even production of it.”

“I am glad I had a shot at this,” wrote Melba later. “I was no longer ashamed of my records. I was delighted with them.” But still she had reservations: “ There is no audience to cheer me on…and I know that if I make the slightest mistake, the faintest error in breathing, there it will remain, mercilessly reproduced, to all eternity.”

Melba’s recordings of spring 1904 were the start of a long series of visits to the recording studio. In total over a period of 22 years she recorded over 150 arias and songs, the majority surviving intact – in London, Paris and Camden, New Jersey. Two artists, Melba and her singing partner Caruso, between them did most to establish the recording industry in the twentieth century.

Towards the end of her career, electrical technology having arrived, The Gramophone Company took the opportunity of making pioneering live recordings using microphones at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. One of the earliest of these was Melba’s famous “Farewell” there on 8 June 1926. She was 65 years old, singing before a house packed with the great and good, including King George V and Queen Mar y – as Juliette, as Desdemona and as Mimì in La Bohème. (See HM Blog post)

Published sources to date claim that the Great Cumberland Place sessions took place in March 1904, but this is complicated by the fact that, during that month, Melba also undertook a provincial tour of England and Scotland for the Birmingham-based impresario Percy Harrison, and then, according to Agnes Murphy, “April was spent in Paris, mostly with modistes and milliners for the replenishing of her private and professional wardrobe,” lost following the flooding of the hold of the Saxonia returning from America.

I have only been able thus far to establish a few of the places and dates of this tour, including Birmingham (March 7, Melba “in brilliant voice” said the Birmingham Daily Post), Sheffield (March 9, “in transcendent form” according to the Sheffield Telegraph), Liverpool (March 25), Edinburgh and Glasgow. The same bill included the English bass, Robert Radford, and the young harpist Ada Sassoli, who had recently toured with Melba – Australia and New Zealand, then North America. Although the tour programmes imply that the accompanist was Frank Mummery, newspaper reports reveal that for Melba’s own items her pianist was in fact Landon Ronald, who was to recall tours with Melba: “Huge crowds, thunderous applause, lots of polite officials, and hotel servants, hundreds of autograph hunters… plenty of fun.”

Not surprisingly, she recorded the repertoire that she sang on her March 1904 provincial tour – either in the sessions at Great Cumberland Place, or in the later City Road sessions in October.

Some 28 takes were made at 30 Great Cumberland Place, of which seventeen survive, all of them either conducted or accompanied by Landon Ronald. It was “a nerve-racking experience”, wrote G&T’s Fred Gaisberg. “ When she addressed one, she made no attempt to disguise her speech with sweetened words. She was a woman who had risen to the top of her profession by sheer driving force.” Evidently Gaisberg was not the only one feeling the pressure.

Gaisberg wrote that normally a two-hour session achieved six to ten takes, so we can assume that there were four sessions. It is unfortunate that, although many of Fred Gaisberg’s work diaries survive in EMI’s archives, the one for 1904 is missing.

The matrix numbers allocated run in chronological order, so the first two sessions will have covered the recording of some sixteen takes with piano accompaniment (Melba 1 to Melba 16).

The first session – which produced ten takes – took place during the first week of March, ahead of the provincial tour. On 7 March, Sydney Dixon sent an urgent telegram to the factory manager in Hanover:

“SEND FRIDBERG TO MEET DARBY STATION 3 O/C TOMORROW TUESDAY ) FOR VERY IMPORTANT SHELLS.”

He followed up immediately by letter: “ The shells in question are those by Madame Melba and we wish to take the greatest possible care of them. We are anxious to have samples as soon as you can send them off.” First sample pressings were sent to Dixon in London three days later “pressed with our best material”. Dixon was not impressed: “I am sorry to say that even these scratch a good deal.” He cautioned Hanover not to allow any samples out, continuing: “At the present time we have not had her absolute authority to publish any records.” The Paris-based flautist, Philippe Gaubert was booked for the second of these sessions (Melba 11 to 16), which took place on 27 March (Gaubert playing on Melba 12 to 15).

A third session, most likely taking place on the Thursday or Friday of the last week of March, covered the takes with orchestral accompaniment (Melba 17 to 24). Of these Melba 17 to 19 and Melba 24 are missing, presumably rejected. The remaining takes, reverting to piano (Melba 25 to 28), constituted session four. This final session took place in the first week of April, ahead of her shopping expedition to Paris. Dixon sent a telegram to the Hanover manager on 11 or 12 April:

“PLEASE PRESS 25 26 27 28 FROM FIRST SHELLS SPECIAL MATERIAL IF POSSIBLE STILL FIND LAST SAMPLES ALL SCRATCHY SEND FRESH SAMPLES IF POSSIBLE – DIXON.”

Nevertheless getting the recordings made was just the beginning. As they were made only as “tests”, Melba initially showed no inclination to allow G&T to release any commercially. The master metals sent to G&T’s Hanover factory so that sample pressings could be made are the very metals used for the new vinyl pressings in this new edition. However, without commercial release, the recording company had invested very significant sums without any imminent prospect of a return.

So the next step was to make a deal with Melba. It was mid-May before terms were agreed. Melba was a shrewd negotiator, knowing her value. She was to be paid £1,000 up-front (roughly equivalent to £75,000 now). Her records were to be sold at not less than a guinea (twenty-one shillings) each, a shilling more than the previous top price (Tamagno at a round pound). Another novelty was that the diva was to receive a royalty of five shillings per record sold. The consumer purchase price in 1904, a guinea, would equate to around £80 ($US160, $A200) in current value, an enormous sum for just a few minutes of music. All her records were to carr y a distinctive lilac-coloured label, to be used by no other artist, with her own facsimile signature on it.

Much to the relief of the top management of G&T, the contract was finally signed on 11 May 1904. Production of the 15 approved recordings started in Hanover immediately. By 21 June, Dixon reported that 1,070 records had been sold, 76 dealers having stocked the full set, “although we have not yet put in a single advertisement ”.

In June, Melba was summoned to perform at Buckingham Palace for King Edward and Queen Alexandra and their guest, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose assassination in Sarajevo was to precipitate the First World War. The occasion was notable for two reasons: Melba was awarded the Order of Science, Art and Music; and their majesties had had copies of the new recordings and a gramophone sent to the palace, so that they could all listen to this miracle of modern art and science together.

Copies of the recordings were sent to her father, David Mitchell, brought out to Melbourne personally by the Australian impresario, Nevin Tait, who cannily put on a sell-out “Melba Gramophone Concert ” in Melbourne on 17 August 1904 – so successful it was repeated fourteen times.

Copyright (C) Roger Neill 2008

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