Article by Roger Neill

“Nellie Melba, mon ami chérie et l‘élève de mes rêves avant qu’elle fût mon idéal de l ’artiste.”
Mathilde Marchesi

HOW TO SNARE THE GREAT MELBA?
For the Gramophone & Typewriter Company, a key ingredient in the 1904 signing of Nellie Melba was the young pianist, composer and budding conductor, Landon Ronald. G&T’s producer, Fred Gaisberg, had first met him in 1901. Gaisberg was impressed with Ronald’s dynamism and his easy command of the orchestra, and this led him to become one of G & T’s main conductors and accompanists.

At the same time, Gaisberg saw in him a credible conduit to the “untouchables”, the stars who still remained aloof, reluctant to record for the gramophone, seeing it as just a fad, a new toy. Melba and Patti were at the top of that list.

Ronald was accompanist to a number of Covent Garden stars – among them Patti…and Melba. “For our young company,” wrote Gaisberg of Ronald, “it was like finding the Koh-i-Noor diamond.” Melba will have been very aware that several of her most prominent friends and contemporaries had already made recordings – Caruso, Calvé, Tamagno, Chaliapin, Battistini, Joachim and Kubelik among them.

Another critical moment in the conversion of Melba took place in Sydney. PH Bohanna, the manager of the company ’s Australian branch, wrote to headquarters in London on 4 September 1903: “She was here at the office a few days ago and spent some time listening to Gramophone Records; she finally became so interested in them that she wants one of our best machines and a number of our best records sent as a surprise to her niece – Miss Nellie Patterson.”

Around the end of 1903, Melba cut short a concert tour of North America, enticed back to Europe by the prospect of creating the title role in Saint-Saëns’s new opera Hélène for Monte Carlo Opéra (the score recently re-discovered, performed in Prague and recorded in Melbourne). The journey was marred for Melba by the flooding of the hold of the ship on which she sailed from Boston, the Saxonia, her trunks becoming waterlogged, resulting in the destruction not only of her theatrical wardrobe, including specially-created dresses by Worth of Paris, her furs and her Lancret fan, but also her music, including scores personally marked by composers with whom she had first learned them – among them Aida, Rigoletto, Faust, Roméo et Juliette, Hamlet and Lakmé. She was devastated.

Then one of the company ’s most good-looking and personable young men, sales manager Sydney Dixon, was despatched to Monte Carlo while Melba was rehearsing there. In the principality, Dixon courted Melba with “flowers, speeches and dinner parties; still she was not convinced,” wrote Gaisberg. “Finally she fell to a ruse.” Melba was dining with the well-briefed Saint-Saëns (Hélène was to be premièred on 18 February). Dixon had set up a gramophone in the next room and played one of Caruso’s records on it. The venerable composer was enthusiastic – and Melba was hooked. “Never have I known such courtesy combined with such persuasion,” wrote Melba.

But no, she was not going to make these records at their “laboratory” in the City Road. They would have to come with all their equipment and the necessary musicians to the drawing room of her London home at 30 Great Cumberland Place, near Marble Arch. Purchased from her close friends, the socialites Mr and Mrs Hwfa Williams, Melba had transformed this handsome town house into a mini-Versailles, with “wall decorations done in Cupids, garlands and panels to hold the paintings,” wrote a contemporary, William Armstrong. “Furniture in keeping she had selected personally, piece by piece: gilded chairs and sofas of the Louis periods; Aubusson carpets, pale blue and white, garlanded with faint pink roses; crystal chandeliers hung with pear-shaped pendants.” It took two years to complete, accomplished by a small army of decorative artists and workmen shipped over from Paris by Melba, “the knockers, finger plates and door handles all specially designed by [the Australian sculptor] Mr Bertram Mackennal,” according to Melbourne Punch (11 January 1906). In the music room, close by her piano, was the 1899 bust of Melba, also by Mackennal, a close friend of the diva. Another friend, Boni, Marquis de Castellane, with his “exquisite taste”, had coached her in decor, furniture and art in the 1890s.

And no, she would not record all of the planned songs and arias with piano accompaniment (as was usual at that time). Some would be with an orchestra of “some forty-five players”, according to Gaisberg, though this sounds excessive, all to be accommodated in her capacious London drawing room.

It is not entirely clear which early recordings Nellie Melba had previously heard of herself and detested comprehensively. Several writers have assumed that it was these, the Great Cumberland Place ones, that she had had consigned to the rubbish bin – but if she had done so, we would not have them. Most likely it was a series of cylinders made at the Bettini Phonograph Laboratory in New York in 1895-96. Amazingly, in the 49 days between December 27 and February 14 that season Melba gave twenty performances of seven different works at the Metropolitan Opera (Roméo et Juliette, Faust, Les Huguenots, Lucia di Lammermoor, Micaëla in Carmen, Rigoletto and Manon), so it seems likely that she made her first tentative steps into this newfangled technology with that repertoire. Reporting on Bettini’s new recordings in 1896, The Phonoscope magazine’s reporter wrote: “ The next cylinder was labelled ‘Melba’ and was truly wonderful, the phonograph reproducing her wonderful voice in a mar vellous manner, especially the high notes which soared away above the staff and were rich and clear.”

The diva clearly did not share this opinion. “Never again,” I said to myself as I listened to the scratching, screeching result. ‘Don’t tell me I sing like that, or I shall go away and live on a desert island.” The ever-forthright Nellie Melba pulled no punches in her memoirs of 1925, Melodies and Memories. Although that passage appears to refer to the later Great Cumberland Place recordings, I believe that her ghost-writer, Beverley Nichols, had misunderstood her. My belief is that she made sure that those early New York cylinder recordings were destroyed. Certainly none of them have ever surfaced.

Then there were Lionel Mapleson’s privately-made cylinders, recorded during live performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York between 1901 and 1903 (and including Melba’s astounding cabaletta to the Queen’s aria in Les Huguenots), irreplaceable recordings which were made without the agreement of the artists. She most likely never knew about them, nor heard them.

Nearly a decade was to pass before Melba risked repeating the experience of commercial recording – and then only after the charm offensive by the Gramophone & Typewriter Company and with the improved result from flat discs rather than cylinders.

Article by Roger Neill | Copyright (C) Roger Neill 2008

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