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JENKINS, Florence Foster: Murder on the High Cs



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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 RecordingStudio at 25 Central Park West in New York was one of many establishments inthe 1930s and 1940s where you could have a recording made.  Professional musicians had theirconcerts recorded off the air, budding performers such as Mario Lanza recordeddemonstration discs, small record labels occasionally used their facilities;and from 1941 to 1944, Melotone was host to the incredible vocalizing ofFlorence Foster Jenkins.


Much has been written about the so-called Diva of Din in thesix decades since her death, and in 2001 she was the subject of a play stagedat the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, "Viva La Diva" by Chris Ballance.  Her portrait in the "Angel ofInspiration" costume is known everywhere, sound clips and photographs are onthe Internet, and her name has long been synonymous with musical torture.  But much of what has been printed iscontradictory, and even Melotone admitted to having very little informationabout Madame Jenkins when it issued a memorial booklet after her death.  She may have been from Philadelphia orWilkes-Barre, PA; she may have been a widow or a divorcee; and she may havebeen born around 1868, although one account says 1864.  She also did not confine her concertsto the ballroom of New York's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, since the Gramophone Shop'sJanuary 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 four78-RPM discs, with the claim that "these four are the only Jenkins recordingsextant".  Those eight sides werereissued on LP in the '50s, re-released in the '60s with Serenata Mexicanaomitted (it didn't reappear till the '90s), and were transferred from second orthird-generation dubs, one of which had removed the piano introduction to theBell Song.  But there were fiveJenkins 78s, the unlisted one being the two-sided Valse Caressante, of which onlya couple of pressings are known to exist. Mystery also surrounds the other participants on her recordings.  Cosme McMoon was the name of her pianoaccompanist on records and in recitals, and virtually nothing has been learnedabout him, although he spoke on a promotional recording in 1954 and appeared onthe Jack Paar TV programme in the late '50s, assuring us that Florence FosterJenkins was the genuine article. The flute solos on her records have also been shrouded in mystery.  Oreste di Sevo, who played in the NewYork Philharmonic under Toscanini, appeared with her in concert on occasion,but the typed labels on an original ten-inch pressing of Charmant Oiseauclearly identify Louis Alberghini, whose name never appeared on latertwelve-inch pressings or reissues.


What is known about Jenkins is that she was wealthy, was asocialite, founded and guided the Verdi Club for nearly thirty years, and thatshe loved to sing.   Afteryears of giving her own unique small-scale entertainments, she took the boldstep of appearing in Carnegie Hall on 25October 1944.  Two thousand people were turned away from the sold-outauditorium and scalpers were getting $20 for their two-dollar tickets.  Columnist Earl Wilson, Jr. suggestedthat she should try Madison Square Gardens or the Polo Grounds next, butFlorence 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 thecustomary routines of the many artists for whom Melotone has recorded.  Rehearsals, the niceties of volume andpitch, considerations of acoustics - all were thrust aside by her with ease andauthority.  The technicians neverceased to be amazed at her capacity for circumventing the numerous problems anddifficulties 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, aninstantaneous recording of the Queen Of the Night.  On listening to the recording, she declared, much to thedirector's astonishment, that it was excellent, virtually beyond improvement,and that all copies should be made from the instantaneous recording.  The following day, Mme. Jenkinstelephoned director Weinstock to say that, after listening to the recording ather hotel, she felt a measure of anxiety concerning 'a note' at the end of thearia.  'My dear Mme. Jenkins,'replied Mrs. Weinstock, 'you need feel no anxiety concerning any singlenote.'  The diva wasreassured."  Except for theFledermaus 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 therecording's length, which caused the grooves to run into the label area.


Florence Foster Jenkins' recordings could be purchased fromthe singer herself, from Melotone, and from select dealers such as The GramophoneShop, which listed her first release under "Historical" and described it as "amost unusual record which must be heard to be believed".  The following year it listed theFledermaus/Biassy release in its vocal section, stating "It will probablysuffice to say that here is a new Florence Foster Jenkins record.  The soprano considers it her best.  The recording clearly reproduces allthe idiosyncratic touches that have made Mrs. Jenkins' record of one of theQueen Of The Night's arias from Die Zauberflote a collector's item." Of thatfirst record, Time Mag-azine (16 June 1941) said: "Last week a recording ofthis air, advertised entirely by rumour, enjoyed a lively little sale atManhattan'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 musicalclubwoman.  Mrs. Jenkins'nightqueenly swoops and hoots, her wild wallowings in descending trill, herrepeated staccato notes like a cuckoo in its cups, are innocently uproarious tohear, 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 Nightrecord and hopes to make others.  Herfans hope so too."


Joining the great Jenkins on this CD are a number ofrenowned performers whose talents are in less doubt, although some of theirtastes in repertoire may be questioned. Some are clearly having fun, while others probably wanted to forget thatthey'd ever made these recordings. Ukranian-born bass Alexander Kipnis (1891-1978) was renowned for hisWagnerian performances as well as for Russian repertoire, and is the onlyluminary in this group who can not be considered to be "slumming".  Baritone John Charles Thomas was bornthe same year as Kipnis and died in 1960. He made his Met debut in 1934, but is better remembered as a concert andrecording artist.  JosephineTumminia (also spelled Tuminia) is even less well remembered, although she sangwith a number of California-based opera companies and was at the Met for oneseason.  Her absolutely straightperformance of The Blue Danube with Jimmy Dorsey's Orchestra sounds like aput-on, at her expense, but a jazzed-up "Blue Danube" had been featured in theLily Pons film That Girl From Paris the year before she made this recording,which Decca put on its full-priced Personality label.


Ezio P
Disc: 1
Thrill of a Romance: Please Don't Say No
1 Queen of the Night Aria
2 Serenata Mexicana
3 Musical Snuff Box
4 Like a Bird
5 Lakme: Bell Song
6 Perle du Bresil: Charmant Oiseau
7 Die Fledermaus: Adele's Laughing Song
8 Biassy (Prelude XVI)
9 Valse Caressante
10 Little Jack Horner
11 Sing a Song of Sixpence
12 The Blue Danube
13 The Little Old State of Texas
14 Up in Central Park: The Fireman's Bride
15 The Song's Gotta Come from the Heart
16 A Real Piano Player
17 Thrill of a Romance: Please Don't Say No
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