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Florence Foster Jenkins and Friends
Murder on the High Cs (recordings 1937-1951)

Queen of the Night, aria from The Magic Flute, Mozart
Serenata Mexicana, Cosme McMoon
Musical Snuff Box, Liadov
Like a Bird, words by Jenkins (composer unknown)
Bell Song, from Lakmé, Léo Delibes
Charmant Oiseau, from Perle du Brésil, Felicien David
Adele's Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, Johann Strauss II
Biassy, Bach
Valse Caressante, Cosme McMoon
All the above performed by Florence Foster Jenkins, with Cosme McMoon (piano)
Little Jack Horner, sung by Alexander Kipnis (bass)
Sing A Song of Sixpence, John Charles Thomas (bar)
The Blue Danube, Josephine Tumminia (sop)
The Little Old State of Texas, Ezio Pinza (bass)
The Fireman's Bride, Jeanette MacDonald (sop) and Robert Merrill (bar)
The Song's gotta come from the Heart, Jimmy Durante assisted by Helen Traubel (sop)
A Real Piano Player, Helen Traubel (sop) assisted by Jimmy Durante
Please Don't Say No, Lauritz Melchior
NAXOS NOSTALGIA 8.120711 [60.55]


The name, Florence Foster Jenkins brings a wide grin to many an opera buff's face. She is well known to those who follow singers, not for her superlative renderings of selected arias, but because of the amusement imparted by arias so badly sung! With unbearable vocality, this person's ego as a 1940s singer became so inflated that she gave public concerts. A reputation spread that the concerts were a source of good entertainment that they became well attended for the wrong reasons. Assuming she had genuine admirers, Foster Jenkins made private recordings, initially for her own delectation. With tongue in cheek the company, Melotone issued them and they sold well. It is these 78s of 1937-51 that have been dubbed and redubbed to appear first on LPs and CD under the RCA label.

This new transfer by Naxos is lengthened to include amusing ditties by other singers, some of which however do not invoke an equally high level of humour.

Florence Foster Jenkins loved to sing yet was deaf to her own inadequacies. Married to a wealthy New Yorker who was preoccupied with business she probably cultivated an interest in opera and singing to relieve her boredom. Perhaps initially, she sang with others at cocktail parties where favourable comments were expressed to her as a matter of politeness (or sympathy). Such a comment could easily be misread and so she developed her interest. Her rich husband was happy to finance concerts to amuse her whilst he was preoccupied elsewhere.

Having a voice with a thin reedy tone and no vibrato (that can be best described as a wailing cat), it is extraordinary that she should go as far as hiring New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall for a concert and, I am told, fill it! There must have been newspaper reports of this and earlier concerts to give more of her background, yet none of the notes I have found refer to any. The same is true for the Naxos notes except for the fact they have given us something about the Melotone studios that released the original 78s.

I find the listener's amusement is heightened by the fact that she performs with an accomplished accompanist, Cosme McMoon (see footnote). The contrast between the serious and accurate accompaniment and her juvenile singing is considerable and one wonders what pianist would allow himself to be seen on stage knowing that the performance would be so dreadful. How could he keep a straight face? Since it is likely that members of the audience would be likely to openly snigger, how was it that she wasn't put off? It must be that she never looked at the audience some of whom must have been in near-hysterics. What is particularly funny is when Foster Jenkins attempts low notes. She has no voice for low notes. Listen to tk.8: as she descends with her 'chop-sticks' Russian to the bass register the voice compresses to a whispering growl while the piano merrily continues with its Bach prelude. There is no doubt that she was advised to sing this number by a promoter, well knowing that a good laugh could be delivered at her expense.

As with Hoffnung, this a must to play over coffee to lighten a dinner party, though three tracks is as much as most will probably stand. When analysing Foster Jenkins performance one can hear that she is not tone deaf and has a high soprano register, but manages to hit the wrong notes, a sort of vocal Les Dawson (this metaphor will only work for our UK readers). In summing up I would suggest that she is lazy and doesn't practise her pieces. This is confirmed by the fact that on hearing a Melotone test record when the engineer points out wrong notes she tells the producer that there is nothing wrong with it: in other words she can't be bothered making a second take.

As for the filler tracks, these are a mixed bag and are not to me particularly funny, certainly not as the singers go, or am I missing something? Perhaps I was looking for similarly awful singers to Jenkins, but here the humour lies in the music and what they sing. Little Jack Horner and Sing a Song of Sixpence contain exaggerated and comic musical colour which is matched to the needs of young children. Rossini's Cats duet or Danny Kaye's send-up of G&S with his drunken portrayal of Sir Joseph Porter in 'When I was a Lad' (Pinafore) would have been better fillers had they been available.

Raymond J Walker

 

footnote

note by Paul Moor seen on rmcr November 04

Several decades ago, in New York, she invited me to tea; I wrote about that (and a recital I attended at the Delmonico, in an audience the included Cole Porter & party) in "Harper's Magazine".

Her pianist, billed as Cosmé McMoon, actually appeared at the Met and elsewhere as Kirsten Flagstad's conductor of choice under his real name: Edwin McArthur....

 



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