Elsie Houston — Queen of Brazilian Song
Elsie Houston (soprano)
rec. 1928-41
MARSTON 51011-2 [79:22]

This is a somewhat off-beat disc for Marston to bring out but it’s nevertheless very welcome. Elsie Houston was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1902 to an American father and a Brazilian mother. Early studies were subsequently augmented by a period in Germany, training with Lilli Lehmann, and after her there were studies with Ninon Vallin. It was in Paris in the mid 1920s that Houston was introduced to the songs of her native Brazil and her direction was decisive – away from opera and toward song and Brazilian music. Her first records were of music by Villa-Lobos, made in Paris in 1928, with the composer’s wife accompanying, but her career was somewhat peripatetic and undercut by domestic problems, though she continued to perform widely and record. In 1937 she made New York her home, and whilst she was spectacularly successful there at the 1940 Festival of Brazilian Music she did not live long enough to enjoy the renown that she garnered. She committed suicide in 1943. All these and other salient facts are well outlined in Marston’s extensive booklet.
What kind of artist she was mattered very much to the more high-brow auditors at the time. That she wasn’t a conventional classical singer, despite her eminently ‘classical’ training, was clearly a sore point for some. And yet what kind of classical singer would you have wished to hear in the Brazilian songs she published, performed and recorded? She was her own kind of singer, with varied influences recognisable in a flexible, stylistically apt vocal armoury. Back in 1928 those Villa-Lobos songs are pert and authoritative with a well-defined sense of rhythm. All four songs fitted two sides of a 10” disc. Back in Rio she recorded four more songs, Brazilian ones this time in her own arrangement. These are full of vitality and light charm. The percussion and clarinet accompaniment adds variety and her tongue-twisting O barão da Bahia a delight – a kind of parlando folk delivery. The distant trumpet in this session is a demerit.
Back in Paris in 1933 she recorded three more folk songs. These are better recorded and there’s a saxophone player on board. Berceuse Africano-Bresilienne is a particular highlight, and it must have been particularly delightful to have seen her in concert – she wore vivid clothes, often green. Maybe her most famous recording is Jongo, which she set down in New York in 1938 for Liberty Music Shop. Perhaps we would now call these kinds of songs ‘World Music’ but however it’s categorised one can savour the vibrancy, colour, rhythmic precision, variety of attacks, and sheer sense of fun that Houston evoked – not least the ‘quacks’ in Jongo. There’s even an example of Fado in these sessions, as well.
We are very fortunate that a collector taped a set of unissued recordings made at around this time, because the original discs seem to have vanished. Though they are a little dim and there’s some hiss, they are not too bad and to have seven unpublished tests of music by Villa-Lobos, Joaquín Nin, Ravel (Sur l’herbe) and Nilvar is a tremendous coup. To hear Houston sing the Brazilian Blues cum Gospel of Villa-Lobos’ Xangô is a real joy. Her Ravel will remind one of her studies with Vallin, perhaps. But one of my favourite of all Houston discs is that of Mon Ami, a chanson that operates on a simple piano scale, accompanied by cello, above which her voice rises and falls with true Gallic intensity.
In New York in 1941 she made her last series of records. There’s a haunting, melancholy Foi numa noite calmosa (No. 5 Modinha Carioca) arranged by Luciano Gallet and Tayêras (Song and dance of the Mulatresses from Bahia) which is the kind of thing popularly associated with Carmen Miranda and her vogue - though she was never an ethnomusicologist! Houston, meanwhile, could perform these Brazilian numbers with authenticity and flair whilst also continuing to perform the music of Villa-Lobos. The last music in this disc, in fact, is an unpublished 1941 recording of his Siete canciones populares Españolas with Pablo Miguel as the pianist. It would be interesting to know the circumstances of this recording, and why it was never issued, but there’s nothing in the booklet notes to help us. Certainly the songs provide a fitting, appropriate envoi to an unclassifiable singer who stamped her mark on the music of her native country, and beyond.
Jonathan Woolf
Gramophone Company, Paris 20 June 1928
Desejo [Seresta No. 10] (Villa-Lobos) 0:47
Na paz do outono [Seresta No. 6] (Villa-Lobos) 1:33
(BT4114-1) P760
Realejo [Seresta No. 12] (Villa-Lobos) 0:41
Estrela do céu é lua nova (Villa-Lobos) 1:12 
(BT4111-1) P760 
Brazilian Columbia, Rio de Janeiro, early 1930
Côco dendê, trapiá (arranged by Houston) 1:16
Ai! Sabiá da mata (arranged by Houston) 2:17 
(380885-1) 7050-B 
O barão da Bahia (Maria Amelia Barros) 3:11 
(380830-1) 7014-B 
Cadeé minha pomba rola (arranged by Houston) 3:15 
(380832-2) 7014-B 
Gramophone Company, Paris 26 September 1933
Eh! Jurupanan [Côco] (arranged by Houston) 3:05 
(OPG 1016-1) K7055 
Berceuse Africano-Bresilienne (arranged by Houston) 1:01
Oia o sapo [Embolada] (arranged by Houston) 2:05
(OPG 1017-1) K7055
Liberty Music Shop, New York
Jongo (composer unknown) 2:34 
June 1938; (1757) L232 
Fado (composer unknown) 2:39 
June 1938; (1758) L232 
Toda p’ra você (Fernandez) 2:38
Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test 
Xangô (Villa-Lobos)1:17 
Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test 
Villancico Andaluz (Joaquin Nin)1:50
Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test 
Villancico Gallego (Nin) 1:16
Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test 
Villancico Castellano (Nin) 1:19 
Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test 
Sur l’herbe (Ravel) 1:58
Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test 
Quand je chante cette melodie (Nilvar) 2:10 
Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test 
Mon ami (Jamblan/Herpin) 3:01 
July 1939; (R163-1) L263 
The cherry tree (S.L.M. Barlow) 2:58 
July 1939; (R164-1) L263 
RCA Victor, New York1941
Foi numa noite calmosa [No. 5 Modinha Carioca] (arranged by Luciano Gallet) 4:01 
17 January 1941; (CS-060345-1) 13667 
Bahia [Carateristica] (Alvaro Moreira/Hekel Tavares) 1:51
Danza de caboclo [Côco] (arranged by Tavares) 0:50 
24 January 1941; (CS-060371-1) 13667 
Bia-ta-tá [Côco] (arranged by Tavares) 1:23
Benedicto pretinho (arranged by Tavares) 1:01 
24 January 1941; (CS-060372-2) 13668 
Berimbau, Op. 4 (Manuel Bandeira/Jayme Ovalle) 3:15
24 January 1941; (CS-060373-1) 13668 
Chariô [Tres potos de Santo, Op. 10, No. 1] (Jayme Ovalle) 1:03
Aruanda [Tres potos de Santo, Op. 10, No. 2] (Jayme Ovalle) 1:05
Estrella do Mar [Tres potos de Santo, Op. 10, No. 3] (Jayme Ovalle) 1:32
24 January 1941; (CS-060374-1) 13669 
Tayêras [Song and dance of the Mulatresses from Bahia] (arranged by Gallet) 1:39
Bambalelê [Song from Pernambuco] (arranged by Gallet) 1:22
January 1941; (CS-060375-1) 13669 
Canção do carreiro [Seresta No. 8] (Villa-Lobos) 4:21
17 January 1941; (CS-060344-1) 17978 
Siete canciones populares Españolas (Traditional, arranged by de Falla)
El paño moruno 1:14
Seguidilla murciana 1:19
Asturiana 2:25
Jota 3:20.
Nana 1:12
Canción 0:59
Polo 1:29 
18 April 1941; (CS-063377-1, CS-063378-1, CS-063379-1, and CS-063380-1) unpublished
Elsie Houston (soprano)
Lucilia Guimarães Villa-Lobos (piano); Pablo Miguel (piano) and other accompanists

A fitting, appropriate envoi to an unclassifiable singer who stamped her mark on the music of her native country and beyond.