The great Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba - on her birthday

Dame Nelly Melba, as Marguerite in Faust (photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)Dame Nelly Melba, as Marguerite in Faust (photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

To mark the anniversary of the birth of Dame Nellie Melba, we revisit an article from March 2009, in which the late John Steane paid tribute to the great Australian soprano

At the name of Melba... well, crowned heads would nod respectful acknowledgment, noble lords and ladies would open their doors, newspaper editors would clear space for headlines, theatre managers would turn pale, but the house would be full. At Covent Garden, where space backstage was at a premium, a dressing-room marked ‘Melba’ was always exclusively hers. At the Metropolitan, where a Golden Age, set in the 1890s, was an article of faith, her name in the roll of honour led all the rest. The Tsar paid tribute; Paris, Monte Carlo and Brussels were as crowns and crownets strewn in her path. Italy was duly impressed but could not quite warm to the lady. Germany, where they were rather more musical, was not too keen at all.

And, if we're talking about reputation, there was this snag. Society (capital S) supported it, plebs likewise. At a popular level she was known to be, in succession to the great Patti, Queen of Song, and when she sang ‘Home, sweet home’, which, in her concerts, she almost always did, there was not a dry eye. And Society knew because, for one thing, the influential arts patron Lady de Grey and her circle backed her, and those were the people who were known to know. But the editor of The Musical Times did not know: in fact, though he thought well enough of what he called her ‘sweet carolling’, he considered her choice of repertoire and the example it set to be deplorable. And when it was announced (not before time, some thought) that the diva might soon retire, he was not in the least upset. ‘The Diva to go Home’ he read in the papers, and added cheerfully: ‘By all means. Why not? As the Diva has melodiously declared (only too often), there's no place like it.’

Expressed more objectively, the balance of judgement in Melba's own lifetime went something like this. The most common complaint about her as an artist was that she was cold. The voice itself was admitted to be of exceptional purity, and her technique might be judged near to perfection in matters of placement, evenness, accuracy in tills and fluency in scale-work. But (critical opinions would then say) it was too impersonal, lacking in variety of coloration, to be effective as an instrument for the expression of feelings. Moreover, she could not act, or she simply would not try. And in an operatic artist that was some limitation, even in the Golden Age.

Now, I write as one addicted. I hear in Melba's records many things I wish were otherwise but still treasure them. As the years go by I find the sound of that ‘cold’ voice curiously moving, often surprisingly and sometimes alarmingly so. It's partly, and primarily, the recognition of a unique timbre, which brings an unbidden thrill. It might be in a quite simple phrase – the last notes of Mimì's ‘Addio, senza rancor’, for instance – sung well within any singer's range. But when she does soar aloft - think of Ophelia's ‘A vos jeux’ – the effect can be breathtaking, like Hopkins's windhover (‘the achieve of, the mastery of, the thing’). Her trill, as in ‘Caro nome’, is utterly precise, like a great pianist's. Her scale (‘Sempre libera’) is perfection – and there is something moving in the mere fact of such perfection. Or there is when it is found in company with such a rare purity of tone.

That of itself does not explain why one should find, as I increasingly do, an emotional charge in this ‘cold’ voice. I come to believe (but it is a belief rather than knowledge with any factual basis) that she had more feeling invested in her singing than she let anyone know, probably including herself. At (you might say) the lowest level, there is the investment of energy. Sometimes almost comically plebeian, as in Luigi Arditi's waltz-song ‘Se saran rose’, it can also take a noble turn as it does so powerfully in the 'Goodbye for ever' of Tosti's once hackneyed song. WJ Henderson, New York's veteran opera critic, tried to find a word that might convey to his modern readers what was so special about Melba in her prime. The word he came up with was ‘splendour’.

I too can see that, or rather hear it, though on first acquaintance with the records I would not have thought so. It's a free voice. A correspondent who was present at Melba's last concert at the Albert Hall described the sensation of feeling that wherever you were seated in that vast place you could put out a hand and touch it. Mary Garden's memory of the high C in La bohème has to be recalled whenever Melba is under discussion: ‘That note came floating over the auditorium of Covent Garden. It left Melba's throat, it left Melba's body, it left everything...My God, how beautiful it was!’

Of course, in her studio recordings there is no space to sail out into. So confined, the voice may even sound small. Certainly it was the kind of voice to which the old recording horn did not take readily: it had none of that Italianate vibrancy with which the apparatus could, so to speak, get to grips; on the other hand, those pure but powerful high notes, so often compared to a choirboy's, could ‘blast’. Preserved in the archives but released some years ago along with other previously unpublished material is a distance-test preparing for a session in 1910. In this, Melba sings the same phrases over and over, each time a step further from the horn to which she was to direct her voice. The second or third position was probably the one used, but how one wishes they could have coped with the first! It is there that we hear the voice with most fullness and immediacy; and ‘splendour’ is indeed the word for it. There, the tones (as Henderson wrote) ‘glowed with a star-like brilliance.., flamed with a white flame’.

In 1910 Melba was 50, 42 in 1904 when she made her first records for the Gramophone Company. She needed some persuading to go in for it at all but, lured by the promise of a special label (lilac, ‘her’ colour) and a special selling-price, she recorded a number of songs and arias, of which 16 have been newly issued, on 78s, by Historic Masters. This is the organisation that produced albums by Patti and Tamagno. As with those issues, these of Melba have been pressed from newly discovered original ‘shells’. The claim is that they have ‘much greater clarity than any which have previously appeared’. For “the real Melba”, or the nearest the gramophone came to it, it is worth the investment. Illumination, blinding and instant, is not something I could consciously promise – it would not conform to my own experience all those years ago. Yet if these had been available then, conversion might have happened a good deal sooner.

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