The First Recordings
ABC Classics 476 3556
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Nellie Melba, for much of her career, was arguably the most famous Australian in the world. The aura of glamour about her sustained public interest to an astonishing degree for years.
A recently released CD features recordings Melba made at the height of her career, a marvellous insight into one of the greatest voices ever to be captured on gramophone records. Almost all the tracks here were made in 1904 at Melba’s luxurious and extravagantly furnished home in London’s Great Cumberland Place, near Marble Arch.
Let’s look at some of the economics of those sessions, drawn from Roger Neill’s fascinating liner notes.
For this series of recordings done over a number of days, Melba was paid one thousand British pounds, a staggering fee that equates now to around 80,000 pounds. Moreover, her contract required that her gramophone recordings would be sold at one guinea each ie 21 shillings or one pound, one shilling, this equating nowadays to about 80 pounds. I cannot readily think of anyone nowadays who would be prepared to pay such a sum for a recording running for perhaps four or so minutes.
It was, and still is, a staggering indication of how much in demand Melba was in singing terms. As well, her contract stipulated that for each record sold, she was to receive a royalty of five shillings which, too, added up to a more than tidy sum. The public was insatiable.
In Sydney, not long after these recordings were made, a concert which consisted of people listening to Melba’s voice on a gramophone positioned on a small table was sold out fourteen times running! And for those interested in such matters, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra purchased a gramophone and many of the recordings on this CD, some of which they played for their guest at Buckingham palace:Archduke Franz Ferdinand who would be assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, thus tipping the world into the Great War 1914 – 1918.
How we have come on since 1904. In those days, records were sold in ordinary brown paper packets, sometimes with advertising on them, unlike nowadays when there is almost information overkill in the liner note booklets that come with each CD.
But the real joy of this collection is, of course, the singing which gives one an opportunity to savour one of the world’s truly magical voices. Melba may have been unpleasant as a human being, an unabashed social climber and rough with those she considered her inferiors – but she had a voice the recordings of which will thrill listeners far into the future.