Florence Foster Jenkins: Murder on the High Cs

0 of 5 stars

The Magic Flute – Queen of the Night Aria
Serenata Mexicana
Musical Snuff-Box
Like a Bird [Words by Mme Jenkins]
Lakmé – Bell Song
Perle du Brésil – Charmant Oiseau
Johann Strauss II
Die Fledermaus – Adele’s Laughing Song
Biassy [Words by Pushkin set to Bach’s Prelude XVI]
Valse Caressante

The above performed by Florence Foster Jenkins (soprano?) & Cosme McMoon (piano), with Louis Alberghini (flute)

Friends of Florence Foster Jenkins”:

J Michael Diack [with apologies to G.F. Handel]
Little Jack Horner
Alexander Kipnis (bass) & Ernst Victor Wolff (piano)
Albert Hay Malotte
Sing A Song of Sixpence
John Charles Thomas (baritone) & Carroll Hollister (piano)
Johann Strauss II
The Blue Danube
Josephine Tumminia (soprano); Jimmy Dorsey & His Orchestra
Sammy Cahn & Earl Brent
The Little Old State of Texas
Ezio Pinza (bass) & The Sons of the Pioneers
Sigmund Romberg & Dorothy Fields
Up in Central Park – The Fireman’s Bride
Jeanette MacDonald (soprano) & Robert Merrill (baritone)
Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne
The Song’s gotta come from the Heart
Jimmy Durante assisted by Helen Traubel (soprano)
Jack Barnet
A Real Piano Player
Helen Traubel (soprano) assisted by Jimmy Durante
Ralph Freed & Sammy Fain
Please Don’t Say No [from the film, “Thrill of a Romance”]
Lauritz Melchior (tenor)


Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: March 2005
Duration: 61 minutes

As a failed pianist my confidence in the world of classical music is renewed whenever an unlikely star comes to the fore. When that unlikely star is described as “bel-canto banshee” by critics of the time and yet still manages to have recordings in circulation sixty years after her death I know there is hope for we eager, hapless enthusiasts. The staring lady in question: Florence Foster Jenkins.

“Murder on the High Cs” is a little over an hour of music that possibly should not have been recorded. Billed as “Florence Foster Jenkins & Friends” it includes such luminaries from the first half of the twentieth century as John Charles Thomas, Robert Merrill and Lauritz Melchior alongside FFJ herself. Interest in the self-proclaimed soprano has been increasing recently: there is a further onslaught by the diva on RCA Victor – “The Glory (????) of the Human Voice” and there was a play by Chris Balance at the Edinburgh Fringe. In the past six months Stephen Temperley’s play with music entitled “Souvenir” opened in New York. So what has this lady got that generates such a fuss among those that perhaps should know better?

The easiest answer would be to simply say listen to the disc. The first nine tracks are dedicated completely to Jenkins with her ever-faithful pianist Cosme McMoon. There is a rumour that McMoon was an alias for Edwin McArthur, Kirsten Flagstad’s accompanist, but there appears to be little real evidence for this. On two tracks flautist Louis Alberghini joins the duo. Again rumour has it that this is Oreste di Sevo who played in the New York Philharmonic under Toscanini; it could well be, di Sevo appeared with her in concert on occasion, but there is no concrete evidence. So why should such eminent musicians record under a pseudonym? Again, listen to the disc.

Pulling not a punch, the disc opens with the one of the Queen of the Night’s arias from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”. Jenkins obviously has the range to sing it but lacks the discipline to try and reach the notes suggested by the composer. David Lennick’s booklet note wonderfully describe Melotone Studio’s experience of the recording: “Rehearsals, the niceties of volume and pitch, considerations of acoustics – all were thrust aside by her with ease and authority”. Mera Weinstock, Melotone’s director recounted that when Jenkins recorded the Queen of the Night she declared that “it was excellent, virtually beyond improvement, and that all copies should be made from that recording”. In my view, she was right – it is a classic. Indeed, just over a minute-and-a-half into the piece. pianist McMoon looses the plot for about five bars: is this through terror at being associated with Jenkins or did he have a sudden fit of the giggles?

McMoon is the composer as well as the accompanist for two of the tracks recorded. The “Serenata Mexicana” is a parlour song written for Jenkins. The range of the piece is much more limited and so the damage is less!

It would be easy to go through each track of this disc remarking upon what makes it particularly awful or wonderful – depending upon your point of view. A few highlights to watch out for though: on track six, “Charmant Oiseau”, towards end the flute plays in unison with Jenkins – the effect is quite incredible as you can almost hear the flautist lip-tuning his intonation to stay with the Diva of Din.

In Adele’s laughing song from “Die Fledermaus” it is hard to imagine who is laughing the most, Adele or the recording engineers. Jenkins takes a stab at a big finish but misses!

Finally, if you enjoy what Jenkins does to melody, just take a listen to her attempt at the Russian language in “Biassy” – were it not for the wayward warbler this piece is a little gem with words by Pushkin set to Bach’s Prelude XVI.

All these tracks were recorded on the Melotone label, at its New York studios, which was one of the many places at the time that musicians and aspiring hopefuls could have a recording made. Seeing that they were recorded between 1941 and 1944, one must wonder was this FFJ’s contribution to the war effort and, if so, whose side was she on?

The friends of Florence Foster Jenkins are, from an historical perspective, much more interesting. They include nursery rhymes sung by Russian bass Alexander Kipnis and baritone John Charles Thomas. In 1961, Frank Chapman in “Opera News”, said, “if I had to choose the four greatest voices I’ve heard, I would list Thomas along with Caruso, Ponselle and Pinza”. Thomas made this recording in 1938, at the height of his concert career, having turned his back on Broadway in 1922.

In “The Little Old State of Texas” Ezio Pinza teams up with the Sons of the Pioneers, a group that wrote and recorded hundreds of songs with Roy Rogers including Stan Jones’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky” – later made famous by Johnny Cash. Pinza is another singer that recorded this perhaps “off the wall” recording at the height of his career. His seasons at the New York Metropolitan Opera continued until 1948, three years before this recording was made; in 1957 the New York Times described him as a “star of Broadway musical success”. Today he is mainly remembered for his operatic roles such as Don Giovanni, Figaro and Boris Godunov.

For “The Fireman’s Bride” Jeannette MacDonald and Robert Merrill join forces in a piece from Sigmund Romberg & Dorothy Fields’s musical “Up in Central Park”. MacDonald appeared in a number of successful Hollywood movies before teaming up with Nelson Eddy. That collaboration bore the fruit of eight movies from MGM. For his part Robert Merrill was once described as “one of the Met’s best baritones” by Time magazine. A consummate baseball fan, Merrill was also known for treating baseball fans at Yankee Stadium to his stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

The final tracks of this disc feature an odd-couple for musical theatre: Jimmy Durante and Helen Traubel. Traubel is another star from the New York Met and Jimmy Durante was one of the most popular and recognised American personalities of the first half of the twentieth century. He was a pianist, an actor and a comedian, as well as a singer with a distinctive hoarse voice and a strong New York City accent. In the first of the two pieces, “The Song’s Gotta Come from the Heart”, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne turn their skills to comedy. The story is that Ms Traubel goes for singing lessons with Mr Durante; an unlikely scenario! She starts with a few scales to warm up when Durante stops her by saying that a song’s “gotta come from the heart”. The piece, lasting a little over five minutes, includes quotations from well-known classical and popular song to showcase Traubel’s credentials. It works, and we are left with a little-known classic that is as comedic now as it was when it was recorded in 1951.

Probably the ‘average’ listener will breathe a sigh of relief when the friends of Florence Foster Jenkins usurp the grand old lady herself. The booklet notes hint at the possibility that these well-known performers had dubious tastes in performing the repertoire but I disagree. With lyricists and composers of the calibre of Styne, Cahn, Fields and Romberg, each composition is raised from parlour-song to exquisite miniature. These are simply popular performers of the day doing a little ‘crossover’.

To return finally to Florence Foster Jenkins, she was obviously an incredible woman with a strong conviction that she was a great soprano. She was convinced that the laughter that came from the audience was from her jealous rivals and is quoted as saying: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say that I didn’t sing”. To amateur musicians everywhere this disc is a real shot in the arm and a true delight to have in one’s collection – if only to show you how determination can win-out over ability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content