V0691. FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, Olive Middleton, Natalia de Andrade, Sylvia Sawyer, Vassilka Petrova, Mari Lyn, Tryphosa Bates-Batcheller, Betty-Jo Schramm, Alice Gerstl Duschak, Rosalina Mello, Norma-Jean Erdmann-Chadbourne, Sari Bunchuk-Wontner, Cosme McMoon (Reminiscence of Florence Foster Jenkins) & Homophone Orchestra: The Muse Surmounted – Florence Foster Jenkins and Eleven of her Rivals. Homophone 1001. Final remaining copies!
“Operatic kitsch has never been so splendidly celebrated as it is in THE MUSE SURMOUNTED -- a wildly entertaining horror show of vocal ambitions gone very, very wrong. Taking its lead from the impossibly shrill, off-key recordings of Florence Foster Jenkins, whose self-financed 1944 Carnegie Hall concert remains one of the wildest events ever to occur there, TMS gathers together the very worst that vanity recordings have to offer and wraps it up in a loving, if tongue-in-cheek, celebration of blind musical ambition. If you want to hear women in their eighties who don't know the meaning of ‘quit’, thickly Queens-accented socialites bulldozing the Italian language, free-form approximations of LA TRAVIATA, and unspeakable acts of intonation, you've come to the right place. Natalia de Andrade's violent rendition of Manon's ‘Je marche’ turns Massenet's teenaged coquette into a dominatrix for the AARP set; Norma-Jean and Ellis Chadbourne's tag-team ‘educational’ LP entitled THE ART OF MESSA DI VOCE SINGING sounds more like Snow White strangling a dwarf; Mari Lyn valorously declares her intentions to return Rossini's ‘Una voce poco fa’ to its historically correct roots in a N'York-speak introduction, and then proceeds to re-compose what little of it she can sing; Tryphosa Bates-Batcheller bravely ignores the limits of her vocal range as she sings parts of ‘Darling Nelly Gray’ a full step flat in brassy blare; and Sari Bunchuk Wontner's (no, these names are not made up) ‘Sempre libera’ - recorded surreptitiously by a family friend during a fully staged performance of LA TRAVIATA in her home - is completely unrecognizable. But, proving that she is still queen of the socialite divas, Florence Foster Jenkins takes top honors with her ‘Valse Caressante’, written expressly for her by her longtime accompanist Cosme McMoon (again, real names, folks...), whose description of his work with ‘Madame Jenkins’ on the last track bring the great lady's extravagances to life in reminiscent Technicolor. The note-writer's allegation that McMoon paid bodybuilders for sexual favors, and indeed ran a brothel of sorts out of a Manhattan gym, makes the final-page bonus photo of McMoon with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Colombu a real brow-raiser.”
- Allen Schrott, allmusic.com
“Florence Foster Jenkins is empirically the worst singer that ever drew breath - if, that is, one can dignify what she did as singing or admit that the excruciating sounds she emitted involved the exhalation of God's pure air. Prevented by her Pennsylvania father from studying music in Europe, Florence eloped with a doctor to Philadelphia and, after their divorce, founded a Verdi Club with money inherited on her father's death. She gave a début recital in 1912, designing her own costumes which she changed no fewer than three times in an evening. What she lacked in tonal quality, she made up for in tulle. Her head was crowned with a basket of flowers. Polite society, of which she was a pillar, received her efforts politely. The Jenkins recital became a social perennial, graduating to the lesser halls of New York as her celebrity gathered pace. Her last recital was at Carnegie Hall in October 1944, when she was 76 years old, but her voice can still reduce a certified depressive to helpless hilarity. If nothing else, Florence Foster Jenkins added greatly to the comedy of life on earth.”
- Norman Lebrecht, 31 Aug., 2005
“I suspect that most of us who don't sing fail to appreciate how hard it is to navigate classical singing. Well, these hilariously bad performances by the redoutable Florence Foster Jenkins (1866-1944) will surely cure that deficiency!
‘Madame Jenkins was born in 1868 in Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania), as the daughter of a rich banker. She was crazy about music, even in her younger years, but neither her father nor her husband of later years - a businessman who was worth millions - did much to encourage her interest in music and singing. Following her wedding she was appointed chairwoman of a Verdi Club, which she soon supported financially, and she organized a major ball once a year under the title of 'The Ball of the Silver Larks' - staging the event with a great deal of pomp, tulle, and even more kitsch!
She soon began performing herself at these annual events, presenting her vocal talents in a number of settings and usually wearing self-designed costumes, which were magnificent but at the same time totally ridiculous. Throughout the years she started staging these performances with an increasing amount of professionalism and even booked the large ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton in New York once a year, presenting her vocal performances in front of an audience she had usually picked herself. Tickets were very much in demand and amazingly these events were always sold out, in spite of the shocking admission fees. Her performances were legendary and not one of Jenkins' vocal recitals came to an end without at least three changes of costume!
As a woman of considerable weight her matronly figure seemed to float onto the stage. She then positioned herself - totally convinced of herself and her vocal abilities - in front of the concert grand and started to sing - or started to create the sounds that could almost be described as singing! She normally wore long flowing robes with huge angel's wings sewn onto the back, with a crown of flowers in her hair. On other occasions she was covered in tinsel, sequins and tulle and would throw flowers from a small basket into the audience.
Following her divorce she took a risk, going all out for major success - she hired the Carnegie Hall! Her performance took place on 25 October 1944 and she was able to present her bizarre show to a major audience - for the Carnegie Hall was completely sold out weeks in advance, in spite of the horrendous ticket prices, and the concert grossed some six thousand dollars!
It seems the fuss surrounding this affair was too much for the seventy-six year old, for just one month later - on 26 November 1944 - Florence Foster Jenkins passed away. Unfortunately, there are very few recorded examples of her vocal performances so that future generations of music lovers have to make do with the rare and precious samples of this very individual but equally unique singing star.
It remains to be said: Florence Foster Jenkins was convinced of herself and her vocal abilities and she truly considered herself to be an artist of great standing. Her audiences, however, considered the whole thing to be more of a huge joke’.
About the only thing I can add to that is: ‘Cosme McMoon’, Jenkins' piano accompanist who reportedly played from behind a large screen (such modesty!), is rumored to have been Edwin McArthur (born 1907 in Denver), who made many ‘legitimate’ recordings as both pianist and conductor. Ironically, he was the favorite accompanist of another singer of somewhat greater distinction - the Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad!
- Jeffrey Lipscomb