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Melba's first recordings

In an age when opera singers belonged to the most glamorous of professions, enjoying the same sort of glitterati status as the pop stars and football idols of today, none occupied a position of greater prominence than the Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba (1861 – 1931).

These, her earliest recordings are, for the first time,presented at the French pitch (435hz) which Melba insisted on, revealing the actual timbre of her voice – warmer than on previous issues - and allow us to hear just how fabulous her voice really was in 1904 [Roger Neill].


Recorded originally in London, the Melba metal masters were lost when Deutsche Grammophon cut ties with its UK-based parent company following the First World War. Archived and forgotten, the masters were recognised by English recording engineer, Roger Beardsley, from an old handwritten list of numbers.


“The find is of extraordinary historical importance,” says Neill. “The new records have been pressed by a leading specialist manufacturer in the Netherlands - 16 tracks, two of them unpublished in 1904. The tracks include Melba’s greatest operatic roles, including Gilda in Rigoletto and Mimi in La bohème"


Although each item of necessity only lasts a few minutes, they are fantastic miniatures, freely ornamented with the trills and coloratura heights that had made her such a sensation.  The colouring of voice is extraordinary and at the lower end of the register she could really touch the hearts of her audience. 


The selection reflects the taste for light and sentimental pieces. Re-mastered from rediscovered "first metals", these re-issues by Historic Masters eliminate the additional noise to be suffered in early shellac discs; hear Roger Neill explain and demonstrate the difference in a BBC Radio 4 interview. 


However, there still remains the sort of persistent surface noise that older readers were glad to leave behind some decades ago, and which even the most rose-tinted nostalgia cannot make desirable.  Normal reviewing criteria are just not relevant to a recording of this kind, belonging to an age that is now outside living memory.  I must admit that I was tempted to abandon it after a couple of tracks.


Nowadays we live in a world that is polluted by noise, aircraft, traffic, sirens, lawnmowers, household gadgets, telephones … the list seems endless and inescapable.  Background music is forced on our ears in public places and in many homes TVs and radios are left constantly playing.  No wonder the youth of today have mastered the technique of walking through busy streets with an MP3 player attached to one ear and their mobile phone to the other.


Not so in the early 1900’s.  Extraneous noise was unusual and thus could be heard at a considerable distance.  An aunt described to me how the gunfire of the battle of Jutland (fought off the Danish coast) could be heard more than a hundred miles away in Newcastle. Gramophone records were an expensive novelty.  Choice was limited and with a playing time of around 3 minutes, they were listened to with rapt attention time and time again.


This is a slice of musical history that deserves a listening.

Serena Fenwick

One of my earliest musical memories is of a White Label shellac disc with Melba in the Sextet from Lucia. My father emphasised how expensive it was !
I was intrigued that, in music, six people could express different thoughts all at once, and asked to have this precious record put on the gramophone again and again... Since those long ago days, I have had no difficulty in 'filtering out' background sounds when listening to historic recordings. [Editor]