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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why do they do it?

By Norman Lebrecht / August 31, 2005

Anyone who has ever owned more than a dozen records will have marked one or two of them as demo discs - not, in the industrial sense, to show off the amplitude of a hi-fi system but as a private passion to share, with close friends and a fine vintage, some of the more egregious follies that have been perpetrated in the name of recorded art.

My collection would not be complete without Margaret Thatcher's banal and rhythmless recitation of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait with the LSO, of Helmut Schmidt's wooden fingering in Mozart's concerto for three pianos (both on EMI) or of the deadening nullity of an orchestral suite composed by Gordon Getty, one of the world's richest men, and played by a Russian ensemble which he financially supports on the Dutch label, Pentatone.

What is it that makes people who have earned some success or social status imagine that they have the gift to command musical attention? Why, for instance, does the present chairman of English National Opera, Martin Smith, conduct the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (which he once financed), albeit in private performances? Why did the former chairman of Sony, Norio Ohga, demand to conduct top US and European orchestras, albeit in exchange for a million-dollar donation? Are these men so deficient in reality sensors that they fail to consider what orchestral musicians who work with real maestros must make of their pathetic presumption?

Aside from common vanity, the only available explanation for such phenomena is the Florence Foster Jenkins Syndrome, a condition whose enduring fascination has given rise to one play that will reach the West End next month and another that is heading for Broadway in November.

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. Her last recital was at Carnegie Hall in October 1944, when she was 76 years old, but her voice on CD (from BMG and Naxos) can still reduce a certified depressive to helpless hilarity. If nothing else, Florence Foster Jenkins added greatly to the comedy of life on earth.

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 debut 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.

She proclaimed herself the equal of Luisa Tetrazzini, who was vocally indomitable, when any sane comparison would have marked the distance between them as that between an Apollo spacecraft and Eddie the Eagle. Mrs Jenkins could not hold a note. She had no rhythm, no taste, no understanding of the Strauss Lieder she cheerfully mauled and the Magic Flute aria she mangled beyond the point of caricature. She was Queen of the Nightmare, the nemesis of great music.

There is no way of knowing if she grasped the awfulness of her noise, though she was hurt by hostile reviews and earned her place in anthologies of quotations with the retort: 'People may say I can't sing, but no-one can say I didn't ever sing.'

She performed with such abundant pleasure that some excused the atrocity as a manifestation of simple happiness in a cynical world. Others claimed she was a clever hoaxer who would some day expose the pompous pretensions of musical America.

She cut her only recordings as a septuagenarian in 1941 and three years later 'in response to public demand' booked the musical summit of Carnegie Hall for a sold-out maiden recital. A month later she was dead - felled, friends said, by the cruelty of metropolitan critics. But I think we can be certain she died happy, secure in her niche in musical history as the patron saint of the eternally hopeful.

Maureen Lipman, who plays Florence in Peter Quilter's new comedy, Glorious, coming to the West End next month, is training herself to sing so horribly that her voice teacher took unpaid leave. Judy Kaye, who takes the role in Stephen Temperley's Souvenir, is a professional soprano who has sung Musetta in Boheme at Santa Fe Opera. They come at the role from opposite ends, one as practised parodist, the other as competent singer. Which gets closer to cracking the enigma remains to be seen but what they are tackling is by no means a defunct syndrome.

Many in the record industry remember the Russian count, Numa Labinsky, who founded Nimbus in a Welsh castle with the aim of enshrining an authentic style of sing. Under the pseudonym Shura Gehrman, he sang on three releases whose jackets proclaimed his 'astonishing command of vocal technique.' To hear Numa smear his way around a Schubert song was treat enough, but to experience his Arie Antiche sung entirely in falsetto ran some way beyond the surreal: he could not, one felt, be serious.

But serious he was and so are his successors - the pharmaceutical magnate whose post-retirement recital packed the Wigmore Hall, the opera amateurs who take their passion one stage too far, the charlatan teachers who make a living out of the false encouragement they give the talentless, and the writers of musicals like Behind the Iron Mask who, egged on by loved ones, are lured into two-night flops.

Why do they do it? Surely any singer with enough of an ear to love music must hear a discrepancy between the beauty she would like to make and the squawks that come out of her throat. Is there perhaps a self-critical part of the brain that just shuts down when we start to perform? Science has no answers to this perceptual conundrum, and art no remedy. When a person feels they have a voice to sing and an urge to share it, nothing in the world will keep them from the stage.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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