Written by Wes Williams
A member of the 78rpm Community’s recent contribution of a 1902 recording of Emma Calvé singing an aria from Bizet’s Carmen (below) has raised some interests (see full discussion and audio here), so I thought I’d provide a few more details.
Emma Calvé - Carmen - L'amour est enfant de Bohème - G.&T. 3281
The Gramophone Company (later HMV) had only been formed in mid 1898. It was located in the basement of a former hotel at 31, Maiden Lane in London. Emile Berliner had sent a representative from the USA to set up a company for marketing his gramophones and discs outside of America, and find finances for it. By the Autumn of 1898 Fred Gaisberg, one of Berliner’s most trusted American employees, had set up a recording studio on the first floor. Gaisberg also had to find artists to record, and in 1901 employed Landon Ronald, a British conductor and pianist with many connections in the classical and operatic world. By mid 1901 Fred had also managed to get a job for his younger brother Will as a recording assistant at the studio.
Landon Ronald had arranged for Calvé to record six songs for 100 guineas (£105), but had warned the staff at the company that recording the prima donna might be difficult. To quote from his own account (‘Variations On A Personal Theme’ 1922; page 100-101):
She was staying at the Hyde Park Hotel, and I was to fetch her in a ‘four-wheeler’ and take her to Maiden Lane and accompany her on the pianoforte. After much running about after music she had forgotten, and picking up gloves she had dropped, I got her safely into the cab.
I must admit that the offices in Maiden Lane at that time scarcely inspired confidence or gave the impression that they belonged to a large and prosperous company. Certainly they didn’t impress her, because when I gaily said, ‘Here we are; let me help you out,’ a sharp rejoinder came:
‘Mon Dieu, but never in my life will I enter such a place. It is a tavern—not a manufactory! I shall be robbed there! I know it; I feel it in my bones! You have brought me to a thieves’ den!’
… Nothing I could say would alter her decision, and there was everyone waiting and everything prepared….
An inspiration! I would get a very good-looking young man who had just entered the business, named Sydney Dixon, to come down and hand her her cheque! I implored her to wait one minute, and I rushed up those stairs quicker than I have ever climbed stairs before or since. Dixon was there sure enough, and I shrieked at him, pushing him downstairs.
‘Her cheque! Her cheque! Give it her! Look handsome! Be nice—she won’t come in!’
He did it all. And the next thing I remembered was her saying in a cooing voice,
‘Mais vous etes gentil, Monsieur. Merci beaucoup. Oui, oui, oui; je vous suivrai avec plaisir. Venez, mon petit Ronald.’
Upstairs we went and we began to record. But our troubles weren’t over! In the middle of the Habanera from Carmen, she turned and asked me if she was in good voice. Result—one record spoilt. Then, in another selection, she declared she could not proceed unless she was allowed to dance! Another record spoilt!
The session is further described in Jerrold Northrop Moore’s biography of Fred Gaisberg (A Voice In Time,1976; page 73)
The dancing of course caused terrible worry to the Gaisbergs, who had the responsibility of producing successful discs. Then in coming up to the final high note of one of the Carmen arias, Calvé had a small but noticeable vocal disaster. Never mind, the record could be made yet again. Fred slipped a fresh wax onto the turntable and signalled Landon Ronald to begin the piano introduction once more. This time Calvé’s performance was still more intense. There was more dancing, and then the final phrase leading up to the high note—which emerged precisely as it had done before. ‘Ah, Mon Dieu!’ exclaimed Calvé through her teeth, and these words were also recorded. After that they gave up on Carmen.
Almost twenty years later, Sydney Dixon – the handsome young man who’d handed Calvé the cheque – wrote about the aftermath in the HMV house magazine (The Voice, July 1921; page 5):
Poor Landon Ronald, an artist to his finger tips, sat with blanched face recovering from the whirlwind excitement. . . .
We prepared to close for the day. On the floor by the doorway was a crumpled ball of paper. Someone casually picked it up and smoothed it out. It was Madame Calve’s cheque.