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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Louise Homer: A Great  Favorite!


                                                                Louise Homer
I must abandon all pretense to objectivity in this essay, for the very simple reason that I am a completely dedicated Louise Homer fan, and always have been.  I adore her.  Period.  But of course that makes a very short essay:-)  So, let us proceed!
 The contralto Louise Homer was one of the most popular of the Met regulars in the earliest years of the twentieth century. She was born Louise Dilworth Beatty in Pittsburg in 1871, and in 1895 married the composer Sidney Homer. Her 1898 European debut was in Vichy, in La Favorita, and in 1900 she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Amneris in Aida. She was an immediate favorite, and would go on to sing 42 roles in over 700 performances at the Met, which became her artistic home. Her voice was noteworthy for its power and beauty. She was a genuine contralto, and sang very convincingly in that range. Here is a recording I posted on Youtube a few years ago, which lets us hear her in the lovely and poignant "Voce di Donna," from Ponchielli's La Gioconda. You may have to turn up the sound a bit. This is a vinyl transfer of a 1912 recording, and I did not sufficiently power up the audio input. I will correct it shortly:

As you can see, hers was a very lovely, dark voice. She sang quite well technically, largely avoiding the annoying scoops and plunges into different vocal registers that were all too common, especially among sopranos, at that time. There is a charming and attractive Italian legato to her singing that made her a very credible fit with great Italian singers of the day, especially Enrico Caruso, who was a friend and colleague, and often paired with her. Here is a gem from Aida. You can gauge the power of her voice by noticing how well she holds up her end of the duet against the great tenor, whose voice was renowned for its power. The Bb's in the duet ask a lot of a contralto, but Homer handles them quite well. And this is without any electrical tricks, because they were both standing side by side, sharing a large recording horn:

She was quite something! Although she got rather heavy in later life (now there's a novelty for an opera singer!), it did not diminish her popularity one bit. There was something very personable about her, and she was a real American singer, grounded in American life and music. (She even recorded the National Anthem) Not only was she the wife of composer Sidney Homer, but she was the aunt of Samuel Barber, as well as a good friend of Alma Gluck, wife of Efrem Zimbalist. She was everywhere surrounded by the music and musicians of her day. She recorded many sentimental Victorian favorites and a fair amount of popular American church music, which spread her fame greatly. This is the era of the parlor piano, whose music rack contained anthology after anthology of songs known and loved by almost all Americans. Here is a wonderful duet, very evocative of that time. She teams with Alma Gluck in "Rock of Ages," one of the best known hymns of the day. They alternate the verses and join on refrains:

I am very emotionally attached to this period of early 20th century history.  So much that is great in American culture was already in place, and much more was to come.  I know there are many who have this period stamped on their emotional and historical memories.Ice cream socials, Sunday strolls in the park, with parasols, barbershop quartets, Easter Day parades down Fifth Avenue, and an innocent America—it all comes back, listening to this simple hymn sung by two great Metropolitan Opera voices. This has to be one of the most charming and instantly identifiable periods of American history, and Louise Homer was solidly within it.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Do let me know, please, if you have any trouble with the Comments section. And remember, it will take a while for your comment to appear. I have to approve them, and it takes me a little while to get around to them. If you write in from abroad, or at night, please be patient. Thanks, Edmund

JD Hobbes said...

Thank you for this posting on Louise Homer. I would suggest that your attachment to her is part of a nostalgic and sentimental view of that period of history. For those of us who are older, it was the era of our parents and grandparents. The country was still young and held optimism for the future. Recordings and classical music seemed noble, new, and distant from our cultural background in a country that was still largely rural and uncultured. I can remember my grandparents' bedroom which contained a picture of a man and wife, farmers, who were looking at a vision of a city in the sky. It was the dream of a new land with many hopes. No wonder that age cries out to us from the pain and melancholy of the 21st century.

CurzonRoad said...

Dear Edmund: Thank you very much for the informed and appreciative commentary on the beloved Louise Homer. Alas, yet another near forgotten artist, but thanks to 100+ year-old and modern day technology the remnant (Biblical sense, if you will) remains alive and well. All Best. Doug@CurzonRoad

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes, for a rather moving description of the very period that I also feel strongly about. Well done. That's the feeling I get when I hear Louise Homer and Alma Gluck sing.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Doug, for a great comment. Well, at least we have you and me. And others. You have some great Louise Homer videos up, and I never miss a chance to tout her greatness any way I can. We just have to keep pushing. People do watch videos and blogs. I see this as something like a challenge and a duty!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article, Edmund. I absolutely agree with you about her singing - she was 'monumentally" great. Her duet with Caruso is fantastic.

I love "innocent America" too, I read about it when studied Buster Keaton biography.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Большое спасибо Вам, мой дорогой друг! Я действительно ценю ваш комментарий. Да, это было прекрасное время в Америке. А потом началась война ....!

Anonymous said...

Oh yes! The beautiful, evocative duet with Alma Gluck definitely sums up the exuberant optimism, the sheer euphoric joy of the Roaring Twenties, more than any dizzying, romping Charleston could have done. This is a real gem, a document of the time, and shows both ladies' glorious voices to perfection. Louise Homer has a warm, velvety, expressive - if not huge - voice. which I could listen to for hours. Thank you Edmund, for the wonderful article.