Florence Foster Jenkins: the Moravian connection

By on August 24, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy heiress, New York socialite, avid patron of the musical arts … and possessed the most excruciatingly unmusical singing voice ever heard on the stage of Carnegie Hall.

I first heard that voice around 1960, coming from the grooves of a 78 rpm record owned by my violin teacher. By that time, less than 20 years after her death, her story was already laden with legend and myth.

The recordings were played for comedy value. The picture that emerged of the singer was that of a deluded coloratura wannabe, rich enough to buy her way into a recording studio and ultimately into Carnegie Hall. But it is perhaps precisely because she was so stupendously awful that interest in her has never waned. Eight of the nine songs that she recorded in the Melotone Studio, including the one that I heard at my teacher’s home, were released on vinyl in 1962 and later on CD. Several of those songs are now available on YouTube.

A number of dramatizations of her story have appeared on stage. “Glorious,” by the British playwright Peter Quilter, was produced at the Fulton Opera House in 2008 to much acclaim. The French film “Marguerite,” released earlier this year, is based loosely on Jenkins’ singing career. Now comes Meryl Streep’s stunning portrayal in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” which I saw last Thursday at Penn Cinema.

 

American soprano vocalist Florence Foster Jenkins (1868 - 1944)

American soprano vocalist Florence Foster Jenkins (1868 – 1944)

 

The new film depicts the person behind the voice, revealing a far more complex and nuanced character than the caricature of legend. Streep is magnificent in capturing both Jenkins’ indomitable will and her physical fragility. When in one scene an examining doctor marvels that she has lived so long, her companion replies that she has lived for music.

For dramatic purposes, the film compresses events of the final decade of her life into what appears to be just a few months and introduces a few purely fictional secondary characters. But within the bounds of biography as popular entertainment, it is more than reasonably accurate to the real-life story.

One of the enduring myths, only authoritatively debunked within the recent past, was that Edwin McArthur, the renowned accompanist of such operatic luminaries as Kirsten Flagstad and later conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, was Madame Jenkins’ accompanist on the recordings under the pseudonym of Cosmé McMoon. It is now clear that they were two separate individuals. The movie confirms the debunking, making McMoon a central character and not even mentioning McArthur, who did accompany Jenkins’ recitals for a period of about six years earlier in her career but was fired by her for grimacing at the audience in response to her vocal errors.

Research by the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem has uncovered a Moravian connection. Florence Foster, at the age of 13, entered the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies in September 1881. (Note: This was a girls’ boarding school equivalent to Linden Hall here in Lititz, and one of the predecessors of the present-day Moravian Academy. The word “seminary” in this context does not indicate theological education.)

On December 20 of that year, she participated in a Musical Entertainment, performing in the vocal duet “Two Merry Alpine Maids.” She appears to have withdrawn before the end of the school year. Her name last appears on the class roster in March 1882. The school ledger book records that during her time of study she spent more than $100 on sheet music and lessons.

 

Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins

 

There is no question that Lady Florence displayed considerable musical talent in her youth. She was acclaimed as a child prodigy on the piano, and at age eight played at the White House for President Rutherford B. Hayes. It is most likely that neurological damage due to both disease and the treatment of it made it impossible for her to hear herself sing. Thanks to the trust fund provided in her father’s will and the connivance of her large circle of friends, she was able to live in “a world of her own,” as the 2008 documentary by Donald Collup put it.

The ending of the film shows the audience a bit of what that world must have been like for Jenkins. It’s a beautiful movie. Go see it. Take Kleenex.

Marian L. Shatto is a Lititz musician and activist who earned degrees in English from Susquehanna University and in Religion from Lancaster Theological Seminary. She has four decades of experience working in ecumenical and interfaith settings.

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