Lucy Isabelle Marsh, the American Soprano

Marsh 3

STERN: Printemps (rec. 2-23-1911). DELL’ACQUA: Chanson Provençale (rec. 11-7-1912). DE FONTENAILLES: Obstination (rec. 7-24-1912). PERGOLESI: La serva padrona: Stizzoso, mio stizzoso (rec. 3-10-1915). HANDEL: Theodora: Angels ever bright and fair (rec. 11-18-1924). BIZET: Carmen: Parle-noi de ma mere (w/John McCormack, tenor; rec. 5-1-1913). ROSSINI: Stabat Mater: Inflammatus ad accensus )rec. 3-27-1911). GRIEG: Peer Gynt: Solvejg’s song (rec. 6-7-1927); Solvejg’s Cradle Song (same). STEVENSON-SHAKESPEARE: Tell Me, Where is Fancy Bred? (w/Reinald Werrenrath, baritone; rec. 5-10-1915). DELIBES: Les filles de Cadiz (rec. 11-14-1911). CESTI: Intorno all’idol mio (rec. 3-10-1915). ARDITI: Parla (rec. 6-3-1910). ALABIEV: The Nightingale (rec. 2-5-1918). VERDI: Aida: Ritorna vincitor! (rec. 5-18-1920); O patri mia (rec. 11-19-1920); Fuggiam gli ardori (w/Paul Althouse, tenorl rec. 6-30-1915); O terra addio (w/John McCormack, tenor; rec. 4-9-1914). FLOTOW: Martha: Spinning wheel quartet (w/Harry MacDonough, tenor; Marguerite Dunlap, contralto; Reinald Werrenrath, baritone; rec. 7-13-1911). HANDEL: Messiah: Come unto him (rec. 6-8-1927); I know that my Redeemder liveth (rec. 1-27-1926). HERBERT: Naughty Marietta: Italian Street Song (rec. 10-31-1927) / Lucy Isabelle Marsh, soprano; available for free streaming on the Internet Archive.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the opportunities open for American-born classical singers who did not have European training and experience were slim and none. We may find this hard to believe nowadays, when the American singer is often considered the world standard—the best-trained, best-prepared, and most attentive to musical detail—but it was so. The few Americans who broke into the big time before Rosa Ponselle, among them Lillian Nordica, Emma Eames, Suzanne Adams and Geraldine Farrar, all had to pay their dues overseas. Fail to go through the European opera system and your chances were next to nothing.

Marsh 2Lucy Marsh, who also used her full name Lucy Isabelle Marsh, was one of those. She had half the requirements necessary to success, which was European training. Born to a good middle-class family on April 10, 1878, she studied in Paris with Baldelli and Antonio Trabadello, the latter of whom also taught Mary Garden, Geraldine Farrar and Grace Moore, but then she returned to New York to finish her studies with John Walter Hall.

Being somewhat homely in appearance and having a tendency towards shyness, Marsh was not particularly well positioned to make a career for herself, but somehow or other she came to the attention of the Metropolitan Opera because she was briefly a “Pupil of the Metropolitan Opera School.” As such, she was given the role of one of the Flower Maidens in the then-scandalous production of Parsifal between November 1904 and February 1905, the first production of that opera given outside Bayreuth. Cosima Wagner was so incensed that both conductor Alfred Hertz and baritone Anton van Rooy, who had performed at Bayreuth, became personas non grata. During that same period, Marsh also appeared as part of a chorus made up of Opera School pupils behind some of the company’s major artists in a gala performance of Die Fledermaus in February 1905. From that point on, however, Marsh’s career went nowhere. She was singing concerts and in churches when Columbia Records hired her to make three records in 1908, two duets and one solo. Her solo record, The Glow-Worm, happened to be a big song hit that year, and Marsh’s version of it came in as the #5 best-selling record of the year—right behind the Victor Concert Orchestra’s recording of the same song. But Columbia apparently thought little of her and did not pursue further records.

Naughty MariettaIn 1909 she signed with Columbia’s rival and the biggest record company in America, Victor, as a contract singer. What this meant was that she, along with several others who had good voices but no real careers (sopranos Olive Kline and Elsie Baker, contralto Marguerite Dunlap, tenors Lewis James and Charles Harrison, baritone Reinald Werrenrath and bass Wilfred Glenn) became part of the “Victor Opera Company” and “Victor Light Opera Company” which made dozens of records of highlights from operas and operettas, as well as the “Trinity Choir” (bolstered with extra singers from local churches) named after the church in Camden, New Jersey that Victor purchased as a recording venue. Ironically, although Marsh, Kline, Harrison, Werrenrath and Glenn were eventually recognized as good solo artists and made their own solo discs for Victor under their own names, the bulk of their output was made anonymously with the Victor opera/Light Opera groups. The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Records, a project of researchers based in the University of California, Santa Barbara, has now published the information contained in the session ledgers of Victor through 1940, supplemented by other sources. They have learned that more that 25% of the Marsh matrices made between 1909 and 1922 were “Gems From (fill in the opera or operetta name)” with the Victor Opera or Light Opera companies. Another 38% were as a member of the Trinity Choir or Lyric Quartet, performing religious numbers and standards, also unattributed to her. In addition, Marsh made solo recordings (for what reason I don’t know or understand) under the pseudonym of “Anna Howard.” Nor was this activity limited to the early part of her career with the company, before she became known and admired as a solo artist. I’ve located a 1925 electrical recording of “Gems from ‘No, No, Nannette” (in which an unbilled Marsh sings “I Want to Be Happy” and a young Richard Crooks was the tenor) and, at her last Victor recording session in 1932, she made records under both her own name and that of Anna Howard!

InflammatusOne has to wonder at the corporate thinking in this, particularly since Marsh’s solo recordings, both acoustic and electrical, were always among the label’s most popular and best-selling discs. In fact, Marsh’s rendition of classical songs like “Parla” and :es filles de Cadiz,” not to mention such demanding arias as “Ritorna vincitor” and “Inflammatus,” usually outsold those by their more prestigious Red Seal artists. Cost was probably a deciding factor in this, since Marsh’s records, appearing on the black, purple and blue labels, sold at a rate of 75¢ for a 10-inch disc and $1.25 for a 12-incher, whereas Red Seal discs normally sold for $1.25 (10-inch) ro $1.75 (12-inch), often much higher than that if the singer was famous and prestigious. Farrar’s 12” solo recordings usually sold for $3.00, and the duet “O quant’ occhi fisi” from iMadama Butterfly with Caruso sold for a whopping $4.00.  Marsh made it to Red Seal a couple of times, as did her Victor Light Opera Company colleague Werrenrath, singing alongside star tenor John McCormack, and on those occasions her discs, too, sold for $1.50 or higher. Add to that the fact that all Red Seal discs through 1922 only had a recording on one side. and you can wee that her competition’s records were actually more than twice, and sometimes four times, more expensive.

But there was more to it than that. Marsh’s recordings were, simply, played much more often by their owners. You can still find copies od old Victor records by Farrar, Tetrazzini, Johanna Gadski and Amelita Galli-Curci that are in amazingly good condition. It’s very rare to find them with worn or gray grooves, whereas it’s very difficult to find most of Marsh’s better solo discs in anything but a worn condition. This indicates to me that their owners not only enjoyed her records more, but possibly, in the case of budding young sopranos, played them over and over to emulate how she produced her vocal sounds on certain notes or sang her trills and roulades. That’s quite a compliment for an artist who was considered a “throwaway,” even by her own label, during her lifetime.

StizzosoThe plain fact was that Lucy Marsh had an extraordinarily beautiful voice, in my estimation even lovelier than those of Sembrich, Farrar or Emmy Destinn, to name but three of Victor’s major Red Seal sopranos. It wasn’t a very large voice, probably about the same size as Roberta Peters, but superbly produced from top to bottom. She had an extraordinarily fine legato, finely graded dynamics, and a superb technique that allowed her to sing roulades and trills with the best of them. Moreover, her first-rate musicianship and excellent sight-reading abilities allowed her to cover an extraordinary amount of musical ground. Who else, in the years before and after World War I, for instance, was recording the music of Pergolesi, Antonio Cesti and John Stevenson? No one I can think of. Marsh had a surprise success in March 1909 with the lyric but difficult aria “Angels ever bright and fair” from Handel’s Theodora, but Victor still had about a hundred Light Opera Selections and Trinity Choir records for her to make. Her remake of that same aria in 1924 is rightly considered a classic.

Just about the only detriment in Marsh’s singing, which isn’t surprising considering her lack of stage experience, was her non-dramatic involvement. She did a surprisingly good job on her brief series of Aida recordings, particularly in the duAida Fuggiamet “Fuggiam gli ardori” with Metropolitan Opera tenor Paul Althouse, but by and large her recordings are musical and follow the score fairly exactly (exceptions are her somewhat quirky phrasing in “Chanson Provençale: and “Parla”) without giving the listener any sense of a character behind the notes.

Nonetheless, a good cross-section of her recordings, as presented in the group in the header to this article, give one an impressive assessment of her talents. What surprises the modern listener, aside from the simply ear-ravishing quality of the voice itself, is her remarkable consistency as well as her ability to sing music from different eras with a fairly good approximation of the Thodoracorrect style. We no longer accept downward portamenti in Handel, but other than that there is nothing to criticize in her recordings of two arias from Messiah, her performance of the Theodora aria, and her work in Scarlatti, Pergolesi and Cesti still hold up today. True, one misses the sparkle one expects to hear in the aria from La Serva Padrona, but by and large this is the way the aria is sung nowadays. One can do an A-B comparison between Marsh’s singing of “O patria mia” and that of virtually any other soprano of her era, ranging from Gadski to Rethberg, and find Marsh competitive with all of them. In addition, her singing of the “Inflammatus” from Rossini’s Stabat Mater and the soprano line in the “Spinning wheel quartet” from Flotow’s Martha are as good or better than any other soprano of her time, including Frances Aldo on the famous Caruso recording of the latter. In 1957 Aida Favia-Artsay, a perceptive critic of classical singing, gave this assessment:

Marsh 1After a few turns of a Marsh disc, it becomes apparent that…she could have had a brilliant operatic career. As far as the voice goes, hers had all the requisites, and as for its production – a little more work in the chest register would have brought it up to par, Otherwise, she was musical, intelligent, resourceful, and obviously had a solid knowledge of the vocal technicalities.

Favia-Artsay’s evaluation of several of her records provides detail for this lodgment. A few selected quotations follow:

The Nightingale (Alabiev): Exquisite timbre, individual voice – of virginal purity, round and equal, Precise chromatic scale, also the trill. Judicious phrasing and breath attribution.

Spring’s Awakening (Sanderson): Flowing, smooth coloratura. Phrasing fine.

O for the wings of a dove (Mendelssohn): Sings with subtle feeling. Not showy, but very artistic. Really an amazingly polished singer. Can hold her own with someof our best tecording artists, and even top a few in some cases.

Italian Street Song (Herbert): Indeed, a brilliant piece of vocalization.

Carmen duetBeing one of Victor’s “stable singers” seemed to suit Marsh, however. In 1910, she married Walter Colwell Gordon, a medical doctor, and moved to Providence, Rhode Island. She had two sons, Calvin and Walter; Calvin also became a doctor, and Walter was a sales manager for several national companies. Marsh had four grandchildren and died on January 20, 1956, three months before her 78th birthday.

One of the most incredible things about this wonderful singer is that no one apparently bothered to interview her at any point in her life or career. She just made records, went home, and faded into the wallpaper, occasionally singing a concert. Dr. Louis Leslie, who co-founded and later inherited the Gregg Shorthand System from its founder when Gregg died in the late 1940s, once told me that he heard her sing—the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Yankee games. She just never seemed to want more out of her voice than what she was offered to sing, but her legacy on recordings is not insignificant.

Lucy Marsh may not have joined the ranks of the immortals of her time; there are still collectors and voice aficionados who prefer her rivals in the repertoire she sang, but I’m not one of them. I still find her voice exceptionally beautiful and her recordings very satisfying.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Lucy Isabelle Marsh, the American Soprano

  1. Thank you for bringing this unhailed artist to light. I suspect there are many more, who in their own ways enriched the legacy as much or more than those in the spotlight did. Or, today, do.

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