If you have access to YouTube, I suggest you check out the performances mentioned below. Music lovers in general, and musicians in particular will cherish the memories forever – albeit for a different reason.
Flaunting with Florence
Like colour-blindness, some folks are tone-deaf. They can hear everything perfectly but seldom achieve hitting the right notes in a song. We witness this whenever the camera tracks down the line of sportsmen singing the pre-match national anthems.
With some, the adrenalin and enthusiasm override any conscious observance of the actual tune, which to them is just a rough guideline to go up or down on certain words, and they sail through life happily unaware that they’re melodically challenged.
Well, one lady who was similarly oblivious to her tone-deafness, created a stir in the press and arty-farty cultural circles. She started staging recitals at luncheons, soirées and cocktail functions, where she’d enthusiastically belt out renditions of popular arias. Her name was Florence Foster Jenkins.
Born in 1876 into a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Flo inherited a shed-load of money when her parents died. She flung herself into becoming a professional socialite, fundraiser and philanthropist, and generously sponsored all forms of the arts. But her real passion was music. She was determined to become recognised as a famous soprano, and money was no problem.
By creating various social clubs and appointing herself “chairman of music”, she would organise lavish fundraising productions for the upper-crust elite, and unashamedly cast herself as the lead diva.
People flocked to these performances because, as one critic wrote, “Jenkins was exquisitely bad. So bad that it added up to a good evening of theatre, more though, as comic relief than music appreciation.” Another wrote: “No one, before or since, has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of the musical notation.” (ie the tune.)
Audiences whistled, cheered/jeered and nearly wet themselves in hysterics yelling for more. To our oblivious Flo, this unbridled applause was ample reason to continue enthralling her followers by attempting, quite shamelessly, even more challenging roles throughout the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s.
At the age of 76, Florence reached two significant milestones. The first was her life-long dream – performing at the 2 800-seater Carnegie Hall. Another 2 000 people were turned away at the door. Her well-intended, though ludicrous renditions had the audience rolling in the aisles, and created such pandemonium that one famous actress had to be carried out of her box because she got so hysterical she fainted.
The second milestone for our Flo occurred a month later. She died. But fear not, dear reader, her performances are immortalised on YouTube forever.
Musical Hall of Infamy?
In a similar vein, we have the Portsmouth Sinfonia, started in 1970 for a lark at the Portsmouth School of Art/Music. Everyone was invited to join, as long as you owned an instrument and weren’t a professional musician.
It developed into a rag-tag impromptu orchestra made up of music enthusiasts – regular art students, dentists, plumbers, estate agents or office workers, who played their instruments purely for enjoyment, as a hobby.
Although most couldn’t read music properly, they all dreamed of one day performing in a full orchestral setting.
Well, their aspirations were realised when, after only one rehearsal, they played to a packed Royal Albert Hall in London. Each had their own sheets of music scores indicating when and what to play or to rest, which proved rather challenging to most.
Some had only recently acquired their instruments, but they took things seriously, and all scratched, banged or blew as best they could while striving to follow the music charts before them. Others, if they knew the tune, would just play along by ear, watch the others, and rely on instinct.
The audience consisted almost entirely of professional musicians out for a laugh. They’d come to witness the chaotic butchering of famous classics like the William Tell Overture, Beethoven’s 5th, The Blue Danube and Also Sprach Zarathustra among others. It was a huge success. There wasn’t a dry seat in the house.