It Just Wasn't Christmas Until the Fat Lady Sang

As we have been so often reminded by rich and poor alike, the show is not over until the fat lady sings. It would be unkind to suggest that Mme. Ernestine Rssler Schumann-Heink was fat, but perhaps we can euphemize by admitting she was pleasingly plump. Her birthplace was Liben in Austria, but today Liben is in the Czech Republic. The year was 1861. To make a long story short, Madame Schumann-Heink became a citizen of the United States of America in 1908, so the posture of Liben is not now significant in the biography. Schumann-Heink was well known by then as the steatopygous lady who brought the show to a close. It just goes to show you.

In 1878, Schumann-Heink made her operatic debut with the Dresden Court Opera in Verdi's "Il Trovatore," which was not altogether an inauspicious beginning.

That was the year my father was born. His parents were farm-folks on a rocky Maine hillside, living on a Civil War pension and turnips, and my father was never inclined to be musical. He couldn't tell one note from another, and couldn't carry a tune in a handbasket. At an early age, however, he did show incipient talent as a whistler and could blow on his fingers to make you think the evening train was slowing down for Crowley's Junction.

There was small hope that this would prove a profitable talent, however, and his parents hoped he might become a pickle-sorter up at Sabattus. But my father turned out to be far smarter than expected, as he married my mother (who was not a whistler). And even though I never learned to whistle, either, they brought me up a polite and even-tempered lad on whom they lavished every advantage, if it didn't cost more than 17 cents.

In this loving environment I was shielded from all exposure to music until I was 10, when my mother began taking piano lessons. I believe that my mother had never seen a piano. It came to us gratuitously. A man had bought it at the Meservey Auction Parlor for $2.30, and had shipped it by railway express to his girlfriend in Essex Junction, Vt. She had refused it, and it was returned to our town where the express agent had given it to my father for a dozen hen's eggs.

In this way I found out about music, but I never tried to play the piano and can't say if I can or not. My mother, however, at once became competent and by the time I left for college could play three separate tunes: "Annie Laurie," "Bonnie Banks o' Doon," and "Scotland's Burning." The love for music thus inculcated into our family life led us to discover Mme. Ernestine Schumann-Heink and her magnificent rendition of the beautiful Christmas song "Silent Night." My mother had taken me over to the next-door home of the Bresnahans on a customary snack-time visit, and Mrs. Bresnahan played us a new record on her Little-Wonder phonograph. It was "Silent night," sung by the "American" operatic contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink.

Since the words were German, I had no notion what they were, but I was fully overcome by the effect. My mother, afterward, said, "It made my skin squiggle!" It was more than heart-warming; it was heart-wrenching as the gifted artist sang what had become rather much her own song. By then she was on tour, and the program always included "Stille Nacht." Here, now, a woman we only recently met told us that as a girl she had gone with her mother to a Boston theater to hear Schumann-Heink. "And did she sing 'Silent Night'?" I asked.

"She certainly did, and it gave me goose bumps!"

But I heard it only on a phonograph. I remember that Washington Irving once visited the tomb of Shakespeare at Stratford. The caretaker told him that once the sepulcher had caved in, and he had looked inside. There was nothing there, he said, but some dust. And Irving meditated about seeing even the dust of Shakespeare! Imagine remembering the living artist doing "Silent Night"!

MADAME S.-H. had a strong voice with a physique to demonstrate it. Her range was great. In Wagnerian roles, she was tops. Her "Silent Night" was her expertise. It haunted me from the afternoon I heard it while chewing a filled sugar cookie at the home of Mrs. Bresnahan, and I guess my skin squiggled, too.

I reported here last Christmastime (repeating merely what I had asked at previous Christmases) that I wondered if Madame S.-H. had been recorded so that she survives, somewhere, and can be brought forth by the electronic geniuses of our age to sing again her "Stille Nacht."

Meantime, sanctified Christmas has ceased to mean too much as our Christmas songs have degenerated into "Jingle Bells," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Dingbat," and "Twenty Percent Off - This Week Only."

I have a letter from a reader, Paul Brandt of Midlothian, Va., and he sends me a tape of a Victor record made in 1926 by our "Silent Night" lady. He tells me he remembers how they gathered on Christmas Eve in the basement of their Iowa home where their father would titivate the crystal on his home-built shortwave radio and bring in the squawking signal from the Vaterland, where Mme. Ernestine Schumann-Heink was singing "Stille Nacht" into a newfangled microphone and giving the goose bumps by DX. So we can hear the stout Ernestine on Christmas whenever radio and TV generate intelligence. I'm glad, and full of hope. Because Yingle Bells ain't Xmas, anyway, and I think Rudolph stinks.

Anybody for tennis?

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