Melba was always fascinated by new inventions, very much like her father before her. The inventions of cylinder recordings and later disc recording, although primitive by today's standards, fascinated Melba.
After many requests she finally agreed to for recording but very much on her own terms. Unlike other artists who were paid for the session and no royalties on record sales, Melba insisted on both and helped improve the lot of all recording artists.
Melba's first recordings were made in London in March 1904 and her description of being in the recording studio three years later in New York between March 24 and 30 1907, is worth including verbatim, for the record so to speak:
Let me ... take you with me to ... the making of gramophone records. It was now  that I really began to take gramophones seriously. I say 'seriously' because my first experiments in this direction were disastrous. They had come to me two years before in London, and after a great deal of persuasion, and a promise that, if I didn't like the records, they should be destroyed, I consented to sing. And so they arrived one day in my house in Great Cumberland Place, with many mysterious-looking instruments, and after turning the house upside down, I sang.
"Never again," I said to myself, as I listened to the scratching, screeching result. "Don't tell me I sing like that, or I shall go away and live on a desert island, out of sheer pity for the unfortunate people who have to listen to me." The records were therefore destroyed.
But the gramophone people (with whom the Victor Talking Company were now associated) persisted. Never have I known such courtesy combined with such persuasion. They simply would not leave me alone. They said that no great artist, with the exception of Tamagno, had ever sung for the gramophone, and that if I would only give them another chance, with their greatly improved apparatus, they were sure that I would be delighted.
I did, and I was. I have always been one for "having a shot at things," and I am glad that I had a shot at this. I was no longer ashamed of my records. I was delighted with them. And I think you ought to know something of the manner in which they were made.
The headquarters of the Company were at Camden, on the other side of the river to New Jersey, and there on the first occasion, in a little room barred from all outside sounds, I went through one of the most trying ordeals of my career. You who sit back by your firesides listening in tranquillity to our songs and our arias, and imagining that they were sung without nervousness, without any of the tremors that a great audience inspires, have little idea that to sing to the gramophone is, in reality, one of the most nerve-racking ordeals.
Let us suppose that I am making a record with an obbligato of flute, and a piano accompaniment. I stand against the wall, in front of a hole which I know to be the thin end of a trumpet leading to the recording apparatus. This apparatus is in the adjoining room, so that all I can see of the work is glimpsed through the tiny hole. In my own room, a tube ending in a trumpet hangs over the piano.
We get ready to sing, the flautist coming as close to me as possible without actually treading on my toes. I glare fixedly at the tiny hole. "Buzz" goes an instrument in the adjoining room. That means "Stand by." "Buzz, buzz!" That is for "Get ready." "Buzz, buzz, buzz!" That is the signal for the beginning.
A slight whirring noise comes from the other room, the pianist starts to play, the flute blows in my ear, and I begin to sing. There is no audience to cheer me on, only the sight of a little square window. But there is, in my mind's eye, an audience far greater than that of any operatic hall, and I know that if I make the slightest mistake, the faintest error in breathing, there it will remain, mercilessly reproduced, to all eternity.
What makes the whole thing even worse is the unusual â€technique" which it is necessary to observe in making every record. For example, one must lean right back, when taking a top note, or the record will jar. And at the end one must stand rigidly still and silent until the signal comes to "stand at ease" I shall never forget that once after making what I believe would have been the most beautiful record, I stumbled backwards over a chair, and said "Damn" in an all too audible voice. That "damn" when the record was played over, came out with a terrible clarity, making me feel much as a sinner must do on the Day of Judgment.
No, singing for the gramophone could not be described as a rest cure. One of the most curious features which the gramophone brought into my life was a succession of marriage proposals from people who had heard my records, but who had never even seen me. There was something almost uncanny in the idea of some man in the remote prairies sitting down in front of a little instrument, listening to the echo of my voice, feeling that he had found his ideal woman and writing to tell her so. (1)
The attached MP3 file of Comin' thro the Rye was recorded at Camden New York between October 2 and 4, 1913. For the old Scottish ballad, Melba was accompanied by Prof Gabriel Lapierre.
The disc was released by The Gramophone Company, Middlesex England No. (03369, 88449). While much has been digitising Melba's records this was recorded from an original disc on 78rpm record player to give the listening some idea of the sound those men of the prairie who proposed to Melba, heard.
Comin' thro the Rye
The following list of all of Melba's recordings is from Therese Radic's book Melba The Voice of Australia.
The list was compiled by William Hogarth. Reproduced from The Record Collector, March 1982 and updated by Ms Radic in 1986.
Layout is the usual - discography number, matrix number and title: underneath the single, then double face, numbers of the recording company, followed by those of the partner company-Gram. Co./Victor, or Victor/Gram. Co. as applicable. The IRCC/AGS numbers at the end of this line are of pressings from original masters.
Where 'Unpublished' appears instead of an original catalogue number this means the title was not released by the company in its normal pattern of trading. The masters were on file, however, and white label 'special pressings' were obtained of most of them when the company was still providing this service, as was done also for the reissues of the IRCC and American Gramophone Society. A blank in the sequence indicates a missing matrix.
Eventually everything available to the Gramophone Company was transferred to five long-play discs and issued as a boxed set RLS 719. All that is missing is the recently discovered 25 cm 'Jean' (No. 106) and another take of 'Ave Maria', presumably 1904. It could be discography No. 33, a test pressing of which exists in the USA. It is unusual in having no label at all, nor any of the expected inscriptions such as the usual 'Melba' or matrix number on the completely blank centre. RCA/Victor has transferred holdings to VRL5 0365 as a boxed set with notes by William R. Moran. No details are available of the Bettini cylinder issues Melba is known to have made before 1900, nor of the putative 1903 ('for private purposes only') series, all masters of which were destroyed at her request.
The 1904 series included a recording of Annie Laurie, according to the late Carl Russell, of Melbourne, derived from reliable information provided by the Mitchell family.
Re discography Nos. 62 and 120, the situation has been confused by the Gramophone Company allotting No. 62 the catalogue number 053108 and No. 120 the number 2-053029, but later re-allotting No.120 the catalogue number 053108.
When single-sided issues were deleted in 1924 the subsequent doubled-sided issue on DB 346 proved to be No. 62, this time with the number 2-053029. The two versions can be distinguished one from the other by virtue of the presence or otherwise of the 'Follie, follie' sung just before the 'Sempre libera'.
Many of the later DB and Archive VB pressings were made from mechanical dubbings, that is remastered stampers made by Hayes using acoustical methods. For example No. 67 on DM 117, 81 and 93 as coupled on DB 702, 95 on DB and VB, 99 on DM 118, etc. Item No. 130: label for DB 366 shows 053211, but the inner safety groove used by Victor to distinguish post 1909 re-recordings would confirm that the stamper used came from 2-053022.
1. - 1(3) - Mattinata (Tosti) 03019 95019 - 03015 95022 (matrix has Roman iii above it)
2. - 2 - Nymphes et sylvains (Bemberg) - 03016 95023 - IRCC 123
3. - 3
4. - 4
5. - 5
6. - 6 - TRAVIATA: A fors'e lui, Follie, Sempre libera - (Verdi) (Because the label would have covered part of the music the Follie-Sempre libera was milled out and covered so as only to issue the Andante part)- 03017 95014
7. - 7(7-B?) - Comin' thro' the rye (Trad) - 03018 (unpublished)
8. - 8
9. - 9 - Se saran rose (Arditi - 03019 95019
10. - 10
11. - 11
12. - 12 - LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR: Mad Scene - Cadenza (Donizetti) (Flute obbl. Gaubert) - 03020 95013
13. - 13
14. - 14
15. - 15-1 - IL PENSIEROSO: Sweet bird (Handel) Incomplete, speaking at the end by Melba. Unpublished
16. - 15-2 - IL PENSIEROSO: Sweet bird, with Cadenza (Handel) - 03021 95016
17. - 16-3?) - Goodbye (Tosti) two verses only - 03022 95012
18. - 17
19. - 18
20. - 19
21. - 20 - HAMLET: Mad scene, part 1 (Thomas) (orch) - 03023 95020 IRCC 47
22. - 21 - HAMLET: Mad scene, part 2 (Thomas) (orch) - 03024 95021 IRCC 47 03047 DB 347 95027
23. - 22-3 - RIGOLETTO: Caro nome (Verdi) (orch) - 03025 95018 IRCC 2
24. - 23-2 - TRAVIATA: Sempre libera (without Follie) (Verdi) (r) - 03026 95015
25. - 24
26. - 25-3 - Three Green Bonnets (d'Hardelot) - 03027 95017 IRCC 181
27. - 26-1 - NOZZE DI FIGARO: Porgi amor (Mozart) 03028 95024HMV VB 40 is a dubbing. IRCC2
28. - 27-1 - Si mes vers (Hahn) - 30029 95024
29. - 28-1 - LA BOHEME: Addio (Puccini) - 03030 Unpublished
London, 20 October 1904
30. - 6149 - Chant Venetien (Bemberg) - Unpublished
31. - 6150-2 - Chant Venetien (Bemberg) Composer at piano - 3575 94002
32. - 6151-2 - Les Anges pleurent (Bemberg) Composer at piano - 3576 94001 IRCC 54
33. - 400c - Ave Maria (?) - Unpublished
34. - 401c-2 - Ave Maria (Gounod) Violin obbl. Kubelik - 03033
35. - 402c-2 - La Serenata (Tosti) - 03034
36. - 403c
37. - 404c-2 - ROMEO ET JULIETTE: Valse (Gounod) - 03035 DB 367
38. - 405c-2 - Chant Hindou (Bemberg) Composer at piano - 03036
39. - 406c-2 - LA BOHEME: Addio (Puccini) - 03037
London, 4 September 1905, this group of six all 25 cm
40. - 7200 - God Save the King (Trad) Band of Coldstream Guards, conducted Rogan - 3625
41. - 7201½ - Auld Lang Syne (Trad) with vocal trio - Gwladys Roberts, Ernest Pike and Peter Dawson and Band - 3615 94004
42. - 72021½ - Come back to Erin (Claribel), with Band acc. - 3616 94003 - IRCC 150
43. - 7203 - Old folks at home (Foster) with Band and Trio as above - 3617 DA 337 94005
44. - 7204 - Goodnight (Sir A. Scott Gatty), Trio as above, with pf acc. - 3618 94006
45. - 7205 - Away on a hill there runs a stream (Landon Ronald) Composer at piano - 3619 DA 337 94007
London, 5 September 1905
46. - 520c - Sur le lac (Bemberg) Composer at piano - 03046 95028 IRCC 123
47. - 521c - Lo, here the gentle lark (Bishop) Flute by Fransella - 03047 DB 347 95027
48. - 522c - FAUST: jewel song (Gounod) - 03048
49. - 523c - Home sweet home (Bishop) - 03049 95026
50. - 524c - Goodbye (Tosti) (three verses) - 03050
London, 7 July 1906
51. - 689c - Ave Maria (Gounod) Cello obbl. W. H Squire - 30369
52. - 690c - ELAINE: Vamour est pur, with female chorus. Composer at pf. - Unpublished - IRCC 17
53. - 691c - Pastorale (Bizet) - 03070 IRCC 35
54. - 692c - LA BOHEME: Racconto di Mimi (Puccini) - This version is cut but ends with a few lines of recit. - 03071
55. - 693c - LE ROI D'YS: Aubade (Lalo) - 03072 HMV VB 13 is a dubbing - For series 1 to 55, piano accompanist was Landon Ronald except where shown otherwise.
London, 11 July 1907
56. - 8473b - White sea mist (Ronald) - Unpublished
New York & Camden, 24 30 March 1907
all with orch. except where shown otherwise.
57. - C4281 2 - LA BOHEME: Racconto di Mimi (Puccini) - 88074 053106
58. - C4282 2 - TOSCA: Vissi d'arte (Puccini) - 88075 053115
59. - C4283 2 RIGOLETTO: Caro nome (Verdi) - 88078 6213B, 053110 DB 346
60. - C4326 1 - LA BOHEME: 0 saove fanciulia, with CARUSO (Puccini) 85200 054129 (takes 2, 3, 4 unpublished)
61. - C4330 - FAUST: jewel song (Gounod) - 88066 033029
62. - C4339 2 - TRAVIATA: Ah, fors'e lui (Follie) Sempre libera (Verdi) - 88064 053108, 2 053029, DB 346 (see footnotes on this and Serial 120)
63. - C4340 - Goodbye (Tosti) - 88065 03091
64. - C4341 - LA BOHEME: Addio (Puccini) - 88072 053111
65. - C4342 2 - La Serenata (Tosti) Harp by Ada Sassoli - 88079 6221A, 053114 DB 349
66. - C4347 2 - Per valli, per Boschi, with Charles Gilibert, bar. (Bemberg) - 89011 054128 DM
67. - C4348 1 - Un ange est venu, with Gilibert, bar. - 89012 034014. - DM 117 was a dubbing of this item.
68. - C4349 2 - LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR: Mad scene, Cadenza only, flute obbl. by North - 88071 053112
69. - C4350 - Lo here the gentle lark (Bishop) Flute by North - 88073 03090
70. - 4351 - ?
71. - C4352 - Si mes vers (Hahn) Harp by Ada Sassoli - 88080 033026 DB 361
72. - C4353 - NOZZE DI FIGARO: Voi che sapete (Mozart) - 88067 053113 (reduced orch. introduction)
73. - C4354 2 - HAMLET: Mad scene, Part one (Thomas) - 88069 033028 DB 710 AGS B7
74. - C4355 3 - HAMLET, Mad scene, Part two (Thomas) - 88070 033027 DB 710 AGS B7
75. - C4356 - Se saran rose (Arditi) - 88076 053109
76. - C4357 - ROMEO ET JULIME: Valse (Gounod) - Unpublished
77. - C4358 - IL PENSIEROSO: Sweet Bird (incl. Cadenza) (Handel) - 88068 03089 Flute obbl. by North
78. - C4359 - Ave Maria (Gounod) - Unpublished
79. - C4360 - Mattinata (Tosti) pf acc. by Melba - 88077 053107
80. - C4361 - RIGOLETTO: Tutte le feste, duct with Campanari, bar. (Verdi) - Unpublished
Paris, circa 9 May 1908
81. - 602j - LA BOHEME: On m'appelle Mimi (Puccini) 033062, DB 702 was a dubbing of this title
New York, 1 January 1909
82. - C6697 - En sourdine (Debussy) Melba at piano? - 03376 allocated but unpubl. IRCC 35 Melba recordings from 1910
83. - C6698 - Down in the forest (Ronald) Melba acc. at piano - 03130 allocated but unpub. AGS B67, IRCC 52
84. - C6699 - White Sea Mist (Ronald) Melba acc. at piano - 03134 allocated by unpub. AGS B53, IRCC 52
85. - C6700 - D'une Prison (Hahn) Melba at piano? - 88151 033077 allocated but unpub. Gram. Co.
86. - C6701 2 - Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms (Moore) Melba at piano? - 88156 03131 & 03694, DB 357 1
87. - C6702 88. - C6703 89. - C6704 - OTELLO: Salce, salce (Verdi) - 88148 053211
90. - C6705 - OTELLO: Ave Maria (Verdi) - 88149 053212
91. - C6707 - 0 lovely night (Ronald) - 88157, 88182; 03133, both this & 132 issued on 89182
92. - C6707 - Ye Banks and Braes (Trad) Melba at piano? - 88190, 621811; 03132 & 03696, DB 362
(1) N. Melba, Melodies and Memories, Thornton Butterworth Ltd, London, 1925, pgs 246-249.