"Hearing Gluck do a 'Lied,' something from Bach, an operatic aria, or a popular ballad, one could never say that here was a model of good singing," Samuel Chotzinoff wrote eloquently. "It was a model of the best singing."
Born Reba Feinsohn* on 11 May 1882 in Iasi, Romania, Gluck moved to the United States at an early age. Soon after, she began to sing. From her father Leon, she inherited a love of music; from her mother Zara came her incomparable singing voice. Reba's sister Cecile found particular pleasure in her singing, appreciating its power to enliven the family's drab existence on New York's poverty-stricken Lower East Side.
Intending to work before marriage, Reba enrolled in what is today Hunter College, following her high school graduation. After learning stenography and typing, she began working at a Manhattan law firm. Before long, she met Bernard Glick, an insurance man twelve years her senior. Though she felt no love for him, she married him in May 1902. Following the birth of their daughter Abigail Marcia (who became the famous author Marcia Davenport), Reba resigned herself to the roles of housewife and dutiful mother, harboring no idea that she would one day be singing at the Metropolitan Opera.
One night in 1906, the Glicks, who often invited guests to their home, entertained an opera enthusiast. When this visitor heard Reba singing as he entered the building, he was immediately impressed with the quality of her voice and as soon as they met he urged her to study singing. Nothing would afford her greater pleasure, she assured him, but she could not afford to pay for music lessons because of her husband's meager salary. Undaunted, this opera fan, whose identity is today unknown, arranged for Arturo Buzzi-Peccia, one of New York's finest vocal instructors, to hear Reba.
The results of her meeting with Buzzi-Peccia were felicitous. He offered to give her lessons at a reduced fee during his off-hours, and ultimately, she became his most famous pupil. During her first months with him, she made great progress and managed to borrow enough money to study with him during his annual summer sojourn in Europe. After her first summer away, Reba was able to obtain a piano and hire Althea Jewell as her rehearsal accompanist who in time became her manager and life-long friend.
Three years later, in 1909, Buzzi-Peccia arranged for Reba to meet with the Metropolitan Opera's newly-appointed manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, and music director, Arturo Toscanini. Following the audition that they had arranged for her, she signed a $700 contract with the Metropolitan on 29 March as Alma Gluck, the stage name that they had helped her devise. Musical Courier made note of Gluck's signing in a 19 May cover story, though some of its contents were fabricated to disguise her humble beginnings.
On 19 November, Gluck made her first stage appearance, as Sophie in Massenet's Werther. Though she had understudied the role, she did not know until the day before the performance that she would be substituting for French soprano Christine Héliane. At the close of the second act, she left the stage thinking that she heard rain on the roof, only to discover that the sound was of applause expressly for her. The next day, she found that the critical acclaim for her performance had been equally enthusiastic. Other successes followed, including her portrayal of Ombra Felice in Toscanini's famous revival of Christoph Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, and by season's end, the Metropolitan's management had every right to feel justified for having faith in her, despite her youth and inexperience.
Gluck's success in five of the Metropolitan's Sunday evening concerts led the tenor Alessandro Bonci to hire her as an assisting artist for his tour of Cuba the summer after her initial season. There, she learned a valuable principle of performance: give the audience what they wish to hear. Accordingly, to her audience's delight, she withdrew the French art songs she was scheduled to sing in favor of pieces in Spanish, one of which, the habanera "Tú" by Sánchez de Fuentes, became the first title she ever recorded.
Believing that her career was progressing too quickly, Gluck asked Gatti-Casazza for a two-year leave of absence to obtain experience singing in the provincial opera houses of Europe. He denied her request, claiming that her skills were "quite sufficient." Miffed over his refusal, she nevertheless returned to the Metropolitan, enhancing those productions in which she sang small roles, and winning acclaim for her Nedda in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and her Venus in Wagner's Tannhäuser.
While her successful orchestral and festival engagements convinced Gluck that concert performance was her forte, it was her recording career that catapulted her to lasting fame. First recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company in March 1911, she enjoyed a tremendous, unexpected success with the record-buying public. Over the years, she returned again and again to the studio to meet the ever increasing demands of that public, and Victor often released two, or even three, of her titles per month including duets with Louise Homer, Paul Reimers, Enrico Caruso, and the violinist Efrem Zimbalist. Her earnings from record royalties were phenomenal for the time. For instance, between 1914 and 1919 she received royalties totaling over $600,000 and her recording of "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" became the first Red Seal record to sell over one million copies.
During her third and final season at the Metropolitan, as requests for concert, oratorio, and festival appearances mounted, Gluck desired to leave the opera. Its theatrical side had never interested her, and she was the first to admit that she was not a convincing actress. Through the intercession of banker and influential Metropolitan Opera Board Member Otto Kahn, she secured a release from her contract during the spring of 1912 and never performed in opera again, though she did return to the Metropolitan for five Sunday Evening concerts.
At that time, Gluck also won her freedom from Bernard Glick and custody of their daughter after a bitterly contested divorce suit. Yet she was not alone; she and Efrem Zimbalist had fallen in love. For the moment, however, her work took precedence. She traveled to Paris to study with Jean de Reszke, from whom she learned her unique approach to the French art song. Still eager to perfect her art, she spent the following nine months studying with Marcella Sembrich at the prima donna's villa in Switzerland.
Gluck's New York recital in January 1914 had far reaching results. With critics outdoing themselves in praise of her performance and improved skills, she decided to begin touring nationally, singing from eighty-five to one hundred concerts a year to audiences in every state. Though her programs invariably featured her classical repertoire, aptly represented in this release, she always pleased her fans by including the ballads that comprised such a large part of her discography.
Following a highly-praised concert in London, she and Zimbalist were married on 16 June. Gluck planned to concertize in Europe, but the outbreak of war forced her to return home. She was quick to voice her opposition to American intervention in the hostilities overseas, and her public agreed. However, when America joined the Allied cause, she gave of herself willingly, singing in army camps, selling Liberty Bonds, and personally donating $25,000 to the American Red Cross. Indeed, the freedoms and opportunities offered by her adopted home had awakened in her a patriotic fervor. "I owe an enormous debt to America," she said.
Touring, already difficult under wartime conditions, became even harder for Gluck with the births of Marie in 1915 and Efrem, Jr. in 1918. The strain soon took its toll on her voice, and she had to curtail a number of engagements. When rest did not alleviate her vocal problems, she reluctantly decided to leave the concert stage temporarily. In 1921, Zimbalist suggested that they tour together, and she welcomed the challenge, telling the press that she was returning to performance because she was "fated to sing." Audiences gave her a rousing welcome and some critics were kind, but recurring bouts of illness and attendant vocal mishaps made the venture less than satisfactory.
Gluck continued to record, but none of the titles cut between 1920 and 1924 was released. Sadly aware that her days as a great singer were over, she was not quite ready to retire, singing one more recital at the Manhattan Opera House in 1924 and a single radio broadcast in 1929. To the world, her family, and her friends, she claimed to be happy and content, but secretly she grieved. Her daughter Marcia Davenport learned the depths of that grief when she saw her mother listening to records on an old Victrola, covering her face with both hands and weeping. Hahn's "L'Heure Exquise," her mother's favorite recording, was on the turntable.
Though her inability to sing brought her much pain, Gluck found her retirement years fulfilling in other ways. She enjoyed a happy marriage with Zimbalist, found joy in her children's achievements, and worked tirelessly with both musical and philanthropic organizations. Only with the onset of cirrhosis of the liver, which eventually took her life, did she begin to curtail her activities. Her strength failed though her indomitable spirit prevailed to the end. Gluck passed away on 27 October 1938 in New York City, at the age of 54.
There were many tributes to Gluck following her death, but in the end, the words of a Victor advertisement ring the most true: "It is hard to say which is lovelier, Alma Gluck or her voice."
© Edward Hagelin Pearson, 1997
*Verified by the NYC Death Certificate