Elsie Houston
Queen of Brazilian Song

51011-2 (1 CD)  | $ 18.00


Elsie Houston
We are tremendously excited to be issuing the first comprehensive CD of the incomparable Brazilian mezzo-soprano, Elsie Houston. Her vocal production and interpretations defy description. The intensity of her passion coupled with the raw energy of her expression make Elsie Houston impossible to forget once you have heard any one of her records. She is undoubtedly the most individual of any classically trained singer to have recorded. Having studied singing with Lilli Lehmann and Ninon Vallin, Houston took her voice and career in a completely different direction, devoting the rest of her life to the performance of Brazilian music. Her first recording, made in Paris in 1927, contained four songs by Heitor Villa-Lobos with the composer's wife accompanying her at the piano. Also among her first records was a group of Brazilian folk songs that she collected and published. These are sung to the accompaniment of guitar, clarinet, and various indigenous percussion instruments. She made many night club appearances in Paris and later in the U.S. where exoticism of things South American had become the rage.

Total Time: 79:22

Gramophone Company, Paris

20 June 1928

1.Desejo [Seresta No. 10] (Villa-Lobos) [text]0:47
2.Na paz do outono [Seresta No. 6] (Villa-Lobos) [text]1:33
 (BT4114-1) P760 
3.Realejo [Seresta No. 12] (Villa-Lobos) [text]0:41
4.Estrela do céu é lua nova (Villa-Lobos) [text]1:12
 (BT4111-1) P760 

Brazilian Columbia, Rio de Janeiro

early 1930

5.Côco dendê, trapiá (arranged by Houston) [text]1:16
6.Ai! Sabiá da mata (arranged by Houston) [text]2:17
  (380885-1) 7050-B 
7.O barão da Bahia (Maria Amelia Barros) [text]3:11
  (380830-1) 7014-B 
8.Cadeé minha pomba rola (arranged by Houston)3:15
  (380832-2) 7014-B 

Gramophone Company, Paris

26 September 1933

9.Eh! Jurupanan [Côco] (arranged by Houston)3:05
 (OPG 1016-1) K7055 
10.Berceuse Africano-Bresilienne (arranged by Houston)1:01
11.Oia o sapo [Embolada] (arranged by Houston) [text]2:05
  (OPG 1017-1) K7055 

Liberty Music Shop, New York

12.Jongo (composer unknown)2:34
 June 1938; (1757) L232 
13.Fado (composer unknown)2:39
 June 1938; (1758) L232 
14.Toda p’ra você (Fernandez) [text]2:38
 Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test* 
15.Xangô (Villa-Lobos) [text]1:17
 Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test* 
16.Villancico Andaluz (Joaquin Nin) [text]1:50
 Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test* 
17.Villancico Gallego (Nin) [text]1:16
 Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test* 
18.Villancico Castellano (Nin) [text]1:19
 Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test* 
19.Sur l’herbe (Ravel) [text]1:58
 Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test* 
20.Quand je chante cette melodie (Nilvar)2:10
 Recording date and matrix unknown; Unpublished test* 
21.Mon ami (Jamblan/Herpin)3:01
 July 1939; (R163-1) L263 
22.The cherry tree (S.L.M. Barlow)2:58
 July 1939; (R164-1) L263 

RCA Victor, New York


23.Foi numa noite calmosa [No. 5 Modinha Carioca] (arranged by Luciano Gallet) [text]4:01
 17 January 1941; (CS-060345-1) 13667 
24.Bahia [Carateristica] (Alvaro Moreira/Hekel Tavares)1:51
25.Danza de caboclo [Côco] (arranged by Tavares) [text]0:50
 24 January 1941; (CS-060371-1) 13667 
26.Bia-ta-tá [Côco] (arranged by Tavares) [text]1:23
27.Benedicto pretinho (arranged by Tavares)1:01
 24 January 1941; (CS-060372-2) 13668 
28.Berimbau, Op. 4 (Manuel Bandeira/Jayme Ovalle) [text]3:15
 24 January 1941; (CS-060373-1) 13668 
29.Chariô [Tres potos de Santo, Op. 10, No. 1] (Jayme Ovalle) [text]1:03
30.Aruanda [Tres potos de Santo, Op. 10, No. 2] (Jayme Ovalle) [text]1:05
31.Estrella do Mar [Tres potos de Santo, Op. 10, No. 3] (Jayme Ovalle) [text]1:32
 24 January 1941; (CS-060374-1) 13669 
32.Tayêras [Song and dance of the Mulatresses from Bahia] (arranged by Gallet) [text]1:39
33.Bambalelê [Song from Pernambuco] (arranged by Gallet) [text]1:22
 24 January 1941; (CS-060375-1) 13669 
34.Canção do carreiro [Seresta No. 8] (Villa-Lobos) [text]4:21
 17 January 1941; (CS-060344-1) 17978 
Siete canciones populares Españolas (Traditional, arranged by de Falla)
35.El paño moruno [text]1:14
36.Seguidilla murciana [text]1:19
37.Asturiana [text]2:25
38.Jota [text]3:20
39.Nana [text]1:12
40.Canción [text]0:59
41.Polo [text]1:29
 18 April 1941; (CS-063377-1, CS-063378-1, CS-063379-1, and CS-063380-1) unpublished 

*The unpublished Liberty Music Shop recordings contained here were originally recorded on lacquer-coated aluminum discs. These unique test discs were in private hands for many years but have now apparently been lost. Fortunately, a magnetic tape transfer of the discs was made in the 1970s which we have used for this issue. We hope that the original discs survive somewhere.


The following selections are re-recorded from copies in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Laurence C Witten II, the Yale Collection of Historical Sound recordings, Yale Music Library: Tracks 7 and 8

Accompaniment: Tracks [1-4] with Lucilia Guimarães Villa-Lobos, piano; [5 and 6] with Gaó, Zezinho, Jonas, and Chaves; [7] with Gaó, Zezinho, and Jonas; [8] with Gaó, Zezinho, Jonas, and Petit; [9 and 11] with Carlitos and his Brazilian Orchestra; [10] unaccompanied; [12] with unidentified percussionist; [13] with unidentified guitarists; [14-20] with unidentified pianist; [21 and 22] with Cy Walter, piano, and ensemble; [23-41] with Pablo Miguel, piano

Portuguese [1-9, 11, 13-14, and 23-34];” dialect of the Makumba religion [10, 12, 15]; Spanish [16, 18, and 35-41]; Galician Portuguese [17]; French [19-21]; English [22]


Producers: Scott Kessler and Ward Marston

Audio Conservation: Ward Marston

Audio Assistance: J. Richard Harris

Photos: Gregor Benko, Roger Gross, and Arquivo Nirez

Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi

Marston is grateful to the Estate of John Stratton (Stephen Clarke, Executor) for its continuing support.

Marston would like to thank Gregor Benko, John Bolig, Giulio Draghi, Lawrence F. Holdridge, David Mason, Peter Oehlkers, Ben Roth, and Richard Warren for their help in the production of this CD release.

This CD is produced in loving memory of Andy Karzas: a great friend, a lover of opera, and an advocate of historic recordings.

Elsie Houston

“ ... The real revelation was Elsie Houston. Her’s (sic) is one of our most precious national voices—if not the most precious. She is incomparable among our native singers, intelligent, cultured, with impeccable taste and a magnificent voice ...”

Mario de Andrade, in the São Paulo Diario National

“When she really had the spirit moving in her, it would make your hair stand on end ... But there were nights when she wasn’t interested, or she was depressed ... Her occasional bursts of temperament betrayed a melancholy spirit ...”

Paula Laurence, quoted in James Gavin’s 1991 book
Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret.

Of the many performers who came to the United States in the 1930s during the country’s craze for all things Latin American, the most unusual was probably the Brazilian singer Elsie Houston. Not much appreciated in Brazil, she had preferred living in Paris, and later in the U.S.A., where she developed a sizable following of discerning music lovers in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other large cities. Her unique music, however, was too exotic, rich, and sophisticated for the general public, which preferred the glittery parody of Brazilian music in movies of the day with the gyrating exotique, Carmen Miranda.

Elsie Houston was born in Rio de Janeiro on 22 April 1902. Her father was James Frank Houston, a dental surgeon born in Tennessee who migrated to Brazil in 1891, where he married Arinda de Malta Galdo (some sources give her name as Malta de Galdo), whose ancestors had come to Brazil from Portugal more than three hundred years earlier. Elsie was one of seven children of the union. She must have exhibited talent at an early age, for while studying singing locally with Stella Peradiu, she befriended the composers Heitor Villa-Lobos, Luciano Gallet, Hekel Tavares, Carmago Guarnieri, and others in 1921 when she was still a teenager. Perhaps her family thought her involvement with Brazilian music was becoming too intense and possibly detrimental to her future prospects, for the next year they sent her to Germany, where she was accepted as a pupil by the legendary, phenomenal singer and teacher Lilli Lehmann, who had taught Olive Fremstad, Geraldine Farrar, and Germaine Lubin. It was the formidable Lehmann who gave the young Houston a solid vocal technique, one which allowed her to use her voice in unusual ways, yet never lose its musical quality. Two years later Houston returned to Brazil, and was then promptly shipped off to Buenos Aires, to study with another great singer, France’s Ninon Vallin, who was a favorite at the Teatro Colón. Houston remained there for two years, then moved to Paris with Vallin.

It was in Paris that Houston realized that her vocation was not for opera. She met a woman named Marguerite Béclard d’Harcourt (1884–1964), a French composer. Béclard d’Harcourt was also a pioneer ethnomusicologist who specialized in collecting South American folk songs, transcribing them into standard musical notation. She encouraged Houston to study her native Brazilian music and provided her with access to recordings she had made of folksongs. Madame Béclard d’Harcourt and her husband, ethnologist Raoul d’Harcourt, maintained a salon where many of the Brazilian diaspora in Paris would congregate. It was there, in 1926, that Elsie Houston presented her first concert of Brazilian music. The following year she made her formal debut at the Salle Gaveau, sharing the concert with Villa-Lobos. In 1928 she cut her first recordings - two sides for French HMV of four Villa-Lobos songs with Mme. Villa-Lobos at the piano.

Houston was only twenty-four but already an authority on Brazilian music; she subsequently published two volumes on Brazilian popular song. Also in 1926, through one of her sisters, Mary, who was married to the art critic (and ardent Trotskyite) Mário Pedrosa, she met a surrealist poet—Benjamin Péret. They married and the couple returned to Brazil in 1930, where Péret helped her collect material on the Brazilian Makumba. The word is of African (Bantu) origin, and means “musical instrument” as well as “magic,” and is frequently used in Brazil to refer to any ritual or religion of African origin. He would accompany her to the places where the rituals were being performed. Elsie heard the guttural chants of the leaders and absorbed the hypnotic atmosphere surrounding them, and would later incorporate the same mood in her own performances of the song, “Jongo.”

Houston cut her second group of records in Brazil in 1931, for the Brazilian Columbia label, mostly folksongs. She must have known how important it was to master the folksong—it was the “frame” that Brazilian composers used on which to hang the material of their art songs. It had the same syncopated African rhythms, the angular melodies, and the driving movement. On these recordings, Houston’s voice is light and youthful, but the music is repetitive and the songs go on for too long. Just when one thinks a song is ending, it starts all over again. The accompaniment of a small combo of drums, guitars, and maracas suggests street music from the favelas. Houston sings with abandon, impetuous, and with such conviction and authority that one could not imagine anyone singing these folksongs better than this.

While she was absorbed with her researches and career, her husband began to lean towards extremism in all things. He and his close associate André Breton became famous for taunting priests, and there was a photo of Péret published in France doing just that, with the caption: “ ... that malingerer, that exasperator, that incredible parasite of a do nothing, Benjamin Péret.” Their only child was born in 1931, and the boy was given the name “Geyser” (it is reported that she would not accede to Péret’s desire to name the child “Satan.”) Péret began to stretch the surrealist movement beyond poetry, to encompass political action. He wrote manifestos protesting the treatment of black people and Indians, and encouraged communists to join the protests. This didn’t sit well with the Brazilian authorities; Péret was a French national, and the Brazilian government expelled him. Elsie Houston returned to Paris with her husband.

This marked the beginning of her mature career, when she became known as an international artist. She gave concerts in France and Switzerland. In 1933, she recorded four additional sides for French HMV—Brazilian folksongs accompanied by “Carlitos and his Brazilian Orchestra.” These exhibit the same commitment to the music as her Columbia recordings, with her voice darting in and out of the orchestral accompaniment like some exotic bird in flight. Soon she was informally known as “The Ambassador of Brazilian Music.”

In 1936 Péret went to Spain to fight in the civil war, and there he met a young woman with whom he had an affair. Like Breton, Péret did not believe much in “family values,” finding conventional morality restrictive. Because of severe laws, Houston and Péret could not easily be divorced, and composer Paul Bowles said that Houston did not want to end the marriage. She returned to Brazil periodically, giving concerts in Rio and , sometimes including songs by Debussy and Ravel among the folksongs, just to prove to critics that she was a classically trained singer. Soon she was acclaimed the best interpreter of the songs of Oscar Fernández and Villa-Lobos, her specialty. But she had to struggle, for the people of the upper classes in Brazil disliked the idea of presenting African rhythms and angular melodies as art, as well as the new and strange way she used her voice in her song presentations. They wanted to hear European music, and did not want to be reminded that Brazilian culture is more than Portuguese.

She gravitated to Paris again, but back in Brazil in 1935, she separated from Péret and then returned to Paris, where she had an enthusiastic following. One Brazilian journalist wrote: “Our songs, sentimental, some sensuous and others happy, easily and rapidly conquered the Parisian public.” In 1937 she came to New York, where she remained for the rest of her life, arriving just as the rage for Latin-American music was at a peak. President Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” encouraged it, and all America was dancing to Afro-Latin rhythms of the rumba, conga, and the samba. The music of the Mexican Agustín Lara and the Cuban Ernesto Lecuona, as well as many other Latin-American composers filled the air waves. On 4 March 1938 she appeared on radio in New York in a program with speeches by the U.S. under-secretary of state, officials from the Brazilian embassy, the Pan-American Union, and the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce. In a “tailgate effect,” after band leaders and popular performers came, there had followed the classical composers and performers. Until her death Houston performed often in the United States, sometimes several times a week.

In 1940 Houston appeared on a program with other artists at a Festival of Brazilian Music at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and proved the sensation of the Festival. Clad in a green dress, with her tall, thin figure, and with that voice, she seemed to some the reincarnation of Rima the Jungle Bird Girl, heroine of W. H. Hudson’s novel, Green Mansions. Perhaps the greatest of all “crossover” artists before that term was even invented, she appeared not only on august concert stages, but also in night clubs frequented by Cole Porter and Marlene Dietrich like Le Ruban Bleu (where Houston’s accompanist was the great Cy Walter, and where she alternated with Lotte Lenya, who was jealous of Elsie’s greater success), supper clubs like The Rainbow Room, as well as New York’s Lewisohn Stadium, and Washington’s Watergate National Park in 1941, where she sang for an audience that exceeded 20,000 people. She also sang in private homes, like her friend composer/pianist Samuel Barlow’s Greenwich Village townhouse, in his beautiful Louis XVI drawing room, the scene of many of her concerts, where she brought Xango, the God of Thunder, to life. In 1941 she appeared at New York’s Town Hall in a joint recital with harpsichordist Yella Pessl. Composer/critic Virgil Thomson wrote in Elsie’s defense, in response to a reader who had complained in a letter to the New York Herald Tribune that Houston was not a classical artist. On 26 January that year the New York Times reported on her performance a week earlier at a New York supper club: “For each of these songs Miss Houston found the precise tone and nuances of color, rhythm, accentuation. But she has extraordinary resources of tone-color and diction, and a rare gift of characterization.”

By 1941, Brazilian music and its North American version, using Brazilian rhythms, had become extremely popular, primarily as the result of the success of Carmen Miranda, the highest paid film star in 1942. But there was almost no relationship between Elsie Houston’s exquisite understanding of Brazilian music, and Hollywood’s cheap commercialization of it. Elsie was quite aware of Miranda. At one of her appearances at New York’s Rainbow Room, Houston sang and danced the “canco do caboclo” (frog song) in conjunction with the renowned dancer and choreographer Charles Weidman, and wore a hat á la Miranda, but it was elegant and chic.

Houston’s voice is usually described as a soprano, but that was only one of the many voices she used to capture the color of Brazilian music. There was the guttural voice she used to create the incantation in “Jongo,” the magic spell of Makumba. In her performances of the song, the lights were dimmed to nothing and in the dark, illuminated only by candles, she would play a drum while she chanted. James Gavin, in his “Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret,” wrote: “Houston dressed elegantly but austerely, making it a shock when she began to wail like a woman possessed. Her beautiful but metallic soprano ranged all the way from birdlike highs to fierce, animal-like sounds.” No one would have thought this was a voice of an operatically trained singer.

Sometimes she would use her voice like a percussive instrument, usually in music that was driving and syncopated, typical of Afro-Brazilian rhythms. In this music we can hear her extraordinary rhythmic sense. But then, in the most intimate moments, she became a French diseuse (monologist), as she whispered “Mon ami!” To dispel the sad atmosphere of that song she might then sing Villa-Lobos’s “Oxcart Driver’s Song” [Canção do carreiro] with a crazy exuberance that never descended into shouting, but remained always a musical utterance.

Finally one would forget all her different voices when she used her pure trained soprano in “Bahia,” which somehow suggests by its beauty a picture of lushness and sunlight. In “Foi numa noite calmosa” she sings with such emotional depth that one doesn’t need to understand the words to be moved. These are from her Victor album of Brazilian songs, recorded in 1941. The Victor recordings benefit from the expert sound engineering of the company, which faithfully represented the depth and resonance of her voice. One must note that no small part of that Victor album’s success was due to the talented accompaniment of Pablo Miguel, whose deep piano tone reminds one of Ignaz Friedman.

Houston made a series of recordings for New York’s Liberty Music Shop, only four of which were issued. These lack the recording expertise achieved by Victor, and the sound is somewhat distant and thin. Despite this, the group provides a glimpse of the variety of her art, ranging from “Jongo” and “Xango,” to the hauntingly beautiful Brazilian lullaby “Toda p’ra você” by Fernandez, with its tender repeated phrases. The three French songs have their moments. “Mon ami,” based on a simple scale, starts with casual insouciance, but as the scale rises the diseuse becomes more and more tormented until, at the last note, the performer is almost in tears because of her “ami.” Ravel’s “Sur l’herbe” adds a certain Brazilian flavor to the Ravelian surface, and the “caf conc” valse “Quand je chant cette melodie,” is colored with a wonderful nostalgic sentiment. Her recording of “Fado” (Fate) is so despairing, as if it were the summing up of her life.

The location of Houston’s unissued Liberty Music shop discs is currently unknown—the author received a tape of them from Marcus Blechman (1922–2010), a renowned theatrical photographer who was her intimate friend. She apparently had tears in her eyes as she presented him with the discs rather mysteriously. This was just a few days before she took her own life on 20 February 1943 with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Houston had complex financial and personal problems. at the end she was involved with a Belgian “Count” or “Baron” named Marcel Courbon, who apparently was living off her, and whom she claimed was her husband, although she Péret never divorced. In 1942 Elsie Houston and Courbon were apparently arrested in Charleston, South Carolina. She had appeared at benefits for Russian causes, such as “The Women’s Division of the Russian War Relief Society.” At the same time she was sending her son to an expensive private school, while keeping an apartment on Park Avenue. She left two notes in French, one to her sister Mary Pedrosa and the other to Courbon. The police wanted to question him, but he had disappeared. There is enormous irony to her sad end, for had she delayed just a little, she would have received a check from Mrs. Bliss, the wealthy arts patron who lived in Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, where Houston had sung. Perhaps we will never know details of her love affair and political activities with Courbon, but what matters is that the world lost a great and unique artist.

© Ed Blickstein with Gregor Benko, 2011