The Biography of Florence Austral

Michael Elphinstone and Wayne Hancock,
Richmond, Hyde Park Press (2005).  ISBN 0 646 44033 0, ­655 pages.Price: $60.00 Australian (hard cover edition) plus postage and handling from publisher.

This is the second book to come out on Florence Austral (26.04.1892 – 15.05.1968). The first, James Moffat’s Florence Austral. One of the Wonder Voices of the World, Sydney, Currency Press, 1995, was important in reappraising the singer’s reputation in Australia and updating her discography. The present book is very different, a scholarly work devoted to establishing the facts of her career in opera and concert. This was no small task, as much previous work had started out from Austral’s own recollections, which have proved to be remarkably unreliable.

The approach is simple, at least in principle: a chronological approach to her life and career, starting from her birth, which the authors place exactly two years earlier than stated in Moffat’s book, itself two years earlier than previously claimed. Readers of The Record Collector will find a great deal of interest in the details of her career and in particular the many contemporary reviews (including several in Dutch, provided with excellent English translations), whereas those interested in Australian history will be keen to discover the new material presented here on her family and her role in musical life there after World War Two.  Behind the simplicity of approach, however, there is an incredible amount of work which has gone into ferreting out information, checking one source against the other, and presenting the facts as far as they can be ascertained.  The authors are both trained musicians, and they bring a broad-based musical culture to bear on the appraisals made.

The picture that emerges from all these new facts differs significantly from the one that had come to be accepted.  Austral’s relative failure to achieve a major international career is attributed not so much to faults in her own character as to having started relatively late in life, having sung a most taxing repertoire and to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The authors put paid to the claim Austral made through The Record Collector 14-1/2, 1961, that it was multiple sclerosis which compromised her career from 1930 on and that Melba bore a grudge against her.  These are but two of the many myths that are dispelled in this well-researched work.

The book also contains a wealth of biographical notes on the musicians Austral performed with, other singers especially, but also instrumentalists, conductors and composers. These generally take the form of notes at the end of each chapter, and many are quite lengthy, giving hitherto unknown details, going far beyond Austral’s own career.  Of Elsa Stralia, for example, we learn that she made one of the first sound films of singing in 1924.  Fortunately, the book has an excellent index.

The part devoted to Austral’s recording career is as scrupulously researched as the rest of the book.  The couple of paragraphs situating the recording industry in 1922 are as accurate as could be wished, and the role of Fred Gaisberg, sensing an opening for opera in English, thereby launching Austral on her recording career, is astutely sketched in.  The recollection of her recording sessions by the violinist H. Wynn Reeves is a rare insight into operatic recording in the acoustic days.  Her various recording sessions are appraised individually, with once again quotations from contemporary reviews.  The importance of her records is underlined by the authors’ basic contention is that her greatest claim to fame was – and still is - simply her voice.

John Humbley