The soprano whose recording of “Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginny” sold almost two million copies, was born Reba Fiersohn on May 11, 1884, in Romania. From an impoverished childhood, she rose to become not only one of the finest concert artists of the twentieth century but also one of the most popular.
Alma was the youngest of seven children, born when her mother was nearly fifty. Of the six other children, three girls survived infancy. The eldest, Cecile, ran the household and reared the others. Her father, who died when Alma was two, was an opera buff: His older daughters told stories of his attending a performance after hauling produce all day and returning home to sing the entire score for his family.
By 1890, Cecile Fiersohn, who had paid her own passage to the United States, had saved enough from her sweatshop earnings to send for her mother and sisters. Alma attended public school through eighth grade on New York’s Lower East Side and subsequently worked as an office clerk. Although some accounts indicate that she attended the Normal School and Union College, an inspection of school records appears to show that this was not the case. On May 25, 1902, she married Bernard Gluck, an insurance agent. They divorced in 1912. Their daughter, Abigail, became the writer Marcia Davenport.
Although she had a beautiful voice as a girl and learned to play piano, Gluck began vocal training only as an adult. In 1906, a business associate of her husband’s who had heard her sing arranged for her to take voice lessons.
She also studied in Europe accompanied only by her daughter. An anecdote tells of Gluck’s serendipitous encounter with Arturo Toscanini. The conductor heard her sing when she arrived for a lesson at her teacher’s house while he and the manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera were dining there. Both men were skeptical of the teacher’s motives, Gluck was a beautiful woman, until they heard the soprano warming up. Toscanini then insisted on accompanying her himself. After a formal audition, Gluck was hired. Toscanini conducted the performance in which she made her debut, Massenet’s Werther. It was presented by the Metropolitan Opera but took place at the New Theatre on November 16, 1909. During Gluck’s first season with the company, she sang eleven minor roles in three languages.
Until tomorrow: I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.
Dorothy Prats / [email protected]