Birth of singer Alma Gluck
May 11, 1884
Alma Gluck, who was famous in the first decades of the twentieth century for her concert performances and recording career, was born in Romania on May 11, 1884, the youngest of seven children. Her father died when Gluck (born Reba Fiersohn) was two, and the family came to the United States when she was six, their passage paid by the sweatshop wages of Gluck's eldest sister.
In 1902, she married insurance agent Bernard Gluck, and it was through him that she began her singing career. A business associate of Bernard's, who had heard Alma sing, arranged for her to take voice lessons beginning in 1906. In 1909, her teacher set up a meeting with famed conductor Arturo Toscanini, who hired her immediately. Gluck made her debut on November 16, 1909, in a Metropolitan Opera performance of Massenet's Werther. A decade later, the New York Times recalled that her character's "pretty song made a prima donna of Alma Gluck in one evening."
Although Gluck was successful in opera, she did not care for its theatrical nature and instead chose to become a concert performer. By 1914, a year after leaving the Opera, she was the most popular concert singer in the United States, performing in all 48 states and in as many as 100 concerts a season. Gluck's extensive recording career earned her the most lasting fame. Between 1911 and 1919, Gluck made 124 recordings, both of classical arias and of American folk songs. Though little-known today, Gluck's success in her time was phenomenal. Her audience, measured by concert tickets and recording sales, was matched by very few others. Her recording of "Carry Me Back to Ol' Virginny," perhaps her most popular, sold almost two million copies. On many of her records, Gluck is accompanied by violinist Efrem Zimbalist, who became her second husband in 1914. The pair also gave regular joint performances in concert.
Gluck retired from the stage in 1925, but remained active in musical causes. She was a founder of the American Guild of Musical Artists, and a supporter of the Musicians Emergency Fund. She was also a renowned hostess, regularly gathering groups of musicians in her home. In addition, she worked to support her favorite causes, singing for the Red Cross and signing on to the work of the Musicians Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy during the Spanish Civil War. Notably, she was not active in the Jewish community, instead developing ties to the Episcopal Church, in which she also baptized her three children (though never choosing baptism for herself). Gluck died of liver disease in 1938, at age 54.
To learn more about Alma Gluck, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
See also: This Week in History for November 16, 1909, "Debut of singer Alma Gluck."
Sources: Jewish Women in America, An Historical Encyclopedia, p.521-523; New York Times, February 19, 1919, October 28, 1938.