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Joseph Browning Mummery (1888–1974)

by James Griffin

This article was published:

Joseph Browning Mummery (1888-1974), by unknown photographer, c1934

Joseph Browning Mummery (1888-1974), by unknown photographer, c1934

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/3109

Joseph Browning Mummery (1888-1974), tenor, was born on 12 July 1888 at Carlton, Melbourne, only son of Joseph Ernest Mummery, jeweller, and his wife Matilda, née Henry. He was educated at the local state school where he excelled at cricket and singing. His family circle was musical but, a trade being basic, he was successfully apprenticed to an engineering firm tolerant of warbling at the lathe. Known as Joe Mummery, he was, like his friend John Curtin, a member of the Victorian Socialist Party. Italian-trained A. C. Bartleman eliminated any vocal faults before, without rehearsal, Mummery displaced an erratic Latin in Gounod's Faust with the Rigo Opera Company. In 1919-20 he toured Australasia with Amy Castles in the Williamson Opera Company.

Henceforth known as Browning Mummery, he married a pianist, Alice Martha Jane Craven, at Albert Park on 22 April 1919 and in 1921 went to England without introductions. Next year Percy Pitt engaged him for the British National Opera Company and later included him in the first-ever broadcast of opera (Faust) from Savoy Hill. In 1923 at Birmingham he sang Rodolfo in La Bohème, (Sir) Malcolm Sargent's first conducted opera. His soaring upper register broadcast sympathetically, and his studious and expressive self-presentation coupled with an amenable cheerful practicality gained him a seven-year contract with a subsidiary of His Master's Voice. By 1926 he had made nineteen double discs with Zonophone.

Mummery studied in Italy before being recalled to sing in Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden with Lotte Lehmann and Elisabeth Schumann. In 1926 Dame Nellie Melba engaged him and John Brownlee for her Covent Garden farewell. Under Vincenzo Bellezza, their two acts of La Bohème provided the first on-stage land-line broadcast and earned Mummery three further valedictory co-performances plus an engraved diamond-tipped pin (which he lost) from the diva. The autographed photo of the three Australians shows Mummery smiling discreetly, stocky, barrel-chested, with sparse slicked hair parted in the centre, and hands deferentially gripped. But when, at Melba's absolutely last farewell in Melbourne's His Majesty's Theatre on 27 September 1928, she insisted that only the handsomer, taller, younger Brownlee take curtain-calls with her, he joined them from upstage to collect applause and a playful slap. He had been in Australia for Williamson's season with Toti dal Monte and a La Scala cast.

From 1929 to 1932 Mummery sang in New York and Chicago with the National Broadcasting Company, becoming a radio favourite and singing in the historic Christmas broadcast to Admiral Byrd in the Antarctic in 1931. Returning to England in 1932 he sang in films for Gaumont British, notably with Evelyn Laye in Evensong (1933), based on Beverley Nichols' notorious satire of Melba. After touring his homeland again in 1934 with, among others, Florence Austral for Sir Benjamin Fuller's Victorian centenary season, he remained in Melbourne where he turned to teaching, making occasional broadcasts and appearances in New Zealand and throughout Australia.

Mummery was Australia's most celebrated tenor between the wars. Lyrical but robust, glowing and vibrant, his voice had neither the mellifluous languor of the great tenori di grazia nor the clarion effrontery of a lyrico spinto like Martinelli. He was a precise, supportive lead rather than a florid virtuoso. He had a well-memorized repertoire of thirty roles, negotiated all Puccini sonorously, but amiably recorded hogwash such as 'Josephine' and (with chorus) 'The Bells of St Mary's'. His most historic disc, duets from Verdi's Il Trovatore with Austral, owes its celebrity to her assumption of a contralto role on one side when another performer failed to appear.

A sanguine, decent, rather Edwardian man, Mummery died in Canberra on 16 March 1974 and was cremated. His wife and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Complete Catalogue of Zonophone Records (Brisb, 1927)
  • His Master's Voice, Catalogue of Records 1936 (Lismore, NSW)
  • I. Moresby, Australia Makes Music (Melb, 1948)
  • J. Hetherington, Melba (Melb, 1967)
  • B. and F. Mackenzie, Singers of Australia (Melb, 1967)
  • N. Melba, Melodies and Memories, J. Cargher introduction and notes (Melb, 1980)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 24 Apr 1924
  • Herald (Melbourne), 11 May 1928, 5 Dec 1930, 25 Sept 1935
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 7 June 1928
  • Australian, 23 Feb 1967
  • H. de Berg, interview with Joseph Mummery (transcript, 1972, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

James Griffin, 'Mummery, Joseph Browning (1888–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 5 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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