Piero Coppola was born into a musical family: both his parents were opera singers and he was himself giving piano recitals at the age of eleven. He studied composition and piano at the Milan Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1909; while a student he befriended Chaliapin and attended Toscanini’s rehearsals for Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Having begun his professional conducting career at the Teatro Regio in Turin during 1909 with Massenet’s Manon, he shortly afterwards accepted the offer to become assistant to Tullio Serafin, who had succeeded Toscanini as chief conductor at La Scala, Milan. Serafin taught him much. In 1910 Coppola assisted in the first European performances of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West and caught the attention of the composer. The following year with Serafin he attended the concerts of the Turin Universal Exposition organised by Vittorio Gui, where he heard several of the major conductors and composers of the day, including Debussy whom he met personally and whose rehearsals he attended. Coppola was dubious of the composer’s capabilities as a conductor, recalling, ‘He stopped beating time to turn the pages.’
Immediately afterwards Puccini called him to Modena to take over a production of Fanciulla, which he did with distinction. As a result he went on to conduct it at Lucca, Turin, Brescia and Florence, and in 1913 at La Monnaie Opera House in Brussels. Immediately before the outbreak of World War I he visited London to attend concerts and opera. During the war itself Coppola worked throughout the Scandinavian countries, conducting mainly opera, as well as accompanying Kirsten Flagstad in some of her earliest recitals. Following the establishment of peace, in 1921 Coppola settled in Paris, where he was to remain until the outbreak of the next war. He accompanied the soprano Marguerite Nielka in several concerts, one of which took place in London in 1923 with the London Symphony Orchestra. This was attended by the Gramophone Company’s Fred Gaisberg, who was seeking a musical director for the French branch of the company. Gaisberg offered him the post immediately after the concert, and Coppola willingly accepted.
Coppola’s duties in his new post consisted of suggesting artists and repertoire to be recorded in France, gaining the approval of Gaisberg and his colleagues, and then organising and supervising the actual recordings. In addition, as an experienced conductor he frequently took the podium himself. Coppola was strongly led by his artistic enthusiasms and one of his early successes was a recording of scenes from Pelléas et Mélisande (1924). His naturally sociable character and keen enthusiasm helped to establish good relations with many of the leading French composers and performers of the day, such as Ravel, Poulenc, Schmitt and Dukas. The introduction of electrical recording acted as a major spur to the market for recordings: henceforth they could offer sound as good as the relatively new radio. The recording industry entered a period of growth, which kept Coppola increasingly busy. Determined to make an impact with the new technology, in 1926 he led the first electrical recording of Bizet’s Carmen, using the forces of the Opéra-Comique, Paris. This was to be a major success.
While busy with all his recording activities, Coppola still found time to conduct public concerts and to compose, with several of his works being taken up by leading conductors of the day such as Monteux and Stokowski. In 1930 the prestigious Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire (Paris Conservatoire Orchestra) signed an exclusive agreement with the Gramophone Company, but as its chief conductor Philippe Gaubert was contracted to the rival Columbia label, the role of conductor for many of the orchestra’s recordings fell to Coppola. Between 1930 and 1937 he and the orchestra recorded a major part of the French Impressionist repertoire. At one of his concerts, in 1932 with the Pasdeloup Orchestra, Coppola accompanied Prokofiev in his Piano Concerto No. 3 and immediately afterwards invited the composer to record this work in London, with the London Symphony Orchestra: the result was one of the finest recordings of the period.
The merger of the English Columbia and Gramophone Companies in 1931 was followed later by further consolidation in France, with the three labels of Columbia, La Voix de son Maître and Pathé all being brought under a single administration during 1934. Coppola was not formally informed of the move: as the only non-Frenchman involved, he was to be released, and Gaisberg refused to see him when he travelled to England to find out what was happening. As a result, at the end of 1934 Coppola resigned from the company for which he had done so much. He continued to conduct in Paris as well as in Italy, and to record occasionally. With the outbreak of World War II he retired to Switzerland where he wrote his fascinating memoirs chronicling his time in the recording industry, Dix-sept ans de musique à Paris, 1922–1939 (1944). After the war he made three further recordings, two for Decca, of Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Spring’ and Grieg’s Symphonic Dances, and for French HMV he made his last recording, of a Handel concerto grosso. Both the Handel and the Schumann went on to win a Grand Prix du Disque each in 1950.
Thereafter until his death in 1971 Coppola was absent from the international stage, although he conducted occasionally locally and continued to compose. He remained a forgotten figure in the history of the gramophone, until the resurgence of interest in historical recordings at the end of the 1990s led to the reissue of many of his recordings on CD. As a result his enormous contribution to the medium was once more fully appreciated. His character was revealingly sketched by his wife: ‘ …he was a sportive and playful individual, almost childlike, well behaved, interesting, but never boastful.’ As a conductor Coppola may not have been of the first rank, but he was able to master the considerable requirements of recording onto wax while maintaining a strong sense of musical priorities. His pure enthusiasm for music, and especially for the music of his own time, when combined with his pivotal position within the record industry of France, ensured that a major part of France’s musical culture from the first four decades of the last century was preserved through recordings. He was a major figure during the early years of the industry, to be considered alongside Gaisberg, Clark and Sterling.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).