About this Recording
8.110703 - CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 1 (1902-1903)

Ernesto Caruso

Ernesto Caruso

Complete Recordings, Volume 1


The speed with which events moved in the early years of the recording industry was nothing short of phenomenal. Emile Berliner's flat disc gramophone (soon to displace the earlier cylinder design of the phonograph) had little more than novelty value in 1896; yet within five years the Gramophone Company had crossed the Atlantic, established itself in London and begun travelling around Europe in search of artists to record.


In the early years of the new venture, a key element was the figure of Fred Gaisberg, whose name was to become almost synonymous with those of His Master's Voice and EMI. He had realised immediately that the future of the gramophone depended on recording singers of the highest stature, as well as the collection of curiosities and cafe musicians who quickly surrounded them wherever they went. As he later explained, on the early recording tours (Europe in 1899, Russia in 1900 and 1901) they faced an uphill task.


'It is important to remember what a primitive little affair the gramophone was in 1900... Whenever we approached the great artists, they just laughed at us and replied that the gramophone was only a toy.'


It was therefore a momentous event when a rising young star in the world of Italian opera, Enrico Caruso, was persuaded to make records. In March 1902, a month before Gaisberg heard him sing at La Scala, the tenor had caused a sensation at the premiere of Franchetti's Germania, and he was booked to make his Covent Garden debut opposite Nellie Melba in May of that year. Gaisberg sent a message asking what fee he would require for recording ten songs.


'The next day Maestro Cottone... returned with a proposition. Caruso would sing ten songs for £100, all to be recorded in one afternoon. ... To us in those days these were staggering terms, but I transmitted them to London with a strong recommendation, feeling all the time how inadequate were words in telegraphic form to describe the merits of the case. A cabled reply came back quickly: fee exorbitant forbid you to record.'


The company had every reason to be thankful to Gaisberg for ignoring their instructions. Not only did the session quickly turn in a huge profit, but even before the records went on sale the mere knowledge that Caruso had made them was enough to persuade other big names to sign contracts, including Antonio Scotti and Emma calve. In a single afternoon on the third floor of a Milan hotel, Caruso had made recording respectable.


Volume I of this series contains almost all the recordings that Caruso made before signing an exclusive contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1904. (The other five Milan titles are in Volume II.) At the first session, it is clear, the overriding priority was to get those ten numbers on disc. Perfection was neither sought nor obtained. Caruso makes a false start on Dai campi, dai prati, and we hear him clearing his throat after the first verse of Questa o quella. He loses his nerve with the final high B flat of Celeste Aida and sings it falsetto, while the opening of E lucevan le stelle is nothing short of a shambles. Caruso comes in much too early (at the wrong pitch) and only finally synchronizes himself properly with the piano at the end of the recitative section. But for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company, as it was now called, these were trivial matters compared with the triumph of capturing that glorious voice on disc. As other singers lined up to follow Caruso's example, at last the company had a product of undeniable quality to offer the public - a product, moreover, that could only be enjoyed by buying one of its own gramophones.


As soon as it was clear that the recordings were a commercial success, an immediate priority was to tempt Caruso back in front of the horn, The Gramophone Company's Milan agent, Alfred Michelis, who had first urged Gaisberg to hear Caruso in Germania, was instructed to approach the composer Umberto Giordano about recording the aria Amor ti vieta from his opera Fedora. In a letter of 14th November 1902 Michelis included the following translation of Giordano's response. 'I consent with pleasure to comply with your demand to make my friend Caruso sing my Fedora, presiding myself at the pianoforte.' As Michelis pointed out in the same letter, 'Besides, this settles the question about Caruso singing for us again as he cannot possibly refuse the request of the composer.'


For singing Amor ti vieta Caruso asked the sum of 3,000 lire. As an alternative he suggested 5,000 lire (about £170) for five songs, with the concession that he would record again, for no fee, the defective Boito and Verdi items from the original session. (As it turned out the second version of Celeste Aida was even less satisfactory. Caruso solves the difficulty of the final high note by the dubious expedient of bringing the piece to an abrupt close before the end of the aria.) Three further selections were recorded the day afterwards, so that in all ten new discs were issued. The following year, again in Milan, Caruso recorded seven items for the Anglo-Italian Commerce Company, including a new version of E lucevan le stelle.


These first recording sessions of Caruso are of immense historical significance. For most people in 1902 the gramophone was no more than a curiosity; few would have staked money on its becoming a standard item of household furniture within twenty years. With a little effort of imagination, we can imagine the feelings of wonder that must have been aroused in countless listeners when they heard a great singing voice reproduced so faithfully for the first time. For admirers of Caruso the early discs have a special interest, giving us the voice while it is not yet thirty years old and before its fame has reached around the world. It has a lighter and sweeter sound than in the later recordings, more tenor, less baritone. It floats easily, and there is a simple freshness, most evident in the music of Caruso's own age – the verismo operas and the Neapolitan songs. Already, though, the power and the fullness of tone are there in full measure, and at climaxes the voice expands effortlessly to create that unmistakable golden sound which still, through all the hiss and the clumsy piano playing, continues to inspire and astonish.


Hugh Griffith



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