About this Recording
8.120720 - LANZA, Mario: The Christmas Album (1950-1952)



The Christmas Album  Original 1950-1952 Recordings


Hailed somewhat over-enthusiastically as ‘a new Caruso’ well before he made the biopic loosely based on the career of his Neapolitan predecessor, the meteoric Mario Lanza was a vital performer tailor-made for exploitation both on screen and on disc.  His best recordings show his instinctive flair for phrasing and often remarkable breath-control.  To these he added a certain Latin fire which in the words of André Previn (in the early 1950s an arranger at MGM) “brooked no musical dynamic under an eyeball-rolling triple forte”.


Mario was born Alfred Arnoldo Cocozza into an immigrant Italian family in Philadelphia on 31 January 1921.  Resident in America from the age of sixteen his father Antonio was a disabled World War I veteran while his seamstress mother, Maria Lanza – luckily for Mario – was a frustrated soprano. As a lad he heard Caruso, Gigli and other great tenors on records and was actively encouraged to sing.  While at school more inclined to sport than to study (he dropped out of high school to work in his grandfather’s wholesale grocery business), he remained nonetheless an avid vocal student in his spare time.  During his late teens he trained for about eighteen months with the baritone Antonio Scarduzzo and was coached by the Phildelphia-born soprano Irene Williams (1887-1979) who had connections in society circles.


In 1942, Mario auditioned for Sergei Koussevit-sky during a Boston Symphony Orchestra tour of Philadelphia and was awarded a scholarship to study at the New England Conservatory in Boston.  Later that year he made his stage début (as Fenton in Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor) at the Berkshire Summer Festival at Tanglewood, the Boston Orchestra’s summer headquarters.  Signed for a concert tour by Columbia, his career was temporarily interrupted by two years’ war service in the United States Air Force.  Based at Marfa, Texas, after auditioning success-fully for Peter Lind Hayes, he soon found an opening for his talent in forces’ shows and, after demobilisation in 1945, he joined the chorus-line of the Broadway musical Winged Victory – a fund-raising flag-waver scored by David Rose and devised by Moss Hart, presented by an all military cast of US Army-Air Force personnel.


In mid-1945 Mario stood in for tenor Jan Peerce on ABC’s ‘Celanese Hour’ and between October and February 1946 appeared in six ‘Great Moments In Music’ concerts in New York.  During 1946 he toured Canada in concert with soprano Agnes Davis and embarked on further vocal training with Enrico Rosati (Gigli’s sometime teacher), through whose influence he was invited to sing in the Verdi Requiem with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, under Toscanini – an opportunity he turned down through lack of self-confidence.  By 1947, however, Lanza’s reputation had grown – and with it his self-confidence – and in July, in company with soprano Frances Yeend (b. 1918) and bass-baritone George London (1919-1985), he formed the Bel Canto Trio, which over the next year gave 84 concerts in the USA, Canada, Newfoundland and Mexico. 


On 28 August 1947 the end of their tour was marked with a gala at the Hollywood Bowl, with symphony orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. Present on that occasion was Louis B. Mayer, who would soon be signing the tenor to a seven-year MGM contract. Meanwhile, however, two appearances in opera (as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly during the 1948 New Orleans Opera season) prompted Lanza to conclude that a greater future awaited him in the more congenial spheres of concert, radio and screen.  His MGM contract consolidated that conviction with unexpected financial security: $750 dollars per week for the six months spent preparing his first movie, plus a $10,000 bonus, $15,000 on completion of the film itself and freedom meanwhile to give concerts, radio appearances and make recordings (under a prestigious, exclusive contract with RCA-Victor).


Lanza’s first film – a 98-minute musical called That Midnight Kiss – was released in 1949, pairing Mario for the first time with the comely, North Carolina-born soprano Kathryn Grayson (b.1922).  His second movie, The Toast Of New Orleans (1950) netted him a fee of $25,000, its score also bringing the added cachet of an Academy Award-winner, “Be My Love”, a Sammy Cahn–Nicholas Brodszky composition which also topped the US charts Top 30 and by 1951 became his first million-selling disc, making Mario a household name and recording superstar. 


During 1951, Lanza began weekly broadcasts of ‘The Mario Lanza Show’ (for CBS, sponsored by Coca Cola) and made his third film-musical, The Great Caruso.  Generally rated his best effort, it was certainly the most commercially successful and to this day has kept its place in the affection of Lanza fans.  Its release was followed by a coast-to-coast ‘Caruso Concert Tour’ during which ‘Lanza fever’ swept the USA, while the LP of its soundtrack became the first ‘operatic’ long-player to attain Gold Disc status.  In The Great Caruso Lanza introduced the million-selling “Loveliest Night Of The Year” (based on the waltz “Over The waves”), and resurrected the ever-popular Ave, Maria (the 1859 adaptation by Gounod of the first study from Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’) and Because, a world-famous best-selling 1902 ballad by Guy d’Hardelot (1858-1936).  Recorded in its original French version by Caruso himself, in 1912, the Lanza version of this most popular of ‘English’ tenor love-ballads was a US No.16 in June 1951.


Already a ‘name’ – and a tenor-issimo name at that – on both screen and radio, Mario was seized on by RCA-Victor as a money-spinner.  A force in the market he could combine certain aspects of the popular ballad-singing tradition earlier represented by McCormack, Richard Crooks, Nelson Eddy and others with the cachet of a modern film-idol, and from 1950 onwards all sorts of items old and new were added to the growing Lanza discography.  These included ballads of sentiment such as Trees (the famous 1922 Oscar Rasbach setting of verses by the American poetaster Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) already long ensconced in US popular vocabulary) and the ‘inspirational’ ballads The Rosary (published in 1898, with words by Robert Cameron Rogers and music by Philadelphia-born pianist-composer Ethelbert Woodbridge Nevin (1862-1901), this was long a favourite of American women’s clubs) and The Lord’s Prayer (in the 1935 setting by Philadelphia organist Albert Hay Malotte, 1895-1964).


Among the Lanza ‘love-ballad’ revivals we find Grieg’s I Love Thee (originally “Jeg elsker dig”, No.3 of Melodies of the Heart (1864), setting verses by Hans Christian Andersen) and (The) Song Of Songs (a tenor favourite of 1914 by ‘Moya’ (alias of Harold Vicars) – originally set in French as “Chanson du Coeur brisé” by one Maurice Vancaire, this has English text by Clarence Lucas).  Additionally various well-known numbers from Broadway musicals were chosen.  Without A Song originates from Great Day (1929) and Through The Years, title-song of the 1931 show, was a personal favourite of New York-born pianist-composer Vincent Youmans (1898-1946).  You’ll Never Walk Alone, an early hit for Frank Sinatra and nowadays an anthem for vociferous football fans, by Long Islander Richard Rodgers (1902-1979), comes from Carousel (1945). 


Lanza was good for the Christmas market too and his spirited contributions included a noted version in English of “O Tannenbaum” and several other time-honoured staples of the Seasonal repertoire.  These include: O Holy Night (aka “Cantique de Noël”, this rousing hymn of praise by Adolphe Adam was first sung in Paris on Christmas Eve, 1847.  More recently it was much featured and recorded by all the great tenors, notably Caruso, Paul Franz and Georges Thill); The Virgin’s Slumber Song (this beautiful, lilting Max Reger miniature, originally ‘Mariä Wiegenlied’, No.5 of Neun Kinderlieder, Opus 76, dates from 1912); the perennially-popular Silent Night (originally “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”, first sung in Bavaria, to guitar accompaniment, on Christmas Eve, 1818, and thereafter popularised by Tyrolean ensembles.  The English version of the famous Franz Gruber carol sung here first appeared in the Lutheran Sunday-School book of 1871) and, most famous of all carols, O Come, All Ye Faithful (aka ‘Adeste, fideles’, this Latin hymn and tune from circa 1740, is generally believed to be the work of Latin teacher and musical scribe John Francis Wade).  


Peter Dempsey, 2003

Close the window