Monday 20 May 2019

Neapolitan tenor at heart of recording revolution

Captured for posterity: Enrico Caruso
Captured for posterity: Enrico Caruso

George Hamilton

One of the favourite locations of my childhood was my grandparents' front room. It was the place where the good times rolled. There was an upright piano along one wall and aunts and uncles would gather round to sing old music-hall songs or big numbers from the amateur shows they had taken part in.

There was a wind-up gramophone, and a collection of brittle 78s, that would bring to life, through the crackles, a random selection of voices from years gone by.

One of those belonged to Enrico Caruso. It seemed that no record library could be complete without a tune or two from the great Neapolitan tenor. Caruso was there right at the start of the recording revolution in the early years of the last century.

There had been various attempts to save music for future performance before Emil Berliner came along. Born in Germany, he emigrated to the United States as a young man and became involved in tweaking the newfangled gizmo invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

When he wasn't devising improvements to the telephone, Berliner was discovering a way to reproduce music from a flat, rotating disc. It was the birth of the gramophone.

He patented his device in 1887, but it would take another decade or so before he'd got it to work the way he wanted it to.

When he did, his invention - some called it a phonograph - took flight. Not only in the United States. Soon he'd have subsidiary companies in every major market in Europe.

One of those was the Gramophone Company of London which would evolve over the years into what became known as EMI.

It was the Gramophone Company of London which came up with a novel marketing idea. They'd commission a song for the great Caruso to record as a means of promoting their product.

Ruggero Leoncavallo was hired to write it. He was probably delighted to get the gig. His one successful opera, Pagliacci (Clowns), had come along in 1892, two years too late.

The big hit of 1890, Mascagni's masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana had set a high bar, and though Leoncavallo's effort was much admired, it was never able to shake off the comparison, and as a result he struggled to repeat its success.

Mattinata was the song specially composed for the recording session. Absolutely upbeat, it's a serenade, though in this case, saluting the expected appearance of the love interest at dawn, as opposed to the original idea of a serenade, meant to be performed in similar circumstances of an evening.

"L'aurora di bianco vestita," it begins with gusto, "Dawn, dressed in white, has opened the door to the sun".

The record company took a room in the Grand Hotel in Milan and had a piano installed. The composer played, and Caruso sang.

Mattinata was one of 10 numbers to be recorded that day in April, 1902. It was all pretty basic - just one take, and no post-production.

The result was a commercial success. Just seven months later, they were back in the hotel to record a second selection of songs.

Amazing to think, in these days of iTunes and instant downloads, Spotify and Deezer, and all the technological tricks that go into getting the sound just perfect, that a standard hotel room, with the possibility of noises from next door, was where the voice of the great Caruso was first captured for posterity.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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