Caruso Records for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Enrico Caruso’s first serious attempt at recording operatic songs proved an overwhelming success, launching his career as one of the world’s major recording artists.

Summary of Event

During the early part of 1902, Enrico Caruso, a well-known tenor star of European opera, experienced a particularly successful season in Monte Carlo. Opposite the renowned Australian soprano Nellie Melba, Caruso sang his way through countless famous operas. Gramophone and Typewriter Company Music;recordings Opera;recordings Musical recordings;Enrico Caruso[Caruso] [kw]Caruso Records for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company (Apr. 11, 1902) [kw]Gramophone and Typewriter Company, Caruso Records for the (Apr. 11, 1902) [kw]Typewriter Company, Caruso Records for the Gramophone and (Apr. 11, 1902) Gramophone and Typewriter Company Music;recordings Opera;recordings Musical recordings;Enrico Caruso[Caruso] [g]Italy;Apr. 11, 1902: Caruso Records for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company[00460] [c]Music;Apr. 11, 1902: Caruso Records for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company[00460] Caruso, Enrico Gaisberg, Frederick William Melba, Nellie

Melba had persuaded Caruso to sing at Covent Garden in London. Caruso had been reluctant to accept the engagement, which would be his first in England, but under considerable pressure from the persuasive Melba, he accepted. Before traveling to England, he returned to Milan to sing in Alberto Franchetti’s new opera, Germania. The opening night was a gala performance attended by royalty and aristocracy as well as by prominent artists of the day. Seated in the audience that night were such men as Giacomo Puccini, Umberto Giordano, and Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Of more significance, however, was the fact that seated in the audience the next evening was Frederick William Gaisberg, the manager of London’s Gramophone and Typewriter Company. Along with his brother Will, Gaisberg had come to Milan to find new recording artists. Unable to get tickets to the premiere performance, Gaisberg was able to hear Caruso sing the part of Federico Loewe the following night. Despite the inherent weaknesses of the opera, Caruso sang magnificently. Gaisberg knew from that one evening that he had found a singer whose voice would be perfect for the young recording industry.

Alfred Michaelis, the firm’s local representative, was asked to speak with Caruso and negotiate a fee. To everyone’s initial delight, Caruso agreed to make the recordings. In 1901, Caruso had briefly tried the new medium, but his first experiment was not a success. A year later, he was more than eager to try again. Caruso was also a canny businessman; in fact, one of the reasons he had hesitated to sing at Covent Garden was that the fee was less than he had been offered to perform elsewhere. Gaisberg and Caruso agreed on a fee of one hundred pounds, for which Caruso was to sing ten arias.

Thinking that the London office would seize the opportunity to add Caruso to the Gramophone and Typewriter Company’s list of world-class recording artists, Gaisberg was surprised by the reply to his cable announcing the agreement. Officials at the company cabled back, “Fee exorbitant, forbid you to record.” Gaisberg had heard Caruso sing only once, but that was enough to convince him that he had experienced an unusual talent, and he decided to go through with the project despite what he was told. Years before, the celebrated Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini had remarked after hearing Caruso sing that the whole world would talk about him. Once Gaisberg had the recordings, the whole world would hear Caruso sing as well.

A number of Caruso’s contemporaries tried to dissuade him from participating in such a novelty, but Caruso was not convinced. From their very first meeting, Caruso thought well of Gaisberg, and their friendship had much to do with Caruso’s willingness to sing. During their conversations, Gaisberg cleverly remarked that the recordings would be available during Caruso’s debut at Covent Garden. Caruso quickly grasped that this would widen his audience and perhaps endear him to the English audience that much quicker.

Despite this seemingly businesslike approach, Caruso treated the entire recording session with enjoyment and a certain lightness. The session took place on the afternoon of April 11, 1902, at Gaisberg’s suite at the Grand Hotel di Milano. (By coincidence, the suite was directly above the one in which the famed Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi had died.) The ten arias included selections from half a dozen well-known operas. “Questo o quella” from Rigoletto began the session. For the next two hours, Caruso sang with his usual warmth and vibrancy such songs as “Una furtiva lagrima,” “E lucevan le stelle,” and “Celeste Aida.” The hotel room was converted into a makeshift recording studio; the tin horn that Caruso sang into hung five feet from the floor. The accompanist had to use a packing case as a piano stool.

Enrico Caruso.

(Library of Congress)

Caruso ignored the primitive conditions, and the recording session went smoothly. At the end, Caruso accepted his check, embraced the accompanist, and left hastily for a late lunch with his wife, Ada. One more crucial step still awaited Gaisberg; immediately after the session was over, he sent the waxes of the recordings to be copied. To his surprise, there was not a single failure among them. From this one recording session, the Gramophone and Typewriter Company would make nearly fifteen thousand pounds. When Caruso arrived in London for his debut, the recordings were selling extremely well. For many immigrant Italians who could not afford seats to Caruso’s performance, the newly released recordings provided some comfort.

Up until that time, the phonograph industry had been continually plagued by the poor quality of the recordings available. Phonograph The Gramophone and Typewriter Company had been experimenting with wax cylinders at the end of the nineteenth century. Caruso had already had experience with recording on wax cylinders when, in late 1900 or early 1901, he had recorded three cylinders for the Pathé company. These recordings were far inferior to those Caruso completed for Gaisberg. After Caruso became famous, Pathé continued to keep these poorer-quality recordings in its catalog.

In the later recordings, Caruso’s rich, melodic voice seemed to overcome much of the problem of surface noise, which had always been a concern of those trying to make accurate recordings. Although the technique used in the Pathé recordings was similar to that used by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company, the results were very different. Caruso’s name would soon dominate in classical recordings. By the time of his death, Caruso had received almost two million dollars in royalties from sales of his extensive recordings.

The phonograph was already an important form of entertainment, and over the next thirty years this simple device would transform music and recordings. After Caruso’s London debut at Covent Garden Opera House, his success as an opera singer as well as a recording artist was assured.

Significance

Caruso was unaware that this one recording session would encourage phonograph companies to concentrate more on classical music than they had before. The success of the phonograph had previously stemmed entirely from recordings of popular songs. John Philip Sousa’s band had experienced success recording for Berliner, and singer Harry MacDonough’s renditions of “The Holy City” and “Lead Kindly Light” were two of the highest-selling recordings for Victor.

The works of the major classical composers were sparsely represented in the record catalogs of the early 1900’s, however. Because each recording had to be fitted on one side of a twelve-inch record, most classical pieces that were recorded were severely truncated. By 1913, the largest classical entry in the Victor catalog, recordings of works by Ludwig van Beethoven, was limited to three short pieces. Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart received one recording apiece. By far the largest numbers of classical recordings available were those made by operatic singers, because recording a solo voice accompanied by piano was considerably easier than trying to record an entire orchestra.

Despite Caruso’s recording successes, Nellie Melba—his leading lady in so many operatic performances—began her recording career reluctantly. Prior to 1904, the only recordings Melba had made were private performances for her father. After much persuasion, Melba agreed to release these private recordings, and she then continued to record for Gramophone on a regular basis until 1926. Such stellar performers gave the recording industry a more durable appearance than it had previously had. Like Gaisberg before him, Alfred Clark continued to add prominent performers and composers to Gramophone’s Red Label discs. Claude Debussy, Reynaldo Hahn, and Jules Massenet all became admirers of the phonograph and were pleased to record for the company.

Caruso made his first recording with orchestral accompaniment in 1906 for Victor, performing five operatic arias: “Di quella pira” from Il trovatore, “Spirto gentil” from La favorita, “M’appari” from Martha, “Che gelida manina” from La Bohème, and “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” from Faust. Technological improvements had been made, but recording conditions were still primitive; musicians had to perch on high chairs to be heard properly. In spite of the spartan studio facilities, however, Caruso continued to make fine recordings.

Caruso’s recording legacy stands as one of the finest among collections of operas and operatic arias. As a musician and businessman, Caruso always seemed to anticipate future trends. Long before radio ever began to challenge the popularity of the phonograph, Caruso participated in the first wireless transmission. Just as he had with the Milan recordings, Caruso was again making history. On April 9, 1909, from the Metropolitan Opera House Metropolitan Opera House (New York City);Enrico Caruso[Caruso] in New York, Caruso’s voice was transmitted through two microphones placed in the footlights of the stage. The following year, Caruso sang in the first radio broadcast of operatic selections, again from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. Radio, however, had yet to catch the imagination of the American public. The phonograph was still the dominant medium through which most listeners heard the famous voices and orchestras of the day.

Radio began to challenge the supremacy of the phonograph only at the beginning of the 1920’s. Even Caruso never broadcast a complete opera, a feat first achieved by the British Broadcasting Company in 1926, when Mozart’s The Magic Flute was transmitted direct from a London concert hall. Spurred by the challenge of radio, recording companies continued with experimentation and research in an effort to improve recording quality. Improvement over the early wax cylinders and disc reproduction soon interested those musicians who had earlier stayed away from recording. Disc recordings

One such skeptic was Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini, Arturo The Victor Company had approached him, and he agreed to record sixteen sides. Unfortunately, he was not pleased by the results, and he wanted the recording cylinders destroyed. Working with men and women whose musical standards were extremely high further motivated Victor to seek alternative designs.

Through laborious trial and error, Victor’s engineers continued to perfect the disc. By the early 1930’s, they had succeeded in creating records of fourteen minutes per side by increasing the number of grooves per inch and reducing the speed of revolution. The resulting records played at 33 revolutions per minute (rpm) instead of at the much less reliable 78 rpm. Marketing these new discs proved difficult for Victor, however; the LP, or long-playing record, did not become commercially successful until Columbia Records Columbia Records launched its version in 1948.

During the Great Depression, the phonograph was almost abandoned. Sales of discs dropped so dramatically that a recovery looked almost impossible. At this time Toscanini, although still disenchanted with the quality of recordings, agreed to complete a number of works before leaving the United States. The resulting recordings were judged to be technically the best that had ever been made. More important, these recordings, which at the time were incomparable, set a new industry standard. This unusual turn of events brought the phonograph industry back to public awareness and ensured that music would continue to be produced on disc.

Caruso and Toscanini were close friends, and each admired the other’s talent and skill. Neither man regarded himself as anything other than a committed musician performing always at maximum effort. Between them, and almost incidental to what they sought to achieve in their performance of the great operatic and symphonic works, they provided a catalyst for the emerging recording industry. Caruso’s willingness to record those ten simple arias in Milan in 1902 provided the impetus for the reproduction of fine classical music for all to hear and enjoy. Gramophone and Typewriter Company Music;recordings Opera;recordings Musical recordings;Enrico Caruso[Caruso]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bolig, John R. Caruso Records: A History and Discography. Highlands Ranch, Colo.: Mainspring Press, 2002. This illustrated volume examines Caruso’s records and recording career in more detail than any previous work. Features a complete discography of Caruso’s recordings (both 78 rpm and cylinder format), newly discovered information on his early records, color illustrations of rare records, and extensive appendixes and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caruso, Dorothy. Enrico Caruso: His Life and Death. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945. An extremely candid account by Caruso’s wife about what life with the great opera singer was like. Dates and places are hardly mentioned, but the omissions are more than made up for by descriptions of Caruso and revelations about how he viewed himself as an opera singer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caruso, Enrico, Jr., and Andrew Farkas. Enrico Caruso: My Father and My Family. Portland, Oreg.: Amadeus Press, 1990. A scholarly treatment of the life of Caruso written by his son. Includes a comprehensive discography and a meticulously researched chronology of all Caruso’s appearances. One of the most complete biographies of Caruso.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chanan, Michael. Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music. London: Verso, 1995. Discusses the influence of audio recording on Western society, culture, and economy, and particularly on people’s relationships with music. Includes a brief history of the art of recording sound.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gelatt, Roland. The Fabulous Phonograph, 1877-1977. 2d rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1977. Much of this book discusses the rise and fall in popularity of the phonograph. Notes all major events but tends to move back and forth between historic periods. Sets Caruso’s contributions in the context of the recordings of the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greenfeld, Howard. Caruso. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1983. A well-written, straightforward, and thorough account of Caruso’s life and achievements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Stanley. Caruso. New York: Stein & Day, 1972. Includes no new material on Caruso’s life, but the presentation is novel. Jackson has studied Caruso’s career in great detail and is able to postulate some reasons Caruso remained aloof. Includes a comprehensive index.

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