Vote for Fred Gaisberg!

GuestTue 5th March 2013

Why you should vote for Gaisberg to join the Gramophone Hall of Fame

Click here to vote for Gaisberg to enter the Gramophone Hall of Fame. 

The history of the recording industry is littered with ‘if only’ stories: if only Fritz Kreisler had recorded the Elgar Violin Concerto...; if only Rachmaninov had been allowed to record his Second Sonata...  And there are a sizeable number of ‘what if’ stories. The most significant of these is ‘What if Fred Gaisberg had followed orders and turned down Caruso?’

In 1898 the American record market was taking off in a big way. Europe was lagging behind. There was no disc recording studio anywhere this side of the Atlantic. Emile Berliner knew he had to act fast to get ahead of the competition and sent over his finest sound engineer, Fred Gaisberg, from New York. A recording studio was quickly constructed at 31 Maiden Lane in London.

Gaisberg was born 140 years ago on January 1, 1873, the grandson of German immigrants, and raised in Washington DC. He was a talented musician and began his career in the fledgling recording industry as a sound recordist and piano accompanist. The repertoire consisted almost entirely of ballads, comic songs and bands. ‘When we approached the great artists,’ recalled Gaisberg, ‘they just laughed at us and replied that the gramophone was just a toy.'

The younger generation, however, had fewer reservations. Having visited St Petersburg in 1901 (a trip on which he made over 250 discs), the following year Fred Gaisberg took his recording equipment to Italy and was stunned by the power of Enrico Caruso, a young tenor he heard singing in Franchetti’s Germania at La Scala. He made contact and asked how much the singer would charge for recording ten arias. Caruso told him the fee would be £100. This was a staggering amount of money in those days, but Gaisberg wired his boss in London with a strong recommendation to go ahead. Back came the reply:  ‘Fee exorbitant. Forbid you to record’. 

Had Gaisberg not ignored the reply, had he not then set about raising the money through his own efforts, and had he not then recorded the 10 sides with Caruso... Of course there would have been a recording industry, but without Gaisberg producing those 10 sides it would have developed in a different way and more slowly. Caruso’s extraordinary commercial and artistic success through these discs persuaded more established artists to make records: Nellie Melba, Adelina Patti, Ignace Paderewski, Francesco Tamagno, Claude Debussy, Raoul Pugno, Edvard Grieg. And it was the money-spinning Caruso discs that laid the foundation of the extremely profitable future of the Gramophone Company and its then American associate the Victor Company.

In the autumn of 1902 Gaisberg and a team of recording experts headed off to the Far East. Here they spent nearly a year travelling and recording local music by the music stars of India (Gaisberg made India’s first recordings), China and Japan. Back home, other major artists were signed up – McCormack, Gigli, Kreisler, Sir Harry Lauder – and in 1914 he oversaw the first recording of Sir Edward Elgar conducting his own work, supervising all his subsequent recordings of his symphonies and concertos. In 1936 Pablo Casals made the first recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites – at the behest of Gaisberg.

He retired in 1939 as artistic director of what had become EMI but remained as a consultant. He died at his home in Hampstead in September 1951. ‘Fred Gaisberg,’ wrote Peter Martland in his Recording History (Scarecrow Press, 2013), ‘was the first and most influential recording engineer and artist and repertoire manager The Gramophone Company and later EMI ever had.’

But for the pioneering Gaisberg’s spirit and enterprise, we might all be saying ‘if only’.

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