Enrico Caruso (Gramophone, January 1944) by FW Gaisberg

James McCarthy
Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Caruso was the first of the world’s great singers to have his complete repertoire perpetuated by permanent records available to everyone and recorded when the singer was in the prime of life. I recorded him first, and that when he was on the threshold of a world career. He was the answer to a recording man’s dream. Forty years ago, in order to produce good commercial records, all sorts of compromise were necessary to make good the shortcomings of sound recording. Surface noise, inherent in the process, was the most insurmountable problem: one solution was to cover or drown the noise by louder sound waves. The singers of that date sang into a small trumpet that collected the sound and directed the waves on to a small diaphragm which in turn activated the cutting stylus. If the voice was small and the singer had to stand close to the opening of the horn an unpleasant resonance would be set up and false, unmusical notes would result in the record. By selecting loud voices and standing the singer further away from the collector or horn the false tones could be avoided; at the same time the loud, rich voice covered up the surface noise inherent in the disc. Caruso’s rich baritonal voice, his effortless and even production, did all of this and more, too. He had the interpretative art of a born singer and a sense of pitch that nothing could shift. We recorders were always on the hunt for just this type of voice; whether we found it in an opera singer or navvy we would not rest until we had acquired it for a gramophone record.

In Latin countries the profession of singing still does not rank high in the social world and it is rarely adopted by the middle class or aristocracy. Indeed Battistini is one of the few I remember who came from a noble family. Most of my singing friends were sons and daughters of blacksmiths, shoemakers, washer women, door-porters, and one at least was a foundling brought up by a peasant. Caruso’s father was a factory hand and he himself worked in an iron foundry even while attending the vocal classes of Maestro Vergine. To quote my old friend William Michaelis, who acted as the Gramophone Company’s agent in Naples in those days, 40 years ago: ‘Caruso’s people were quite ordinary folk. In the days of his greatness he was always afraid that one of his family might some day take it into his head to come to the States and visit him. To avoid so compromising a meeting he paid each one of them quite a liberal pension, under the condition that they were never to leave their native city.’

With us a voice is where you find it, whether it be in a palace or hut. It is the raw material of the opera house, concert hall, gramophone and radio studio. Scouts are out all over the place looking for promising voices, especially in Italy where the preparing of the raw material for the market is not so costly. It is a popular form of speculation for small capitalists. That is why the streets of Naples are noisy with song. They are at once the Neapolitan Conservatory of Music and the publicity channel to show off voices to a chance agent looking for vocal material. Many people have claimed to have discovered Caruso and his early path was strewn with small punters and faint-hearted henchmen. Even Maestro Lombardi, who later became a real milestone in Caruso’s life, took two years to decide that the tenor had promise and could be recommended to his patron Sonzogno, the publisher. True it was a period between his 23rd and 25th year when his voice had faults, being tight and squeezed and with a ‘break’ every time he went higher than A. Tetrazzini told me that at that time he was even undecided as to whether his voice was baritone or tenor. He stumbled over G or A and the different registers were not smoothed out. He even threatened to change over to baritone.

Caruso himself admitted debt to three people: Maestro Vergine, a celebrated teacher of singing who, under certain conditions, let him attend his vocal classes for six years free of charge; Maestro Lombardi who gave him confidence in his high notes, developed the breadth of his voice and brought him to the great publisher Edward Sonzogno; finally the most disinterested and altruistic of all, was the major of the military camp at Rieti who heard the new recruit Caruso singing in the soldiers’ canteen and after only one week obtained his exemption from military service. The major bluntly explained to the 21-year-old singer : ‘Two years as a military recruit will ruin your career as a singer.’ I never heard that this disinterested major ever again crossed the path of the great opera singer but he was certainly gratefully remembered by the warm-hearted Enrico.

Maestro Vergine, like most Neapolitan vocal teachers, was resourceful and took many poor but promising singers into his classes on a contract such as he made Caruso sign: 25 per cent, of his earnings for five years of actual singing. Later in 1899 by mutual consent and a payment cf £800 this contract was torn up. In his method Vergine laid down two laws: first, vocal restraint and, secondly, don’t let the public know you work.

Caruso’s first real debut in opera was in Caserta when he had to ask for an advance on his fee before he could eat. He was 22 years old, the role was Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana. Then followed Cairo at a fee of 600 Lira per month. On the steamer to Alexandria he travelled third class and I later met English army officers who recalled bringing Caruso, by force, from the steerage and making him sing song after song until he was exhausted. An eloquent testimony that his singing was impressive even then was the handsome sum of £100 they collected for him when the hat was passed round. Next there was a season at the Mercadente at 750 Lira a month and a tour of Sicily at 600 Lira a month. At this point Maestro Lombardi stepped in, coached Caruso in I Puritani, and conducted the season at Salerno. His success in this opera brought him to the notice of all Italy. In 1897, under the same conductor, he sang Rudolfo in La Boheme for the first time with the approval of Puccini. The Mimi was Ada Giachetti, a first-class soprano although ten years older than the youthful Rudolfo.

Then came Russia. Tetrazzini often spoke to me of the two seasons of Italian opera at the St Petersburg Conservatoire in1898 and 1899. Among the artists were Mattia Battistini, and Masini (Italy’s greatest tenor before Caruso) then 58 years of age and within a few months of retiring. Already wealthy and of a generous heart he took a paternal interest in the young Caruso and gave him much wise advice. In fact, he outlived Caruso and remained his staunch friend during the remaining years of his life. The caste of Boheme was a remarkable one, consisting of Sigrid Arnoldson as Mimi, Caruso  as Rudolfo, Tetazzini as Musetta and Arimondi as Colline – all in the prime of their youth. The season was very successful and was concluded by a Grand Concert at the Winter Palace by Royal Command, when Caruso was especially commended and received a gift from the Czar. Tetrazzini never tired of telling me of the deep impression Caruso’s lovely, fresh, young voice made on her. She there and then predicted for him a great career. She described him as a rollicking Neapolitan boy. Theirs was also a long friendship and on both sides there was great sympathy between them.

Back again in Milan for the Carnival Season he appeared in the premiere of Giordano’s Fedora at the Lyric Theatre. He was now in the big money contracts and offers were showered on him from all sides. He put in two seasons, 1899 and 1900 in South America, and in 1901 a memorable nine performances at the La Scala in Mefistofele with Chaliapin in the title role and the soprano Pinto. Toscanini conducted. The year 1902 produced many important events in the young tenor’s swiftly moving life. In January he appeared at the San Carlo in several performances. Although he sang magnificently there were always disturbances framed up by Camorrists and jealous partisans. Caruso became so incensed that he vowed never again to sing in his native city. Neither did he. In February he met Melba at Monte Carlo and he sang Rudolfo to her Mimi, the first of many happy partnerships.

I have now brought him up to the La Scale Carnival Season, March, 1902, the premiere of Franchetti’s Germania, and his debut on gramophone records which, unknown to him at the time, was to net him during the next 20 years close to £600,000 and later, after his death, earn for his estate a steady income, perhaps again as much. We arrived also for the Carnival Season with complete recording outfit which we set up in a big private drawing room on the third floor of the Hotel Milan. Below us was the apartment that Verdi made his home and in which he had died the year previous. I was not many days in the hotel when, escorted by Luigi, the black-bearded head waiter, we visited this apartment which, up to that time, was held undisturbed as when the master lived there. I even came away with a piece snipped off the bed cloth by Luigi to keep as a rare if somewhat morbid memento. Spatz Hotel was the haunt of well-known singers and composers so we were well advised by our agent, Alfred Michaelis, who had secured the apartment – no easy matter in the season. 

Our drawing room we divided with a curtain behind which we erected the gramophone recording apparatus and laid out the wax discs in a heating cupboard handy for placing on the turntable. On the other side was an upright piano set up high on packing cases with its sounding board facing a tin bell-shaped horn suspended five feet from the floor. Into this the singer is supposed to sing as well. Not a very comfortable position with the thunder of the piano in his ears. The reason we worked behind curtains was that the process of recording sound was a trade secret and we had to protect from spies and competitors our methods and devices used in recording. 

In the world of opera that fine old institution the La Scala Theatre then as now held first place in the world of singers and musicians, and those upon which she has set her seal obtain easy access to the great and rich opera houses of the world. Michaelis was a cultured and far-sighted man who taught us youngsters a lot about the finer side of life. He was at once proud and excitable but otherwise a good and lovable man. He later founded the Fonotipia Company in association with Frederick d’Erlanger, who specialised only in high-class celebrities’ records and made a great success of it. Now ready for recording we began our search for singers.

There were then four young tenors of great promise: Caruso, Alessandro Bonci, Anselmi and the older Fernando de Lucia, then worshipped for his Neapolitan Canzoni. His records of these were to become great favourites with gramophone lovers. Bonci had a similar type of voice, small in tone and compass but such a superb master of technique that he could essay almost any role in the tenor repertoire. He was adored in Italy and later recorded the full tenor repertoire for  Fonotipia and Columbia. I can never forget the beauty of his voice in the Finale of the first Act of Un Ballo in Maschera at the La Scala. Anselmi, Caruso and Bonci, all about the same age, learnt much about singing (and when not to sing) from the older De Lucia, who had a great influence on their art and lives. He was also wealthy, generous and very likeable. He had what they call a short voice, a highest note of barely an A natural. To hear him sing ‘Spirto gentil’ gave one unforgetable delight. He amassed a fortune of three million Lira but lost it after the war and was forced to give lessons; he died a poor man.

To give us a chance to hear some of these singers Michaelis secured a box at the La Scala for the first performance of Germania. The securing of this box for a La Scala premiere performance was in itself a feat involving tips and bribes in all directions. We Americans assembled for the much-heralded performance impressed with the grandeur of the occasion and all would have been well had the real proprietor of the box, a Baron de X, remained away as we were led to believe he would. To the humiliation of the excitable Michaelis, and to our amusement, the Baron and his friends turned up just before the Overture had finished and asked us to clear out of his box, which of course we had to do, amidst the protests of Michaelis. This led to wild scenes by the disturbed audience and the exchange of cards by the angry Michaelis and the annoyed Baron. My brother Will was to arrange the terms of a duel and act as second. So we adjourned to our several hotels and beds, but after a good night’s rest emotion subsided and the duel was called off. Our distinguished Americans did not see the premiere of Germania but my diary informs me that I did, from a stall which I, with great luck and a stiff tip, procured.

Eventually we all saw the second performance of Germania and heard Caruso. Escorted by his own friend, Cottoni, we went back stage and talked terms to Caruso. There were many hangers-on present (this good-natured man always seems accessible to henchmen who attend on him) and each had a word to say or obstructions to raise just as we were on the point of coming to an agreement. Actually once terms were fixed the greatest difficulty was to steal a few hours in the tenor’s busy programme to record the 10 songs selected. Now we had to submit the terms by wire to London, which were promptly rejected. 

This didn’t daunt us and a few days later Caruso walked down Via Manzoni in the early afternoon dressed like a dandy complete with an imposing moustache, escorted by Cottoni, the opera coach, Alfred Michaelis, and a dozen or so followers (whom we barred from the room). They entered the Hotel Milan, to the delight of those worshippers of singers, the waiters and hotel attendants, and came straight into our improvised recording studio on the third floor. Caruso wanted to get the job over quickly as he wanted to earn the money and to have his lunch – singers never eat before singing and are ravenous for food. He forgot all this when he started on the job. There were no notes to bother about or copyright permissions to obtain. The items were all about two-and-a-half to three minutes long and one after the other, beginning with ‘Questa o quell’, as fast as we could put the waxes on the machine, Caruso poured the fresh gold of that beautiful voice on to them. He was in the good humour of robust youth and success waited for him, which ever way he chose to turn. As far as that goes we were in the same condition in those days, it seemed that we could not make mistakes no matter what risks we ran. For instance, we were recording Caruso at a record fee without Head Office approval, by the new untried process of cutting a groove of even depth on wax as opposed to the old system of etching sound on a zinc disc. Even then we had no perfected system of copying a master matrix, but actually used those copper masters as stampers. They were only copied after some thousand discs had been pressed from each.

Alfred Clark remembers receiving the impresario Heinrich Conried, of the Metropolitan opera, in his office and playing to him the new Caruso record of ‘E lucevan le stele’. So impressed was he that he signed up the singer for the forthcoming season at his New York opera house. The fame of these records spread like a prairie fire, and by May, when he arrived in London for his first Covent Garden appearance, his name was already a box office draw. That season my company were wise enough to exploit to the fullest the magic name of Caruso. That name was to become the decoy that brought other hesitating celebrities to our recording studios. His enchanting records, were to play their greatest role in popularizing good music and stimulating immense interest in the gramophone by all classes and creeds.

In the autumn of that same year (1902), while I was absent in the Far East, Michaelis arranged in Milan the second of Caruso’s European recordings. Eight titles were recorded, among them the ‘Ridi Pagliaccio’ (Laugh Pagliacci) by Leoncavallo, famous in England to the man in the street as the Sob Song. Then in March, 1904, at a third and last session in Europe, my colleague William S Darby, recorded a song composed by Leoncavallo by special commission. This was known as ‘Mattinata’ and is now a standard concert number with tenors the world over. Commissioning the great Italian composers to write songs especially for gramophone records was another of Michaelis’s ideas. Giordano, Franchetti, Mascagni and a dozen or so others were each paid up to £100 for the manuscripts they assigned to the Gramophone Company. Only that of Leoncavallo’s ‘Mattinata’ achieved success. 

Like most great singers I have known, he took but little physical exercise and rarely read a book but I happen to know what literature he preferred. I happened to be in Bossi’s well known bookshop in Milan one afternoon, when Caruso and his escort of pals entered. He was as usually elaborately dressed. He wore a big diamond ring and an equally large one flashed from his necktie. The cane he twirled nearly knocked over the piles of books about him. He asked to be supplied with a book on ‘Proper deportment in society’. It was his only purchase.

In London during the opera season Caruso was always to be found (except on the days on which he sang) holding a sort of court in the back room on the ground floor of Pagani’s Restaurant. He liked their kitchen and old Mescini and Mamma Mescini, both now of blessed memory, would go all out to please him. There were usually a dozen or more friends and cronies as guests and Enrico turned out and distributed dozens of his skilful pencil sketches of people that caught his fancy. There were just a few homes where he liked to be entertained—those of Paulo Tosti and Luigi Denza the song-writers and Andrew Black, the Edwardian baritone, were among them. Andrew studied in Italy, was a rough, plain-spoken man without side. All of these hosts knew how to cook macaroni to tickle the tenor’s palate. Once at a Ballad Concert Caruso rushed on the platform, embraced Andrew and warmly complimented his performance. He was a great admirer of the Scotch baritone.

As time passed the calls upon him were so many that he would accept concert engagements only after the Metropolitan Opera Season closed down and he would then limit his appearances to fifteen or so for a substantial fee. My friend, Frederick Coppicus, of New York, usually took over this responsibility and by careful planning and selecting towns possessing halls of vast seating capacity such as stadiums, convention halls and in Mexico open-air bull-fight arenas, he was able to meet this condition and make for himself a handsome profit. I remember Caruso appearing in ten concerts over here under Thomas Quinlan’s management. No doubt the idea to duplicate Quinlan’s very successful venture was ever present in the mind of our own audacious Lionel Powell and only Caruso’s death prevented him from risking it.

I again quote Tetrazzini: ‘The last time I saw him was May 1921, when I went to his home to bid him goodbye before I sailed for Italy. He was then convalescent after his operation but the wound was still open. He looked thin and worn and I could not understand his gaiety, for he laughed and joked and even persuaded me to dance a few foxtrot steps with him. I asked, “why this levity?” For reply he took me by the hand and marched me across the room, threw open a door and gaily pointed to several trunks standing in the adjoining room. “Look!” he exclaimed, “All packed for Italy. The next time we meet will be in bella Napoli!” And his face radiated joy. I asked him if it were not risky to travel in his delicate condition. He replied, “If I had asked you, Luisa, where I should go to get well, wouldn’t you have advised me to go to Italy?” Knowing as I did that in the heart of a Neapolitan nothing can replace his love for Mother Naples, I had to admit that it was perhaps for the best. I bade him goodbye for the last time in this life.’ Caruso died on 2 August in Sorrento.

During Caruso’s long residence in America my friend and colleague holding a similar if not more important job with the Victor Company, Calvin Child, took Caruso in hand from his first arrival, November, 1903, in New York. He had vision and was in a position to make an attractive offer to the tenor, which in the end turned out to be a life contract. The strange part was, that notwithstanding that impresarios were holding out to him all sorts of fantastic offers, Child held him for nearly 20 years, practically without guarantees. There was mutual esteem and trust that was never betrayed. Child became his business adviser and confidant. Candidly they were a god-send to each other and the results were all to the good for the man in the street. It showed him that good music was not such a fearsome thing and that it really could be most pleasing.

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