Redefining Early Recordings as Sources for Performance Practice and History: Newsletter 2, October 2021

Dear all,

Quite a lot has happened since our first newsletter back in the summer! We held our first symposium, and we have heard about a number of publications and other initiatives on the topic of early recordings – please remember that we are happy to publicize in our newsletter and blog any news you have in this respect.

Using early recordings in practice-led research held in Huddersfield in September

The first symposium of the network took place at the University of Huddersfield on 12th September, under the title Using early recordings in practice-led research. Featuring four lecture-recitals from expert practitioners, the highlight of the day was a practical workshop led by Duncan Millar (Vulcan Records) where delegates had a chance of recording their own performance on a phonograh.

An archive of the day’s proceedings can be found here – including videos of the lecture-recitals and of the workshop, as well as the digitized transfers of the performers’ recording and commentaries where they reflect on their experience of recording for the phonograph.

Report: Caruso at 100: the Legacy of an Operatic Icon. Concert Hall, School of Music, Cardiff University, 23rd September 2021

By Kerry Burkhall

The event ‘Caruso at 100: the Legacy of an Operatic Icon’ was held in the Cardiff University School of Music concert hall, both in person and as a livestream. The conference began with Dr Barbara Gentili’s (Cardiff University) ‘Caruso on Disc: the Voice of Modernity’, offering insights into the ways in which Caruso revolutionised vocal technique and created the aesthetics that we now associate with the modern operatic voice. In order to illustrate the differences in tone, Dr Gentili provided excerpts of recordings accompanied by detailed explanations of the mechanical adjustments that Caruso employed to transform his bright, Italianate beginnings into his later rich, dark timbre. The stark difference between the two was evident, however, the evolution was further exemplified by exceptional demonstrations by Adam Gilbert, Associate Artist at WNO, accompanied on the piano by Lauretta Bloomer. This allowed the audience to experience the resonant and acoustic changes which are perhaps less apparent on a recording, feeling the difference that would have been felt by his audiences in the opera houses of the early twentieth century. We were then treated to performances of four of Caruso’s recorded arias by Adam Gilbert, which filled the small concert hall with warmth and light, demonstrating the promise of this young talent.

After a short interval, Professor Alexandra Wilson (Oxford Brookes University) took the stage to present her talk on ‘Caruso’s books’. Drawing parallels with celebrities such as David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Freddie Mercury, Prof. Wilson’s talk shed light on 1923 auction of the vast collections owned by Caruso, specifically rare and aesthetically impressive books. However, it brought into question the purpose of these books to one who barely read. The talk highlighted the associations between the illusion of being a learned reader with middle-brow culture and displays of wealth. For Caruso, his humble upbringings appear to have fostered an impulse to collect and own rarities.

Next, Dr Carlo Cenciarelli offered his research on ‘Rendering Caruso: Mario Lanza as Reproduction Technology’, exploring the music of the 1951 MGM film The Great Caruso. Dr Cenciarelli demonstrated the ways in which the production of the film framed recording technology as the preservation of Caruso’s voice and legacy, as if creating a vocal afterlife, drawing parallels with the genetic legacy of his daughter. He also highlighted how Mario Lanza himself is now the next step of the evolution from a live performance of Caruso, to a reproduction of his voice through recordings, and finally, a recording of Lanza using updated technology, which could perhaps have been more authentic an experience than the original recordings themselves.

As questions were opened to the audience, a number of interesting observations were made, however, a query that encapsulated the session for me was whether Caruso was truly as special as he is now portrayed to have been or was simply a result of being at the right place at the right time. The consensus was, given his intentional development of a vocal style that enhanced the characters he was portraying, regardless of the physical challenges this presented him, he was a true genius.

New publications on early recordings

We are pleased to report on some recent publications focusing on early recordings:

The CLPGS Richard Taylor Bursary

The City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society (CLPGS) has alerted us to the call for applications for their Richard Taylor Bursary programme. It is designed to fund specific eligible projects in this field, including discography, bibliography, historical studies of the sound recording industry and its products, company label research, the history of talking machines, developments of the technology and any other subject likely to increase the public’s understanding and appreciation of the lasting importance of recorded sound. Richard Taylor Bursary grants are primarily (but not exclusively) designed to encourage applications from individuals whose research forms part of an academic programme at the master’s or doctoral level.

Both CLPGS members and non-members are eligible to apply for grants of at least £500.  Grant funds can be used to underwrite clerical, travel, and editorial expenses. Applications are due on 31st March 2022.

Full details of the scheme can be found in the CLPGS’s website news section here.

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