The early 1900s was a time for great change in both the recording and the music industry: forms of playback were developing with technological advances and different genres of music were becoming more accessible to dispersed groups of people all over what was considered the developed world.
Although Vesti la Giubba was a very popular song to see performed live at the opera, this song’s major significance lies in one specific 1904 recording by operatic tenor Enrico Caruso which went on to become the first million seller in recording history.
Enrico Caruso was born in Naples, Italy on February 25, 1873. He was and still is known as one of the best operatic tenors in history, but it was his cultural impact, especially on the recording industry, that was most significant when looking back on his career. Bruneau, a leading opera composer and critic in the late 1800s and early 1900s wrote about Caruso’s voice as “so easy and natural, and at the same time he showed no tendency to shout or become insipid” (Scott 84). At the time, capturing authentic tone and sound especially of opera stars, where one could easily distinguish artists’ voices from one another, was a difficult task and certain voices seemed easier to capture than others. Enrico Caruso’s was one of these.
Caruso performed in many opera houses around the world and after first visiting the United States in 1903, he returned for good the next year, where he lived out the remainder of his career. Heinrich Conried, the director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York urged Caruso to come to New York for an opera season and so began negotiating the trip with Pasquale Simonian, the President of the Italian Savings Band of New York. Both Conried and New York opera lovers were already quite familiar with Caruso, in part to his previous recordings of Vesti la Giubba, but also to the rave reviews that persisted in every location where he performed.
Through performing in such a wide variety of opera houses within many different nations, Caruso’s voice developed and changed with the different operatic tenors he heard and sang with. Simonian recalled hardly recognizing Caruso’s voice upon hearing some of his earlier records. In response to this, Caruso said “I can well understand that you did not recognize me in the phonograph, because my voice has undergone an extraordinary development, and everyone who heard me in the early days of my career marvels how my voice could have gone through such an evolution. (Caruso 83). Caruso’s voice showed considerable improvement over the years.
Vesti la Giubba
As the first million-seller in American recording history, this record proved to be a significant cultural milestone. In fact, the price for this record was almost more than what it cost to see Caruso perform live. Caruso’s voice was perfect for this record because its sound qualities compensated for what the gramophone lacked in terms of clarity and volume.
Below is the famous 1904 recording of Vesti la Giubba:
Pagliacci, the opera in which Vesti la Giubba is from was written and composed by Rugerro Leoncavallo. Today, it is the only one of his works that is still actively performed. The success of the opera itself was one factor in the record’s success. Pagliacci translates in English to “Clowns” and Vesti la Giubba translates to “Put on the costume”. Performed at the end of the first act, Canio who is portrayed by Caruso finds out that his wife has been unfaithful to him. This song portrays his feelings as a “tragic crown”: smiling on the outside but crying on the inside.
Below is a Pavarotti’s performance of Vesti la Giubba which portrays the emotions that a performer of this song would express live.
Although there were several different recorded versions of Vesti la Giubba, the version that sold over one million copies was recorded in 1904. It was recorded acoustically on a 78 rpm record. These records typically lasted 3 minutes on a 10 inch record or up to 5 minutes on a 12 inch record (Enrico). In these types of acoustic recordings, the performer sings into a large horn, where at the end is a cutting stylus, which cuts into the disc in response to vibrations picked up on by the horn. These discs were typically made with a brittle material and a shellac resin. This recording in particular did not only make the Victor Talking Machine label much more famous and well known, but it also sparked the development of other recording companies to match the success of this recording label.
It is important to think about the emotion that is so clearly expressed in this record. So much of opera is dependent on the visual experience, which is a transition that had to be made when music in general began to be recorded. However, what is particularly evident in this specific recording is the various feelings of happiness, sadness, and humor expressed by Caruso, solely through his voice. In order for this to be achieved, he would have had to perform this song like he would on stage, but with only the horn as an audience. The ability for Caruso to carry this out successfully is an impressive feat.
The Recording Label
In the late 1800s, the transition from phonographs to graphophones as playback devices occurred. The key difference between these two apparatuses was that the graphophone used wax as the recording medium instead of tin foil and the recording was cut directly into the wax. Emile Berliner introduced a new version of the record player that used a disc instead of a cylinder. This technological development was called the gramophone. The gramophone could produce significantly more volume than any other playback device that had been developed prior.
The Victor Talking Machine Company, a record label formed in 1901, commercialized Berliner’s gramophone based on his patents. In 1906, the Victrola was introduced.
This was one of the most significant developments of playback equipment produced by the label. The Victrola was a disc player with the horn inside the cabinet instead of outside of it. In 1929, the Victor Talking Machine Company was purchased by RCA. From this point on it became known as RCA Victor.
Caruso, Enrico, and Andrew Farkas. Enrico Caruso: My Father and My Family. Portland, Or.: Amadeus, 1990. Print.
“Enrico Caruso, the Greatest Tenor Who Ever Lived, Is Born.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.
Scott, Michael. The Great Caruso. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.
“Triumph of the Disc.” History of Phonograph Record Technology- The Disc Record. Recording History, n.d. Web. Feb. 2016.