Prefiguring the Spanish recording diva: how gabinetes fonográficos (phonography studios) changed listening practices, 1898–1905

Eva Moreda Rodríguez

Eva Moreda Rodríguez is Lecturer in Music at the University of Glasgow, having completed her PhD at Royal Holloway College in 2010. She specialises in the political and cultural history of Spanish music during the twentieth century and is the author of Music and Exile in Francoist Spain (Ashgate, 2015). Her second book, Music Criticism and Music Critics in Early Francoist Spain, has recently been published (OUP, 2016). Her work has received funding from the Music & Letters Trust, the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and the University of Indiana’s Lilly Library, among others. 


This chapter situates early commercial recordings made in Spain by local gabinetes fonográficos between 1898 and 1905 in the aural landscape of their time. In order to do so, it examines a range of audio-visual media, including original wax cylinders, advertisements, trade publications, press articles and other accounts of listening experiences from the arrival of phonographs in Spain in the late 1870s to the demise of the gabinetes around 1905, when they were absorbed or rendered obsolete by multinational recording companies. Such early recordings must be interpreted alongside the thriving theatrical culture that prevailed in Spain at the time, especially that of zarzuela – the preferred genre of theatre-goers and the best represented, according to available evidence, in catalogues of gabinetes fonográficos. A range of primary sources suggest that recordings were intended as a memento to go hand-in-hand with the experience of listening to music live; as such, the gabinetes fonográficos industry was uniquely built in close connection to the theatrical culture.


This chapter examines the place occupied by early commercial recordings made in Spain by local gabinetes fonográficos (phonography studios) between 1898 and 1905 in the aural landscape of their era, including how listening to recorded music related to other listening experiences that Spanish listeners regularly engaged in at the time. My focus on this body of recordings has been partially fuelled by my admiration for Catalan soprano María Barrientos (1883–1946) and her Paris recordings of Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas (1928), Soneto a Córdoba and ‘Canción del fuego fatuo’ from El amor brujo (1930). With Falla himself accompanying Barrientos on the piano and closely supervising the recording sessions, the output of these can certainly be labelled as one of the very first examples of creator’s recordings in Spanish art music,1 and Barrientos was an obvious choice for Falla’s endeavours: she had championed Spanish music since the mid-1910s, being the dedicatee and first performer of Enrique Granados’s song Elegia eterna (which, however, she never recorded) and frequently giving recitals of Spanish music, both old (Blas de Laserna) and new (Joaquín Nin, Joaquín Turina, Amadeo Vives, Francesc Alió, Falla himself). She had also enjoyed from a very young age an international career as a bel canto specialist, and as a result of this she was one of few Spanish singers to feature in the catalogues of multinational record companies in the late 1900s and 1910s. Barrientos was starting her career at the time of the gabinetes fonográficos, but there is no evidence that she ever recorded for any of them: in fact, her first set of recordings was made for the Italian label Fonotipia in 1906 and it included both the bel canto repertoire in which she specialised and zarzuela arias.

Figure 1: Advertisement by Fonotipia and Odeón, including María Barrientos as one of their featured artists, published in La Vanguardia, 20 September 1908

At a time in which Spanish nationalist composers fought for recognition abroad and also within Spain, Barrientos’s career as a recording artist significantly capitalised on her dual status as an internationally successful singer and champion of the developing Spanish repertoire. Barrientos’s standing as one of the first – if not the first – Spanish divas of recorded music,2 though, cannot be understood without reference to her predecessors, that is, the singers who recorded for the gabinetes fonográficos around the turn of the century, and especially those singing Spanish vocal repertoire – which at the time was not predominantly Spanish art song or opera, but rather zarzuela, as I will explain later. Fifty years separate the arrival of the first phonographs in Spain in the late 1870s and the Barrientos-Falla recordings. It is outside the scope of this chapter to provide a full account of this period; my aim is instead to illustrate and interrogate a crucial moment in the history of early recordings in Spain in which they began to be commercially produced for the first time, and to elucidate how new listening practices developed in close interrelationship with their context. In fact, evidence reveals that the gabinetes’ recordings were intimately connected to the place and context in which they were made, bought and/or listened to. This connection between recorded artefacts and attachment to place can be found in Barrientos’s recordings too.

How to listen to recordings

Early accounts of the phonograph written by Edison himself with a view to market it were based to a considerable extent on the concept of fidelity: phonograph recordings as perfect reproductions of reality.3 Nevertheless, central to the issue at hand is the notion that one does not simply know instinctively how to listen to recordings as if they were merely an identical substitute of reality; instead, one needs to learn how to do so (in the same way as, several decades before the phonograph was invented, photographers needed to learn how to codify meaning in their photographs and spectators needed to learn how to decode it.)4 Much of the bibliography on recorded music and recording technologies published in the last 20 years has focused precisely on this issue. It could be argued that, with the increasing attention paid to recordings as sources of performance history,5 there soon came a sense that, as with any other source, recordings should not be taken at face value, but the ways in which historical audiences listened to them, thought about them, negotiated them should also be examined critically. Here I briefly cover some concepts relating to how early audiences of recorded music learned how to make sense of recordings.

Ashby defines phonographic literacy (a ‘culturally instilled skill’) as ‘the ability to enjoy music away from the place and perpetrators of its performance’.6 This may involve, particularly at the early stages of the history of recorded music, audiences, musicians and producers working out the relationship between live and recorded sound: is the latter supposed to replace the former, or are they supposed to work together? Patrick Feaster’s concept of ‘performative fidelity’ is especially useful here:

the extent to which the socially situated playback of an indexically recorded action is accepted as doing whatever the original would have done in the same context.7

Edison’s marketing materials indeed relied to a great extent on the notion that audio fidelity would inevitably lead to performative fidelity: if a recording was sufficiently similar aurally to the original, it would also automatically absorb its contextual functions. In particular – and this is especially relevant in the context of turn-of-the-century Spain with its thriving theatrical culture, as I will explain later on – recorded music changes what Lisa Gitelman calls the ‘visuality’ of music (‘the sum of visual experiences that bolster and accompany musical practice and that extend to the societal norms of visually apprehending practice’),8 thus leaving it to audiences to negotiate new understandings of performative fidelity in the absence of visual elements. With the emergence of recorded music, live music becomes thinkable for the first time too (before recording, ‘live music’ would be a redundancy).9

Much discussed in the study of how recorded music changed listening practices is the commodification of music, which has often been portrayed as negative for audiences and musicians, who have no choice but to accept commodification passively.10 Nevertheless, commodification is not always a top-down or uniform process, but is, instead, context-specific, its evolution and form dependent on a variety of factors, including the means of reproduction themselves and the various agents involved.11

These and other critical concepts have never been applied to the history of early recording technologies in Spain (Mariano Gómez-Montejano provides in his book an informative, if non-theorised, account of the gabinetes fonográficos).12 Rather tellingly, such critical concepts have emerged mostly from accounts of early recording technologies in technologically advanced countries, or within musical cultures considered prominent (for example, Germany for art music, the United States or the United Kingdom for popular music). Focusing on a country like Spain, which was neither, can help emphasise the importance of context (both in space and time) in the development, reception and fashioning of recording technologies: listening practices connected to recorded music, we could argue, are not only time-specific, but can be place-specific as well.

Before I launch into detailed discussion, I would like to offer an overview of the broader context. 1898 has repeatedly been singled out as a crucial year in modern Spanish history, as this was the year in which Spain lost its last overseas colonies (the Philippines, Puerto Rico and, perhaps more famously, Cuba). The loss accelerated debates which had been taking shape in the preceding two decades concerned with the regeneration of Spain (regeneracionismo) on an existential, economic, political, cultural and, perhaps more importantly for the purposes of this chapter, scientific level; in fact, turn-of-the-century Spain saw a renewed interest, which partly echoed a trend stemming from earlier in the nineteenth century, in scientific and technological advances as a way of improving the country’s education system, its industry and agriculture. Based on these principles, the Ministry for Public Instruction was founded in 1900, followed by a restructuring of university teaching and infrastructure to make it more empirical.13 Recorded sound, thus, has to be understood not only as a cultural product, but also as a technological achievement.

Gabinetes fonográficos: an overview

Spaniards first had the opportunity of seeing and listening to Edison’s phonograph shortly after its invention in 1877; in the next decade or so, phonographs were occasionally exhibited and played as a scientific curiosity in front of audiences belonging mostly to the middle and upper classes.14 Edison’s Perfected Phonograph, introduced in 1888, revitalised interest in recording technologies: phonographs started to be toured around the country by funfair impresarios and scientific popularisers, and exhibited at inns, civic centres, church halls and private homes at a cost affordable to the working classes. Some educational institutions, notably secondary schools, also acquired phonographs for teaching purposes.15 Individuals who bought phonographs for their own private use were still a minority, while recordings were produced on an ad hoc basis by the operators or owners of the phonographs themselves, and not intended for being sold independently.

It was not until the launch of Edison’s Standard Phonograph in 1898 that we can speak of a record industry starting to develop in Spain: phonographs imported from abroad were sold either by pre-existing retail businesses, mostly in the healthcare and technology areas, or by newly created establishments. Since customers needed access to a reasonably broad range of recorded repertoire in order to make the acquisition of a phonograph worth the money, such establishments started to produce and sell recordings on wax cylinder support; thus came about the gabinetes fonográficos. Preserved cylinders and written records suggest that about 40 gabinetes were in operation between 1898 and 1905 in Spain, mostly in the cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.

Figure 2: Advertisement by Viuda de Aramburo, published in Blanco y negro on 22 May 1897 (The fact that it was published in 1897 suggests that some gabinetes may have started their business before the Edison Perfected Phonograph.)

Although I consider the gabinetes fonográficos to mark the beginning of a recording industry in Spain, it must be noted that this industry still had a significant artisanal side to it. Indeed, the state of technology at the time still did not allow wax cylinders to be reproduced on an industrial scale while preserving an acceptable level of audio quality. Most wax cylinders sold at the time were thus one-offs, but this was not necessarily regarded as a negative thing; indeed, a number of gabinetes – including Sociedad Fonográfica Hugens y Acosta and Álvaro Ureña, both based in Madrid – took pride in the fact that they did not sell copies of their own or others’ cylinders, while at the same time implying that other gabinetes did.

The fortnightly magazine El cardo, one of the first to dedicate its attention to the nascent industry under the form of a standing section called ‘Boletín Fonográfico (Phonographic newsletter), supported Hugens y Acosta and Ureña in their endeavours, and suggested that copies of original cylinders should be labelled as such and sold at a cheaper price to protect the interests of both musicians and consumers.16 Articles published in El cardo, though, suggest that no more than about a dozen copies could be made of the same cylinder without quality being compromised; this, again, is hardly on an industrial scale.

The development of the gramophone and the technological innovations enabling the reproduction of recordings on an industrial scale encouraged recording multinational companies to open subsidiaries in new markets all over the world,17 including Spain from 1903, with Compagnie Française du Gramophon (Compañía Francesa del Gramófono) being the first.18 By 1905, most gabinetes were no longer operative as such, with Sociedad Fonográfica Española Hugens y Acosta, one of the most successful, liquidating its assets on 9 December 1905.19 Meanwhile, other gabinetes, such as La Fonográfica Madrileña, managed to survive as resellers of equipment and recordings manufactured by the multinationals; however, they stopped producing any recordings themselves, at a time in which multinational companies in other industries were also settling in Spain following similar strategies of partnership working with local companies.20

Figure 3: Advertisement by La Fonográfica Madrileña, published in ABC on 6 January 1909

Learning to listen to recordings in turn-of-the-century Spain

In this section, I discuss what available evidence indicates about the ways in which early listeners of recorded music in Spain started to build phonographic literacy by listening to, decoding and making sense of the gabinetes’ recordings in their specific cultural and social context. Two caveats precede my discussion: firstly, even though the gabinetes made it easier for customers in the upper and middle classes to acquire phonographs, we must not infer from this that they operated a generalised change in the ways in which the Spanish population listened to music. In fact, the evidence suggests that those being regularly exposed to recorded music were still in a minority. After two years operating as a society, the Sociedad Fonográfica Española Hugens y Acosta declared that it had 2,000 customers.21 This certainly does not mean that only 2,000 people had listened to Hugens y Acosta’s recordings; although it is not clear what the word ‘customer’ means, it seems reasonable to think that it referred to repeat customers who regularly bought in person or by correspondence from Hugens y Acosta; the gabinete probably had a number of ‘one-off’ customers as well.

Similarly, it is very likely that, through those 2,000 customers, other people became exposed to recorded music (for example, their families and friends). Even considering that other gabinetes may have had their own pools of customers (likely smaller, since Hugens y Acosta was one of the most prolific gabinetes, as well as being one of the most active in their publicity efforts), the numbers remains small considering that the population of Spain exceeded eighteen million in 1900.

The second caveat refers to the types and the scope of the evidence available about the experience of listening to recordings. In testimonies written by or about early listeners of recorded music and, more generally, discourses about recorded music, it is striking how little detail there is about the music itself. This is the case with the two main industry publications of the time of the gabinetes: El cardo, which I have already mentioned, and Boletín Fonográfico in Valencia (which published 40 issues from January 1900 to October 1901). Boletín Fonográfico focused primarily on technological developments and provided detailed accounts of devices and techniques developed by their readers themselves to improve the recording capabilities of the phonograph.22 Profiles of individual singers, on the other hand, were rather generic and included little detail on their technical or interpretative capabilities; when they did mention aspects such as range, articulation or timbre of the voice, it was almost invariably to explain why some voices are more suitable to be recorded than others.23

El cardo’s Boletín Fonográfico, on the other hand, focused mostly on the industrial and commercial aspects of recorded music, with extensive advocacy against the duplication of cylinders and for the signing of exclusive rights contracts between specific singers and gabinetes.24 In itself, though, this focus on the technological and industrial aspect of recordings is a valuable piece of evidence – a reminder that these should not be regarded solely as artistic artefacts, and were not regarded as such in their own time. Data about the repertoire recorded, the singers taking part in the recordings, and the strategies followed by the gabinetes to market their products can also offer valuable information about how recordings were received and decoded by their audiences.

In order to understand how recordings were understood in the era of the gabinetes, I would first like to refer back to the era of the Perfected Phonograph between 1888 and 1898. The new artefact was first marketed by Edison and his agents, in Spain and elsewhere, as a business aid intended mostly for dictation and correspondence;25 entertainment did not feature highly among the uses Edison envisaged for his invention and, if anything, it was rather branded as a mixture of entertainment and preservation. Edison himself, naming Rubinstein, stated that one of the aims of the phonograph was to preserve the voices or playing of those known for their rhetoric, acting or musical skills.26 Such arguments were soon put forward by Spanish writers too, sometimes enhanced with references to Spanish or local personalities whose voices were deemed worth preserving, such as tenor Julián Gayarre.27

Technologies, nevertheless, do not always end up filling the roles their creators envisaged for them. Indeed, what emerges from accounts of travelling phonographs around Spain is not a fascination with well-known singers, actors and orators, but, rather, with the recorded voice per se, in the first place, and, secondly, with the voices of people who were personally known to the audience. It was not often that announcements and accounts of phonographic sessions published in the press mention the names of specific singers featuring in such events, or of specific pieces to be played back; at most, they would give a general overview of the selection of genres available for listening (which were almost invariably opera, zarzuela, traditional music and military music, together with non-musical recordings including jokes, speeches and short stories).28 This suggests that it was recorded music per se, and not the voices of specific internationally well-known singers, which was the main appeal and focus of the listening experience in many phonographic sessions.

When the focus was on one voice specifically, this would be the voice of someone known to the audience personally, that is, as a prominent musician or speaker at the local level. For example, in a visit to Madrid of Edison agents Mr Sean and Mr Warring to present the Perfected Phonograph in Spain, the Count of Aguilar de Inestrillas spoke out a voice of command in front of the phonograph which was promptly played back; as the commandant of the royal guard, Aguilar de Inestrillas was well-known locally, and certainly to the middle- and upper-class audience which had been invited to the event.29 The same format can be found in a variety of events all over Spain, not necessarily organised by Edison’s agents. In 1894, at the Coliseo of Logroño, local lawyer Pedro Montero gave a short speech and cornet player Lorenzo Colís played a solo, which were both subsequently played back by the phonograph – to audiences who would have known Montero and Colís at least by name. The programme also included a mandolin solo recorded in New York City, but one whose performer the audience would have probably been familiar with: José Olaguenaga, who was also from the region of La Rioja.30 José Navarro Ladrón de Guevara (who would later on open his own gabinete in Madrid) visited Cartagena in 1896 with a phonograph, and made the recording and playback of local amateur singers into one of the pillars of his shows.31

These instances must be understood in a context in which audio fidelity was still one of the main attractions of the newly introduced recording technologies: in such phonographic sessions, what mattered to the organisers and presumably the audience was to check that the phonograph, as promised by Edison’s propaganda, could be an acceptable means to reproduce sonic reality as it was. This is hardly exclusive of Spain, but can, rather, be interpreted as a logical reaction to the perspective of hearing recorded sound for the first time; in Spain, though, this concern with the phonograph as a means to reproduce reality ties in with a key question of Regeneracionismo: how to best apprehend and reproduce reality, as a means of changing it; this is the implicit aim, for example, in Pío Baroja’s realist literature.32 The phonograph too was regarded by some as an artefact which might be able to change reality for the best by capturing and leaving a record of it for reference and reflection: some jurists argued that it could revolutionise the law, since it could allegedly record any person’s words as they were spoken, hence smoothing out any ambiguities in the recording of wills and other documents.33 The phonographic literacy of listeners of the Edison Standard Phonograph, though, still relied heavily on the connection between live and recorded music, and performative fidelity was regarded as the same as auditory fidelity; the fact that attempts at turning the phonograph into a notary of sorts never came to fruition, though, suggests that there was indeed a gap between both concepts.

The advent of the Standard Phonograph changed to some extent the way in which recordings were listened to and understood. There was, first of all, a key change in the technology: apart from being more affordable to at least the middle classes, the new phonograph allowed users to not only play back wax cylinders, but also to record their own. In fact, many of those buying phonographs from the gabinetes seem to have used them to this end: Valencia’s Boletín Fonográfico organised a contest in which readers were encouraged to send in recordings they had made themselves, suggesting it was a popular entertainment.34 But the true business of the gabinetes fonográficos was not based on their customers’ familiarity with their immediate circle of friends, families and acquaintances anymore; it had moved a step beyond to voices which had a certain local or national profile, but with whom audiences would still have felt some close identification.

The repertoire recorded by the gabinetes fonográficos indeed speaks of the interrelation between live events and recordings of them. Advertisements of the gabinetes became more specific than those for phonographic sessions: a list of singers recording for the gabinete in question would normally be included, but not always the specific pieces or repertoire. The gabinetes may have chosen to do so for practical commercial reasons: with the recordings being one-offs and with each singer normally recording a range of pieces in their repertoire, it was probably a safer strategy to lure customers with singers’ names than with recordings of specific pieces which may have been sold out by the time a customer enquired about them. But it is also likely that the owners of the gabinetes were aware that the voices of specific singers played a crucial role in most of their customers’ experiences in listening to live music and they wanted to make the most of it: in fact, I suggest that the recordings made by the gabinetes fonográficos, albeit situated in a different level of phonographic literacy than the phonographic sessions with the Perfected Phonograph in that they did not rely anymore on the close association between the live experience and the recording, were nonetheless intended to work as a memento of the theatre-going experience of their customers rather than as a stand-alone product. This must not be understood as a failure of audiences to acquire a sufficiently refined standard of phonographic literacy, but rather as a testimony that, throughout history, recorded music has different types of relationships or dependency to the actual live experience.

Theatre-going was indeed big at the time in Spain, and especially in Madrid, which was host to more gabinetes than any other Spanish city. Opera had a strong followership at the Teatro Real, but it was predominantly zarzuela which monopolised much of the theatre-going activity of madrileños across all social classes. From the evidence in the catalogues of the gabinetes, it is likely that zarzuela prevailed here too: there is certainly some preponderance of zarzuela over opera performers, although from the catalogues alone it is not possible to ascertain how many recordings each singer made. A survey of surviving recordings at the Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE), digitised at Biblioteca Digital Hispánica, may illuminate further the distribution of recordings across genres (with the caveat that, with most recordings being a one-off, those preserved at the BNE are but a very small fraction of the total produced): out of 243 cylinders produced by Spanish gabinetes and containing some form of music, 98 are of zarzuela, 48 of traditional music, 47 of opera, 32 of instrumental music and 18 of other genres of light vocal music. El cardo also complained on a few occasions that zarzuela was more popular among the gabinetes and their customers than other genres their authors regarded as more refined.35

In order to examine what the listening experience for zarzuela audiences may have been like at the time the gabinetes were in full swing and the place that recordings may have played in it, I will first offer some context about the history of the genre. The beginnings of zarzuela in its modern form are conventionally dated back to the premiere of Francisco Asenjo Barbieri’s Jugar con fuego in 1851. The following two decades were the reign of the so-called zarzuela grande: full-length pieces in three acts (that is, three to four hours), made up of numbers rather than through-composed; most zarzuelas were set in present-day Spain or in its recent past and, as such, offered a discourse of national identity which is perhaps best highlighted by the integration of a number of folk dance and musical forms, especially for choral and ensemble numbers. Young authors José Vallés, Juan José Luján and Antonio Riquelme pioneered in 1868 the so-called ‘teatro por horas’ (hourly, or hourly-paid theatre),36 which was based on shorter pieces with a more condensed and streamlined plot.

During the 1880s, all zarzuela theatres in Madrid ended up adopting this format due to the costs and risks of putting together a full-length zarzuela grande: indeed, with the new teatro por horas format, theatres offered three or four one-hour plays – the so-called género chico. Tickets were sold for each play individually at cheaper prices, which attracted audiences from a broader range of social classes, and an unsuccessful play was easier to replace than a full zarzuela grande without incurring great losses.37 Most plots were still set in contemporary Madrid and cast an ironic if ultimately amiable eye on political and social issues while negotiating an integrative, yet still ideologically conservative, view of an industrialised, urban, modern Spain.38 Nevertheless, with plays being shorter and the production process more streamlined, some changes needed to be introduced: folk-inspired numbers were not the province of choirs and ensembles anymore, and were instead introduced in the soloist’s arias as well. This made them indeed easier to remember both for the audiences and for the singers themselves, many of whom were selected predominantly on the basis of their acting capabilities: indeed, a beautiful or trained voice in a zarzuela performer was seen as a welcome bonus, but not necessarily as a must. Dance numbers became more prominent as well.

At the time of the gabinetes around 1900, género chico was undergoing a transformation itself, its potential to critique or even represent social context becoming exhausted.39 A new genre started to develop: género ínfimo, with plays becoming even shorter and more condensed, and comicality and dancing taking precedence over plot and musical development. In the next few years, zarzuela disintegrated even further: the género sicalíptico took the erotic aspects of the género ínfimo to the extreme; the cuplé, on the other hand, was equally risqué and took the style of the musical numbers of género ínfimo and transformed them into stand-alone songs to be sung in a cabaret-style setting.40 Both the género sicalíptico and the cuplé were primarily the province of male audiences, with the purely listening experience being punctuated by visual enjoyment and sexual excitement.41 But even in the less risqué genres such as género chico and ínfimo, it is clear the listening experience of theatre-goers in turn-of-the-century Spain was made up of many other aspects apart from the purely musical.

Indeed, evidence indicates that the gabinetes’ recordings fed off the live music experience of theatre-goers. The locations of both gabinetes and zarzuela theatres in Madrid around 1900 is in itself illustrative. At the time, nine zarzuela theatres were active in Madrid which programmed género chico exclusively or to a significant extent (Alhambra, Apolo, Comedia, Eslava, Lara, Martín, Novedades, Parish and Zarzuela), with up to four plays being programmed each day. A simple mapping exercise  shows that some of the gabinetes were next door or across the road from zarzuela theatres (and sometimes from each other). This opens up questions about the patterns and the locality of the production and consumption of early recordings. Unfortunately, the available records about the gabinetes do not offer much information about why their owners chose to open them in specific places, but their locations on the map suggest that some phonography impresarios may have considered proximity to a theatre as a desirable characteristic when studying potential locations to open their gabinetes. Similarly, for existing businesses such as Viuda de Aramburo (originally a store of electrical equipment) and Obdulio Villasante (pharmacy), the comings and goings of zarzuela audiences past their establishment may have encouraged them to open a side-line to their business publishing and selling wax cylinder recordings.

The repertoire recorded also suggests that recordings were intended to go hand in hand with the live listening experience, rather than replace it. Some of the surviving recordings were likely intended to capitalise on a specific singer’s success on the stage: for example, soprano Ascensión Miralles recorded the duet from Federico Chueca’s La alegría de la huerta for Viuda de Aramburo shortly after she premiered it at the Teatro Eslava – though not with her original partner in the premiere, tenor José Riquelme, but with a Mr Navarro instead. The choir of the Teatro de la Zarzuela also recorded for Viuda de Aramburo the choral number ‘Los de Calatorao’ from Gigantes y cabezudos in 1898; Gigantes was perhaps the biggest zarzuela success of the year, with its commentary on the loss of Spain’s last colonies. With zarzuela companies changing theatre and often also city on a yearly basis,42 gabinetes also tried to capitalise on a singer’s success after they had left the city; this is the case with sopranos Avelina Corona and Dolores Millanes; both were in Valencia as part of their tours around 1900 and recorded for local gabinetes there (Corona for Pallás, Millanes for Puerto and Novella); in both cases, the fact that they had been in the city and were hence known to the audiences was duly publicised among customers.43


A look at the evidence available about the recordings made by Spanish gabinetes fonográficos provides a refreshing counterpoint to accounts of technological inevitability by illuminating the roles of listeners, small and medium-sized business owners, and singers in the process of experimenting with, adopting and spreading recorded music. But perhaps its primary interest lies in the fact that it highlights the role of local and national contexts in order to fully account for the changes that recorded sound introduced in the listening experience; from the turn of the century, as has been discussed earlier, multinational companies indeed took an interest in recording and marketing indigenous repertoires (and zarzuela and other Spanish genres such as flamenco were no exception), but this must not be regarded as the first time in which the recording business went global. Indeed, countries such as Spain had already started to create their own recording business – which, at least in the case of Spain, was then dismantled by the arrival of the multinationals – based not only on the recording of their own music, but also on a complex relationship with the unique context in which those genres developed and thrived. It is in this way, I would like to argue, that it makes sense to place the first stars of recorded zarzuela as the predecessors of Barrientos later on, not simply because Barrientos herself recorded some of their repertoire, but because her dual status as both a performer with an international career and a champion of Spanish music still echoed some of the relationship between recorded music and the stage culture to which it belonged in its live status.

Select bibliography

Ashby, Arved. Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

del Moral Ruiz, Carmen. El Género Chico. Madrid: Alianza, 2004.

Feaster, Patrick. “Rise and obey the command’: performative fidelity and the exercise of phonographic power,’ Journal of Popular Music Studies 24, no. 3, 2012, pp. 357–395.

Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines. Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Gómez Montejano, Mariano. El fonógrafo en España. Cilindros españoles. Madrid: Industrias Gráficas Caro, 2005.

Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Membrez, Nancy Jane Hartley. ‘The Teatro Por Horas: history, dynamics and comprehensive bibliography of a Madrid industry, 1867–1922 (género chico, género ínfimo and early cinema)’, PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1987.

Rothenbuhler, Eric W. and Peters, John Durham. ‘Defining phonography: an experiment in theory,’ The Musical Quarterly 81, no. 2 (1997), pp. 242–264.

Young, Clinton D. Music Theater and Popular Nationalism in Spain, 1880–1930. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016.

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Early 78s, celebrities of the Italian operatic tradition, and audiences

Barbara Gentili

Barbara Gentili studied at the University of Perugia (B-Hons in Law, 2003), at the University of Pavia (PGCE in Music, 2007) and then at the Conservatoire of Milan (MA in Singing, 2012), before moving to the UK to pursue a PhD in Music at the Royal College of Music in London. Barbara’s current work focuses on changes that verismo opera, with its completely new musical vocabulary, brought about on the bel canto technique. To this end, historical recordings from the pre-electrical era are analysed to reveal tendencies and performance practices developed by singers in those years.


Early recordings from the pre-electrical era have something magical and unique about them: they preserve the fresh impression of live performances, unmediated by the adjustments of technology. The singers’ lack of any previous experience in what recording a disc of a cylinder consisted of explains why they failed to appreciate the profound differences between singing on stage and singing in front of a phonograph.

Emma Calvé could not be convinced that stamping her feet while recording Carmen’s Seguedilla was pointless for the listener, who was unable to see her acting. The negotiations which often preceded great singers’ involvement with the recording industry were exhausting, such as in the case of Nellie Melba. In particular, Melba’s reluctance to release her recorded material, and her skepticism regarding the ability of the early reproduction process to capture the quality of her voice, show how traumatic the advent of recording was for some interpreters of those days.

From the exclusive perspective of the Italian operatic tradition, I will focus on the reactions of singers and audiences to the advent of recorded sound, and its revolutionary impact on the personal experience of listening to music.


The primary purpose of this chapter is to present an overview of the different reactions expressed by some of the most celebrated singers of Italian opera at the beginning of the twentieth century while listening to their own recordings. Enrico Caruso, John McCormack, Nellie Melba and Luisa Tetrazzini, among many others, are inextricably linked to the history of the recording industry, which first took off at the beginning of the last century. These singers had the advantage of being considered pioneers in the rudimentary technology of acoustic recording; they risked all in terms of its limitations and its sonic experience, which to the ears of any contemporary listener sounds quite primitive.

How did these singers approach the recording experience? How did they respond when they listened to their own recordings? To what extent were they aware that in participating in these early recordings they were among the first performers in the history of music to leave sonic evidence of their singing? These considerations must have played a subtle psychological role at the exact moment when the 78 was put on the gramophone machine and they had the opportunity of being able to hear themselves for the first time. In some respects, acknowledgement of their own efforts must have been a quite shocking experience, analogous to the experience shared by many of us when we hear the playback of a recording of a talk or performance we have given. Indeed, who among us has not thought with disappointment: ‘Is this how my voice sounds? I had a completely different idea!’ Common though that reaction might be, anyone who has had that experience should bear in mind the vast difference between recording in a modern studio and hearing the result in high fidelity sound, in contrast to the experience of Nellie Melba or Enrico Caruso who sang into a horn and heard their performances played back through very rudimentary machinery.

In addition to examining the reaction of singers to their early recordings, this chapter will also assess whether the first listening experiences of recorded material had any tangible impact on performers’ habits and/or audiences’ expectations. In singers’ writings or interviews from those years, it is perhaps surprising that we hardly find any reflections regarding the ways in which their recordings might have influenced their performing habits. Obviously, the influence of one’s own recorded performance is much more of a concern to contemporary performers, who are used to the perfect recording, where any mistakes can be removed and the final result depends on a copy and paste process, which includes only the most perfectly realised takes. In contrast, early recordings from the pre-electrical era cannot be manipulated. The singer goes into the recording room, sings with their lips a few inches from the recording horn and listens to the accompanying instruments placed behind their head. This creates an unnatural distance between the performers.44 Moving back from and forward towards the horn, the singer is hampered in many ways. There are also time constraints, as the seven-, ten- and later twelve-inch gramophone discs last between two and a half and four and a half minutes, a factor which inevitably affected the speed of performances. Furthermore, sound quality was compromised due to the fact that the recording apparatus is not able to capture all partials of the voice and even, at times, interferes with them by introducing its own sympathetic vibrations.45

No matter where the recording session took place, in a hotel room, in the lavish drawing room of the most magnificent villa or in the fancy recording studio of the Gramophone London site on the top floor of a commercial office building in City Road, the feeling of being constricted by a hostile environment could not be overcome. The vision of the singer was restricted to the edges of the recording horn, the body firmly still, the ears anxiously expecting the two bell rings that signalled the starting point, and the breath held until the whirring of the recording mechanism came to an end.46 Although the recorded performance is just one of hundreds that the singer had already performed live, could the simple fact that this is a recorded example, and therefore can be listened to many times, affect the way in which the recorded solo will be performed in the future?

The same question can be asked with respect to the audiences. Could the recorded version of a solo, heard many times inside the domestic privacy of the listeners’ drawing room, create some expectations in the listeners themselves when hearing it in the concert hall or opera house? Early recordings preserve the fresh impression of live performances: defects and even plain mistakes are evident, conferring upon them a sense of magical uniqueness. In her biographical volume Melodies and Memories, Melba suggested that she had received numerous marriage proposals from men at far ends of the world who fell in love with her having heard her angelic voice on a disc.47 In their letters, these men claimed that they felt the heavenly beauty of her soul behind the pure sound of her voice. Clearly one cannot take these statements at face value, given that Nellie Melba was a beautiful and extremely wealthy woman at the peak of her career at that time. Nevertheless, they suggest the strong impact that early recordings exerted on audiences.

In contrast, feeling the soul of an artist through a recording is hardly a common consideration nowadays in terms of critical listening. Judging from the reviews that most modern recordings receive, our first preoccupation would be with technical aspects of the performance, such as the clarity of the phrasing, the articulation of the words, the length of the breaths, the covering of the passaggio area and the effective projection of the voices. We only feel able to engage with the performance at an expressive and emotional level, if the technical aspects of the singing are completely secure. Moreover, we bring the same expectations to a live performance, where we expect the same faultless precision and finesse that we are used to hearing in recordings.48

Early recordings, therefore, represent a world belonging to a thoroughly different era, with its own specific performing habits and its own idea of what the artistry of a singer was. A number of scholars from the 1990s onwards have assessed the way listening to recordings has exerted a very powerful influence in changing the tastes of audiences throughout the last century.49 What I will argue here is that at the beginning of the twentieth century the individual personality of an interpreter was even more of a crucial element in the expectations of the audience than today. The early twentieth century was the era of the singer, where conductors had to bow to the singer’s absolute power. When the Russian bass Fedor Chaliapin finally signed his gramophone contract in 1910, he was little concerned with the choice of the conductor for his recordings: ‘…anyone will do, for it is I who will direct’ was his answer to the company inquiry on the topic.50 As Gemma Bellincioni, a famous Italian soprano of those years, pointed out, the opera-goer of her days went to the opera house expecting to find a specific singer creating a specific role from an opera whose authorship had in effect been transferred from the composer to the singer themself. Audiences were going to theatres in order to listen to Les Huguenots of the tenors Stagno, or Gayarre or Masini, forgetting that the actual composer was Meyerbeer.51

The problematic relationship between Nellie Melba and her recordings

Reactions to the early recordings of Nellie Melba (1861–1931) are among the most fascinating of early twentieth-century examples in the Italian tradition. Her first recording session took place in March 1904 at her London house in Great Cumberland Place. Melba’s drawing room was large enough to make space for a small orchestra and all the technical equipment of horns and turntables used by the technicians of the Gramophone and Typewriter company. After having listened to the ‘scratching screeching’ results of this first session – which includes, among seventeen other surviving sides, versions of Donde lieta from Puccini’s La Bohème, and Caro nome and Sempre libera from, respectively, Verdi’s Rigoletto and La Traviata – she stated:

Don’t tell me I sing like that, or I shall go away and live on a desert island, out of sheer pity for the unfortunate people who have to listen to me.52

Melba’s voice had a particularly pure quality, described as silvery or shining by critics such as W. J. Henderson or H. Klein, who heard Melba during her glory days.53 The splendour of her timbre was probably not captured by the acoustic recording system, which cut out all her upper partials.54 In effect, comparing the early pre-electrical recordings with her 1926 farewell concert at Covent Garden, the listener almost has the impression of hearing two completely different singers, as these two examples of Donde lieta uscì from Puccini’s La Bohème attest:

Apparently, the electrical recordings made later in her career proved to have exerted the same impression on Melba herself. The Australian baritone John Brownlee, who sang with the great prima donna during her last recording session in December 1926 at the Small Queen’s Hall as well as in her farewell concert earlier in June, tells us the very characteristic story of the diva working at her last recording session. At first, she stared at the microphone, asking ominously: ‘How can anything good come out of that obnoxious looking box?’55 But then, after listening to the playback of her sound test, she cried out: ‘For the first time I hear something of what I think my voice really sounds like. Why wasn’t this thing invented before?’56 This remark seems to confirm that the aural results of her pre-electrical recordings caused considerable anxiety and a sort of embarrassment for the great soprano.

The root of Melba’s discomfort may lie in a mismatch between the very pure tone of her voice and the limited capacity of pre-electrical recording techniques to capture that quality. Melba’s vocal training was completed under Mathilde Marchesi, one of the most accomplished singing teachers of the late nineteenth century, at whose school many operatic celebrities of those decades were trained.57 Marchesi was a pupil of Manuel II Garcia, the author of the famous treatise the Art of Singing, which is considered the bible of bel canto style.58 The explicit intentions of Mathilde were to perpetuate the teaching tradition of her great Master, and Nellie Melba’s vocal production relies on the technical features outlined by this tradition. The neat manner of blending the vocal registers, supported by the costal-diaphragmatic breathing, might have conspired to produce a recorded sound that Melba could not recognise as her own voice.59

Melba was aware of the historical relevance of her recordings. She was anxious that any mistakes, ‘any faint error in breathing [….] will remain, mercilessly reproduced, to all eternity’.60 Therefore, she approached the recording process with a great sense of responsibility towards the audience of her own time and also the future. Long and difficult were the negotiations that eventually overcame her opposition to release her first recordings – those realised in her drawing room by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in 1904. Melba judged them unreliable, as they would have left a completely deformed impression of her voice for the listener. This decision is surely evidence of Melba’s acute aesthetic conscience, rather than the irrational and narcissistic response of a prima donna. Melba was genuinely concerned about the kind of evidence for posterity that such recordings would have transmitted, not just of her own singing but also of an entire vocal tradition of which she was a major representative.

Contemporary opinions on the recordings of Melba

In stark contrast with the concerns raised by Melba on her pre-electrical recordings, the opinions of other qualified witnesses of this early stage of the recording industry express different views. Frederick Gaisberg was the Gramophone and Typewriter Company’s technician. He recorded the greatest opera stars during the early decades of the twentieth century, including Adelina Patti, Francesco Tamagno, Enrico Caruso, Pol Plaçon and Feodor Chaliapin. Gaisberg claims that the acoustic process was especially suitable for sopranos, whose voices sounded bigger and more full-bodied when recorded with this system.61 In his opinion, Melba’s voice was fairly represented by her early recordings, as we can assume from his remark: ‘For long she doubted, or pretended to doubt, our ability to reproduce her voice’, but ‘… in those pioneer days … enough was achieved to convince Melba that, under favorable conditions, the engineer could make a successful record of her voice’. 62

Another influential testimony comes from the critic Hermann Klein, who closely followed the rise and the technical development of the recording industry, becoming one of the musical advisors for the Columbia company.63 Klein was a man of many talents. A singer himself, and one of the last pupils of Manuel II Garcia, he played the roles of singing teacher, impresario, music critic and journalist. He was acquainted with the major opera stars of his days: from Melba to Marcella Sembrich – between whose voices he could not decide which was the best; from Emma Eames to Lillian Nordica – the latter gave him the idea of a singing method with recording examples, which became the Phono-Vocal Method; from Tamagno to Caruso, to name a few. Klein was an acute judge of vocal recordings, and did not spare Nordica from a harsh judgment of her recorded voice, which to him seemed ‘thin and pinched and even muffled in tone’.64 However, he had nothing but praise for the quality of Melba’s voice as heard in her pre-electrical recordings, in stark contrast to the singer herself.65

From this divergence of opinions, one might conjecture that Melba’s reaction to her own recordings was partly a consequence of the striking effect of hearing her voice for the first time at the age of 43. Since her early twenties, she had been first trained and then acclaimed for her roles throughout Europe and the Americas, celebrated by wildly enthusiastic audiences, praised for her sweet, flexible, pure tone and the unprecedented perfection of her coloraturas. She now found herself faced with the aural reproduction of her voice. Melba recorded regularly for the Gramophone Company from 1904 to 1926. Admittedly, she was not happy with the results of her pre-electrical recordings, but she must at least have listened to the discs produced from any recording session in order to authorise the public release of the discs themselves. Melba must have speculated on the sound of this voice and, because of the lack of any instrument of reproduction until then, the mental image that she had of her own voice could have been dramatically contradicted by the sound that came out from the horn that morning in March 1904.66 It is also possible that the invention of the electrical system of recording, from which Melba’s voice surely benefited, helped her to become reconciled with the sound of her recorded voice during the years spent hearing her discs. Eventually the trauma of listening to her ‘external’ voice might have been overcome by a combination of technology and habit.

Melba and her colleagues

By comparing Melba’s pre-electrical recordings with those of Luisa Tetrazzini (1871– 1940) we can evaluate how the vocal characteristics of the latter were more suitable for the acoustical recording system than those of Melba. For example, Tetrazzini’s rendition of Violetta’s grand aria E’ strano … è strano  conveys a more full-bodied and rounded voice: her top notes in particular resound in a broad and powerful manner, supported by a strong use of the appoggio. In the Italian vocal technique, the word appoggio indicates a specific system of breathing, where the pressure of the air is perceived to be in the lower region of the chest, under the breast bone. The features of Tetrazzini’s vocal production could be linked to the new repertory created by the giovane scuola italiana – young Italian school, also known as verismo opera – which, between the 1890s and 1920s, shaped a new operatic style where declamation and dramatic accentuation were essential. To fulfill these new demands, the earliest interpreters of these roles had to reinforce their breathing technique, which in turn altered the way of blending together resonances from the various registers. The more satisfying – due to it being more true to life – vocal colour that we hear in Tetrazzini’s recordings may perhaps depend on such changes in vocal technique.

In stark contrast, Nellie Melba, educated on the basis of the traditional rules of bel canto, sang her top notes in the pure head register, as the Victor recording of 1907 demonstrates. For this reason her singing resembles the style of old-fashioned singers such as Adelina Patti much more than that of her contemporary colleagues. It is instructive to compare Melba’s reaction to her own recordings with those of Patti (1843–1919), probably the most famous operatic celebrity of any age. Patti, in fact, was ecstatic while listening to her own voice on the discs recorded in 1903 at her castle of Craig-y-Nos in Wales, as the conductor Landon Ronald confirms, recalling her words: ‘O mon Dieu! Now I understand why I am Patti. Oh yes! What a voice! What an artist! I fully understand it all!’67 This enthusiastic attitude was shared by Ronald himself who affirms: ‘the fact that she (Patti) was praising her own voice seemed to us all to be right and proper’.68

Patti’s response to her own recordings sheds light on the subjective aspects of the listening experience. This experience also depends on psychological and emotional elements of which the listener is hardly aware. Patti, even more so than Melba, belongs to an era in which the power of the opera singer was unrestrained and absolute. Patti is known for not taking part in any kind of rehearsals during her stage career; she would appear the night of the performance moving and lying on stage at her ease, avoiding any prior consultation with colleagues, none of which seemed to bother her audiences, who continued to adore her.69 This degree of self-confidence might have led Patti to an uncritical appraisal of her own voice on record, as the cheerful, child-like reaction recalled by Ronald’s narrative would suggest. Ronald himself reflects on the fact that the great singer never previously heard her own voice and ‘when the little trumpet gave forth the beautiful tones, she went into ecstasies!’70 However, this kind of uncritical response is hardly unknown to contemporary listeners. If we think of audiences’ behaviour at a live concert of any acclaimed opera singer, we realise this simple fact: no matter how the great star in question is actually performing, they will be greeted by a delirium of unconditional praise. Therefore, the purely emotional appraisal of a performance is surely typical of the listening experience of any age.

Francesco Tamagno

Until now we have focused on reactions to recordings of prima donnas who faced the challenge of the gramophone. Were similar issues of consequence to male singers? Consider, for example, Francesco Tamagno (1850–1905), who is linked to Giuseppe Verdi’s last dramatic opera Otello, whose main male role was written for the tenor’s colossal voice. Tamagno was aged 53 when, in 1903, he recorded for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in his villa of Ospedaletti in Italy. In those days hotel rooms were the usual site for travelling recording studios, but operatic stars were often extremely reluctant to accommodate to this necessity. Therefore, as in the cases of Adelina Patti and Nellie Melba, the recording studio and its technicians had to travel to Tamagno’s mansion. The recordings that he approved to be released were sold at the astonishing price of £1 each – the average weekly wages for common workers – while the company paid Tamagno £2,000 for the session plus the royalties for every single sold item. In comparison, Enrico Caruso’s discs made in 1902, at an early stage of the tenor’s career, were sold for 10 cents each. Differences in prices and label colours on the discs – the greatest stars had their own recognisable colour – were the elements that identified the higher or lower status of a celebrity.71

On the occasion of one of his visits to Tamagno’s house in Varese, Herman Klein recalled that the great tenor was leaning on the gramophone with amazement and delight, enjoying the rich tones of his huge voice, repeating ‘Che bellezza’ – ‘What a wonder’ – or ‘Com’è bello, non è ver?’ – ‘It is gorgeous, isn’t it?’72 Tamagno belongs to the same golden age of Patti and, like Patti, was a first-rank singer. Not only were their habits and level of self-confidence alike, but also the age at which they were able to listen to their recorded voices was quite advanced. Therefore, the sentiment expressed by Tamagno while listening to his own voice is unsurprisingly close to that of Patti. Both these singers considered recording as an enjoyable addition to the ways in which they experimented with their voices during their careers: an addition that arrived at the very end of Tamagno’s career and after Patti’s retirement. Therefore, it neither added to nor detracted from their huge reputations and the eternal praise that they felt ought to be paid to their art.

Tamagno’s recordings display the features of bel canto style: fluid phrasing, clear diction, open timbre, slow and flexible tempos, free use of decorative notes and the ability to sing the top notes at any degree of volume. His repertoire encompassed the middle and late nineteenth-century Italian and French operas, while he only occasionally performed roles of the giovane scuola operas, such as Turiddu from Cavalleria Rusticana and Canio from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. From this latter repertoire, the only aria he recorded is Un dì all’azzurro spazio from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier.73 It displays the characteristics of a manner which was about to disappear shortly after his death and which is preserved in a few early recordings.

Enrico Caruso as a gramophone singer

In 1901 Tamagno sang with Enrico Caruso (1873–1921) at the Teatro alla Scala at Giuseppe Verdi’s memorial concert. Tamagno predicted the splendid rise of the younger tenor, whose career is closely associated with the history of the recording industry. Caruso threw himself into this new adventure with no qualms. Gaisberg depicts the late arrival of Caruso at his first recording session at the Hotel Milano on 11 April 1902, his confident approach to the recording machine and the tremendous commercial success of his first recordings. That day Caruso poured his voice into the horn for two hours, obtaining ten recordings. He earned £100 from the recording session, which was paid on the spot, while the company profits were later estimated at more than £15,000.74

The great tenor created several roles from the giovane scuola repertoire, such as Loris in Giordano’s Fedora, Federico in Cilea’s Arlesiana, and Dick Johnson in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. Moreover, his interpretations of the roles of Canio in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana defined certain stylistic features, which were widely imitated by others. In his biography of Caruso, Michael Scott stresses the fact that the great singer became the archetypal tenor voice thanks to the influence of the phonograph.75 His muscular singing, where any recourse to falsetto was progressively abandoned, as well as his taste for consistent covered tones throughout the vocal range, explain the words of the composer Sidney Homer:

Before Caruso came I never heard a voice that even remotely resembled his. Since he came I have heard voice after voice, big and small, high and low, that suggested his, reminded me of it at times even forcibly’.76

Herman Klein claimed that Caruso was the greatest tenor of the twentieth century for the purity and the clarity of his singing.77 In other words, Caruso defined the archetype of the modern tenor in developing a more dramatic and declamatory vocal style, in order to capture the essential realism of the giovane scuola. This sort of style affected female voices in turn, as the cases of Tetrazzini and her colleagues, such as Bellincioni, Boninsegna and later Ponselle, demonstrate.

Is the emergence of this vocal type connected with the recording experience and with the possibility of hearing the progressive development of one’s own voice? This question may be illuminated by another: did the attitude of Caruso towards the recording process and the outcomes of the recording session change at all while he was experimenting with this new technology? In other words, did the assessment of what he heard on his discs become critically oriented over the years of his recording career? While the recordings of 1902 were made in two hours, and all items were approved without any being re-recorded, two impressions of the session made on 16 March 1908 for Victor were destroyed,78 and the rate of the non-approved recordings rises as we progress through the years. For instance, in the Victor session of 23 February 1916 eight out of the eleven songs and solos that Caruso sang that day were apparently destroyed. As John Bolig, the editor of Caruso’s discography, explains, these unpublished items were not approved by the singer.79

This circumstance seems to confirm an increasing preoccupation on the part of Caruso with the sonic evidence of his recordings that could be attributed to several factors. On the one hand, the recording industry was becoming a serious business. It could no longer be treated with the spontaneity and boldness that Caruso showed at first, as the personal prestige of an artist more and more depended on the cylinders and 78s that delivered their art. The link between stage and recording career was crucial for Caruso if it is true, as Gaisberg suggests, that the manager of the Metropolitan Opera House, Heinrich Conried, engaged Caruso at the prestigious New York theatre after having listened to one of his recording in Paris.80 Moreover, Caruso had the chance to hear the several steps and phases of his own vocal and technical development on disc. This continuous aural reproduction of what he was elaborating in terms of technique and style might have been nerve-racking, now that Caruso was becoming an international star, whose professional and artistic achievements were increasingly measured by his recordings.


In conclusion, listening to early recordings influenced several kinds of listeners during the first two decades of the twentieth century. First, I attempted to reconstruct the responses of singers brought up within the Italian operatic tradition to the novel experience of hearing their own recorded voice. I then suggested that these early recordings, even with all their limitations, could have conditioned singers’ performing habits and audiences’ expectations. Finally, I mentioned critics’ and musicians’ opinions regarding the influence of early recordings in the creation of modern vocal archetypes.

As I have tried to show, this influence works in two ways. The first relates to the singer’s experience of listening to their own voice. Bearing in mind that listening to their own sound constitutes the primary guide in any performer’s daily practice, the unquestionable fact that this opportunity was denied to singers added a peculiar relevance to the invention of the recording machine in their case. As we saw in the introductory paragraphs, the shock of hearing one’s own recorded voice is still a common experience in the present day. For this reason the impact of this experience on the pioneer singers who experimented with that primitive technology should not be underestimated. The revolutionary transformation of singing technique and style within the Italian operatic tradition at the turn of the twentieth century must surely have been influenced by singers’ experiences of hearing their own voice for the first time in history.

The second way in which the invention of recording played a role in the emergence of the new singing style was in the rapid dissemination of that style across the globe. Singers and listeners could hear the voices of Caruso, Martinelli, Tetrazzini, Ponselle and others in their own living room, anywhere in the world. This created a standardisation of vocal types and a new conception of what constitutes a ‘good voice’, as the new style triumphantly swept all before it – an early example of ‘globalisation’ in the cultural sphere. To suggest that recording had such a profound influence on the emergence of new singing styles is not implausible, when one considers that listening to recordings has drastically changed our conceptions of tempo, rubato, vibrato and portamento over the last century.

Many other factors have a bearing on the issues discussed in this chapter. They include speed, pitch, the nature of the accompaniment, duration, the variety of equipment used for the reproduction of early recordings, and also wider issues such as the commercial interests connected to their dissemination, or the trademark battles between rival recording companies. While these questions have been touched on in numerous studies – some of which are included in the bibliography to the present contribution – a critical and systematic discussion of the impact of records on singers at the beginning of the recording era has yet to be undertaken. This chapter is a modest first step in that direction.

Select bibliography

Cook, Nicholas, Clarke, Eric, Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel and Rink, John (eds) Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Gaisberg, Frederick William. The Music Goes Round. New York: New York Times Company, 1977.

Homer, Sidney. My Wife and I. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1939.

Melba, Nellie. Melodies and Memories. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1980.

Millard, Andre. America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, second edition, 2005.

Moran, William R. Herman Klein and the Gramophone. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1990.

Philip, Robert. Performing Music in the Age of Recording. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004.

Ronald, Landon. Variations on a Personal Theme. London: Hodder and Stoughton LTD, 1922.

Schmidt Horning, Susan. Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Scott, Michael. The Great Caruso. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.

Suisman, David. Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009

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