Enrico Caruso’s Landmark Recordings

Catherine Roddam looks back at the first recordings of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso.

Today’s top twenty lists of classical recordings  wouldn’t seem the same without the obligatory compilation albums by Alagna, Bocelli, Gheorgiou and co. But while we listen to their voices through our speakers, it is the singers and their record companies who are reaping the greatest rewards. It has been a similar story through the last hundred years, but whereas today the classical recording industry is in decline due to an over-saturated market, at the beginning of the twentieth century it was facing a period of exponential growth. So, too, was the career of the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. His first recordings, made a hundred years ago this month, on April 11th, 1902, would kick-start the birth of the gramophone as a medium for what we now take for granted – the serious recording.

In the late 1890s coin-operated phonographs  using cylinders were the order of the day. Comics, whistlers, folk singers and the like could record two minutes of music for their own purposes for one nickel (five cents) with the opportunity to record on several phonographs at once until enough cylinders were produced to satisfy the demand. Customers could then visit ‘phonograph parlours’, requesting up to 150 titles of songs to listen to and similar coin-operated devices were introduced in public places. The advertising industry soon caught on: in 1894, a promotional statement was issued that read: ‘Nobody will refuse to listen to a fine song or concert piece ... even if interrupted by the modest remark: “Tartar’s baking powder is best” or “Wash the baby with Orange soap.”’ This served to strengthen the notion that the phonograph was simply a novelty gadget. Artistic and musical talent, as a requirement, seemed way down the list.

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