" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Friday, September 23, 2016

The NRR Project: Caruso sings ‘Vesti la giubba’

‘Vesti la giubba’ aria from Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci”
Enrico Caruso
Recorded March 17, 1907
‘Caruso’ is a bit of an eponym, and that requires effort, good or bad. To call someone a Caruso, or an Einstein, or a Brando, ironically or not, is to refer to someone as an exemplar of a quality. Enrico Caruso, for better or worse, is the Western-art-culture epitome of the fancy “singer” – a human songbird, warm-hearted, outgoing, flamboyant, and dynamic; Italian, therefore somewhat exotic to many, loving fine dress and good food and beautiful women, belting into the analog recording horn more than 260 times between 1902 and 1920, selling millions of records.

Why? Was he that extraordinary? I can’t say that I am an expert. I first knew Caruso through the persona of his mid-century equivalent, Mario Lanza, in the 1951 film “The Great Caruso.”

Now, a half-century of learning about, listening to, and seeing opera, I can say the fame is justified. There are many hurdles to be gotten over to hear this great piece of recorded performance, however. “Vesti la giubba” is instantly recognizable, the go-to image and sound of opera, quoted, adapted, monetized, parodied.

You hear it, your eyes cross, the stereotype leaps into your brain, and you’re done – turned off if you hate opera, numb if you’re a fan because you’ve heard it A THOUSAND TIMES. It’ a sad clown, he’s laughing, he’s crying. It’s Smokey Robinson’s inspiration.

Here’s the story: it comes from Ruggero Levoncavallo’s 1892 Pagliacci, written in the wake of the creation of the nitty-gritty, proto-Neorealist verismo genre, all about peasants getting stabbed, and such – triggered by the success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana two years before.

In this case, the stabber is Canio, a professional clown (don’t have him work your kids’ birthday parties!) whose wife Nedda is a little loose. This drives Canio nuts, and at the end of Act 1, he sings these words:
Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio,
non so più quel che dico,
e quel che faccio!
Eppur è d'uopo, sforzati!
Bah! Sei tu forse un uom?
Tu se' Pagliaccio!

Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina.
La gente paga, e rider vuole qua.
E se Arlecchin t'invola Colombina,
ridi, Pagliaccio, e ognun applaudirà!
Tramuta in lazzi lo spasmo ed il pianto
in una smorfia il singhiozzo e 'l dolor, Ah!

Ridi, Pagliaccio,
sul tuo amore infranto!
Ridi del duol, che t'avvelena il cor!
Act! While in delirium,
I no longer know what I say,
or what I do!
And yet it's necessary... make an effort!
Bah! Are you not a man?
You are a clown!

Put on your costume, powder your face.
The people pay to be here, and they want to laugh.
And if Harlequin shall steal your Columbina,
laugh, clown, so the crowd will cheer!
Turn your distress and tears into jest,
your pain and sobbing into a funny face – Ah!

Laugh, clown,
at your broken love!
Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!

It’s a powerful, effective aria in a fast-paced, muscular, expressive opera, Levoncavallo’s only hit but one of the most frequently performed operas in the world to this day. (Spoiler alert: everybody has a really bad show that evening, in Act 2. Like, worst show ever.) Like other signature tenor arias such as “Una furtiva lagrima” or “E lucevan e stele,” it’s lament, a tear-jerking self-pity party. And who doesn’t love that?

The piece is strong, but its ubiquity is due entirely to Caruso’s vocal prowess. (Louis Armstrong would listen to Caruso records, and they influenced his approach as a soloist.) He came along at precisely the right time for the recording industry. He seemed made for the recording studio. The process read his voice well – listen to a few opera recordings from the same period. They are stiff and stilted. Caruso transmits excitement.

 The first of Caruso’s three recordings of the aria in 1902, made only with piano accompaniment, made him a star. Yet he pushes hard in that release. He’s working at full volume, almost bellowing, certainly losing breath too soon during the final phrase. In 1904, he is much more relaxed and expressive, but still wobbly towards the end. By the time we get to this recording in 1907, the one selected for the Registry, Victor Records has sprung for orchestral accompaniment, the space Caruso in singing in is more resonant, and Caruso is more proficient and expressive than before.

It’s not just Caruso’s power – everyone had to project into large, echoing houses before the age of microphones. There is a kind of macho, competitive aspect to opera; Caruso ends up in many minds as the arts equivalent of Babe Ruth. It’s not his charisma, though he certainly had it. He is gifted with natural ability, but it’s the hard, highly skilled work he does with it that makes him memorable.

His voice is clear, ringing, with a quality of transparency as though he were singing THROUGH the note rather than on it. His diction is superb (at least in Italian; he essayed that and a couple of French roles; he sang Lohengrin in Italian, which must have been something.) He's smooth, turning lines into thoughts. Above all, his phrasing is rarely surpassed, because of his ability to make a deep emotional connection with his roles. Like Domingo, Chaliapin, and Callas, he can act as well as sing.

All these factors combine to make his singing still evokes a sense of immediacy, a “thereness” that is palpable. There’s a lot of thought going on in his performances; by serving the music, he elevates his work. And it stays fresh, through all the layers of association, that vitality comes through. And that, my friends, is the name of the game.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘No News, or What Killed the Dog?’

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The NRR Project: Frances Densmore Chippewa/Ojibwe Cylinder Collection

Densmore recording material with Mountain Chief of the Blackfoot tribe, 1916.
Chippewa/Ojibwe Cylinder Collection
Curated by Frances Densmore
Singer: Billy Murray
Recorded September 1907 – November 1910
357 cylinders (15 hours, 4 min.)

Here’s another example of sound recordings that are not available to the public; like their predecessors, the Passamaquoddy tribal field recordings of 1890, this is due to the tribal control of the material’s use.

Frances Densmore was a pioneering ethnomusicologist from Minnesota who began her career with these recordings. She was sympathetic and rigorous, fighting to preserve Native American traditions at a time when the American government was hard at work extinguishing them, and popular culture was content with the stereotype of the marauding Redskin. More than 50 years of her efforts resulted in a trove of material for tribal members, and researchers.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Caruso’s ‘Vesti la giubba.’

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The NRR Project: ‘You’re A Grand Old Rag (Flag)’

A quick change of sheet music, in response to public demand.
“You’re a Grand Old Rag (Flag)”
Music and Lyrics: George M. Cohan
Singer: Billy Murray
Recorded Feb. 6, 1906

Brash is seemingly a word coined for George M. Cohan. The performer/playwright/songwriter/director/producer, who started his stage career at age 8, was one of the most popular and powerful figures in Broadway history. From 1904 through 1920, he staged more than 50 productions there – all but one successful. His songs such as “Yankee Doodle Dandy" and “Give My Regards to Broadway” are, justly, classics. Onstage, he epitomized a kind of cocky, hard-charging, quick-witted American persona that audiences responded to with devotion for decades.

“Americanism” was in the air. The country was finally waking up from self-absorption and internal development and was beginning to make its first expansionist stretches, jumping into jingoism with a will. Its industrial might was wowing the world. There was need for a vernacular expression of this energy and pride, akin to the already-popular marches of Sousa.

As a multiple talent, Cohan resembles impresario predecessors such as Dion Boucicault and David Belasco, as well as his contemporary Florenz Ziegfeld. Most of his plays are comic vehicles touched with sentiment, their plots driven by the confusions of romantic entanglements – early, important gropings toward the book musical.

“The Grand Old Rag,” as it was listed in the original program, was a generally despised title. No one wanted to hear the Stars and Stripes referred to in that way. The lyrics changed from “You’re a grand old rag/You’re a high-flying flag” to “You’re a grand old flag/Though you’re torn to a rag” to, finally, the redundant but unobjectionable “You’re a grand old flag/You’re a high-flying flag.” 

Unfortunately, the song had already been recorded. Popular tenor Billy Murray, the “Denver Nightingale” (he lived in the Mile High City from age 5 to 16) was another peppy, confident belter who could sell an upbeat song. It’s instructive to see that the song was recorded six days before the musical opened – marketing savvy is not as recent a development as we might think. (Murray wound up recording all three lyric variants.)

The words and music are patriotic hodgepodges, interpolating “Dixie,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “Marching through Georgia,” and Cohan’s own “Yankee Doodle Dandy” hit of two years previous. The result is a sensory overload of associations, delivered in an up-tempo rush that sweeps the listener along. We will run into Cohan again in a future installment, when we examine his clasic of evangelical interventionism, 1917's "Over There."

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: the Frances Densmore Chippewa/Ojibwe Cylinder Collection.