Friday, September 23, 2016

The NRR Project #22: 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 #23: 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 #21: ‘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 classic 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.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The NRR Project #20: Booker T. Washington’s 'Atlanta Compromise' Speech

Booker T. Washington speaking in New Orleans, 1915.

Atlanta Exposition Speech
Booker T. Washington
1908 recreation

Was Booker T. Washington a kiss-ass?

I know less about this topic that you do, I bet. A cursory listen to this excerpt from the African American leader’s famous, attention-grabbing speech leads to examination of the whole text of it, and more research.

The most masterful outline of the recording and its context is available here from Professor Jacqueline M. Moore. Washington, born a slave, was a self-made man who worked in mills and mines to make enough money to pay for his advanced education. He rose in expertise and esteem in the black community, eventually assuming the founding leadership post at the prestigious Tuskegee Institute for black students, in Alabama.

His speech was originally given at the Cotton States and International Exhibition in Atlanta on September 18, 1895. In it, he strikes a conservative tone – one that turned him overnight into the go-to black authority for the white establishment of the day.

Washington’s views are accomodationist. He advises black people famously to “’Cast down your bucket where you are’” – to be happy with your lot, as it were –“cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.” “By whom we are surrounded” is a telling phrase. Without knowing more about Washington’s acts and words, I believe he’d describe himself as pragmatic. The black population of American in 1895 was not substantially better off than it had been in 1865. The Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896 would endorse complete segregation, until the protests, violence, and reforms of the Civil Rights era.

Washington saw economic power as the leverage that would provide black people with political power, rather than the other way round. He urged them to cooperate humbly with the white race for the benefit of both, meanwhile assuring whites that blacks were not only concerned with equal rights, but happy to live in complete separation, save for when they were needed for some servile task. He touts the black race as far superior (and more cost-effective) than immigrants as laborers.

The idea that the African American population of 8 million people would know, as one, its “place” was a public declaration that reassured the general population, preserved the unspoken differences between races, and put serious reform to sleep for half a century. Lynchings proceeded apace, and the Ku Klux Klan’s near-rise to national power took place in the 1920s. Assuredly, there were a few detractors, and many more radical activists, such as W.E.B. DuBois, rejected what came to be called “the Atlanta Compromise” speech.

Washington is what is condescendingly used as a description of an articulate African American person, “well-spoken.” It seems this has been the key to white acceptance down the years; Martin Luther King was well-spoken, Sidney Poitier was well-spoken, and so on. In fact, I believe a black person has to be about 10 times better-spoken than the average white person to be considered well-spoken. That President Obama is a terrific writer and masterful orator stands by itself, but undoubtedly a shred or two of his appeal relates to that idea of a black person possessed of white “correctness.” (Thank God, the President is funny, has teenagers in his house, and makes his own playlists, and so becomes seemingly comprehensible as a person to me.) His presentation as a reasonable person made him acceptable.

The speech worked. Washington received millions for Tuskegee, which educated several generations of pivotal American figures. Washington became a voice at least for a time, helping as best he could. It is interesting to contemplate what his rich white donors would have thought if they had known that Washington was funding anti-segregationist and anti-voting rights efforts on the sly. What if this speech was calculated, in part, to put the racist establishment to sleep?

Gradualism in human rights did not work in America better than it did anywhere else. It is arguable that things are worse for African Americans now than they were in 1965. It seems that rights are won, racists are conquered, and the eye blinks and it’s all slid back to where it was before, and we have to suffer through it again.

So the answer, I think, is yes and no. In the speech, Washington straddles the contradictions in a single sentence when he says, “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.”

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag.’

NRR Project: 'Gregorio Cortez'

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