Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The voice of Enrico Caruso. A little piece on what we hear today of that great singer.

Who in the world of classical music or opera has not heard of Enrico Caruso. He has been a part of our world and a consistent part indeed, from the time of when he walked within it. His voice, and artistry were something to admire. His qualities as a singer although perhaps rough, as in his earliest recordings came to be like polished glass in his most productive years.

We today judge him for his qualities in which we hear on his numerous records made between 1902 to 1920. We judge him as well on the style and form of the singing. We hear what sounds like a good voice and well controlled one that seems to rush through a good part of an aria or song to get to that high note. I have heard that said of Caruso for years. I have heard many compare him with this or that tenor. We hear that he perhaps did not sing as pretty as some of his later counterparts.
He was the king of his art form in the period of his life. He was opera to be honest. People did not go to the opera and ask what Caruso would be singing next, they said they will see whatever Caruso is singing next. He was that much a point of interest and fascination with the public of his time. His 300 plus recordings made mostly by the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden and its successor, RCA Victor were nearly all best sellers and in the catalog for years. His family grew rich for his contract gave Victor and later RCA to publish his recording for perpetuity. While most singers have a fame and popularity that lasts a few years after their death, Caruso is the only individual to have such a following nearly 90 years after his death.

I often hear this said of the great popularity of Elvis Presley and his followers. Just imagine this though, Caruso had been dead 14 years when Presley was born, and it seems that Presley will have a great following as so many are still live who knew him and heard him live. But will there be a big market for Presley in 2065? I am not sure.
With Caruso we have such a following and devotion. I can say with a great deal of certainty, that Caruso will be very popular still and followed by another generation of followers in 2065. I can see some very special issues of recordings coming out in 2073, the Caruso bicentennial!

There really is no one left alive who can really remember hearing him in the flesh. He performed last 89 years ago. But this brings us back to the original statement of what do we hear in these records of a century ago. We hear the somewhat clipped and constrained voice of a great singer, trying his damnest to put forth a recording or song as well as he could on to a system so primitive.
I in my past met 2 people and talked to one on the phone who had heard him live. In each conversation it seemed to go this way. The voice you hear on the record sounds like Caruso......but...just sounds like him and is missing so much. What is missing? What do we of a century later not get? Not hear? Not experience?

To put it simply, Caruso sang into a recording horn, his voice was cut into wax, he could not shade or soften to too much of a degree the quality of his voice. Therefore he had to sing it at a pretty consistent quality and volume. He could not sing very softly, he really had to be careful not to sing too slow here and there either as time would run out on the very short records of the time. If he needed to sing very strongly he would have to turn away from the horn, by doing so, diminishing the quality of the recording.
Also many performances on record were changed or shortened, since early recording technology was a slave to the clock and therefore many arias and songs that might have taken 7 or 8 minutes to perform on the stage, were set to fit within the much shorter time available on the early 78 records. Sung to fit the technology, not the quality of the voice of the artist. All of what had to be done changed what was originally put into the recording. It is unfair to judge Caruso on many aspects of his recording legacy, as much of what and how he sang was due to the process, not his style. Also when it came to style, one has to remember it was Caruso who was changing the whole style of how opera was sung. He was redefining it, and in the process did somethings that worked and some that did not. But that is what comes from invention and innovation.

Sadly, there was really no set consistent speed for recordings in those days. It would range around 75 RPM , but not always. I have heard many a re-recordings where the speed of the record was not played back properly, giving Caruso a voice and sound he never had. One other mistake done on many a reissue of Caruso, is those who wish to play the record and match it to the proper key of the original music. If a company issues a CD or whatever format of an early Caruso recording, BEWARE, as Caruso often sang things down a half tone or so.

So the what we hear today is a sonic echo of what once was a glorious voice. What is preserved and shared with us is amazing, but what it was, must have been incredible, and that is the "BUT" in all the equations of those who heard him sing in life
What we do not get from those early recordings are overtones and much of his quality and resonance. That sadly will never be captured or reproduced, at least by the technology of today. But who knows what might happen in the future? Maybe the mathematics of reproducing and recreating the harmonics of a voice recorded acoustically will be developed. It won't happen in the next few years I doubt, but it may happen in the future. That was one of the major problems with the Victor method of recording, overtones were difficult to capture. The Edison system of that time was able to do so, but the Victor method was more concerned with room resonance, to create a false sense of overtones. Or perhaps what we could call a ringing quality.

Perhaps the best way to put it in a musical setting is to use the description used for Lincoln. "There are many photographs of Lincoln, but no portrait of him." Perhaps we can say the same of Caruso...That there are many recordings of Caruso, but not one of them allows us to see the real man, to hear the real singer, to hear that amazing tone and quality that never was able to be inserted onto the early records. We hear Caruso today, but what we hear is just a reflection of what the lucky folks 100 years ago truly heard. I am thankful for what is available, and very happy to experience the wonder that is the voice of Caruso. But I also will have to remember I hear Caruso as others do, but not as those of the last century did.