Small picture of Donizetti


 The Good Old Days?

by Russell Burdekin

Donizetti Society Newsletter 104, June 2008

The University of California’s Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project has placed the music from some 8000 cylinders on line as well as interesting articles on their history and on the project.  Their web address is .   They have done a fine job of realising the sound each of which can be downloaded in an edited form as an MP3 file (2-4 MB) or in its raw form (up to 70 MB).   Just occasionally one wonders whether they have got the speed correct, although taking things at a steady pace seems to be the hallmark of several of the contributions. The frequent habit of a spoken introduction to a song gives them a homeliness and immediacy despite the obvious drawbacks in the sound.  As would be expected, the greater part of the contributions is from the first decade of the 20th century, although a few stray as far as the 1920’s.  The oldest is an 1894 arrangement of music from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

There are several hundred opera recordings, although this includes quite a few arrangements for band or various instruments, including some rather strange concoctions such as a saxophone arrangement of “Scenes that are brightest” from Wallace’s Maritana and a flute and clarinet arrangement of  music from Donizetti’s Maria Padilla.  Occasionally songs, such as “When other Lips” from Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl, get both male and female versions.  Typical of its time the singing is sometimes laced with considerable vibrato and the singers are not always too bothered about taking liberties with the music. 

The range of composers is much as would be expected at that time with Verdi leading the way with 96 items, followed by Gounod with 65 narrowly ahead of Wagner on 59.  The items are fairly predictable although a few uncommon ones can be found such as a duet from Halévy’s La Reine de Chypre. Currently, there are 40 Donizetti pieces with arias from Lucia di Lammermoor, L’elisir d’amore, Don Pasquale, La Favorite and La Fille  du régiment. 

There are some well known singers such as Alessandro Bonci, Mario Ancona and Selma Kurz, the latter’s “Mad Scene” showing with impressive virtuosity why people assumed that Donizetti was just concerned with empty display.  However, the bulk of the singers are not names that appear in books such as Steane’s The Grand Tradition or Scott’s The Record of Singing and quite a few are anonymous.  Possibly because the wax cylinder was losing out to the disc by this time it was difficult or too expensive to sign up the major stars. David Seubert, who runs the site, also reckons that Edison, who was particularly involved with the American recordings, was reputed to have rather a tin ear and thus was not a very good judge of  who or what to record. The result is that we largely get the more everyday end of the opera business to balance against the many reissues of  Caruso, Melba, Ruffo etc..  Perhaps few absolute jewels then but a wonderful insight nevertheless and very helpful in rounding out the opera experience of that era. The University of California is to be congratulated on its enterprise and generosity. 




Page initially published in  June 2008