Paint a picture in your mind.  Victorian London, 1888.  You’re walking down the cobblestone streets beneath the ghostly flicker of gas lamps.  It is June 29, two months before the mysterious Jack the Ripper commits his horrifying murders in the fog shrouded alleys of Whitechapel.  Tonight, there is nothing to fear.  You are on your way to hear a summer evening’s performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt at the massive cast-iron and glass-enclosed Crystal Palace on top of Sydenham Hill.

At the performance, Sir August Manns conducts an orchestra of 500 musicians and a choir of over 4000 voices.  The Palace has a full crowd as usual.  You glance briefly at the press gallery and you see a gentleman fiddling with an odd contraption.  He is Colonel Gouraud, a representative of Thomas Edison, and he’s testing out Edison’s yellow paraffin cylinder, which is candle wax, essentially.  What you are hearing live, people who aren’t even at the Crystal Palace will also be listening to.  People who aren‘t even born yet.  People from the future.

Tonight, the world’s first recording of music is happening.

Over the next decade, phonographs began appearing in the homes of the wealthy.  Edison hadn’t initially pursued a dream of universal access to music as his goal.  He imagined the phonograph would mainly be used for dictation, audio books for the blind, and recording the last words of the soon to be dearly departed.  But a cultural movement of having music in the background of daily life was being ignited, and Edison followed the dictates of demand and supply.  No longer did someone have to play a live instrument in the parlor while guests listened.  It wasn’t even necessary that music be exclusively shared and witnessed by a group.  Now a person could experience music completely alone.

The reality of the first phonographs was that certain sounds simply recorded better.  Horns and the pitch of tenor singers were reproduced most accurately and played back with the best sound.  On April 11, 1902, in a hotel room in Milan, Italy, tenor Enrico Caruso made his first recording and became credited with being responsible for the sweeping worldwide interest in phonograph records and established the recording industry socially and economically.  For this, his popularity may never be rivaled.  That same year, Caruso sailed to New York City and found fame and fortune awaiting him.  Records began appearing in corner stores.  The warm-hearted little Neopolitan’s voice soared and sobbed from those first wheezy recordings to bring new magic into popular culture.  His recording of Vesti la giubba became the world’s first million-seller, and it did so when the price of a 78 rpm record was equal to a first class opera ticket.

Over the remaining years of his life, Caruso made an additional 488 recordings and became the industry model for all later generations of recording artists.  In 1910, he was the very first singing voice ever heard in a public radio broadcast.

Enrico Caruso was born in 1873 and raised in the poverty and overcrowded squalor of Naples, Italy.  Receiving only a year of formal education, Caruso was pulled out of school to apprentice as a mechanic, but he was also showing early promise as a street singer.  Just about the same time that Colonel Gouraud’s needle was making impressions on a wax cylinder at the Crystal Palace, a teenage Caruso was tutored in voice training, but only minimally, and for the rest of his life, he was barely able to read a musical score and sang largely by ear.  He never learned to play a musical instrument.  What set him apart from all his competitors, was his ability to eliminate the space between singer and listener.  It was said Caruso’s feelings seemed to resonate within the hearer’s body.  It was said that he had a voice that loved you.

Caruso lived a life as tempestuous and romantic as any opera he sang, and he was already a mature and wealthy idol when he met a convent-raised American girl and finally settled down to raise a family.  His happiness was short lived, however, when in December, 1920, an on-stage injury triggered Caruso’s fatal illness.  A falling pillar hit him in the back, just over the left kidney, and for the next few weeks, every time he filled his swollen lungs with air, they grated against each other, inflicting the singer with crippling pain and hindering his voice production.  A dozen surgeries were performed to drain fluid from his chest.  One of his ribs had to be removed.

Caruso returned to his native Italy to recuperate, but his condition soon began to deteriorate again.  He was on his way to Rome to have his left kidney removed when he took an alarming turn for the worse and was forced to stay overnight at the Vesuvio Hotel in his hometown of Naples.  He spent several days in convalescence before finally dying from peritonitis.  He was only 48 years old.

One of the most beautiful and most covered songs of the last 25 years, Lucio Dalla’s 1986 classic hit Caruso romanticizes Enrico Caruso’s last days in Sorrento and Naples.  In this music video, Lucio checks into the Vesuvio Hotel and discovers Caruso’s suite.  There had been much tragedy in the great tenor’s life, and the song tells about his pains and longings, knowing his end is near, as he looks into the eyes of his young daughter.

One of the world’s most intelligent and musically cultured artists, Lucio Dalla’s lyrics to Caruso are heartbreaking and bittersweet.  Here is an English translation:

Here where the sea sparkles,
and a strong wind howls,
on an old terrace overlooking the gulf of Sorrento,
a man holds a little girl in his arms
after all the tears.
He clears his throat and sings the song again.

I love you very much;
so very much, you know.
It is a fire by now,
that burns the blood in my veins.

He looked at the lights on the sea,
and thought about the nights in America.
But they were only fishermen’s lamps
reflected in the waves.

He felt the pain of the music
and got up from the piano,
but when he saw the moon behind the clouds
death seemed sweeter to him.
He looked into the little girl’s eyes,
those eyes as green as the sea,
then suddenly a tear fell
and he thought he was drowning.

I love you very much;
so very much, you know.
It is a fire by now,
that burns the blood in my veins.

The power of opera,
where every drama is a hoax;
where, with a little bit of make-up and mimicry,
you can become someone else.

But two eyes that look at you,
so close and so real,
make you forget the words,
and confuse your thoughts.
And so everything fades away,
like those nights in America.
You look back and see your life
reflected in the waves.

Ah well, life is ending,
but he wasn’t worried about it.
Instead he felt happy
and began to sing the song again.

I love you very much;
so very much, you know.
It is a fire by now,
that thaws the blood in my veins.
The blood in my veins.

In a moment of circular time, from those sepia tinted beginnings when Edison’s gramophone recordings of Caruso became the symbol of the recording industry, the Grammy statuette, to the dazzling music palaces of modern Las Vegas 2011, International chanteuse Lara Fabian, the most celebrated practitioner of Dalla’s Caruso, pays homage to the origins of her art form with this spectacular rendition.  It’s enough to thaw the blood in your veins.


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