The Leoncavallo Recordings


The known facts of the life of Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) are very sketchy. He was born in Bristol where he received a good education at a local school. His family was poor and he fabricated some poems for sale, claiming they were manuscripts of the work of one Thomas Rowley, a monk and poet resident in Bristol. Rowley is now accepted to be fictitious. Chatterton used some of these faked manuscripts in an attempt to obtain financial assistance from Horace Walpole, who was temporarily taken in but eventually declined to assist Chatterton. He made a few sales and decided to come to London in 1770 to attempt his fortune. He successfully produced a burlesque opera, The Revenge, but soon ran out of money and supporters and he took his own life with arsenic on 24 August 1770. The poems that survive, his own and the faked archaic poems, are universally conceded to be the work of a poetical genius.

For six or seven decades after his death a scholarly debate ensued about the authenticity of the early poems and the existence of Rowley, but it is generally conceded that all the surviving poems are the original work of Chatterton himself. His story became the subject of much interest. It is a stretch to suggest that he was the real life prototype for Werther but the romantic writers were much taken with the story of his life and with his writing. Coleridge wrote a ‘Monody on the Death of Chatterton’ in 1796. Blake believed that the archaic poems were genuinely the work of Rowley. Keats wrote an ode to Chatterton in 1815 and in ‘Resolution and Independence’ Wordsworth refers to Chatterton as ‘…the marvelous boy…who perished in his pride.’

Interest in the story was waning in England when it traveled to France, where it became the vehicle for a successful play by Alfred de Vigny, which premiered in 1835. In the play, the story was embellished to include a love interest between Chatterton and his landlady Kitty, who was played by the popular actress, Marie Dorval. She created a very melodramatic fall to her death down a staircase after she discovered Chatterton’s corpse. (In Leoncavallo’s opera Kitty is renamed Jenny.) The play was a great hit and was revived regularly in Paris over the next thirty years. The play also was a foreshadowing of modern theater and modern opera in that there was little action, just the psychological tension of the central figure contemplating suicide throughout. Balzac saw the play and summarized it: ‘First Act: shall I kill myself? Second Act: I should kill myself. Third Act: I do kill myself.’

The play was translated into German and Italian and caught the fancy of the young Leoncavallo, then eighteen, who was trying to be both a successful poet and a successful musician. He had just graduated from the Naples Conservatory. He wrote the opera Chatterton in 1876, originally in four acts, and even succeeded in arranging for it to be produced. He put up some funds himself but the promoter of the planned performance absconded, leaving Leoncavallo with serious debt. He spent the next fifteen years of his life taking any work he could procure in cafés, giving voice lessons, teaching piano, and accompanying, including even a brief spell as a piano recitalist in Cairo. His years of travail finally ended in 1892 with the success of Pagliacci, a short potboiler written when he was at the very bottom of his fortunes. With its success it was possible for him to have Chatterton produced in 1896, now reworked for publication into three acts. Although Chatterton never achieved the success of Pagliacci, and nothing he wrote ever repeated that success, Chatterton was not completely unsuccessful. Massenet wrote to Leoncavallo in 1896 to congratulate him after he had read that the tenth performance had been an enormous public success. Chatterton was revived several times in Leoncavallo’s lifetime, most often in France, where it has been occasionally revived since and where de Vigny’s play is still occasionally performed. Leoncavallo talked of reworking the opera for a baritone lead and Tita Ruffo even recorded the aria ‘Tu solo a me rimani’ in November, 1908. In October, 1909, Leoncavallo wrote to Ruffo to say that he had sent the transcribed score of Chatterton to Sonzogno, his publisher, so it appears that he did complete it, but it doesn’t seem to have been performed.


While it seemed important to add Pagliacci to this re-issue of Chatterton, it didn’t seem necessary to write detailed notes about Pagliacci or to include a libretto. It is worth noting, however, that this recording of Pagliacci is virtually complete except for a note or two here and there.

The Recordings

HMV’s recordings of Leoncavallo’s operas Pagliacci and Chatterton made in 1907 and 1908 are of seminal importance in the history of recording, not only for the participation of the composer but also as the beginning of a century-long commitment to the recording of complete works. The Pagliacci recording was an enormous success for HMV and the first great success of a many-sided recording of a vocal work. Some of the sides were available separately and are consequently fairly common. Others are far more elusive. The Chatterton recording was not a success and all of the sides are among the rarest of 78s. So far as can be determined, no single archive or collection contains a complete set of the 28 sides that were recorded. Richard Bebb and the late Sir Paul Getty, who amazingly owned all of the sides between them, were very generous to allow all of them to be transferred digitally for the purposes of this CD reissue. Lawrence Holdridge also supplied excellent copies of several of the Francesco Signorini sides.

Not much documentation survives about the recordings, but there are a few pertinent items in the EMI Archive at Hayes. A wire dated 3 April 1907 reads that Leoncavallo is prepared to direct Pagliacci for a fee of £200 and a decision is needed. The reply accepts Leoncavallo’s terms and adds that the contract must provide for repetition ‘until perfect of all records’. The contract either wasn’t signed or is lost. A letter of 1 August 1907 shows that Leoncavallo had still not signed the contract but that the records were made in any event and that they have ‘come out very good.’

HMV was evidently confident enough in the result that a contract dated 23 September 1907 was entered into, which does survive. HMV acquired the recording rights to Leoncavallo’s Chatterton, Maia, Camicia Rossa, and the rights to any other opera he might write in the future for 1,000 francs for each act of each opera plus 25 centimes royalty for every record sold. Leoncavallo undertakes to ‘conduct personally on the request of the company the performances that will be necessary for the perfect recording of his operas.’ It was planned to record Chatterton in the autumn of 1907 but for reasons that are unclear in the correspondence the recordings did not take place until 1908. A budget also survives, which was submitted to London by the Milan office for recordings to be made in 1908 with 3,000 francs duly budgeted for Leoncavallo based on Chatterton being three acts long.

No publicity literature survives for Chatterton and it is not known just how and where it was ever released. The sides sung by Francesco Signorini were released as red label recordings and, though rare, do show up. The rest of the opera was issued with black labels and they have almost never surfaced. To our knowledge only one complete set of the black label series is extant. Publicity literature does survive for Pagliacci. The set sold in the U.K. for £6.00 and the front page of the brochure states: ‘Each one of these Records was made in the presence of and under the Conductorship of the Composer, Sig. R. Leoncavallo.’ Later in the brochure there are two further things worth noting. It states that Signor Caruso has also sung Canio’s ‘songs’ and says that ‘the advantage of Leoncavallo’s presence as musical director is one that should make this issue ever valuable and unique.’ A photograph was taken of the entire cast and both Leoncavallo and Carlo Sabaino are in the photograph, each described as ‘Maestro.’ Finally, there is a letter in the file at the EMI Archive dated 6 September 1907 from the English Branch of The Victor Talking Machine Company asking HMV to send to them, at the earliest possible moment, a complete set of the shells for Pagliacci, excluding the tenor aria ‘Vesti la giubba.’ In fact, The Victor Company offered the Pagliacci set with ‘Vesti la giuba’ sung by Enrico Caruso rather than Antonio Paoli, which accounts for Victor not requesting the Paoli master.

This review of the surviving material related to these recordings raises two big questions that have never really been answered. First, in spite of the labeling of the Pagliacci records themselves, who was actually conducting this recording and second, why in the course of the Chatterton recording are two different tenors, Francesco Signorini and Francisco Granados, singing the part of Chatterton?

Until Fred Gaisberg published his memoirs, it was always assumed that the Pagliacci recording was conducted by Leoncavallo. Gaisberg said that, although Leoncavallo was present, Carlo Sabaino conducted, which permitted HMV to say that the recordings were conducted by the composer, which is how the labels actually read. Gaisberg, in his memoirs, was often free with the facts if it improved his story line. It will never be possible to say for sure who conducted each side. It is surprising that in the Leoncavallo files at Hayes there is nothing in internal correspondence that corroborates Gaisberg’s story. In fact, Sabaino is not mentioned at all in any of the internal correspondence. It is also surprising that the contract documents that postdate the Pagliacci recording make it clear that Leoncavallo is to conduct Chatterton personally. That seems an unusual turn of phrase if at that point HMV was in fact only seeking his imprimatur. You would think that, if the Gaisberg story were completely accurate, the contract would require his presence at the recordings and not that he conduct. In the recording budget that survives for 1908, there is no budgeted fee for Sabaino, but there may not have been since Sabaino was on staff at HMV. Gaisberg does not mention the Chatterton recordings at all. One could understand how HMV might have been happy to fool their buyers in order to increase sales, but why would their internal documents be written as though they were also trying to fool themselves?

Concerning the second question, one possible explanation about the fact that there are two tenors singing Chatterton’s music is that HMV didn’t have the idea that they were recording a single unbroken performance but only that they were making all of the music in the opera available. Another possibility is that Signorini had not learned the complete role and HMV was pressed for time. We deduce that both tenors were at the same recording session since matrix 1468c is a Granados side, 1469c is a Signorini side, and 1470c is a Granados side. They each recorded the aria ‘Tu sola a me rimani.’ Granados’s recording of it is matrix number 11216b, which was issued as 2-52688 and appears erroneously in Alan Kelly’s His Master’s Voice/La Voce del Padrone with the title ‘Son certo.’ Space exigencies have caused us to spare the listener his performance and we can only lament here that Signorini did not record all of Chatterton’s music.

Chatterton, as published, is in three acts. In this recording, each act was somewhat abridged, with Act 3 being the most heavily cut. Fortunately, these excisions do not alter the story line. The aria for Lord Klifford sung by Cigada (CD 1, Track 6) has a second verse that does not appear in the published score and despite the patient efforts of several Italian-speaking listeners, it was not possible to decipher the words completely. Finally, a careful examination of the harmonies of the recorded music leading to ‘Tu sola a me rimani’ and the final track of Act 3 reveal changes from the published score that cause the music that follows to be a semitone lower than the published score. Whether the changes were to accommodate Signorini or were yet another re-working of the score by Leoncavallo, we cannot tell.

All that was recorded is set out on 26 tracks, although 28 sides were recorded. The first seven pages of the score were recorded twice and this section was released as two ten-inch sides and alternatively as one twelve-inch side. Comparing these two versions, we found that the orchestra was too remotely recorded on the first ten-inch side. In addition, there are some vocal problems toward the end of the twelve-inch version. Therefore, for this re-issue, we have chosen to include the first half of the twelve-inch version followed by the second ten-inch side. (CD 1, Track 1.)

The Singers

Ernesto BADINI
(Silvio in Pagliacci) Baritone 1876-1937 • sang mainly in Italy and South America and specialized, particularly later in his career, in buffo roles. He made many recordings and appeared in several complete operas other than Pagliacci including La Boheme, The Barber of Seville, and an electric recording of Don Pasquale. He was the first Gianni Schicchi at both La Scala and Covent Garden.

Francesco CIGADA
(Tonio in Pagliacci and Lord Klifford in Chatterton) Baritone 1878-1966 • sang a very wide range of leading baritone roles from Wagner to Montemezzi, Puccini, and Rossini. He never appeared in the USA and recorded only for HMV in Milan (1905-1908). He gave up his career in 1924 after the death of his only child and retired to his hometown of Bergamo.

Francesco FEDERICI
(Giorgio in Chatterton) Baritone 1873-1934 • beginning in provincial Italian houses his career grew steadily. He appeared throughout Italy, in Helsinki, Havana, Mexico City, and for four seasons, 1913-1916, in Chicago. He collapsed while singing Fra Melitone in La Forza del Destino in Amsterdam and died there a few days later. He recorded only for HMV in Milan (1908-1912).

(Jenny Clark in Chatterton) Soprano 1854-1924 • the first record of her appearing in opera is of Violetta in Piacenza in 1892. She appeared as Norma at La Scala in 1898-1899 under Toscanini. Her recordings were all made for HMV in Milan including several duets with Signorini and arias from Aida, Nabucco, Lucrezia Borgia, and Norma. There is a letter in the archives of EMI written in 1908 recommending both Signorini and de Frate to the head office of the company in England, which states that ‘Signorini has a magnificent dramatic tenor voice and sings with good school and Madame De Frate although she has had 20 years career is still a fine dramatic soprano with fine old classic school so rarely to be found among young artistes of to-day.’

Francisco GRANADOS
(Thomas Chatterton in Chatterton on the sides where the part is not sung by Signorini) Tenor 1870-1946 • sang leading tenor roles in Spain (where he was born), Russia, and Italy between 1898 and 1908 and after that specialized in Zarsuela parts in Spain. His only recordings are those of Chatterton and a Pathé of ‘O Paradiso’, all recorded in 1908 in Milan.

Giuseppina HUGUET
(Nedda in Pagliacci) Soprano 1871-1951 • born in Barcelona and made her debut there in 1889. She sang in London, Paris, Milan, and Russia. She appeared at the New York Academy of Music for one season in 1898. She retired in 1912 and taught in Barcelona. She made recordings for G & T in 1903 and for HMV in 1908.

Antonio PAOLI
(Canio in Pagliacci) Tenor 1871-1946 • born in Puerto Rico, studied in Spain, and made his operatic debut in Bari in 1895. In 1902-1903 he belonged to an opera troupe assembled by Mascagni that toured the USA and Canada. He frequently toured South America and in 1920 spent a season in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. He eventually returned to Puerto Rico to teach. His only recordings were for HMV in Milan.

(Beppe in Pagliacci and Skirner in Chatterton) Tenor 1860-? • brother of the baritone, Antonio Pini-Corsi, sang for twenty seasons at the opera house in Catania and between 1892 and 1906 was regularly heard at La Scala. He sang many character parts including Mime in Siegfried and Goro in the world premiere of Madame Butterfly. He was still singing in 1932 but nothing could be discovered of his life beyond that. His recordings were for HMV in Milan.

(John Clark in Chatterton) Bass 1883-? • made his debut in 1908 in Palermo and was at La Scala by 1909. He sang the King in Aida, Pimen in Boris Godounov, Boito’s Mefistofele, and Sparafucile in Rigoletto. His career was spent mainly in Italy and Argentina. He sang until 1935 in small parts. He recorded for Odeon and HMV before the First World War.

(Young Henry, Jenny Clark’s brother, in Chatterton) Soprano 1885-? • little is known about her career except that she appeared in provincial houses in Italy and is mentioned on several recordings of ensemble scenes made by HMV in Italy before the First World War. Young Henry is of course a pants role and it is to be hoped that, in order to appear to be a young boy, she intentionally adopted the sound she makes on this recording.

(Thomas Chatterton on CD 1, Tracks 3, 9, 12, 13, and 22; CD 2, Tracks 1, 2, and 3) Tenor 1860-1927 • born in Rome and trained at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. He made his debut in 1882 in Florence and after 1897 sang regularly in leading dramatic Italian roles at La Scala. He made guest appearances in 1907 in San Francisco and Los Angeles and also appeared in Buenos Aires. He retired in 1910 and taught in Rome. He made records for HMV and Pathé.


Stephen R. Clarke, ©2004