Pioneer


October 23, 2018

In 1870 there were about 25,000 native Italians living in the United States, which was enough to make a significant community - but in the next 45 years, 4.5 million arrived, which was enough to make a new Italian world within the New World. The diaspora left its mark on commerce, manufacturing, sports, religion, education, crime, government, and all forms of the arts. Opera surged - no surprise there: a big part of the public had been imported wholesale from the same country whose retail exports included Puccini, Caruso, and Toscanini.  

Ferruccio Giannini, undated photograph

One of those millions was a seventeen-year-old Ferruccio Giannini, son of an architect from Barga (provincia di Lucca) who settled his family in Detroit. Ferruccio studied music there (with an Italian), married a young violinist (Italian), pursued further vocal training in Boston (with another Italian), and established himself as a teacher in Philadelphia from the early 1890s. He may have established himself on stage too, but it is hard to be sure: one of his brothers was also an active tenor, and meanwhile an unrelated Francesco Giannini, who was prominent in Italy around the same time, came to America for a few seasons with the legendary Mapleson touring company. The trouble is that many cast-lists and reviews give “F. Giannini” or simply “Signor Giannini,” and subsequent annallists and historians, aware of Ferruccio, may have filled in his name for performances that weren’t really his.  

The reason they were aware of him matters more: he connected with the gramophone industry before most people knew it existed. On January 21 1896 - in Philadelphia, with a wayward pianist who was probably playing by ear, on a turntable of unsteady speed and a noisy seven-inch shellac disc lasting less than 90 seconds - Ferruccio recorded one stanza of “La donna è mobile” for issue by E. Berliner’s Gramophone. It was almost certainly the first commercial operatic recording in history. Caruso’s studio debut and the exponential growth of the market for such records lay almost seven years in the future, but by the end of 1899 Giannini had produced nearly 100 discs for Emile Berliner’s firm. He never achieved fame as a performer, but he was a versatile singer in several languages and styles, a composer of appealing songs (some of which he recorded) in sentimental and folkloristic veins, and an enterprising musician who had joined early in a project destined to change the world.  

Giannini's first record (1896)

Considered purely as a singer, his contribution is to demonstrate the effectiveness of the classic virtues in a modest voice. My favorite of his operatic items is “Quando le sere al placido” from Luisa Miller, recorded in June of 1897. Berliner could by then accommodate 2.5 minutes, so there was time for both stanzas, though unfortunately not for the coda. One has to listen patiently through even more noise and interference than that afflicting early 20th-century discs, but the pay-off is an uncommonly elegant voicing of one of Verdi’s most beautiful melodies (score here). Giannini shapes it expressively, keeping the emotion at the level of elegiac lament where some tenors let it boil over into violent protest. To the extent one can judge the basic tone through all the mechanical din, it seems legitimately beautiful and unconstricted. It is definitely an old-fashioned sound, with a very narrow, even vibrato that is almost unnoticeable (rather like that of Adelina Patti, another singer who grew up in the Italian diaspora while a more insistent, throbbing vibrato was coming into fashion back at home). Also old-fashioned is the heady registration of the upper notes, but he can easily add strength to them, as he does after the pinpoint attack on top G at 2:21. 

Some other points to notice:  The calm simplicity with which the voice walks from the long E-flat to the short F at the end of the second and fourth phrases (no extra nudge needed, nor any  temptation to slight the F). The long, unruffled breath span starting at 1:01 (most tenors have taken two more breaths by the time of Giannini’s next). The way the same passage expresses forward motion through outright anticipation, reaching both the top G and its resolution up to A-flat well in advance of the pianist. The absolute avoidance of aspirated interruptions, even in the tricky dotted rhythms that are usually sung as “ah ha mi hi tra ha di hi a.”  A modest voice, yes, but eloquent cantilena. 


Elsewhere, Giannini was capable of high spirits in popular song (at least six versions of “Funiculì, funiculà”) and of unusually convincing dramatic involvement without loss of vocal poise in “Vesti la giubba.”  In the new century he went on recording for Victor, Columbia, and finally the Philly-based Rex Records. He also arranged to add about seventy more to the millions of his fellow-immigrants, forming the “Royal Marine Band of Italy” as a touring and recording ensemble under his direction.

 Ferruccio Giannini in 1906

Ferruccio Giannini in 1906

Meanwhile he and Antonietta Briglia were spectacularly successful parents. One son, Vittorio, composed hundreds of published works including one of the more successful mid-century American operas, The Taming of the Shrew; he also taught Corigliano, Pasatieri, and Nicolas Flagello, among other composers, and founded the still-thriving North Carolina School of the Arts. Another son studied cello but switched to a successful career in medicine; both daughters stayed in music. One, Dusolina, was a prima donna in Berlin, Salzburg, La Scala, and the Met. The other, Eufemia, taught for 40 years at Curtis, with pupils including Anna Moffo, David Lloyd, and Judith Blegen.  

Here is a little family album of four fragments: Ferruccio singing one of his own songs in 1903; Dusolina singing it in 1928; Eufemia on a private disc that shows she could well have held her own in opera; and a modern recording (by Roberta Alexander) of one of Vittorio’s most successful songs. No violin solos by Antonietta, though I hope one will surface some day; she kept up her playing and performed occasionally in Philadelphia while raising this extraordinary brood. 

Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples, and click here for some pointers on how to listen.


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