WORLD DAY FOR AUDIOVISUAL HERITAGE 2020

100 years ago: Puccini visiting the Phonogrammarchiv

On Tuesday, 26 October 1920, none other than Maestro Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) himself honoured the Phonogrammarchiv of the Academy of Sciences with a visit. Puccini had already arrived in Vienna in early October, where he was to attend the Austrian premieres of two of his works: La Rondine at the Volksoper (9 October) and Il Trittico at the Staatsoper (20 October).

 

That afternoon Puccini personally went to the Phonogrammarchiv, then still housed in rooms of the Department of Physiology of the University of Vienna (at the corner of Währinger Strasse and Schwarzspanierstrasse), in order to listen to “a series of Chinese recordings” (according to Hans Pollak, at the time assistant at the Phonogrammarchiv). These traditional songs, recorded by the missionary Father Joseph van Oost in Inner Mongolia in 1909/10, probably served Puccini as inspiration for the music of his last opera Turandot, which is set in China; yet while the accompanying documentation is still extant, only one of these 81 recordings, Ph 1516, has survived. [1]

 

In any case, Puccini’s visit was quite obviously an opportunity too good to be missed, and thus a ‘voice portrait’ (Stimmporträt) of the composer was duly made. Before Puccini was asked to step in front of the horn of the Archiv-Phonograph, and before Leo Hajek as recording engineer put the wax disc on the turntable and set the apparatus in motion, the ‘protocol sheet’ (Protokollblatt) with details of the recording session had to be completed, and the text had to be noted down in writing:

Cari Signori, non sono abituato a far discorsi. Mai ho parlato in pubblico. Dirò semplicemente che ho sempre amato Vienna. Sino dalla prima Bohème del teatro an der Wien. Questo amore non può che aumentare dopo tante cortesie e gentilezze ricevute in questo mio breve soggiorno del 1920.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, I am not used to making speeches. I have never spoken in public before. I will simply say that I have always loved Vienna. Ever since the first performance of Bohème at the Theater an der Wien. This love can only grow after all the courtesies and kindnesses I experienced during my short stay in 1920.

 

Puccini, who here once again effusively expressed his love for Vienna, referred to his visit on the occasion of the Viennese premiere of La Bohème on 5 October 1897. The fact that this recording was included as Phonogramm no. 6 in the book reserved for the voice portraits of prominent personalities (thus immediately following Emperor Franz Joseph and Archduke Rainer!) testifies to the importance that was initially attributed to it. Thus it must subsequently have been all the more painful to realise its technical imperfection, which was perhaps also due to the poor wax of the interwar period, so that Puccini’s voice portrait was apparently hushed up and left unmentioned in the Almanac of the Academy of Sciences. Even today, this recording, published on CD in 1999 in our Complete Historical Collections1899–1950 (Series 2: Stimmporträts), does not seem to be widely known ... [2]

 

Text: Christian Liebl


[1] Note, however, that ten wax cylinders from this field research are still preserved in the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv (see Susanne Ziegler. 2006. Die Wachszylinder des Berliner Phonogramm-Archivs. Berlin: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, p. 235).

[2] It is missing from a recent MA thesis (Martina Montanari. 2012. Puccini in Wien. Universität Wien), and even Puccini’s granddaughter Simonetta refers to the older (and better) recording made by the Columbia Phonograph Company (New York, 21 February 1907; “the only known recording of Puccini’s voice”, cf. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-FUEidQc-E>) as “the only known direct association between Puccini and the gramophone” (Roger Flury. 2012. Giacomo Puccini: A Discography. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, p. ix). See also the contribution by Hubert Reitterer in: Gerda Lechleitner (ed.). 1999. Stimmporträts. (Sound Documents from the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, gen. ed. Dietrich Schüller: The Complete Historical Collections 1899–1950, Series 2, OEAW PHA CD 8). Vienna: VÖAW, p. 128.