From gramophone to record player

As a teenager,  discovering my father’s record collection opened up a whole new world to me.  I was amazed by the richness of the sound and the depth of the atmosphere.  It didn’t take very long before I fell in love with the moment when the needle would drop and the vinyl would start to sing.  However, my newfound fascination made me start to wonder about another form of music technology that I had seen, but never heard: the gramophone.



An Italian vintage ad for Columbia gramophones


The history of successful gramophone records starts in Great Britain in 1899.  With its image of a dog listening attentively to a gramophone, His Master’s Voice was the first publishing house to popularize gramophone records on an international scale.  The publisher soon spread throughout Europe, including Italy, where it took the name La Voce del padrone. Despite the company’s origins in England, its success was in many ways dependent on the work of Italians. This was because much of the music recorded and distributed at this time was classical and opera music – areas in which Italian musicians excelled.



A “La voce del padrone” record from 1953



“His Master’s Voice” by Francis Barraud became the name and image of the record label later known as HMV

His Master’s Voice featured many internationally-renowned Italian singers, including tenors Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli, baritone Ruffo Cafiero Titta and soprano  Amelita Galli-Curci. It also featured the work of the great Italian orchestra director Arturo Toscanini.



The legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso with a phonograph


It was relatively early in the history of recorded music, 1901, that Italy’s first record label was born. The Neapolitan Phonographic Society [La società fonografica napoletana] was created in Naples to promote Neapolitan singers and folk music.  The next two important labels were the Anonymous Italian Phonotype Society [Società anonima italiana di fonotipia di Milano], which was founded in 1904 and dedicated to recording classical and opera music, and the National Gramophone Society [Società nazionale del grammofono], founded in 1912. SAIF became responsible for distributing La voce del padrone records and SNG distributed Columbia’s records in Italy until the 1930s when the companies were merged were several others.



A French ad for Fonotipia



An ad for the National Gramophone Society


What is amazing is that despite their relatively short existence, these record labels had an important role in the development of the music industry and the remaining hard copies produced by each continue to be highly sought after and valued.



A signed Fonotipia recording of Giuseppe Anselmi singing “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s opera I pagliacci


While today Italian musicians such as Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli and Jovanotti are known internationally, we seem to have forgotten the story of how Italian music was first heard around the world. Without these early record labels taking advantage of the gramophone’s recording technology, the talents of many great Italian musicians would have been available only to a live audience.  In fact, it is still possible to listen to early gramophone recordings of the great tenor Enrico Caruso online for free.


A French ad for Fonotipia-Odeon | Image courtesy

A French ad for Fonotipia-Odeon | Image courtesy Bibliotheque nationale de France


Today, when I drop set the needle of my record player onto a vintage vinyl recording of Fabrizio De André, I listen hard and imagine that in the skips and the static of the record I hear not only his voice, but those of all the Italian singers who came before him as well.



A Fonotipia ad by artist Marcello Dudovich, 1906