Early classical guitar recording in Cuba

NB This is the second of a series of taster excerpts from my book, Recording the Classical Guitar (Routledge 2021)

In Latin America the earliest guitar recordings that can be recognized as soloistic in nature were undertaken by Edison and Victor in Cuba and Mexico. These occurred in the context of the global expansion of the American recording industry in the early twentieth century, and at a time of significant American influence in these territories. One of the earliest preserved of these recordings features a Cuban guitarist named Sebastián Hidalgo, and was made by the Edison company in Havana in late 1905/early 1906. An article in Edison Phonograph Monthly of April 1906 gives some information regarding the circumstances, referring to a “temporary Edison laboratory” (i.e. recording studio) overseen by Rafael Cubanas, which opened in the center of Havana at 146 Industria. The laboratory’s installation “was brought about by the demand for typical Cuban music and songs of this republic” (1906: 10) and regarding the sourcing of musicians for the recording the writer comments that,

After visiting all the places of amusement and hearing the vocal and instrumental artists, selections were made from the best to typify them Phonographically. Contracts were made with bands, orchestras, instrumental quartettes, trios, duettists and soloists. The schedule of recording engagements was made up and the work of taking the Records started. About 300 selections were secured, among these being the Banda Municipal de la Habana, under the direction of the well known band master, Sr. G. M. Tomas, the Banda de Artilleria, the orchestras of Pablo Valenzuela and Enrique Pena, sextette of Antonio Torroella, the Ramos instrumental trio, and vocal solos, duets, trios and quartettes by the best theatrical talent in Havana and the rest of the island. A large number of selections of typical Cuban country songs, “Puntos Guarjiros”, were made, as well as a number of typical Spanish songs which are popular in Cuba. All of these Records will be shipped to the Edison laboratory, where the permanent master Records will be made.

Very little is known about Hidalgo himself although he was obviously of some significance on the local Havana scene to have been approached by the Edison company. Hidalgo’s session yielded two cylinders (catalogue entry numbers 18941 and 19062) which were advertised as “Solos de Guitarra” in the July 1907 edition of the Edison Phonograph Monthly, in a list of over 200 Cuban records made by Edison for its Foreign Record Catalogue to be marketed in the United States. Cylinder 18941 contains a recording of an arrangement, perhaps by the guitarist himself, of the Miserere from Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore, the other a piece entitled “Selva Negra”, a lightweight polka composed by a certain J. Castro. Relative to the classical guitar culture of Cuba at this time, Hidalgo’s recording pre-dates the influence of the Spanish/Tárrega school, which did not become established in Cuba until the 1910s via Pascual Roch (Molina 1988b). However, the nature of the repertoire suggests the influence of these traditions given that Verdi’s Miserere was a popular choice of solo guitar arrangement for classical guitarists and may have been influenced by a similar version made by Spanish guitarist Julián Arcas. Verdi’s operas had also been highly popular in Havana during the nineteenth century when the influence of European musical culture was at a peak (Carpentier 2001), making this piece a natural choice for a commercially oriented recording. The accompanying polka, like the vals, was a popular European musical import and therefore also a likely choice for a recording reflecting the musical interests of consumers at this time.

Hidalgo’s cylinders, which have in recent years been made available in digitized form by Belfer Cylinders Digital Connection at Syracuse University, constitute a valuable sonic document of acoustically recorded solo guitar music. In particular they highlight the aforementioned problems of recording music of a more dynamically changeable nature and in which a certain interpretative nuance is required. For example, Hidalgo’s performance of the Verdi arrangement has an exaggerated quality with little subtlety in dynamic range, which was clearly a necessity in this instance to sustain the sound at an acceptable level for the recording horn. The polka, with its more rhythmically persistent character, comes across the most effectively in these circumstances. Hidalgo’s performances on the whole are somewhat un-refined and lack fluency, perhaps indicating an informal “home made”, as opposed to a trained, guitar technique.

The early recording career of Andrés Segovia

NB This is a taster excerpts from my book, Recording the Classical Guitar (Routledge 2021),

Segovia’s multi-faceted contribution to the identity of the twentieth-century classical guitar has been extensively documented by scholars and critics (Usillos 1973; Clinton 1978a; Duarte 1998; Poveda 2009; Wade 1983, 1986; Wade and Garno 1997a, 1997b). His recorded output has also received much attention, most notably from John Duarte, whose critical writing on Segovia’s recordings dates from the 1950s and Allan Kozinn who has written insightfully on Segovia’s recordings since the 1970s. Also significant is the contribution of Graham Wade, who in his various biographies, the most substantial of which is A New Look at Segovia, His Life, His Music (Wade and Garno 1997a, 1997b), has discussed Segovia’s recording career relative to the wider context of the evolving record industry. This chapter aims to build upon the existing scholarship by giving focused attention to the important role that Segovia’s recordings played in both laying the foundations for the recorded classical guitar repertoire and establishing the idea of the classical guitar recording artist in the first half of the twentieth century.

We know from Poveda (2009) and Wade (1997a, 2001) that Segovia attempted his first recordings in Havana, Cuba in 1923. Significantly this was the year of Segovia’s performing debut in the country for which he gave two memorable concerts at the Teatro Nacional on the 11 March and 21 March. It is also documented that he appeared at other venues in the city such as the Havana Presidium in April of that year. Segovia may have undertaken the recording for private use, or perhaps out of curiosity about the relatively new technology. Alternatively, it is possible that he was approached by one of the three major American record companies active in Cuba during this period, namely Edison, Victor or Columbia. Poveda (2009: 1098) has suggested that the recordings were made in a studio, which would perhaps indicate a walk-in gabinete fonográfico of the kind discussed in Chapter 2, or perhaps a temporary facility. These recordings would of course have been acoustic and undertaken in less than ideal conditions for a performer accustomed to playing before an audience. Wade suggests that Segovia may have found the results of the acoustic recording process to be unsatisfactory due to “problems with the quality of sound reproduced” (1997a: 68), which is in keeping with the accounts of other musicians of this era. A brief comment given by Segovia in a 1978 BBC interview suggests a more positive experience, however:

I made my first recording in Havana, and I was moved, do you know, to the bones, because I heard myself for the first time. When I was ten years old, I always thought it was a great pity for me that I was going to die without listening to my playing. But eventually, I could listen. (cited in Wade 1986: 24)

Segovia’s comments echo those expressed by many of the first generation of classical performers to be recorded in regard to the novelty of the experience. The opera singer Adelina Patti, for example, on hearing her own voice recorded for the first time is reported to have said “Ah!mon Dieu! maintenant je comprends pourquoi je suis Patti! Oh, oui! Quelle voix! Quelle artiste! Je comprends tout!” (Ronald 1922: 104). As regards the repertoire chosen, Poveda (2009) asserts that Segovia recorded Joaquín Turina’s Fandanguillo (Op. 36) and Tárrega’s famous tremolo study, Recuerdos de la Alhambra, two pieces that were also among the first he recorded in 1927 for his new contract with HMV. While the Tárrega piece was already a longstanding feature of Segovia’s repertoire the Fandanguillo was a very recently composed work (dedicated to Segovia) which began to appear in his concert programs from 1924 onwards (Poveda 2009). There is already a sense therefore of the dualism between established and the new repertoire that was to characterize Segovia’s later recording choices from the HMV period onwards. As pressings have yet come to light to confirming the nature of these early recording sessions, one can only speculate on what they would have revealed about Segovia the performing artist at this time.