Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” – The first album?


I’ve always used the terms “album” and “LP” interchangeably, so it came as a surprise to find out that the former predates the latter quite considerably. We started talking about albums in the sense of ‘photo album’ or ‘stamp album’ as early as the 1850s, and the first ‘music albums’ were along these lines – large books for collecting sheet music. Then at another stretch (and another few decades) we have collections of 78rpm discs bound together as a book. And why would you want to do such a thing? To record an entire opera, of course.

It is unclear who it was that originally had this idea, but the oldest album to have survived appears to be this 1907 recording of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera “I Pagliacci,” starring Puerto Rican tenor Antonio Paoli, and supervised in its production by the composer himself. In its latest (2017) reissue it sounds simply stunning – a testament to both the careful production given to it at the time and the painstaking restoration work done last year. A treatment I wish a lot of other early recordings could receive.

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