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Bettini And The Mapleson Recordings
Lionel Mapleson with Edison Home Phonograph and extra large horn, probably at the Metropolitan Opera House, ca 1901-1903, Source NYPL

In March of 1954, the late Roland Gelatt published an article in High Fidelity under the title: "Lieutenant Bettiniís Musical Spider." Most of it was incorporated into his well-known book, The Fabulous Phonograph, but some important remarks were omitted: "Bettini came along with the right idea at the right time. He knew that the phonograph was a worthy medium for great music and he realized world-famous celebrities could be induced to perform before it...others appropriated the idea of celebrity recordings. ..Gianni Bettini was soon eclipsed. It is about time that this innovator emerged from the shadows."

While Lionel Mapleson (1864-1937), who was the Metropolitan Opera House's librarian for forty-eight years, did not quite eclipse Bettini, he was his immediate successor in capturing on wax the voices of New York-based opera greats. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Lieutenant Bettini was spending most of his time in Paris where he had established a new business, the Sociťtť des Micro-Phonographes Bettini. His French catalogs for 1901 and 1904 show that the performers he was able to record in Europe were distinctly less stellar than those who sang in his Fifth Avenue studio in the 1890ís.

Certainly, Mapleson was aware of Lieutenant Bettiniís earlier recording activities and he became eager to emulate them. Besides that similarity, the two phonograph pioneers had much else in common. Both were born abroad, the scions of families with dual military and opera connections. Lieutenant Bettiniís father was prominent tenor Geremia Bettini and his maternal uncle was impresario Max Maretzek. Maplesonís wife was talented soprano Helen White and his uncle was Maretzekís chief impresario-rival, Colonel J. H. Mapleson. Lionel Mapleson shared Bettiniís inventive streak and he sometimes designed devices used by the Metropolitanís stagehands. Some chroniclers of the Mapleson legacy believe the huge recording horn he employed may have been built from his blueprints. Moreover, both Bettini and Mapleson were fixtures of the elaborate party circuit associated with the Metropolitan Opera House and they had many close friends in common. Indeed, they quite possibly were friends with each other!

It is known that the librarian admired Bettiniís phonographic improvements, for he wrote about them, after purchasing an Edison Model A machine, along with a hundred blank cylinders, on March 17, 1900. Maplesonís diary entry, four days later, said: "Dear old Leo Stern invited me to see his phonograph. His "Valse," sung by his wife, Miss Susanne (sic) Adams ó perfect. He kindly presented me with a Bettini recorder and reproducer ó delightful, valuable gift."

And on March 22, 1900, Mapleson wrote: "For the present, I neither work nor eat nor sleep. I'm a phonograph maniac! Always making or buying records. The Bettini apparatus is simply perfect." It is especially significant that cellist-composer Leo Stern gave Mapleson the Bettini attachments. Suzanne Adams recorded for the lieutenant on five or more different dates, and for Mapleson on a minimum of seven occasions. A picture of the soprano, appeared in at least three Bettini catalogs, with a listing of her records and a mention of Leo Stern as the composer of "Valse."

Until 1904, when Mapleson abruptly abandoned his recording activities, perhaps because of pressures put on the Metropolitanís management by the Victor and Columbia interests, the energetic librarian produced hundreds of cylinders, most of which were made during actual staged opera productions. The earlier Mapleson cylinders were made from the prompterís box, but after a flurry of complaints about the distractions he was causing, the librarian switched to a location on a catwalk, forty feet above the stage. Most of the Maplesons sound like the singers are very far away!

One hundred and twenty of the Mapleson cylinders are now owned by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, of the New York Public Library, which painstakingly dubbed them to a 6- disc, 128 track LP set, that went on sale in 1985. The compilation, which is still available for purchase, also includes several of sixteen additional Mapleson recordings, that David Hall, former curator of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives, discovered at the Mapleson Music Library, in Lindenhurst, New York. There have been unsubstantiated rumors that another cache of Maplesons is owned by a private collector. Exactly how many cylinders Mapleson made is a question that will never be answered. Many were shaved down. Others were ruined by overplaying. At least a hundred were brought to England, where the damp climate accelerated destruction by mold.

Between 1939 and the mid-1950ís, William Seltsam, head of the International Record Collectorsí Club, who had exchanged letters with Mapleson and Bettini, (both invited Seltsam to visit them), reissued Maplesons on at least five different IRCC discs. Henry Herrold, of Queens, New York, dubbed a group of twenty-one Mapleson cylinders to his Herrold No. 5000 LP in 1959, and Edward J. Smith, also of Queens,issued two separate discs containing Mapleson recordings. One of them, UORC (Unique Opera Records Corp.) No. 323, produced in 1977, included six Bettinis, all of which are now owned by Yale University.

More recently, several companies, such as House of Opera, Truesound Transfers and Romophone have transferred Mapleson recordings to commercial CDís. The Romophone-Mapleson compact disc includes one of the most famous Bettini cylinders: Marcella Sembrich singing "Voci di Primavera," originally made in New York City in 1900, and rerecorded and reviewed with some frequency.

Sadly so much background noise exists on so many of the Maplesons that some critics have questioned whether the Rodgers and Hammerstein transfer project was worth the effort. David Hall felt it was and wrote: "When these recordings are heard on good headphones and comparably excellent stereo playback equipment...it is surprising how much emerges not only musically, but in terms of the actual 'you are there ambience...'"

But whatever side one takes in the debate about their artistic worth, nobody can deny that Lionel Maplesonís cylinders have given us a chance to hear some luminaries from the Metropolitanís Golden Age, who never made commercial records. And the fact that Bettini played an indirect role in their creation can only enhance his importance in the history of recorded sound.

Thanks to Allen Koenigsberg and William R. Moran, for their help.

Robert Feinstein has been collecting antique phonographs for the last thirty years. He is particularly interested in the life and phonographic legacy of Gianni Bettini, about whom he has published many articles.