Bettini And The Mapleson Recordings
by Robert Feinstein
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
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
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.