August 24, 2003

The Fonotipia Ledgers 1904-1939 (CD-ROM).  Roger Beardsley, ed.  Published by Symposium Records on Behalf of Historic Singers Trust, Historic Masters Ltd., and EMI Archives.  Symposium 1139.  ,41 (U.K.), ,42.50 or $68 (U.S.).  Historic Masters, Ltd. 16 Highfield Road, North Thoresby, Lincolnshire DN36 5RT U.K.  Phone: 44-1472-840236.  E-mail:

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

What was Luigi Longobardi doing in Milan on October 14, 1905?  Here’s your chance to find out, in a new and different way.[i]  The publication of large-scale discographies is headed toward CD-ROM, for reasons of both expense and versatility.  Not only are the little discs less expensive (and easier to update) than their bulky paper counterparts, but their contents can be accessed, or “searched,” in numerous ways.  Most printed discographies have limited indexing (try to find the title of a song in Greenwood’s six-volume Decca discography!)  We just have to get used to this new means of storing data.

The conventions for CD-ROM publishing have yet to be agreed upon, as demonstrated by three examples I have reviewed in the ARSC Journal.  Tom Lord’s massive Jazz Discography is a database with a pre-packaged search engine that allows the user to pull out specific data, for example all the recordings on which Louis Armstrong appeared, or all recordings of “On Green Dolphin Street”.  You never see a “page” of Lord’s discography, instead you search his database.  Walter Bruyninckx’s equally gargantuan 85 Years of Recorded Jazz is a collection of Adobe Acrobat files, which do look like the pages of a standard printed discographyBexcept that they are electronic and can be searched.  (A comparative review of these two CD-ROM’s is found in ARSC Journal Vol. 33 No. 2).

The Fonotipia Ledgers takes still another approach, presenting all its data in a huge Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.  Unlike Lord and Bruyninckx, who provided the necessary software on their CDs, this one requires you to have Excel installed on your computerBand know how to use it.  That’s not a terrible barrier, since Excel is widely used and fairly easy to master, but it’s up to you to provide it.

What you get is access to raw data from the files of one of Europe’s leading classical labels of the early 1900s.  Società Italiana di Fonotipia was founded in 1904 in Milan, Italy, by Alfred Michaelis, recently fired as general manager of the English Gramophone Co.’s Italian branch.  His goal, it is said, was to exact revenge on his former employers.  In addition to maintaining its own recording program Fonotipia was the Italian distributor for Odeon, a German label founded by another executive who the aggressive Gramophone Co. had tried to drive out of the business, Frederick M. Prescott.  Fonotipia and Odeon were closely related throughout their histories, and some Odeon masters are found intermixed with those of Fonotipia in these ledgers.


Like most raw materials these ledgers require a bit of study to understand, although they will yield a great deal of information.  These are not the actual, handwritten ledgers, but rather their data as hand-entered into an Excel spreadsheet.  (We should be thankful for that!)  Supplementary information from other sources has been added, such as the first names of artists shown only by last name in the ledgers.  The entry work seems to have been competently done, and no obvious typos were noted.  The following information is presented for each matrix:

Matrix and take

Date of recording (processing date in a few instances)

Artist (sometimes only last name)

Conductor or accompanist

Title and major work of which it is a part (e.g., opera)


Place of recording

Issue information, including Fonotipia and Odeon release numbers, but not other reissues.


There are more than 8,000 entries, fairly complete from 1904 to 1930 and scattered after that, up to 1939 (Fonotipia lingered on until 1948).  These include both issued and unissued sides and are primarily in the Fonotipia XPh and XXPh matrix series.  The number of X’s indicated the size; Ph alone meant 19 cm/7.5″, XPh signified 27 cm/10.75″, and XXPh was 30 cm/12″.  Several other matrix series are also shown, including Odeon series, which appear in blue to easily distinguish them.

Nearly all of the artists are classical, including such well known names as Albani, Amato, Barrientos, Bonci, De Luca, De Reszke (Marie, with Jean De Reszke on piano), Destinn, Kubelik, Lauri-Volpi, Pons, Sammarco, Stracciari, Tauber, Zenatello and hundreds of others, including the aforementioned Mr. Longobardi.  Most of the recordings are vocal, spanning the repertoire of the period, from all the great operas.  There are some oddities, including a mysterious series of two dozen or so sides made in December 1918 by an unidentified “Jazz Band USA,” including hits like “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” and “Smiles” along with obscurities like “Mr. Ambulance Man.”  Some of these have vocals.  The identities of the musicians on these rare sides has long been the subject of speculation.  They may have been American musicians then in Milan or remnants of the Jim Europe Band (which appeared in Milan earlier in the year).  It is also possible that the sides were imported from a U.S. label, although the presence of exact recording dates, all within a few days of each other, make this unlikely.  There are also occasional non-classical titles by others artists, such as Ottetto (who he?) doing “Kentucky Babe” and the Banda di Fanteria blasting out “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

Two versions of the main spreadsheet are provided, one containing all masters and the other only the Fonotipia-recorded masters.  A third, somewhat smaller spreadsheet contains issued operatic sides that have not been checked against actual discs; users owning these discs are urged to write to the compilers to confirm contents and report the first words sung.

In addition to the spreadsheets over 100 pages of text are provided in separate files, including a ten-page introduction to the project; an exhaustive (exhausting?) 91-page history of Fonotipia by Frank Andrews, originally published in the Talking Machine Review in 1976-77; a description of Fonotipia label types by Eliot Levin; and a list of artists whose first names have not been determined.  Anyone know Balzoni’s first name?

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There is surprisingly little documentation with this CD, namely a tiny, minimally informative paper insert (“Switch on computer…”) and a short Readme file.  Obviously you have to have a CD-ROM reader and your own software to access these files.  The compilers recommend using a “recent” version of Excel (version not specified), but they do provide alternatives.  Each of the three spreadsheet files comes in four versions, for Excel 3.0, 4.0, 5.0 and 97-2000.  If you have new version of Excel (97 or later) you use the newest version file; if you have older software, you can still open one of the older versions (presumably with diminished functionality).  Moreover, most modern brands of software can “import” files from one another, so you may be able to open these files with a non-Microsoft product.  I successfully opened the main spreadsheet with Corel Quattro Pro, although it couldn’t display the entire file at once as did Excel.

The text files are also provided in multiple versions, for Word 6 and 97-2000, WordPerfect 6, and as a plain text file (which can be opened by almost anything).  For the purposes of this review I used Excel 97 and Word 97, running on an IBM-compatible computer. According to the compilers the CD-ROM can also be used on a Mac.

The first task is to open Excel (or whatever you’re using), and then from within it the desired Fonotipia spreadsheet.  This goes faster if you first copy the spreadsheet from the CD-ROM to your hard drive, but it can be run directly from the CD-ROM.  The spreadsheet opens in matrix number order.  Explore it a bit and marvel at the contents.  It’s like gaining access to the inner sanctum of the EMI archives (where the original is held), without the hassle of flying to London, making appointments, waiting for the building to open, squinting to read indecipherable handwriting, etc.!  If you know your way around Excel you can then do all sorts of things.  For example, to sort the file in artist order you click on the artist column heading and then on “Sort Ascending” (“A÷ B”) on the top toolbar.  Voila!  (Or, maybe, grazi!)  The spreadsheet appears in artist order.  Don’t worry, though, you haven’t permanently changed anything.  When you get ready to exit the spreadsheet it will ask you if you want to “save changes,” and if you say “no” everything reverts to its original state.

It is also possible to search for specific names or titles, filter (so you see all the records for a given artist or title), and print out selected parts of the spreadsheet.  You can even alter the spreadsheet, for example moving the columns around or adding a column in which to note your holdings.  Printing may take a little practice if you’re not familiar with Excel.  I’m not normally an Excel user but I managed to print out a “discography” of Pasquale Amato, complete with a heading at the top, without too much difficulty.  It took a few minutes to figure out how to filter for the value I wanted (artist = “Amato”), highlight the range of rows I wanted to print, insert the header, and then print.  I won’t go through all the keystrokes here, but Excel is a fairly intuitive program and has an excellent Help facility.  It is also so widely used that you may be able to find someone to help you out, if needed.  One fact to be aware of is that the spreadsheet is set up to print landscape on A4 paper, and will not fit properly on U.S. letter size paper (8.5 x 11″) unless you reduce the width of some of the columns, reduce the font size, or scale down the entire spreadsheet (using percent reduction in Page Setup).

If all of this scares you you can simply print out the entire spreadsheet and have your own ledger, which you can then bind between some ratty old covers and pretend you found at a flea market in Milan.  Just be sure you have plenty of paper in the printer, as it runs over 570 pages even after adjusting for U.S. paper width.  If you’re a true troglodyte and can’t countenance computers at all, the compilers say they will print out the whole thing for you in the sort order you desire.  Contact them for a price.

In summary, the Fonotipia Ledgers CD-ROM is an excellent first step in documenting the output of that important and pioneering company.  If you don’t already use Excel it may take a little work to master the software, but it’s probably worth it if you plan to do any kind of record keeping with your computer.  An updated CD will be issued shortly, and sent free to purchasers of the first version.  Also, Historic Masters Ltd. and Historic Singers Trust are now working with the EMI Archives on additional discographical projects.  Roger Beardsley writes that “this will involve transferring data from the matrix books into a similar [Excel] format on CD-ROM.  We shall start with the HMV numbers then move onto the other component parts of the EMI group. Additionally, details of metals held and pressings in the library (over 600,000) will be noted.”  As the song goes, this could be the start of something big!


[i]. He was singing “La vita è inferno” from La Forza del Destino, at Fonotipia.  Maybe it was a very hot day.  The recording was never published.

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