LANZA, Mario: The Christmas Album

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The Christmas Album Original 1950-1952 Recordings

Hailed somewhat over-enthusiastically as 'a new Caruso' wellbefore he made the biopic loosely based on the career of his Neapolitanpredecessor, the meteoric Mario Lanza was a vital performer tailor-made forexploitation both on screen and on disc. His best recordings show his instinctive flair for phrasing and oftenremarkable breath-control.  Tothese he added a certain Latin fire which in the words of Andre Previn (in theearly 1950s an arranger at MGM) \brooked no musical dynamic under an eyeball-rollingtriple forte".

Mario was born Alfred Arnoldo Cocozza into an immigrantItalian family in Philadelphia on 31 January 1921.  Resident in America from the age of sixteen his fatherAntonio was a disabled World War I veteran while his seamstress mother, MariaLanza - luckily for Mario - was a frustrated soprano. As a lad he heard Caruso,Gigli and other great tenors on records and was actively encouraged tosing.  While at school moreinclined to sport than to study (he dropped out of high school to work in hisgrandfather's wholesale grocery business), he remained nonetheless an avidvocal student in his spare time. During his late teens he trained for about eighteen months with thebaritone Antonio Scarduzzo and was coached by the Phildelphia-born sopranoIrene Williams (1887-1979) who had connections in society circles.

In 1942, Mario auditioned for Sergei Koussevit-sky during aBoston Symphony Orchestra tour of Philadelphia and was awarded a scholarship tostudy at the New England Conservatory in Boston.  Later that year he made his stage debut (as Fenton inNicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor) at the Berkshire Summer Festival atTanglewood, the Boston Orchestra's summer headquarters.  Signed for a concert tour by Columbia,his career was temporarily interrupted by two years' war service in the UnitedStates Air Force.  Based at Marfa,Texas, after auditioning success-fully for Peter Lind Hayes, he soon found anopening for his talent in forces' shows and, after demobilisation in 1945, hejoined the chorus-line of the Broadway musical Winged Victory - a fund-raisingflag-waver scored by David Rose and devised by Moss Hart, presented by an allmilitary cast of US Army-Air Force personnel.

In mid-1945 Mario stood in for tenor Jan Peerce on ABC's'Celanese Hour' and between October and February 1946 appeared in six 'GreatMoments In Music' concerts in New York. During 1946 he toured Canada in concert with soprano Agnes Davis andembarked on further vocal training with Enrico Rosati (Gigli's sometimeteacher), through whose influence he was invited to sing in the Verdi Requiemwith the NBC Symphony Orchestra, under Toscanini - an opportunity he turneddown through lack of self-confidence. By 1947, however, Lanza's reputation had grown - and with it his self-confidence- and in July, in company with soprano Frances Yeend (b. 1918) andbass-baritone George London (1919-1985), he formed the Bel Canto Trio, whichover the next year gave 84 concerts in the USA, Canada, Newfoundland andMexico. 

On 28 August 1947 the end of their tour was marked with agala at the Hollywood Bowl, with symphony orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.Present on that occasion was Louis B. Mayer, who would soon be signing thetenor to a seven-year MGM contract. Meanwhile, however, two appearances inopera (as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly during the 1948 New Orleans Operaseason) prompted Lanza to conclude that a greater future awaited him in themore congenial spheres of concert, radio and screen.  His MGM contract consolidated that conviction withunexpected financial security: $750 dollars per week for the six months spentpreparing his first movie, plus a $10,000 bonus, $15,000 on completion of thefilm itself and freedom meanwhile to give concerts, radio appearances and makerecordings (under a prestigious, exclusive contract with RCA-Victor).

Lanza's first film - a 98-minute musical called ThatMidnight Kiss - was released in 1949, pairing Mario for the first time with thecomely, North Carolina-born soprano Kathryn Grayson (b.1922).  His second movie, The Toast Of NewOrleans (1950) netted him a fee of $25,000, its score also bringing the addedcachet of an Academy Award-winner, "Be My Love", a Sammy Cahn-Nicholas Brodszkycomposition which also topped the US charts Top 30 and by 1951 became his firstmillion-selling disc, making Mario a household name and recordingsuperstar. 

During 1951, Lanza began weekly broadcasts of 'The MarioLanza Show' (for CBS, sponsored by Coca Cola) and made his third film-musical,The Great Caruso.  Generally ratedhis best effort, it was certainly the most commercially successful and to thisday has kept its place in the affection of Lanza fans.  Its release was followed by acoast-to-coast 'Caruso Concert Tour' during which 'Lanza fever' swept the USA,while the LP of its soundtrack became the first 'operatic' long-player toattain Gold Disc status.  In TheGreat Caruso Lanza introduced the million-selling "Loveliest Night Of The Year"(based on the waltz "Over The waves"), and resurrected the ever-popular Ave,Maria (the 1859 adaptation by Gounod of the first study from Bach's'Well-Tempered Clavier') and Because, a world-famous best-selling 1902 balladby Guy d'Hardelot (1858-1936). Recorded in its original French version by Caruso himself, in 1912, the Lanzaversion of this most popular of 'English' tenor love-ballads was a US No.16 inJune 1951.

Already a 'name' - and a tenor-issimo name at that - on bothscreen and radio, Mario was seized on by RCA-Victor as a money-spinner.  A force in the market he could combinecertain aspects of the popular ballad-singing tradition earlier represented byMcCormack, Richard Crooks, Nelson Eddy and others with the cachet of a modernfilm-idol, and from 1950 onwards all sorts of items old and new were added tothe growing Lanza discography. These included ballads of sentiment such as Trees (the famous 1922 OscarRasbach setting of verses by the American poetaster Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)already long ensconced in US popular vocabulary) and the 'inspirational'ballads The Rosary (published in 1898, with words by Robert Cameron Rogers andmusic by Philadelphia-born pianist-composer Ethelbert Woodbridge Nevin(1862-1901), this was long a favourite of American women's clubs) and TheLord's Prayer (in the 1935 setting by Philadelphia organist Albert Hay Malotte,1895-1964).

Among the Lanza 'love-ballad' revivals we find Grieg's ILove Thee (originally "Jeg elsker dig", No.3 of Melodies of the Heart (1864),setting verses by Hans Christian Andersen) and (The) Song Of Songs (a tenorfavourite of 1914 by 'Moya' (alias of Harold Vicars) - originally set in Frenchas "Chanson du Coeur brise" by one Maurice Vancaire, this has English text byClarence Lucas).  Additionallyvarious well-known numbers from Broadway musicals were chosen.  Without A Song originates from GreatDay (1929) and Through The Years, title-song of the 1931 show, was a personalfavourite of New York-born pianist-composer Vincent Youmans (1898-1946).  You'll Never Walk Alone, an early hitfor Frank Sinatra and nowadays an anthem for vociferous football fans, by LongIslander Richard Rodgers (1902-1979), comes from Carousel (1945). 

Lanza was good for the Christmas market too and his spiritedcontributions included a noted version in English of "O Tannenbaum" and severalother time-honoured staples of the Seasonal repertoire.  These include: O Holy Night (aka"Cantique de No?â?½l
Disc: 1
You'll Never Walk Alone
1 O Holy Night
2 The Virgin's Slumber Song (Maria Wiegenlied)
3 The Lord's Prayer
4 The First Noel
5 O Come All Ye Faithful
6 Away in a Manger
7 We Three Kings of Orient Are
8 Oh Little Town of Bethlehem
9 Silent Night
10 Guardian Angels
11 Because
12 I Love Thee
13 Ave Maria
14 Without a Song
15 The Rosary
16 Through the Years
17 Trees
18 Song of Songs
19 Somebody Bigger Than You and I
20 You'll Never Walk Alone
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