Pasquale Taraffo and His Fourteen-Stringed Harp-Guitar
Win Over Worldwide Audience

About the character, background, and international success and decline of a great guitarist undeservingly neglected.

Chapter 5:
by Giorgio De Martino
translation by Silvia Minas
edited by Gregg Miner

taraffo3-ghisalberti.jpg (53624 bytes)“On board S/S ‘Re Vittorio’ heading to South America, 1925” (“Sul Re Vittorio verso l’America del Sud, 1925”). The family album shows a little man looking more like a teenager in spite of the sadly ageing signs on the childlike features of his face. He is thirty-eight years old then, wears a hat hiding his widely receding hairline, smiles like one who would seldom do so unless necessary. The name of the ship shows above on the large lifebuoy placed at the front of the picture, the origin town, Genova, below, between two stars.

From Genoa, his beloved Genoa, like so many other thousands emigrants did, this bashful little man was leaving for Buenos Aires without even an introduction letter with him nor a place which to address. His name is Pasquale Taraffo. Nobody would know he is called “The Paganini of the guitar.” The picture shows him setting off to make a fortune overseas.

Unlike the famous violinist Paganini, his fellow citizen, Taraffo did not know written music. His friends and colleagues had hopelessly tried to teach him to read various scores, among them the composer Attilio  Margutti and the mandolinist  Nino Catania. No way. The stave was not his cup of tea. Taraffo could listen to music and music went straight from his harmonic mind to his hands and thence to the strings of his guitar. It could be a polka, or just as easily the whole choir from Bellini’s “Sonnambula”. He just let the music pour in, reinvented it, did not copy it slavishly but recreated it somehow  together with the author through harmonic licences and technical solutions, reviving the sound of a whole orchestra through his ten fingers. When he happened to compose an original piece, he simply knew it by heart in every detail, played it in front of any friends who would be good enough musicians and had it kindly written out by them in a score.

Genoese blood, a short man, looking like short men from southern Italy, very uneasy at speaking any language (including Italian) but his Genoese dialect, he was a man of sterling character, naturally distrustful, deeply grateful to those patrons who helped him (to the point of  naming his children and two of his most popular pieces after them). This man who could only speak his dialect was instead able to speak the universal language of art when clinging to his fourteen-stringed guitar (“invented by himself” as he dared tell just to his audience overseas) resting on a removable and ingenious slightly basculating pedestal essentially meant to improve the reach of sound. The picture  taken in 1925, barely three years before that liner was wrecked, brings out Taraffo’s rough gentlemanly ways, oddly matching the battered deck planking of the two-mast S/S “Re Vittorio”, a quite light tonnage vessel when one thinks of the long way she had to sail across the Ocean.

The destiny of Pasquale Taraffo appears grotesque and poetic at the same time. Both a wild and a refined genius, Taraffo grew up as an outsider. No regular education, no school except for what he was taught at home by his father, a skilful ironmonger deeply fond of guitars. So he started first as an enfant prodige gathering an audience of mates and longshoremen sitting around plain marble tables in buffets or bars; but soon to perform as the most popular virtuoso guitarist in his own town, and eventually as a worldwide known phenomenon capable of keeping the stage for forty consecutive nights, as in Barcelona, for instance; to end up by starring in the most important theaters overseas as a star astounding everyone, even the solemn world of classical music.

Pasquale Taraffo was to cross the Ocean many times again, though each time feeling deeply resentful, a typical mood of poor emigrants. In spite of success, of the opportunity he was given to meet other artists and important people, of getting enthusiastic headlines by the press and by the critics, he was constantly missing home where his wife and children were waiting for him and where he wished he could stay forever.

The tightrope style of his virtuosity when performing on the stage was at odds with his look and his unsociable temper. His rude ways and lack of manners in dealing with people must have contributed to make him a loser in the end when it was a matter of negotiating the terms of a contract through an agent or assess if a direct deal would really be to his advantage.

Shortly after 1929, about the time of the Great Crash, Pasquale Taraffo’s life began to slide downhill. He kept fighting some eight years long in search of success and more money while sharing hopes and difficulties with other artists, until he might well have come to the point of giving in or refuse to come to lower himself to compromise. So he went back to perform on board liners, joining his fellow citizen, the singer Mario Cappello, to play not only as a formidable concert artist but also as a steady member “star” of the orchestra on board conducted by Edoardo Bianco from Argentina. He spent the last years of his life far away from home, feeling more and more stressed and aware of how he happened to waste his precious talent this way. He died in 1937 in Buenos Aires without really making a fortune overseas or spreading his fame worldwide. His beloved guitar came back home more like an empty coffin, while his mortal remains could not be entered on that sad return ticket and shall lie forever in Argentina.

Pasquale Taraffo never learned any musical theory. “O Rèua” (“The Wheel”) - the nickname he was given in Genoa by his friends because of his amazing fingering technique which made his right hand appear to be moving like a wheel on the strings – did not seem to see why he should play “alone for himself” just for the sake of practicing (at least according to contemporary evidence at home). His inborn gift reminds us of the one Mozart was blessed with that made him love playing when people were listening to his music, be it in a great theater or in a tavern somewhere.

Sleeping until noon, like many artists do who perform at night, he could stand playing in a “matinée”  and eventually straight on into night on the stage of a Vaudeville theater, always shouldering his fourteen-string guitar built by the luthier Settimio Gazzo, a good friend of his.

Despite his amateurish attitude towards his professional life he dared venture abroad, leaving his beloved  native town, touring first in Italy, then in Europe - he was not even twenty when he was acclaimed in Spain as “El Dios de la guitarra” - and finally in South America and in the States, when he first crossed the Ocean on board of S/S “Re Vittorio”, gaining fame to the point of competing against Andrès Segovia, a well-off person by the way, who was only five years younger than him (being born in 1893), and who had brought the fame of classical guitar in a triumphal “tournée” from Spain to the United States to worldwide attention.

Such a parallel comparison might look disconcerting at first sight. Yet, that little reserved man capable of transferring the sound of 120 orchestral players or even that of a complete choir into the strings of his guitar, whose art comes from centuries-old musical tradition belonging to popular art, might well stand up, say, even to the Bach transcriptions by Segovia.

The wonder of the achievements by an artist like Pasquale Taraffo doesn’t come out of the blue. Even admitting he was an instinctive genius sprouting from the street, it would be worth reconsidering the idea of the way popular art could develop in daily life. Genoa, the very same town giving birth to Taraffo and Paganini, had clearly been for centuries the most convenient soil for this kind of sprouting. Paganini, who in the beginning was a player of plucked instruments, had transferred to the four strings of his violin the nodal technicalities belonging to guitars. Similarly, what Taraffo had absorbed and given out when he played his harp-guitar came from centuries-old traditions belonging to their common maritime town. He really should be considered as a genius, as a worthy follower of a line dating back to Simone Molinaro in the 16th century and even to earlier times in the Middle Ages.

Taraffo also loved to compose hits for entertainment purposes. His marches, polkas and mazurkas were appreciated by a wide audience for their catchy rhythm and liveliness. At that time, operatic music was extremely popular among all the longshoremen and all people who were Vaudeville theater goers. Taraffo’s transcriptions of operatic music received standing ovations because that kind of audience knew that music by heart. They were the same people who rooted for world renowned opera singers like Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa or Giacomo Lauri Volpi. It should be emphasized here that Romantic Opera was extremely popular among the working class. In the same way that in Northern Europe works of fiction became widely popular because of the higher level of literacy achieved there thanks to the Reformation of the Evangelic Church  requiring everyone to be able to personally read the Holy Bible, in Italy - homeland of composers such as Verdi - romantic operas had likewise become extremely popular even among the lower class, somehow counterbalancing their poor level of literacy, which happened to be partly caused, and sometimes even enhanced by, the Catholic Church attitude.

So, by playing the Intermezzo of “Cavalleria Rusticana” or the Choir of “La Sonnambula” together with his “Tango” or “Serenata”, Pasquale Taraffo seems to teach us in a straightforward way that operatic music should be brought back to its very origin of a popular musical tradition accessible to everyone. If Segovia transcribed Bach, Taraffo transcribed Bizet, Bellini, Mascagni….The approach by Segovia when he transcribed a piece from the original score was clearly a learned one due to his excellent cello studies. By comparison, Taraffo, who hadn’t had any musical theory training, simply played his guitar, re-harmonized, added his creation, made the fascination of the original piece come out through his feeling, through his precious sensitivity and his heart, leaving the stave aside together with all those analyses that written music usually brings with it.

When we read the history of music, we can see that Segovia was towering over all other guitar players until the end of 1950’s. He was the only one who first understood that classical guitarists should be given back their original soloist role which had been lost since the beginning of the 19th century. But the point to be focused on here is essentially the difference between an ordinary guitar, and the type of guitar played by Taraffo, which was in fact a sort of “souped-up” guitar meant to improve the bass register and the projection of sound for a wider audience. One just needs to read the opinions of the press in the States by the end of 1920’s to see that this comparison between Taraffo and Segovia was self-evident and could consequently be reasonably argued. In the daily newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano of December 25, 1928, we can read about the concert held by Taraffo at the Gallo Theater in New York: “Taraffo è meraviglioso nei suoi pizzicati, nei suoi trilli, nei suoi arpeggi, come nel canto spiegato, come nei robusti bassi. Spesso si ha la illusione precisa che siano più strumenti a suonare insieme. Segovia è, forse, più levigato, più elegante. Taraffo è più robusto, più espressivo, più efficace” (“Taraffo is splendid in his pizzicatos, arpeggios and trills, as well as in his singing melodies and robust basses. One has the clear sensation of listening to more than one instrument being played together. Segovia is possibly neater and more elegant. Taraffo is stronger, more expressive and forceful”). Among the concert programs presented during that season in the Big Apple there were also a few concerts held by a young virtuoso violinist whose name was Yehudi Menuhin at Carnegie Hall with the Philarmonic Symphony Society, and a recital held by Andrès Segovia at the Town Hall - the very same theater where two weeks later Taraffo performed and even dedicated a composition of his to President Herbert Clark Hoover.

We shall deliberately ignore here any legendary (though reasonably believable) tales about possible direct encounters between Taraffo and Segovia, be they in Spain or over the Ocean somewhere in America, or even in Genoa. Comparing these two artists however might well be the right thing to do, bearing in mind that whereas Segovia stays as “official” myth, Taraffo’s name might have undeservedly been long neglected by almost everyone.

As evidence we can mention here what is said in “The New International Year Book - A Compendium of the World’s Progress for The Year 1928” edited by Herbert Treadwell Wade, published by Dodd, Mead and Company. It is a voluminous tome – over 800 pages – giving a picture of the state of the arts and disciplines both scientific and humanistic for the year 1928.  In the section devoted to music, and more precisely to artists, on pages 477-478, the text first refers to the American debut of the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (as a soloist in Concert n.1 for piano and orchestra of Cajkowskij, conductor Sir Thomas Beecham); then to two enfants prodige of the violin who struck the audience at international level; we are talking about Yehudi Menhuin who was just a teenager and Ruggiero Ricci who was eight at that time. The Compendium pays “unusual attention” in that year to an instrument never heard being played before in concert halls. This was the guitar. Attention was further drawn to it owing to the outstanding performances of two artists: One was Andrès Segovia, and the other was Pasquale Taraffo.

The original text reads: “Unusual attention was attracted by the remarkable performances of two artists who introduce an instrument entirely unknown in serious concerts, the guitar.  Andrès Segovia, a Spaniard, scored an instantaneous success at his début in New York (January 8) by his masterly rendition not only of national folk songs and dances but also by his arrangements of familiar pieces of the classic masters. His success in other cities was equally emphatic. Still more surprising was the exhibition given by the Italian Pasquale Taraffo (New York, December 23), who played an instrument greatly improved by his ingenuity. By increasing the dimensions of the ordinary guitar and adding several strings, he obtained not only a wider range, especially in the lower register, but also a mellower tone and more volume. This instrument he handled with real virtuosity”.

Taraffo’s native town seems alas not always to have been generous towards its illustrious children, showing what was its own everlasting way of commemorating them. It was thus decided for instance that Niccolò Paganini’s birth house should be razed to the ground in the early 1970’s, and the name of “O Réua” should slowly be allowed to fall into oblivion during the whole 20th century. Towards the mid-1950’s, however, the local press seemed suddenly to be willing to revive earlier praises, as we can read: “Spaniards named Pasquale Taraffo as one of their best-loved children (…), the name of the Genoese guitarist is pronounced there in the same reverent way as that of Tarrega or Segovia”. (“Gli spagnoli hanno fatto di Pasquale Taraffo un loro figlio prediletto (…), il nome del chitarrista Genovese vien pronunciato con reverenza pari a quella di Tarrega e di Segovia”). But soon later, for nearly half a century, Genoa seemed again to be forgetful about Taraffo’s memory. We would have to wait until the second half of the 1990’s before the beginning of a renaissance could be seen and Taraffo’s art be closely scrutinized and popularized through the analysis of his recordings and papers by musicians and experts such as Franco Ghisalberti, Beppe Gambetta, Enrico De Filippi, Gregg Miner, Fabrizio Giudice and last but not least Christian Saggese .

On July 8, 1954, the fourteen-stringed guitar belonging to Taraffo was officially offered to the Municipality of Genoa by the artist’s daughter and has since been preserved in the Conservatory “Niccolò Paganini”. Very few commemorative events have been held since, until some fifteen years ago, when new recognitions began to show up again.

It should be noticed here instead, that a number of poems in Genoese dialect have been dedicated to “O Rèua”. The Genoese poet Piero Bozzo” (1910-1992) wrote his verses for a Genoese song by Natale Romano, called “Quande sunnava o Rèua” (“When O Rèua used to play his guitar”), where he imagined the newspaper A Voxe de Zena (The voice of Genoa) were comparing Taraffo to Paganini and regretted the artist’s mortal remains could not be brought back home. Two quatrains of higher poetical value were composed later in the early 1980’s by Carlo Palladino (1910-1995), an excellent musician and an amateur poet, the first guitarist to teach classical guitar at the Conservatory “Niccolò Paganini” in Genoa.

Also to be mentioned are several other Genoese men of letters who endeavored to write verses to honor Taraffo; among them an anonymous Genoese poet recites “O gh’ha azzunto de corde a seu chitara/ pe sciortisene feua da Pontexello/ e poèi monta in sci bastimenti/e sunna Verdi e Rossini in ti teatri” (“He added a number of strings to his guitar/ and left the district of Ponticello/ to sail onboard of liners/ and play Verdi and Rossini in theaters”). Another author, whose name is Angelo Ferrando, published his moving verses in the local newspaper “Il Lavoro” imagining the musician on his death bed taking leave from his beloved guitar while asking it to be the ambassador of his extreme farewell; Antonio Firpo wrote in 1985 his poem “Au grande Pasquale Taraffo re d’a chitara” (To the great Pasquale Taraffo, the king of the guitar).

At right: Still from 1928 film

Taraffo should be considered as a modern artist. Though certainly not personally a brilliant communicator, he clearly saw the point of exploiting the media of the time. He might well be the Italian guitarist who had the highest number of records being produced during the late 1920’s with major Italian, English, German and American companies, though without actually keeping to any systematic sound recording criteria, as the idea must have been more one of money making both on the basis of the recording companies requirements and possibly Taraffo’s own profit. This meant that, though in an amateurish and practical way, he had managed to gain advantage on the side of both profit and publicity by having dozens of 78 rpm disks recorded, and sometimes even the same piece under different companies’ labels. Unfortunately an accurate review of his work or even a chronology of it has been made almost impossible so far owing also to the fact that as Taraffo had refused to sit for his admission exam, his name had never been entered in the Italian Authors and Publishers Association (Socetà Italiana degli Autori ed Editori). Luckily, quite a number of disks have been found that he had recorded with Homocord, Columbia, Odeon, and Polydor - a direct way for him to be appreciated in every home, make people wonder about him, and gain fame.

He also saw very well how important the new world of movies was. He burst in the bright wake of the 20th century’s New Art with a clip of his fourteen-stringed guitar masterly played by him. Nobody knows how many of these clips were shot. This most precious one in our hands shows him playing his very popular hit “Stefania”. The set is in New York, shot on December 19, 1928, just a week before his triumphant concert held at the Gallo Theater (details about which will be given later on in this article). This clip lasting just a few minutes might well have been projected just before or after some longer movies in theaters as they used to do at the time. Taraffo also took part in radio broadcasting programs. We know this was true in Argentina at “Radio Cultura” and “Radio Fenix” where he played together with his fellow citizen Mario Cappello.

At left: Pietro & Pasquale Taraffo, with their "basculating" harp guitar stands

Maybe it was thanks to the new media of the time that Taraffo had the opportunity to succeed in having a hold over the taste of people, leave a token of his art in the frame of his time, and bring about a new fashion.

The upshot of “O Rèua”’s masterly renditions, and the legendary echo of his success overseas, which could materially be appreciated thanks to records played on phonographs, also brought about the spreading fashion of playing harp-guitars. An evidence of this is the peak of harp-guitars produced in the area of Genoa, presumably up to some hundreds guitars, built both by luthiers and fancy amateur builders. But soon after Pasquale Taraffo’s death, harp-guitars seem literally to have disappeared, thus allowing the mentor of that instrument to fall into oblivion for nearly three quarters of a century. That is to say, until recently.

As we said earlier, besides being a modern artist, he was a brave artist as well. He was at that time, among the very few ones around, a “full time” professional guitarist, certainly the only one in Genoa. His colleagues, even those who were well known, played their guitars as a part time job, having normally a main job to keep their ways, say, cook onboard, or running a shop in town, or perhaps a job in crafts or teaching. Taraffo was a pure concert artist. He was so fully absorbed by his profession of “militant” performer that he did not even care to supplement his money through some teaching.

It should be added here that besides being a modern artist, he also was an ingenious man. A pedestal for a harp-guitar is not an exclusive idea of Taraffo’s, but a copyright should be granted him for his idea of separating the pedestal from the guitar, which made the instrument far easier to be carried around. Another brilliant idea of his was that of adding a small accessory to it - meant to bypass the intrinsic stiffness met when playing a guitar resting on a pedestal - that is to say a tiny adjustable wooden rod secured diagonally under the pedestal so as to make it become a slightly basculating pedestal for an easier handling of the guitar and a higher “expressive” rendition by the artist. It is a simple and ingenious idea allowing the pedestal to basculate on an axis represented by the rod which could be adjusted more or less diagonally according to requirements when performing.

Everyone was there to applaud him. The day before Christmas Eve 1928, posters and playbills show Pasquale Taraffo’s name in big block letters for his concert at the “Gallo Opera House”, 54th Street in New York. These were to be the last happy festivities for him to be enjoyed before “Black Tuesday” coming upon October next, which caused so many people to be reduced to poverty not only in the States. The “Gallo Opera House” was obliged to close in 1930, until it was eventually used again for theatrical seasons and concerts, and was finally turned into the popular disco “Studio 54”.

Let’s go back to the sizable audience in the stalls of the Gallo Theater on that Sunday, December 23, a few blocks from the “Met”. It is striking to see how many stars belonging to the world of classical music had decided to come to sit in the “Gallo”’ stalls and applaud Taraffo’s virtuosoship . A parade of stars ranging from singers like Beniamino Gigli, Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Titta Ruffo, Lucrezia Bori, Frederick Jagel, to conductors like Tullio Serafin, Vincenzo Bellezza, Giuseppe Maria Bamboschek, and Giulio Setti, for 27 years the conductor of the “Met”’s choir, and the violinist Vasa Prihoda.

A parterre des rois (“audience of kings”) clearly bewitched by Taraffo’s musicianship, which is evidenced by the number of signed portrait photographs he was offered on that occasion after his concert. In their dedications, Prihoda, for instance, praises him as a “great guitarist”, and Lauri Volpi writes Taraffo is “grande chitarrista che ha innalzato alla più squisita dignità di arte uno strumeno così tipicamente italiano” (“the great guitarist who has raised to the most exquisite dignity of art an instrument which is so typically Italian”).

The press in New York followed very attentively the event and succeeded in turning the extremely well-promoted debut of the Genoese guitarist into a real media triumph. The following concert playbills read slogans such as “the world’s greatest guitarist”. Taraffo’s artistic career was at the top here as evidenced by the emphatic critic headlines of the time.

The New York Times read: “Pasquale Taraffo, trilling with left hand, running scales and arpeggios with the right, and reinforcing this ambidextrous virtuosoship with a deep bass from eight plucked strings of extraordinary length added to the usual six-stringed guitar, made his first appearance in North America before a musical audience that filled the Gallo Theater yesterday.(….). The modest player bowed behind a giant instrument of his invention, half guitar and half harp. Poised on its pedestal high in air, it sounded like a mandolin orchestra in response to the single compelling force of a genuine musicianship.”

The New York Sun read “Senor Taraffo played with great facility, his music ranging from a serenata of Albeniz through the overture to “Norma” all the way to Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes”. He had a sizable audience and no end of applause”.

In the same vein wrote the critics of newspapers like The Herald Tribune, The New York Evening Post, The Evening World, and The Morning Telegraph.

It is worth considering here the high attention paid by the media in New York to the performances held by Pasquale Taraffo between 1928 and 1929. Any music performing star would crave for such an outstanding media cover even today. Before going into the comments by the press in the top daily newspapers we should concentrate on an article published in Italian by the New Yorker Italo-American newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano on December 25, 1928 about Taraffo’s concert. The way it starts before announcing a “rising star” was born is quite interesting.

“We were a bit skeptic I must say when we decided we should go to the Gallo Theater on that Sunday. We didn’t know anything at all about that Pasquale Taraffo and wouldn’t either be so easily convinced beforehand of the ‘value’ given to any new virtuoso artist in the world of music on stage as boasted by any of those advertising campaigns in the business”. The beginning of the article must clearly have been meant this way to emphasize the admiring tone of the rest of it. It goes on saying: “When we came out of the concert we were thrilled to have met a really exceptional artist”. After briefly commenting on the three 14-stringed guitars (we think "three" is unlikely -GM) Taraffo had brought with him from Italy and how the change of climate might have caused some technical problems to the artist, the critic talked about the audience this way: “(they) were immediately fascinated by the outstanding technique of the guitarist and by the amazing effects he was able to draw out of his guitar. Amazing because the guitarist could produce with one hand both the melody and the accompaniment of the piece. Even an expert in the art could not clearly see how he managed to play so beautifully with one single hand both the song and its brilliant and astonishingly perfect harmonic accompaniment”.  The same newspaper goes on comparing Taraffo to Segovia (as earlier mentioned in our entry) describing the enthusiastic response by the audience. (“A warm and spontaneous success, mostly for that part of the concert program including classical music”). It ends saying “Already very popular in Italy and Spain, Taraffo is going to become even more popular in America. The world of music in Italy can count for sure on a new high class virtuoso indeed. His first concert talks about a very happy discovery. Among the keenest audience that night we can report a number of illustrious artists applauding Taraffo, such as Beniamino Gigli, Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Giuseppe De Luca (…), Tullio Serafin, Giuseppe Maria Bamboschek, Giulio Setti, Titta Ruffo (…).  The author signed his article with the initial capital letter “F”. At that time signing with an acronym did not mean at all that the subject dealt with was of lesser importance or that the author was less authoritative. This habit was instead meant to tell that the author was all so clearly recognizable and all the more so authoritative in the field. It concealed the signature of Italo Falbo (1876 – 1946), editor in chief of Il Progresso Italo-Americano. He was an extraordinarily eclectic figure well representing the Italian culture both home and abroad in the early 1900s. After studying at Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Italo Falbo worked successfully as a composer, a music critic and a journalist (he founded the journal “Ariel” together with Luigi Pirandello by the way). He also led a very active political life sitting in the Italian Parliament as a deputy in the early 1920s, and worked as a scientist as well (he had received a degree in medicine and natural science).  The review published in The New York Times goes into further detail about the program of that concert: “He played such rhythmic airs as Argentina has danced here and some classics of technical skill from his own native Italy, one of the most applauded being his arrangement of the overture to Bellini’s “Norma”. Signor Taraffo tossed off his more showy pieces at the start in a “Serenata Capricciosa”, written for him by Margutti and a “Fantasia” by Vinas, in imitation of piano technique. He settled down to music of accepted worth and lyric quality in a serenade of Albeniz, the familiar Boccherini minuet, Schubert’s “Moment Musicale” and Delibes’s “Pizzicati Polka”. Later he added Rossini’s overture to the forgotten opera, “La Gazza Ladra”, and airs from “The Geisha” on recall after Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes””.  

In the issue of The World of  December 24, 1928 at  page 11 the reviewer talks about  a “non apparent virtuosity” played on an instrument fancifully named “banjo guitar”, though adding Taraffo “has developed a - delicacy and balance in his performance upon this instrument”.  The New York Evening Post publishes the same day a piece (signed  E:B) in a more “literary” style. It begins by a dramatic description of the empty stage and the lonely guitar standing there alone on its pedestal, ready to face the challenge of being played by a great virtuoso: “A lone guitar on a pedestal in the center of a large stage bears something of an air of impertinence, which perhaps only a great virtuoso could overcome. Pasquale Taraffo, in his guitar recital at the Gallo Theater on Sunday Afternoon, fell short of this greatness, but played with admirable dexterity and ingenuity and good musicianship. He audience, which was of fair size, grew very enthusiastic over such ambitious numbers as the overture of “Norma” and a piano imitation of Vinas’s “Fantasia Originale” (…)”.

 The New York Sun issue of Christmas eve 1928 gives a more accurate description of Taraffo’s guitar: “(Pasquale Taraffo) played on a fourteen-stringed instrument designed by himself. It looked like an ordinary guitar with an extension built on one side to make room for the extra strings. The instrument bore a family resemblance to the harp-lute designed by Edward Light in the last years of the eighteenth century to replace the guitar”. The critic’s opinion here is definitely positive: “Senor Taraffo played with great facility, his music ranging from a serenata of Albeniz through the overture to “Norma” all the way to Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes”. He had a sizable audience and no end of applause”.  

It is worth quoting here what The New York Herald Tribune says about the number of encores given by Taraffo: «the guitarist was applauded with unusual warmth, and repeated his arrangement of the ouverture to “Norma” a number effectively illustrating his fleetness and deftness of fingers. Other encores also were provided». The piece signed F.D.P.  gives the critic’s opinion about the very core of Taraffo’s performance deeply wondering how the artist could manage to shoulder that 14-stringed guitar he himself had invented and play the whole concert  though falling inevitably short of his virtuosoship in a few instances... «he proved a past master, with notable digital skill, while in a tone providing nothing particularly unusual in quality. He obtained quite a little variety of timbre but whether the limitations of the instrument allow sufficient variety to avoid monotony throughout a complete recital is a question».  

taraffo8-ghisalberti.jpg (42565 bytes)The tenor  Giacomo Lauri Volpi

What should be considered even more interesting than the bare opinion of the critics on the press is the quality of the audience that night at the Gallo Theater. Not even on worldwide TV would it be possible to gather such a highly qualified audience nowadays. The musical Gotha of the late twenties would then mostly concentrate in the Big Apple. Many Italians belonging to the history of operatic music and concerts were in actual fact either playing or singing and conducting in New York.  Let’s start with the singers: Beniamino Gigli, who was 38 at the time, had been singing eight years at the “Metropolitan” and lived steadily in New York. We still can say the timbre of his splendid voice is the most beautiful ever all over the world. Though his fame is already well established at the time, he reached the top of worldwide success in the thirties, thanks to good recordings and to his side activity as singer/actor in a number of popular movies.  Another star of the “Met”, belonging to the elite of tenors, sitting side by side with Beniamino Gigli that night was Giacomo Lauri  Volpi who was 36 and had reached his highest success at the première of Puccini’s “Turandot”. He had started as “tenore di grazia”, but later upon the advice of Pietro Mascagni who had wanted him to sing as “Turiddu” in his “Cavalleria Rusticana”, he dared afford a more challenging repertoire ranging from “Manon Lescaut” to “Il Trovatore”.  Just over 50 years of age Titta Ruffo the greatest baritone ever in the world was also sitting in the stalls that night. He was a legend in his own lifetime. His way of interpreting “Rigoletto” is considered peerless all over the planet. As he was an antifascist and was the brother-in-law of the Italian deputy Giacomo Matteotti, murdered by the Regime in 1924, he had decided to leave Italy.  He was sitting at the Gallo together with his elder friend, the great baritone Giuseppe De Luca with a thirty-year-long career on the stage. To have an idea of who Titta Ruffo the artist was, one just needs to recall that he had been the first baritone to sing the role of “Sharpless” at the debut of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at “La Scala” in Milan in 1904, and the first “Gianni Schicchi” in the very first première of that opera held at the “Met” in 1918.  Applauding Taraffo and admiring the way  Taraffo played his harp-guitar there was also the great soprano Mrs. Lucrezia Bori, who was born in Spain, had been educated in Italy as an opera singer and there began her brilliant career.  Lucrezia Bori sang together with Enrico Caruso on all major stages over the 1910s. She was the first Italian interpreter in the role of “Octavian” in Strauss’ “Rosenkavalier”. Her triumphal debut as “Manon Lescaut” was in New York, where she lived since 1912 until her death in 1960. 


taraffo6-ghisalberti.jpg (47020 bytes)The tenor Frederic Jagel

Sitting beside her was the American tenor Frederick Jagel born in Brooklyn, who had started his career in Italy under the name Federico Jaghelli. At the time of Taraffo’s concert he was 30. Two years earlier he had made his debut as “Radames” in Verdi’s “Aida” at the “Metropolitan”. His fellowship there lasted 23 years interpreting up to thirty-four roles in 250 performances.  Among the conductors who were present at that concert stands out the name of Tullio Serafin born in 1878, who had passionately conducted numberless operas, with singers ranging from Enrico Caruso to Luciano Pavarotti, during his 60 year long career. Tullio Serafin was Arturo Toscanini’s favorite pupil. He was the first to conduct operas by Benjamin Britten, Alban Berg and Paul Dukas. He was the man who discovered Maria Callas, though in his opinion the greatest singers ever were Rosa Ponsell, Enrico Caruso and Titta Ruffo (who by the way was sitting beside him that night on December 23, 1928).  Vincenzo Bellezza, another stunning conductor collaborating with Tullio Serafin was also there. He was ten years younger than Tullio Serafin and had just come back from Buenos Aires where he had been conducting at the Colon Theater. From 1926 he had a special relationship with the “Covent Garden” where he had conducted the farewell performance by legendary  Nellie Melba in Puccini’s “Bohème”. His fame over the second half of the twentieth century has unfortunately faded away essentially owing to the fact that there are few of his performances on records.  At that concert by Pasquale Taraffo there also was Giuseppe Maria Bamboschek, an extraordinarily eclectic artist who begun as a conductor a few years earlier. He also performed as a soloist pianist with the Berlin Philarmonic Orchestra. All major singers of that time had sung under his baton, such as Enrico Caruso, Rosa Ponselle and Giovanni Martinelli.  Giulio Setti, another “senior”  artist, who as a choir conductor knew all about fine voices, was also applauding the Genoese  guitarist. He was born in1869 and was in his forties when he left Italy for the United States as a choir conductor at the “Met” where he worked 27 years before he retired and went back to Italy.

The Bohemian violinist Vasa Prihoda

A further number of major personalities, be they musicians or non-musicians, Italians or non-Italians were all applauding Pasquale Taraffo that night. One was the Czech violinist Vasa Prihoda, who was among the greatest interpreters of Paganini’s music ever. He was 28 at that time and was already a star as a violin virtuoso. He was a much discussed artist for his way of playing the violin. Many preferred his contemporary Jasha Heifetz to him. Ten years before Taraffo’s concert at the Gallo Theater Prihoda had tried his luck in Italy in Milan where he aimed at making a name for himself as a virtuoso violinist. So while he was performing at “Caffè Grand Italia” in an effort to earn his living there, he happened to be noticed by Arturo Toscanini who helped him start his brilliant career all over the world. At the end of Taraffo’s concert at the Gallo theater Prihoda chose to meet Taraffo personally, congratulated him on his brilliant performance and left him a dedicated portrait with the words “to a great guitarist”.


As a matter of fact, quite long before his triumphs in the States, Taraffo had already been crowned as the greatest guitarist by the Latin American press. His triumphal début in Buenos Aires in 1925 is emphatically described as follows in the newspaper La Plata of December 5: “Es que Taraffo, a màs de concertista stupendo, es un autor inspirado. Su musica denota il profundo conocimiento en materia de composiciòn, la que abarca todas las reglas màs complicadas de la técnica”.  (“More than a concert artist, Taraffo is an inspired author. His music denotes deep knowledge as regards composition, comprising any most complicate rules of technique”). The same day La Naciòn read “Un gran concertista, un musicista complete, un técnico de gran pericia, en una palabra, un mago de la guìtarra”. (“A great concert artist, a complete musician, a virtuoso of great facility, in other words a wizard of the guitar”).

Coming back home as a winner from his first tour in South America,  after his brave challenge abroad on his long journey onboard the S/S Re Vittorio, Pasquale Taraffo held a great concert  in his native town, Genoa  on  May 3!, 1926. The local daily newspaper Corriere Mercantile made a brilliant report of that event. This is how we wish to remember this modest great artist, so full of ingenuity though out of luck, crotchety like his homeland, generous like the music he played so beautifully, while clinging to his giant guitar, in his concert at last home: “Pasquale Taraffo, in spite of his name reminding us of origins from some remote land somewhere, is a fellow citizen of ours, a pure Genoese fellow, belonging to a purely Genoese family. Everyone in his family is a valiant guitarist, but he personally made of this instrument the very reason of his life. His unbelievably high standard of technical perfection has led him to play in any theater and obtain standing ovations everywhere. Last night, back from a triumphal tournée in South America, where he was cheered as The Paganini of the Guitar, Taraffo held a concert at the Politeama Genovese theater where he took the stage for the whole night getting endless applause from the musical audience filling the theater calling for encore. Instead of playing encores, Taraffo went on playing ever new pieces. So in the end he tossed off a further dozen sonatas besides the twelve pieces in the concert program  which had been carefully selected by him ranging from Margutti’s serenade, to Norma, from Cavalleria Rusticana to Sonnambula, from Carmen to Gheisa, and so on. The great guitarist showed in each piece he played an amazing facility together with an extraordinary sensitivity in rendition, be it “pianissimi”,“concertati”, “pizzicati” or “glissati”, making the musical audience perceive every shade of the piece. Such an emphatic success as that achieved by Taraffo was deservedly due to his long and untiring work on his guitar and to his exceptional musicianship”.

A few more notices are given next about theaters where Taraffo’s harp-guitar sounded loudly, where the champion of the fourteen-string guitar received standing ovations. Though far from being exhaustive, this short list is meant as a sort of route recalling the course sailed by the vessels of that time, leaving from Genoa and heading to America, there to berth in the shade of the Statue of Liberty.

Politeama Genovese di Genova (Italy)

Built in 1868 by architect Niccolò Bruno, sponsored by the brothers Giacomo and Giovanni Chiarella, the Politeama Genovese theater was erected on the area formerly covered by Teatro Diurno (once used for circus and horse shows) to which a further area had been added donated by the Municipality. It could hold 1000 seats, was a round-shaped building in neoclassical style with an open roof, eventually covered by architect Bruno. In 1932 Mario Labò modified it again by getting rid of ornaments. In 1942 Politeama was destroyed by bombings. In 1955 the new Politeama was inaugurated, built by architect Dante Datta. It belonged for several decades to Teatro Stabile di Genova and has been used since as a repertory theater. Politeama has been run by a private company since 1944.

Teatro Civico di Tortona (Italy)

In 1830 the fellow citizen Pietro Pernigotti was entrusted by the Municipality of Tortona with the design of a new theater to be built on the area formerly belonging to Convento SS. Annunziata. In spite of the cholera epidemic of 1836, the theater was completed and inaugurated on May 2, 1838 with Bellini’s “Norma”. The structure is built in a neoclassical style, the auditorium is horseshoe-shaped (as was the custom in the nineteenth century), and it has seventeen boxes on three stories plus the two stage boxes and the “paradiso” (gallery). It is decorated inside with stucco work and painted frieze. A medallion is painted on the ceiling, a work by Luigi Vacca, showing Music, Poetry and Painting being crowned by Minerva. After a century of full artistic activity (in the chronology of events a concert is mentioned to have been held by Pasquale Taraffo on October 1921) the theater went down a time of decline until it was closed down in 1952. After being radically restored it opened again in the early 1990’s.

Teatro Maffei di Torino (Italy)

This theater was built at Via Principe Tommaso, 5, on the ruins of the former theater Concerto Eden. It was destroyed during the Second World War. Very little was left to witness its former brilliant activity. Among the artists, as far as we can learn from playbills of the 1920’s, there were singers such as Charles de Caruso, Lina Blanche and Jones de Charmettès, besides acrobats, entertainers and dancers. The conductor at the Maffei theater was Osvaldo Brunetti, class 1863, a pianist and a composer from the province of Parma, a pupil of Giusto Dacci. From 1886 to 1912 Brunetti worked as a conductor, a bandleader and an organist in Barge (Cuneo) wherefrom he then moved to the “Maffei” of Turin.

Politeama Rossetti di Trieste (Italy)

This theater was built between 1877 and 1878 (when Trieste was still under Austria) by private shareholders. Nicolò Bruno, a Genoese architect, was entrusted with the design. Politeama Rossetti was inaugurated on April 27, 1878, with the ballet Pietro Micca, and has since been appreciated both for its great seating capacity (5000 seats, reduced to 1500 in the 1900’s) and for its beautiful auditorium and foyer. A characteristic feature of the theater was its opening roof. In 1880 it was sold to the Municipality of Trieste starting a series of brilliant seasons including operettas and musicals, drama, shows with acrobats, wrestlers, animal tamers and riders. During the 20th century after closing down several times for restoration work to be carried out, the last one in 1999, Politeama Rossetti is now again one of the most active theaters in Trieste.

Hotel Terme di Salsomaggiore, Parma (Italy)

It ranges among the highest luxury artistic hotels in Europe. Built in 1901, the Grand Hotel des Thermes marks the beginning of the Art Nouveau style in Italy. The design was signed by the Milanese architect Luigi Broggi, working at that time also at the Nuova Borsa building (the Stock Exchange building) in Milan. The hotel consists of 300 rooms on four stories. Decorations are by Gottardo Valentini and Alessandro Mazzuccotelli, the pioneers of Art Nouveau. The Art Nouveau building known today as Palazzo dei Congressi boasts a number of sumptuous frescoed halls such as Sala Moresco, Sala Cariatidi, Sala Pompadour and Sala Taverna Rossa.

Oakland Scottish Rite Center (U.S.A)

Conceived in the 1880’s, it is placed on the sides of Lake Merritt, Oakland (a few minutes from San Francisco). The Oakland Scottish Rite Center was modified in 1927. This historic Masonic centre is impressive for its size and its rich inside decorations. It was meant for having concerts, dancing performances and musical shows in general, to be held there. It has a seating capacity for 1500 people, whilst the ball room can keep 1000 people.

Gallo Opera House, New York (U.S.A.)

The theater was built by architect Eugene De Rosa, sponsored by Fortunato Gallo (class 1878, native of the region of Foggia, Italy), who was the impresario of the lyrical troupe of the San Carlo theater from 1913 until the late 1950’s. With a seating capacity of 1200 people, the theater could also house productions not belonging to the program of the repertory company. It is particularly admired for its rich renaissance decoration inside. The theater was inaugurated by the Fortunato Gallo’s company in November 1927 with La Bohème. Since its beginnings, it also housed theater plays such as Elettra by Sophocles with Antoinette Perry. The stock exchange crash of 1929 caused the theater to be closed down in 1933, and be eventually transformed into a nightclub and restaurant. In 1942 it was bought by CBS who used it as a radio broadcast studio. In 1977 it was further transformed in the very popular disco “Studio 54”. In 1998 it was restored again and brought back to its original splendor as a real theater.

Additional Theaters that Taraffo played:

- Giorgio De Martino (2011) with the precious collaboration of Franco Ghisalberti and Enrico De Filippi, translation by Silvia Minas

About the Author

Giorgio De Martino, born in Genoa (Italy) in 1964, is a musician, journalist and writer.  Since 1989 he has collaborated with the newspaper “Il Secolo XIX”.  Since 1993 he has collaborated with the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, presenting over a thousand lectures and meetings at schools, universities and associations.

He published “Giuseppe Gaccetta e il segreto di Paganini” (De Ferrari, 2001), “Cantanti, vil razza dannata” (Zecchini, 2002), “Attività lirica e musicale a Lavagna e nel Tigullio” (De Ferrari, 2003), “L’utopia possibile” (Zecchini, 2004), “All’Opera!” (Frilli, 2007), “Notte illuminata” (Almud, 2010), and “Andrea Bocelli live in Central Park” (2011).  

In February, 2010 he wrote the book "Chi è di scena" for the Fondazione Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa.

He also published the narrative volumes "Il suono della farfalla" (Microart's, 1990), "Incinto" (De Ferrari, 1999), "Notturno a Genova" (De Ferrari, 2002), "Acconti brevi" (Eumeswil, 2008), and "Racconti dal finestrino" (Liberodiscrivere, 2010).

In 2001 he founded "Il Cantiere Musicale”, the magazine of the Paganini Conservatory of music in Genoa, which he directed for ten years.  He is the author of the official promotional biography of the tenor Andrea Bocelli.

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