Phonographic salons

The phonograph was introduced in the Basque Country in the late 19th century, and, like in other places where it was exhibited, it generated great curiosity, much like other novel attractions of that era. For some, it was seen as a scientific exhibition, while others regarded it as a mere amusement at the fair. Nevertheless, the invention garnered such admiration that the phonographic salons established in various cities proved to be very successful. However, with the arrival of the film projector, the phonograph’s popularity eventually waned.

The device arrived in San Sebastian during the summer of 1893 (1), under the leadership of Enrique A. Hugens. A year later, it reached Bilbao, thanks to Francisco Pertierra, both of whom hailed from Madrid. Hugens, having recently brought the invention from the United States, established the “Salon Edison” (2) on Miramar Street. He encouraged local artists to record cylinders featuring arias and Basque songs using their own voices.

Mr. Hugens was a prominent figure in the phonograph industry within the country. In 1896, Pedro Armando Hugens established his laboratory in the capital, precisely at 3rd Barquillo Street. Two years later, he inaugurated a commercial venture at the same location under the name “Sociedad Fonográfica Española, Sres. Hugens y Acosta,” (3) where they produced cylinders that were later exported abroad. By 1900, the brand’s catalog featured sound recordings by  Ignacio Tabuyo (4). In addition to arias, the catalog included numerous zortzicos, such as CharmangarriaNere AndreaNere Amac balequiEgun batian loyolanUme eder batAdios de Iparraguirre and Guernikako Arbola.

Another significant figure who played a crucial role in the introduction of the phonograph in the Basque Country was Francisco Pertierra (5). He was a businessman who established his device, imported from Chicago, at 10th Montera Street in Madrid. During the summer, he usually closed his shop in Madrid and took his auditory exhibition to the provinces. Some of the noteworthy musical pieces from that era included songs recorded by the soprano Regina Pinkert (6) and the baritone Massimo Scaramella, as well as excerpts from Spanish zarzuelas, some of which were recorded by Loreto Prado or the Engineers Band (7). Lastly, the collection featured jotas performed by Royo del Rabal (8) from Zaragoza and cuplés by Frégoli (9). It is presumed, therefore, that these same recordings were likely showcased in Bilbao.

On the other hand, it didn’t take long for the city’s businessmen to adapt to the changing times. Enrique García (10), primarily a piano retailer in Bilbao, established a phonograph audition room with rubber headphones on Berastegi Street in 1897. Soon after, he opened a phonograph store on Ledesma Street. Just a stone’s throw away, at 8-10 and 12th Gran Via in Bilbao, in the establishment known as “Centro Fonográfico Universal, Almacén de pianos Enrique García,” he began recording cylinders featuring Basque music in Basque language, performed by Mr. Arriaga. Some of these titles included Beti maiteEuskaldunaGoizeko izarra and Ume eder bat.

During this period in Bilbao, the tenor Florencio Constantino recorded several cylinders, accompanied on piano by Serrant, at his residence in Las Arenas, at the request of influential families from Bilbao. Constantino, widely regarded as one of the finest singers of his time, produced a substantial number of phonograph recordings for Pathé. These included arias from the most beloved operas such as “Aida,” “La Bohême,” “Rigoletto,” and more. Additionally, in 1903, he recorded three zorzicos: “No te olvido” by Villar Jiménez, “Adios” by Iparraguirre, and “La del pañuelo rojo” by Aguirre-Tabuyo. These phonograph recordings were subsequently transferred to shellacs in 1905 through the use of the pantograph (11).

Enrique García was not the sole merchant dealing in wax cylinders. In proximity to his store, on Hurtado de Amezaga Street, the business establishment of Viuda de Ablanedo e Hijo (12) also produced cylinders featuring Basque music. This shop offered cylinders with zortzicos and Basque songs, performed by the tenor Domingo Maguregui. Some of the titles included Agur nere bihotzekoAi hori begi, Hiru damatxoEzazu nitaz kupira, and  Kuku by Bordes. Additionally, the baritone from Eibar, Eulogio Villabella, who was the father of the popular tenor Miguel Villabella, recorded Boga boga and the tenor from Bilbao, Gervasio Ercilla, recorded Nere etorrera. Recordings by the baritone from Bilbao, Incencio Navarro (1888-1918) (13), were also published by this phonograph laboratory, primarily consisting of excerpts from Spanish zarzuela.

Wax cylinder collections are exceedingly rare in the country. In the Basque Country, only one collection of wax cylinders has been preserved, which is the legacy of the Ibarra Family from Bilbao. It’s not surprising that this technology was accessible mainly to the affluent. Only a handful of families could afford to pay the considerable sums of 20, 25, or even 50 pesetas, which was the cost at that time.

Even though the market was eventually dominated by the Berliner Gramophon, Edison continued manufacturing cylinders until 1929 (14).

(1) The newspaper El Liberal (10.03.1899) mentioned the year 1891 as the introduction date of the phonograph in San Sebastian. However, this might be an error, as local media did not report on the invention until 1893 when the Universal Exhibition took place in Chicago, from where Mr. Hugens brought the device.
(2) Unión Vascongada, 09/08/1983
(3) El Liberal, 10/03/1899
(4) Ignacio Tabuyo (1863-1947), baritone born in Errenteria. Dentici, Nino. Diccionario biográfico de Cantantes vascos de ópera y zarzuela. Bilbao: Bizkaiko Foru Aldundia, 2002. p. 256
(5) La Union Catolica, 06/18/1893
(6) El Nervión, 07/23/1984
(7) El Día (Madrid. 1881), 03/18/1895
(8) La Iberia (Madrid. 1854), 01/13/1895
(9) El Correo Militar, 04/19/1895
(10) Calle Iturrino, Esteban. “El primer fonógrafo de Edison en nuestra villa”. In: Vida Vasca n. 50 (1973), p. 159-161
(11) Goyen Aguado, Julio. Florencio Constantino (1868-1919). Bilbao: Ayuntamiento, 1993. p. 299
(12) Ansola, Txomin. “El fonógrafo en Bilbao (1894-1900). Una aproximación.” In: Bidebarrieta III (1998), p. 275
(13) It is believed that Mr. Navarro recorded the oldest rendition of “Gernikano Arbola” for Vda. De Aramburo in Madrid. Reference: Ranera Sánchez, Dunia; Crespo Arcá, Luis. “Los cilindros sonoros de la Biblioteca Nacional de España.” Boletín de la AEDOM, 2010, p. 58.
(14) Gómez Montejano, Mariano. El fonógrafo en España. Madrid: the author, 2005. p. 124