Francesco Bongiovanni (on the right) with a young Ottorino Respighi (center) in front of the "F. Bongiovanni Music Establishment".
Old Bologna – A view of Via Ugo Bassi at the turn of the last century.
After his service, Francesco was hired by the music shop “Giudici & Strada Musical Establishment A. De Marchi”. In May 1903, Francesco presented himself as the shop’s “representative”. A year later, he made it his own, founding the “Francesco Bongiovanni Musical Establishment”. The shop's activity was mainly based on publishing and selling sheet music as well as on the rental and sale of musical instruments. Francesco managed to secure the exclusive representation of Bechstein pianos for the entire region of the Emilia. The particular atmosphere of early 20th century Bologna undoubtedly contributed to Francesco's fortune. The latter is, with affection and precision, described by Renzo Giacomelli in a chapter of his book “Old Bologna – Memories from half a century (Cappelli 1962). The chapter is dedicated to Bongiovanni’s “Musical Salon”: every day, around 6 pm, the establishment’s upper room became the very soul of the shop. In Giacomelli’s own words:
Everyone passed by the Mercato di Mezzo, a street as long and thin as a corridor, as pleasant as a drawing room, swarming with people like an anthill. […] Among the many brightly lit shops, overloaded with merchandise, there was, modest and discreet, Bongiovanni's “Musical Salon”: a semi-dark room with a few chairs and a few pianos hidden behind a small glass door.
Every day around 6 pm, that unadorned little room came alive for the improvised gatherings of artists, musicians, writers, journalists, gentlemen and the most famous personalities of our city life […]. Among all of these, the figures of Ottorino Respighi and Cesare Paglia (alias Gaianus) stood out: Respighi always disheveled and scruffy […], Paglia always impeccable. Ottorino Respighi and Cesare Paglia were the most imaginative and tireless animators of every kind of paradoxical discussion and of those humorous musical performances in which they celebrated their sense of humour, parodying old and new masterpieces […]. Ottorino Respighi, Adolfo Gandino and Cesare Paglia who, albeit not a professional musician, was a teacher and composer of exquisite taste, began to produce – and Francesco Bongiovanni became their “editor”, publishing the beautiful music the three created. Venturino Venturini and Zanelli illustrated the charming covers. Respighi's "Nebbie" and "Nevicata", just to name the most famous, are from that era and are among the most beautiful lyrics for voice and piano Italy has ever produced.
In this lively atmosphere, “Re Enzo” was born, a comical opera by Ottorino Respighi to a libretto by Alberto Donini. The work was staged only once (at the Teatro del Corso on March 12, 1905), the cast consisting almost exclusively of Bolognese students. Beside his artwork for the covers of the sheet music, Venturino Venturini also left a caricature of the “Salon”: a quick and improvised sketch with a dedication to Francesco. Still hanging on the walls of the Bongiovanni shop today, it depicts the typical “Salon” atmosphere: Respighi at the piano, the Duke Visconti di Modrone, at the time General Manager of the Teatro alla Scala, listens – depicted from behind with large flapping ears. Then, there is the librettist Zangarini (who, among others, had written the libretto for Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West”) with a large wide-brimmed hat; the critic of the “Futuro d’Italia”, Storni Ringhieri. Finally, on the right, behind the counter, still busy working, our Francesco.
Francesco Bongiovanni and Adolfo Gandino
Already by 1925, the Francesco Bongiovanni offered a rich and varied catalog, including music by Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Pietro Cimara, Luigi Ferrari-Trecate, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Francesco Balilla Pratella, Vittorio Gui, Franco Alfano and Riccardo Zandonai. The catalog included theoretical and scientific works (including the very successful “Metodo di divisione musicale” by Pasquale Bona) and books of musical interest, vocal chamber music, duets, operas and operettas, works for chorus, hymns, sacred music and sheet music for piano, organ, violin, viola, cello, mandolin, guitar, harp, as well as (for hire) full orchestra scores. At the same time, he became the appointed distributor for musical teaching material to the Conservatory and “any other institute or school for boys”.
The choral music by Francesco Balilla Pratella, inspired by folk music, deserves special mention. In 1912, Francesco had published the piano reduction of Pratella’s “Futurist Music for Orchestra”, a follow-up to the manifesto of the Futurist musicians – sporting a cover illustrated by none other than Umberto Boccioni. Many of the Bongiovanni editions of that era are distinguished by their elegant title pages, entrusted, especially in the early years of the publishing house, to liberty designers, illustrators, engravers and decorators. Francesco also started periodical publications. A series of music for mandolin and guitar entitled “Il dilettante mandolinista” came out on a fortnightly basis between 1913 and 1915. He also published newspaper, “The review of the art and work”, which included chronicles of local theatrical events and profiles of artists, published for three years, starting on 25 September 1921. There, he held competitions for the best publications, which were later to be published by his publishing house.
Francesco's spirit of initiative undoubtedly found an exciting outlet. His work as an editor and merchant was rewarded by the esteem of the city to which he now felt he belonged. But soon, an existential problem came up. Accustomed to written music and the fact that music was predominantly heard live in the theaters and in the back room of his shop, he had to cope with the first musical recordings on phonographic cylinders and on 78 rpm discs and to deal with the possibility of reproducing the same song countless times, without the presence of musicians, singers, instruments and scores. This truly epochal change caused massive doubts and difficulties. Over time, however, records became part of the catalogue and are now a staple item of the very rich musical assortment of the Bongiovanni shop.
1945 American soldiers in Bologna. Our shop (on the left) was one of the few who remained open til the very end of the war
Thanks to Giancarlo, the Bongiovanni company makes a leap of great importance. In 1975, Bongiovanni produced and published its first record. Giancarlo had found a niche everybody else had ignored: live records. Giancarlo, interviewed on the subject, says: "I decided to make a record in the 1970s. I wanted to offer music addicts the pleasure of listening to great and beautiful voices, captured live, without the magic of the recording studios, I wanted to offer the charm of the ‘live’ experience, recorded with equipment that guaranteed a good technical performance and with the permission of the singers themselves". In fact, in 1975, Bongiovanni proposed to Mirella Freni to record the concert that the great soprano would give in Modena to celebrate the anniversary of her stage debut 20 years before. “20 anni di Bel Canto" - this is the title of the LP resulting from the concert and published by Bongiovanni. A very lucky record, for several reasons.
1975 was the 70th anniversary of the Bongiovanni business and from this coincidence between the publication of the record and the anniversary of the business, the “70° Bongiovanni” logo was born, still present today in all editions of the musical house. When taking a closer look, you can see that the “zero” present in the logo is nothing more (or less) than the microgrooves of an LP.
In 1976, the recital by Mirella Freni was awarded the prize of Italian record critics, who praised “the documental value of the live recording and the artistic prestige achieved by Mirella Freni in twenty years of career”. Giancarlo himself, in one of the many interviews, admits that that award gave him the courage to continue his original publishing activity, focusing, in its various aspects, on the publication of record-documents. The idea: offering music addicts, fans and scholars something new and stimulating that they did not have and could not easily obtain elsewhere. Therefore, again thanks to that first and now classic recital, Giancarlo identified both the audience he intended to address and his own language as a publisher, or rather, received the final confirmation that it was possible to enter a section of the market which was not yet covered by the major record labels.
Mirella Freni's recital, “GB1” was soon followed by other live-releases. We recall, in order of publication, the recitals of Pedro Lavirgen, Roberto Francesconi, Giorgio Merighi, Renato Bruson, Olivia Stapp, Kari Nurmela, Leo Nucci, Katia Ricciarelli, Martine Dupuy, Marilyn Horne and Luciana Serra. For the sake of completeness, we should mention many others, but we limit ourselves to underlining how Giancarlo claimed the cultural merit of having introduced the wonderful voice of Alfredo Kraus to the Italian public. Their relationship was characterized by sincere esteem and friendship.
Giancarlo Bongiovanni with Alfredo Kraus during one of his many visits to our shop in Via Rizzoli
Soon, other issues and “live-series” were added. Their success proved the potential of the “disc as a document”, of the recording as historical testimony – of a voice, of an opera, of an otherwise irretrievably lost performance. The first of those series, “Il Mito dell’Opera" – originally curated by Daniele Rubboli and later by Francesco Battaglia – contains modern transfers of old records by singers of historical importance. We recall the anthologies dedicated to the great “Voices of Bologna, Ferrara, Romagna and Modena” (in three volumes), the issue of the complete recordings of Bernardo De Muro and Giuseppe Anselmi, the "Mascagni Rarities" and other large anthologies relating to the recorded legacies of the most important voices of the past.
The second series “Novità del Passato” (“News from the past”) today unites numerous titles. The first releases, Demetrio e Polibio by Rossini, Le serve rivali of Tommaso Traetta, Olivo e Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti, Maria Egiziaca and Lucrezia by Ottorino Respighi and Gli Orazi e i Curiazi by Cimarosa, were later joined by L’esule di Roma, Il furioso all’isola di Santo Domingo, Torquato Tasso by Donizetti, Mascagni's Il piccolo Marat, Sì and L’Amico Fritz. The series also includes symphonic and chamber works by Ponchielli, Pergolesi, Mercadante, Bottesini and many others. Amidst all of that, Giancarlo never ceased his activity as a book publisher. Among the most successful titles published in his era are “Voci parallele”, “A viso aperto” and “L'equivoco” by Giacomo Lauri Volpi as well as “Le voci racconate” and “Daniele Barioni – Davanti a lui tremò il Metropolitan”by Daniele Rubboli.
Giancarlo always combined his activity as a shopkeeper and publisher with that of the promoter. When Christmas approached, all of his customers - from the closest to the most distant – received the "price list”: a catalog packed with everything that the Bongiovanni store could offer. Very few of those customers know or can imagine that the entire family was involved in the assembly and shipment of those catalogues, from the oldest to the youngest, each with their own task and with the precise awareness of participating in a mission of primary importance for the company. Furthermore, the "Dottore", (i.e. Giancarlo who did not like to leave Bologna in search of oil) embarked on long summer trips to discover the most important theaters in the world, guided by curiosity for the tastes of the public and by the desire to promote his now extensive, but always original, record production abroad.
Hostile to any expansion of an activity that had made family management one of its strengths, Giancarlo always tried to maintain a very close contact with Bologna and his most direct and regular customers. Tangible proof of this are the numerous photographs that crowd the company's archives and document the “signing” events which were so typical for the Bongiovanni shop and now a part of Bologna’s musical history. Preceded by careful advertising prepared with posters posted almost everywhere in the central streets of the city, these events drew real crowds of enthusiasts to meet their favorite artists and idols inside the small and always chaotic shop in Via Rizzoli: Luciano Pavarotti, Riccardo Muti, Mirella Freni, Mariella Devia, Alfredo Kraus and so on.
1984 Giancarlo Bongiovanni with Leona Magiera and Piero Cappuccilli during an intermission
A newspaper article published in 1995 on the occasion of the Bongiovanni Company’s 90th anniversary, describes the environment and atmosphere of the store in the following (precise and true) words:
This collectors' paradise is a rather small room where records and music editions are collected without the slightest concern for look. It would seem a chaotic warehouse. However, every search, even the most daring, miraculously and quickly comes to a successful end. The tiny room does not deny this atmosphere of efficient precariousness: a small table where papers, letters, unpublished scores are piled next to faxes and computers and photos with dedications of the greats of the past.
There is the veteran fanatic who regularly comes from Budrio to ask for the latest releases of music by Mascagni in straight Emilian dialect: a look at the titles, a loud comment, perhaps a purchase – the small dose of daily happiness. Or, here is the fan from Padua, looking for an Albinoni concert but then takes interest in Pratella's works. Then, from the back, he appears, Giancarlo Bongiovanni “il dottore” and curator of all those little treasures. There is an air of a family of times long gone at Bongiovanni’s in the heart of Bologna. There is no shortage of customers. Many have heard an aria, a tune or a romance on radio or TV without knowing what the piece of music is that now is stuck in their heads. They want to identify it and buy the record. And in order to do so, they confidently hum the tune to Giancarlo and wait for the "doctor" to find out which classical or symphonic work it is. With a thoughtful, slightly amused and, perhaps, deliberately mysterious air, the doctor looks for a record and puts it on the turntable. Music suddenly floods the little shop and… yes, that's exactly what you were looking for!
"Il Dottore": Giancarlo Bongiovanni in his kingdom
The specialist press summarizes Giancarlo's activity as follows:
The overall activity, on the different floors, of the Bongiovanni musical house is certainly as remarkable and as it is praiseworthy because it is conducted in compliance with an uninterrupted cultural activity. Even with limited dimensions, one can therefore survive and create culture and Bongiovanni demonstrates this so well that his name and the result of his work are known and appreciated on at least three continents. Francesco Bongiovanni could not have hoped for more when in 1905 he opened a shop in Carducci's Bologna, in the shadow of the two towers.We associate ourselves with these flattering words with the intent of expressing all the gratitude we feel towards the generations that preceded us.