Giovanni Ricordi (1785—1853), a professional violinist and copyist, starts collecting scores and librettos at an early stage. This collection is the beginning of the Archivio Storico Ricordi. From 1803 Giovanni signs contracts with various Milan theaters — the Teatro Carcano, the Teatro del Lentasio and the Teatro Girolamo — granting him the rights to distribute some of the scores he has produced. The contracts give him the right to sell piano reductions or orchestral parts, for example. This is how the foundations of the archive are created.
It is a time when the music publishing industry in Italy, modeled on that of Germany, France and England, is beginning to flourish. The French Revolution is a good 15 years in the past; Napoleon has launched his campaign in Europe; the Industrial Revolution is spreading from Great Britain to Central and Southern Europe. In Milan especially, the Restaurazione of the Napoleonic years makes the city a principal hub of publishing activity in Italy and a pole of attraction for intellectuals in various fields of the arts. The Milan conservatory of music (based on the model of the Paris Conservatoire) is founded in 1808 (the same year as the founding of the Ricordi firm). The time had come, as it were, for a company like Casa Ricordi. This wasn’t primarily about the idea of developing a publishing house, but about putting such an idea into practice in conjunction with societal developments. Giovanni Ricordi is an entrepreneurial genius and a courageous man: In the summer of 1807, he travels to Leipzig to learn techniques of music printing from the established German music publisher Breitkopf & Härtel as an intern, and returns to Milan with a German copperplate engraving press. On January 16, 1808, he convinces the engraver and music dealer Felice Festa to join him in founding the Ricordi publishing house. The company premises are located in Contrada Santa Margherita, near the cathedral, and despite repeated moves Casa Ricordi always remains in this area. The original foundation document bears the date “Milano questo dì Sabbato 16 Gennajo 1808” and the ornate signatures of the two founders. The document speaks about the founding of a music printer (“stamperia di musica”), which will use both engraving technology (“incisione”) and printing technology (“impressione”).
Festa leaves the company in June of that year, and Giovanni Ricordi continues to run it alone. Incidentally, the first publications are not operas but purely instrumental compositions: Fantasia con variazioni by Abate Moro, Le stagioni dell’anno by Antonio Nava for “French guitar”, and the Giornale di Musica Vocale Italiana. This music “magazine” is designed as a subscription publication. Each issue contains 360 pages. Giovanni manages to sign contracts with other Milan theaters, which give him ever more favorable conditions regarding the exploitation of the material he produces. One clever move is Ricordi’s commitment to music-teaching materials. In 1812 he publishes a piano tutorial by the pianist and composer Francesco Pollini, and that same year becomes the official publisher for the Milan Conservatory (“Editore del Regio Conservatorio e delle Case di Educazione del Regno”).
In 1814 the first catalog is published, a milestone in the short history of the publishing house: “Catalogo della musica stampata nella nuova Calcografia Ricordi di Giovanni” with 142 items in addition to 35 items of music from the first three years of the Giornale di Musica. It is striking once again that the catalog mainly lists instrumental music. This corresponds to the taste of the times, which is still influenced by that of the 18th century; but above all, it meets the demands for music “in the home” on the part of skilled dilettantes and appassionati in the substantial and growing market of the rising European middle class. The presence of Ricordi’s opera composers in the catalog of printed music, as a reflection of the lucrative “rental” business of music materials (for professional and dilettante performing groups), is yet to come. What Giovanni writes for the catalog’s users in the preface is also interesting: he addresses the “Signori Dilettanti” (amateur musicians), the “Professori di Musica” (music teachers), and the “Impresarj di Teatro” (theater directors). This heralds the emergence of a bourgeois society in which music played at home is part of everyday life, in which music is taught, in which theater is moving away from the courtly form and is becoming a “business”.
From December 1814, Giovanni Ricordi also works as a copyist and prompter at La Scala. His name now appears in the librettos and, from 1820, also on the title page (as “Editore e proprietario della musica” — “publisher and owner of the music.”) The second Casa Ricordi catalog, which appears in 1815, already shows a trend towards opera. Ricordi has now achieved a certain reputation. He trains apprentices in copper engraving (including Francesco Lucca, who later becomes his great rival as a publisher), and expands his archive.
His main business is rentals of music performing material to theaters. Over the years, the Teatro alla Scala grants him progressively non-restrictive permissions for the exploitation of sheet music material. These soon apply regardless of individual contracts. Ricordi’s position in relation to the theaters becomes increasingly stronger, and his archive grows continually. Finally, in 1825, La Scala sells him its entire inventory.
He pays 300 Austrian lire for them on the condition that he reduces the rental fees for La Scala. That same year, the “Gran Catalogo” is published with about 2 500 items. It contains the first references to the centrally located Ricordi branch offices in Florence (Via dei Calzajoli) and London (Piccadilly). Ricordi opens the “Litografia Ricordi”, and his son Tito joins the business. Tito is a talented artist and, like his father, has learned the printing trade in Germany. The “Litografia” is important because it points the way to the later elaborate design of the jackets in the Officine Grafiche (typography), which will become a hallmark of the Ricordi publishing house. The Archivio Storico Ricordi possesses a number of artistically beautiful editions. For the history of design, this is an example from the field of music publishing that demonstrates how graphic design developed from the mid 19th to early 20th century.
Around the turn of the century, the “Officine” also became enormously important in the graphics used for posters and publicity material. The archive also has a large collection in this field.
1844 marks the publication of the first catalog that doesn’t advertise the publishing company’s production “expressis verbis”, but presents it as self-evident. The company has now resided in its prestigious offices at 1720, Contrada degli Omenoni, for six years. It has enough space for all the publishing departments and a sales room. The focus is now clearly on music for the theater — house composers include Rossini, Bellini, Mercadante and Donizetti (the German-Italian composer Simone Mayr had introduced him to Giovanni Ricordi in 1815), and of course Giuseppe Verdi, whose 1842 opera Nabucco is a worldwide success and initiates the era of Verdi.
Giuseppe Verdi and Giovanni Ricordi are kindred spirits when it comes to their view of the opera genre as an aesthetic and social phenomenon, and run a joint project for its further development. The meeting of these two men, each very original personalities in their own way, in a politically, economically and socially turbulent time, makes possible an immense success. They combine artistic quality and market orientation with different emphases: “The quality and artistic design, reorganization of the role of music, close coordination of mediation processes, popular success, economic profit, and growth of the company are elements of a common vision thanks to which Ricordi points the way to a new constitutionality of music — modern, romantic and Italian”. “Italian” is an important word here, because Ricordi and Verdi are also joined in their vision of a united Italy in view of the Italian unification movement, the Risorgimento. Starting in 1842, the year of the first performance of Nabucco, Verdi’s works are overlaid with political messages. To this day, people argue about how his work and its effects interacted here.
In the same year, 1842, Giovanni Ricordi also launches Italy’s first musicological magazine, the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano. This probably is an early instance of his son Tito I’s influence: Tito suggested this magazine also as a way of creating a vehicle for Casa Ricordi to publicize the rights to compositions that it had acquired. The establishment of an effective copyright law is an issue that already concerns Giovanni and intensively occupies Tito I and Giulio.
The Gazzetta appears from 1842 to 1902 (with a few interruptions). The archive contains copies from all stages of its publication, so the history of the magazine can be followed by examining the various issues.
The Gazzetta is a newsletter (that not only covers publishing rights, but also the cultural life of Milan and reviews of performances) and an organ for discussing issues in music aesthetics. The magazine — based on French and German models — is thus the first periodical of its kind in Italy. Edited by the theater journalist Giacinto Battaglia, it is initially published on Sundays, and from 1847 on Wednesdays. Once a month a composition is enclosed with it. At the end of the year, these twelve compositions appear in an anthology, the “Antologia classica musicale”, and subscribers are once even offered a collection of figurines from romantic opera. The “Cinque Giornate di Milano”, the Risorgimento revolt in Milan
in March 1848, leads to a first interruption of the publication. But it resumes shortly afterwards, initially with a highly politicized title: Gazzetta Musicale di Milano ed Eco delle notizie politiche (Musical Gazette and Political news), and from July as a purely musical magazine once again. The turbulent times lead to the publication of the Gazzetta being interrupted several more times. In 1853 Tito I takes over as editor himself, followed by Alberto Mazzucato in 1856 and Filippo Filippi in 1858.
The Ricordi publishing house maintains the practice of publishing an in-house music magazine later on: From 1871 to 1878 the Rivista Minima is published, initially as an annual gift for Gazzetta subscribers; from 1902 to 1905 Musica e Musicisti; from 1906 to 1912 the Art Deco-influenced Ars et Labor; from 1919 to 1942 Musica d’Oggi; and from 1951 to 1957 Ricordiana.
Giovanni Ricordi’s work triggers a crucial process in the Italian opera business that also extends to the artistic development of Opera in terms of a work’s autonomy and uniqueness. Ricordi’s conscientious efforts to encourage and promote authors and their work on the one hand, and his nose for business on the other, play a crucial role in turning a small publishing house into a successful and influential company over four decades.