Alfredo Campoli was born in Rome the only child of Romeo and Elvira Campoli. Both his parents were professional musicians – his mother a well-known opera-singer, his father a violinist working in the theatre, mainly at Costanzi and La Scala opera houses. At Elvira’s suggestion, the family moved to England in 1912 which became their home for the rest of their lives. Alfredo’s only teacher was his authoritative father who shaped his son into an outstanding musician and artist. Indeed, at the young Campoli’s debut in 1923 at Wigmore Hall one of the critics pointed out that it was ‘not as a prodigy but as a mature artist’ that the sixteen-year-old violinist came before his audience. A brilliant career seemed assured.
However, the dark clouds of the Great Depression were gathering and to make matters worse for musicians the advent of the ‘talkies’ heralded the disappearance of orchestras, ensembles and soloists from the cinemas which hitherto had offered professional work to countless musicians engaged to provide ‘continuity’ to the soundless dramas on the screen.
Nothing could be more dire for a young man on the verge of a concert career. The only musical opportunity for Campoli was to join the ever-lengthening lines of extremely gifted classically trained performers hoping to play in the London restaurants.
Paradoxically, even in the depths of the Depression music was burgeoning in the so-called ‘palm court orchestras’ and restaurant ensembles. With Campoli’s natural gifts and cheerful disposition, he soon became the Leader of London’s Light Music, his ‘Alfredo Campoli and his Salon Orchestra’ (amongst his many ensembles) being heard constantly on radio and recordings. But, with the advent of war Campoli was faced with another hurdle: he found himself classed as an enemy alien, his father never having taken out British citizenship. At least he was not interned, but the BBC closed its doors to him and what performances came his way from other organisations were at first restricted to ‘anonymity’. Yet, as the war progressed most restrictions on him were gradually lifted and his contribution to the war effort through his performances were even recognised by an official award! It now seemed that after the war, nothing would prevent him from resuming his goal to be a classical musician, and to this end he devoted hours of intense practice acquiring an enormous repertoire of classical and modern works. Yet his extraordinary success as a ‘light music performer’ seemed to stand in the way of achieving his goal.
For many he was a ‘marked man’. To distance himself from his earlier career it was suggested that he should no longer be known as ‘Alfredo Campoli’ but simply as ‘Campoli’ – and it has been this way ever since.
Not surprisingly, his playing captivated everyone – everyone, that is, except the Music Department of the BBC. Despite glowing reviews over his concert work the BBC – no stranger to musical snobbery – refused his constant requests for engagements at a high level for some five years. But by 1950 wide recognition and constant praiseworthy reviews reveal that Campoli had finally won his place as an international celebrity.
Campoli’s first Decca recording, with The Dorchester Hotel Orchestra, was made on 16 June 1931. He subsequently recorded several sides with his Salon Orchestra (from January 1932), his Grand or Concert Orchestra (1934), his Marimba Tango Orchestra (1935), with a cinema organ, various pianists, a piano trio and as the leader of the Welbeck Light String Quartet (1940). When his first classical recording (encore-style pieces with an unidentified pianist) appeared in October 1931, his reputation rested largely on his light-music performances. His courageous decision to turn again to the concert-stage, fulfilling his ambition since prodigy days, came after World War II and in this Decca remained stalwart. Indeed, Campoli’s decision coincided with Decca’s technical breakthrough – its ‘Full Frequency Range Reproduction’ (FFRR) giving rise to the term ‘the Decca Sound’ and it was in the 1950s Campoli recorded some of his most treasured performances. Almost all the recordings in this series come from this golden decade.
It was also the period when he became well-known known through recitals and concerts in Australia, New Zealand, France, USA and the Soviet Union. Reviewing a concert in London, the reviewer in The Strad gave words that seem to sum up Campoli’s career (although it was still far from over). He spoke of Campoli as the last great exponent of the bel canto style:
“There was impeccable judgement of rubato, and phrasing so natural that one could almost hear the violin breathe. Nevertheless, the essence of Campoli’s artistry is none of these things, but rather in rare and indefinable quality of style. It is this that above all else guarantees his place as one of the most remarkable violinists of our time.”
For a detailed study of Alfredo Campoli see David Tunley, The Bel Canto Violin: The Life and Times of Alfredo Campoli 1906–1991 (Ashgate, Aldershot, 1999).