In lieu of new stuff from me, here’s another of the forgotten columns I published in 1998 in Fi, the now-defunct record magazine. It’s still relevant–for the most part, anyway–though there isn’t much left of the classical recording industry to complain about these days….
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One hundred and twenty-one years ago, Thomas Edison yelled “Mary had a little lamb” into a strange little hand-cranked machine, which promptly yelled his own words back at him. Twelve years later, Johannes Brahms yelled “I am Dr. Brahms, Johannes Brahms” into the tiny horn of a slightly improved version of Edison’s little machine, then sat down at a piano and banged out the last part of his G Minor Hungarian Dance. The present whereabouts of the wax cylinder Brahms recorded in 1889 are unknown, but its low-fi contents were subsequently dubbed onto a scratchy acetate disc, and can now be heard on a CD called About a Hundred Years: A History of Sound Recording.
About a Hundred Years contains 38 selections, ranging in time from the Brahms cylinder to a 1943 V-Disc by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. Unlike most currently available anthologies of early sound recordings, it is fairly evenly divided between classical and popular music–Scott Joplin and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band are heard side by side with Adelina Patti and Jascha Heifetz–and also includes an assortment of spoken-word recordings, including commercially issued 78s that preserve for posterity the speaking voices of Tolstoy, Lenin, Churchill, Gandhi, Sarah Bernhardt, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Anthologies are easy targets for the know-it-all with an axe to grind, and I can think of at least a couple of dozen other items that would have fit quite neatly into this family album of snapshots from the dawn of sound recording. It would have been nice, for example, to hear once again the 1888 cylinder on which Sir Arthur Sullivan can be heard confessing that the invention of the phonograph has left him “terrified at the thought that so much bad music may be put on record forever” (a prescient thought indeed), but no recordings by important composers other than Brahms have been included on About a Hundred Years. Folk music has been similarly ignored–I expect to go to my grave without hearing any of the seven ultra-rare 78 sides recorded for the Gramophone Company in 1908 by Joseph Taylor, the Lincolnshire singer from whom Percy Grainger collected “Brigg Fair”–as have the many distinguished poets who made commercial records.
Scarcely less frustrating is the failure of the producers of About a Hundred Years to draw on the large body of spoken-word recordings made in the United States during the acoustic era. In the days before network radio, many American politicians used the phonograph as a means of “broadcasting” their speeches: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson all made commercial 78s as part of their 1912 presidential campaigns, and William Jennings Bryan recorded in 1923 the famous “Cross of Gold” speech that he originally delivered at the Democratic presidential convention of 1896. (It is one of history’s more amusing coincidences that Bryan cut this record in the same Indiana studio where Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke made their first recordings.)
But enough complaining. Though About a Hundred Years may not be perfect, it is still a richly evocative piece of work, and the spoken-word selections are in certain ways the most evocative of all. Especially haunting is the field recording made in France on October 9, 1918, one month before the end of World War I, in which the Royal Garrison Artillery can be heard firing poison gas shells at German troops. This joltingly vivid recording (you can actually hear the shells whizzing off to their targets) was made so that the sounds of war could be heard by generations yet unborn, it then being widely believed that “the Great War” would be the last one ever fought. I wonder how many of those who purchased HMV 09308 were blown up two decades later in the Battle of Britain, or how many of the Bolsheviks who heard Lenin preach the gospel of Soviet power on their hand-cranked phonographs were slaughtered in Stalin’s prison camps.
Most of the musical selections included on About a Hundred Years will be familiar to experienced collectors of historical reissues, but no amount of familiarity can breed contempt for them. Here is Francesco Tamagno singing the “Esultate” from Verdi’s Otello in 1903, just sixteen years after he created the role on stage at La Scala; here is Joseph Joachim, the man who premiered the Brahms Violin Concerto, scraping soberly away at a movement of Bach’s B Minor Partita; here is Sousa’s Band playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” in 1902, just five years after it was composed. To hear these ancient records, flawed though they are, is an intensely moving experience. The battered shellac sputters and crackles angrily, and you wonder for a moment what all the fuss could possibly be about–but then the curtain parts and the nineteenth century comes into view for a minute or two, sometimes through a glass darkly, sometimes with the near-hallucinatory sharpness of a Mathew Brady photograph.
Whenever I listen to performances such as these, I’m struck by the palpable idealism of the men and women who recorded them. Yes, the pioneers of the phonograph were in it for the money, but they never lost sight of the larger goal of bringing great music to the masses, and while one can gnash one’s teeth at the mistakes they made, it is surely more useful to reflect on how many things they did right. Though we cannot hear Sergei Rachmaninoff playing Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata (Charles O’Connell passed up the opportunity to record it, a decision that I like to think he is discussing at this very moment with a committee of devils equipped with sharp pitchforks), we can hear him in the Chopin B-Flat Minor Sonata, Schumann’s Carnaval, and dozens of other characteristic performances, thanks solely and only to the money-hungry executives of the Victor Talking Machine Company. Nor is Rachmaninoff’s sizable catalogue of 78s unique. Right from the start, the major record labels all made plenty of room for seriousness, which is why we can also hear Grieg, Saint-Sa