[Paleopsych] WSJ: Waxing Nostalgic About Early Recordings
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Waxing Nostalgic About Early Recordings
January 18, 2005
In an old attic, I found a treasure trove for a music lover.
BY BARRYMORE LAURENCE SCHERER
Recently, while looking through an old house for sale in our
neighborhood, I came upon a pile of 78s in the attic. (Note to those
who regard even vinyl LPs as antiques: 78 rpm shellac discs were the
recording-industry standard before 1950.) I mentioned my interest to
the owner, who was delighted that the records would have a good home.
They had been her grandmother's, and when I came by to remove them, I
discovered that the single pile was only the tip of the iceberg. There
were several hundred in all. Bliss!
I grew up in the era of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. My family and
friends all played LPs and 45s on their "hi-fi" sets. But a different
drummer set my musical gait. Not only was I drawn to classical music,
but I preferred to listen to it on old 78s. My affinity had been
seeded by a small parcel of old records that had been my
grandfather's. They were a motley assortment of 1920s dance music,
comic songs, some orchestral selections and opera records.
Two discs particularly fascinated me: Enrico Caruso singing "Rachel,
Quand du Seigneur" from Hálevy's opera "La Juive" and John McCormack
singing "Una Furtiva Lagrima" from Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore." I
loved everything about these relics: I loved the heft of these old
discs in my hands; I loved the way they sounded, not just the
expressive power of the two tenor voices but also the wheezy
orchestras that accompanied them. I loved the way the big red Victor
Talking Machine label looked as it spun so fast on the turntable. (As
a kid, I used to wonder if the dog listening to his master's voice was
getting dizzy.) And I was mystified by the black, blank side of each
disc, for until 1923 Victor red seals, the label's premium line, were
all single-sided; only cheaper black seals, and records by other
labels were double-faced.
It wasn't until high school that I was able to indulge my passion for
old music on old shellac at the Salvation Army depot on Manhattan's
West 46th Street. There was a room in that blessed establishment piled
high with 78s and old books--five cents a disc, 10 cents a volume. For
$2 I could fill two shopping bags. I'd stuff one with the works of
Lord Macaulay, broken sets of Bulwer-Lytton, leatherbound texts on
practical surgery (whose colored engravings were just as horrifyingly
detailed as any photograph). In the other I'd load 20 78s (as many as
I could carry), everything from Franz Léhar conducting selections from
his operettas to Sousa's Band playing his "Pathfinder of Panama" march
and the Peerless Quartet singing "Will You Love Me in December as You
Do in May," with lyrics by New York's dapper future mayor, Jimmy
Soon I was hunting for the Holy Grail: a genuine spring-wound
Victrola. I finally found a 1917 table model in a little antiques shop
in Queens. The price was $8, and I carried it home in my arms by bus.
Upon arriving with my new treasure, I raised the heavy mahogany lid,
savoring the motor's characteristic aroma of lubricating oil. I wound
it up, placed a carefully chosen record on the green felt turntable,
inserted a steel needle in the sound box, and felt my heart nearly
burst as the voices of Caruso, Marcella Sembrich, Antonio Scotti and
their colleagues melded together in my first experience of pure
acoustical reproduction, the "Lucia" Sextet.
Acoustical recording and playback fascinated me because of their sheer
mechanical simplicity. Before the introduction of electrical recording
with a microphone in 1925, the recording industry still used the basic
method invented by Edison in 1877: You sang, spoke or played into a
recording horn--a large metal funnel--which collected the sound and
channeled it to a recording head containing a micadiaphragm attached
to a cutting stylus. The sound waves vibrated the diaphragm, which
vibrated the stylus, which made a groove along the surface of a
revolving wax disc or, in Edison's case, a cylinder. The resulting wax
master was then used to create metal dies from which records were
pressed. Basically, the process is reversed for playback on a
gramophone. No vacuum tubes, no digital wizardry, no electronic
amplification comes between you and the original performers.
Play a well-preserved acoustical record on a well-preserved gramophone
(with a big external horn) or a Victrola (with the horn concealed
inside the cabinet), and the sound usually surprises listeners because
there's hardly any proverbial "scratchy" surface noise. That noise is
only apparent when you play 78s on an electrical pickup, which
amplifies the scratch along with the music.
This historical immediacy is especially telling
when you consider that a number of major composers made 78 rpm
records, among them Sir Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss and Sergei
Rachmaninoff. Ruggiero Leoncavallo supervised the first complete
recording of "Pagliacci" in 1907; four years earlier he had composed
his famous song "Mattinata" especially to fit on a 10-inch disc, and
then accompanied Caruso's recording of it at the piano. And virtually
all of this historic material is available on CD.
More than mere nostalgia, 78s are valuable historic documents of the
way music was performed a century ago. Old 78s have attuned my ear to
early-20th-century performance practice, especially in the case of
vocal style, string and wind articulation, flexible tempo and phrasing
that had been standard when Brahms, Dvorak, Verdi and Puccini were
actively composing. For instance, singers and string players used to
slide between important notes of a phrase, an articulation called
portamento that generally vanished by 1950. And thanks to the
crystalline diction of early recording artists, vocal discs,
especially comic songs and scenes by prominent actors and comedians
like John Barrymore, Al Jolson and Billy Murray, document subtle
American accents that are no longer spoken.
I maintained my interest in old 78s while pursuing the university and
postgraduate degrees that led me from singing to musicology and
finally to journalism. And even though I treasure the thousands of CDs
I've collected as a critic and lecturer, my passion has never abated.
That trove of 78s I found in my neighborhood proved to be gold. Once I
began to sort through them (and to clean off half a century's
accumulation of dust) I was astonished at the variety. There are
several complete symphonies and operas, complete recordings of Gilbert
& Sullivan, and an extraordinary wealth of dance music performed by
Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington. There are discs by Fanny Brice and
Eddie Cantor (gallows humor on the stock market, recorded right after
the crash in 1929: "Reserve a hotel room and the clerk asks, 'For
sleeping or jumping?'"). There's Gershwin playing piano in his "An
American in Paris," Carl Sandburg singing and strumming folk songs,
and a lugubrious ditty called "William Jennings Bryan's Last Fight,"
praising his old-time religion upon his death following the Scopes
Monkey Trial. And there is a true novelty, a "Message by His
Excellency Benito Mussolini to the North American People and the
Italians of America." Recorded around 1929, in Italian, it reveals him
as having a surprisingly well-modulated voice, quite unlike the
ranting of his Nazi ally to the north.
I admit that I don't often go hunting for such troves--our house has
only so much room to store them. But I'm one of the lucky ones, for my
wife is not only patient with my obsession but over the years has come
to understand it herself, just as, soon after we met, I came around to
her enthusiasm for Wagner.
Mr. Scherer writes about classical music for the Journal.
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