[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.

    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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