Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Brahms Speaks and Plays in 1889 Recording



In 1889 Thomas Edison sent a representative to Europe to demonstrate his new invention, the phonograph.  Gatherings would be held where prominent figures of the day could hear this new marvel of technology, and they were encouraged to set up sessions to make recordings as well.  In Vienna, one of these individuals was none other than Johannes Brahms.

Brahms was quite taken with the new device.  It is said that he wrote to Clara Schumann, “it’s as though one were living a fairy-tale.”[1]  And so, a recording session was arranged.

An account of the recording session was given by the son of the man in whose home the recording was made.  He describes Brahms as excited, and one might say he sounds like it in the recording.  After identifying himself, he immediately launches into his Hungarian Dance No. 1.  On the recording he also plays a snippet of Die Libelle by Strauss.  Here is Brahms.

I am amazed that this recording exists, and it’s wonderful.  There is a wealth of historical recordings of classical music played by the very composers who wrote it, and I will bring more of them to you over time, but this is one of the oldest and, to me, most exciting.

Click here for more details about this recording and its history.

The Smithsonian Institution is partnering with a number of other institutions to preserve the many early recordings in their collection.  Here’s an article on their efforts to preserve the earliest sound recordings.  The scientifically minded among us will enjoy this presentation on the techniques used to non-invasively retrieve the data on these fragile recording media (more extensive paper here).

And now for an encore.  Brahms was a close friend of violinist Joseph Joachim.  Here is a recording of Joseph Joachim made in 1903.




Image attribution

Edison wax cylinder phonograph, photo by Norman Bruderhofer, (own work (transferred from de:File:Phonograph.jpg))[CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Brahms


3 thoughts on “Brahms Speaks and Plays in 1889 Recording

  1. Way neat. I had heard the Brahms recording, but not the Joachim, which is very revealing indeed (though dangerous, as he is no doubt playing in a more “Hungarian” manner than he might normally- but still, huge amount of portamento and even gliss!) Gorgeous nevertheless. Very unclear who is speaking and what they’re saying, no? I tend to hear “Bei,” and not “I’m” (highly unlikely)- and there’s considerable doubt that it’s the Big B speaking. But terrific stuff!




    • I have read about the questions concerning the speaker, and, sadly, we’ll never know with absolute certainty. One would like to believe it is truly Brahms. You did hear “bei” and not “I’m”. It has been suggested that the speaker used it after hearing several Edison recordings using the locution “by [performer].” Some have stated a speaker who is not Brahms is saying “bei mir ist…Brahms.” But Swafford points out Brahms had a high tenor voice (p 564), as did the speaker, so it is a tantalizing possibility.


  2. Very cool. University of Maryland’s Music Library holds a huge collection of wax cylinders, and Brahms is present. It’s worth a visit, if there’s someone to assist.

    Liked by 1 person

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