Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

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Haiku Wednesday: A Look at the History of Classical Recordings

Edison wax cylinder phonograph

Edison bellowed
“Mary had a little lamb”
Into a small horn.

History was made:
Voices’ vibrations turned to
The tiniest grooves.

People gathered ‘round
To hear the tinny sounds, now
Played upon demand.

In the suave sixties
You could spin disks—hi-fi sound!
Don’t scratch the record!

Fast forward. Today
Music’s turned to ones, zeroes,
Heard around the world.

And we all walk ‘round
And hear hi-fi sound that’s fed
To only our ears.

(In the future, will
All the world’s music be sent
Right into our brains?)

From the very beginning of recorded sound, classical music was a presence, and it was significant in the development of music technology.

The first wave of development included Edison’s recording of sound on wax cylinders.  You can see a demonstration of how Edison’s original wax cylinder recordings were made here.

As soon as he developed mobile recording equipment, Edison sent his engineer, Theo Wangemann, to Europe to collect recordings.  Here is an 1889 recording of Brahms playing an excerpt of Hungarian Dance No. 1Here is Otto Neitzel, a student of Liszt and a teaching colleague of Tchaikovsky, playing a portion of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1890.  This is believed to be the first recording of a work of Chopin.

This 1903 recording was an attempt to record a live opera performance, the opening scene of Act 2 of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.  You can find more Edison recordings here.

Shortly thereafter, the opera recordings of tenor Enrico Caruso became wildly popular.  He recorded on cylinder first (here’s one from 1903, E lucevan le stelle from Puccini’s Tosca), and then on disks (Questa o Quella from Verdi’s Rigoletto).

Another treasure of this era is a recording of Rachmaninoff playing his Etude-Tableau in A minor (Op. 39 No. 6) in 1925.

Vinyl came into its own, and conductor Leopold Stokowski made the medium his domain, crafting a “Stokowski sound” that would translate well to vinyl, bringing classical music to countless households.  Here is a Stokowski recording of the first movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 (Op. 95) from 1934.  The sound of vinyl continued to improve:  here is Eugene Ormandy’s recording of the same piece from 1944.

An aside:  Rachmaninoff and Stokowski recorded Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  Apparently, it nearly turned into a slugfest, as the two men strongly disagreed about the interpretation (ok, wait–with the infamous Bernstein-Gould disagreement over the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, I can see where there could be a difference of opinion…Brahms wasn’t there.  But this was Rachmaninoff’s piece, and he was standing right there.  Ah, Stokowski!).  You can hear it fully restored here.

The fifties brought stereo sound; of course, you might say the idea had been around for a long time, but technology had to catch up:  the Venetian polychoral style that was used at St. Mark’s in Venice, a style that was popular from the 1540s, made use of choirs singing in alternation from separated choir lofts.  Wow, just like headphones!  But then, Thomas Tallis could be said to have invented surround sound with his composition Spem in alium for eight choirs of five voices each, first sung in an octagonal hall, around 1570. You can hear Spem in alium here.

Classical music was also present at the advent of digital sound: Sony’s first CD release was to be Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations; Philips released Bach’s Mass in B Minor on CD.1

Today, CDs and mp3s are making it possible for anyone to hear not only the masterworks of the most famous composers (not to mention various interpretations), but also the works of less well-known composers, others whose works have not been heard for hundreds of years, and others who finished their compositions just this year.

No one knows how music will be delivered in the future; but thanks to recording technology, we now have about 1000 years of classical music at our disposal, to be heard wherever and whenever we want.

Life is good.


  1. Elie, Paul, Reinventing Bach, New York; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, p. 325, 331.


Image attribution: Photograph of Edison wax cylinder phonograph (1899) by Norman Bruderhofer, (own work (transferred from de:File:Phonograph.jpg)) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Songs from Childhood

When you think of music that children listen to, you might think of nursery rhymes, folk tunes, jump-rope songs.  The music of my early childhood can be summed up in two words.

Jackie Wilson.

Jackie Wilson

You probably have at least two questions.  Possibly the first is “Who is Jackie Wilson?”  He was an American pop singer of the 1950s who influenced singers from Elvis to Michael Jackson to Van Morrison.  Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 26th among the 100 greatest singers.  But I’m not going to count that question.  So, 1.  Why Jackie Wilson?  2. What does this have to do with classical music?  I’ll answer both.

1. My mother was a huge Jackie Wilson fan. Huge.  She had all the records.  My father took her to New York City to see a show.  They never went to New York City.  She also had a stereo that surpassed mine in sheer volume, not to mention size.  My stereo rattled the blinds.  Hers rattled the windows…in the neighbor’s house.  And you could stack LPs and play one right after the other.  Which she did.  A lot.

I didn’t realize how much this music had sunk in until something like 20 years had passed, and a Jackie Wilson song came on.  And I still remembered all the words.  I don’t know any nursery rhymes or folk tunes (“Oh do you remember sweet Betsy from Pike?” No, not really).

2. So it came as a great astonishment to me the first time I listened to Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera I Pagliacci when the aria Vesti la Giubba began. I knew it.  But I knew it as My Empty Arms, sung by Jackie Wilson.  And now I wish I could have heard him sing it in the original, because he had a spectacular voice.  Later I came to equate Alone at Last with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Night with an aria from Camille San-Saëns opera Samson and Delilah (Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix).

Sure, some of Jackie’s music is schlocky.  Someone once said (I wish I could remember who) that he never met a song he didn’t like (his rendition of My Yiddische Mama is unexpected, but part of a tribute to Al Jolson, whom he admired).  But that voice.  The voice of a man who had once been a Golden Gloves boxer (his athleticism shows on stage), whose opportunities to sing classical music were at that time non-existentLonely Teardrops indeed.

But he wasn’t the only one to turn classical music to a popular top hit.  Here is a website that has compiled a list of popular songs that have borrowed classical themes.

So what are the songs you remember from childhood?  What songs did you play for your children?

Mon Coeur s’ouvre a ta voix performed by Olga Borodina

Jackie Wilson’s Night

Vesti la Giubba performed by Jonas Kaufmann

Jackie Wilson’s My Empty Arms