“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. 1. Here 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.
- 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, http://www.cylinder.de (own work (transferred from de:File:Phonograph.jpg)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.