THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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62 posts categorized "Classical music"

20 February 2018

Percy Grainger's collection of ethnographic wax cylinders

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The British Library is pleased to make available online around 350 English folk songs recorded by composer Percy Grainger in different regions of England between 1906 and 1909. Thanks to the generous support of the National Folk Music Fund, these sound recordings have been catalogued and indexed by librarian, researcher and folklorist Steve Roud, author of Folk Song in England (Faber & Faber, 2017). Roud has also married them up with Grainger's transcriptions of the songs, where these exist, on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website, thanks to their digitisation of the Percy Grainger Manuscript Collection. Links have also been included on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website to corresponding sound recordings featured on British Library Sounds. Listeners are able to hear the songs whilst following Grainger’s unique transcriptions of recordings by singers such as Joseph Taylor, Joseph Leaning, George Gouldthorpe, Charles Rosher, William Fishlock, Tom Roberts, Dean Robinson, and many more. All recordings have been catalogued to include Roud numbers (this number refers to songs listed in the online databases Folk Song Index and Broadside Index), Grainger’s Melody numbers, and the numerical references to the discs and wax cylinders these sound recordings existed on previously. 

Percy Grainger
Percy Aldridge Grainger, composing 'Lincolnshire Posy' at reed organ, 1937 (British Library reference: MS Mus. 1771/1/PR1301). Reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of George Percy Grainger.

When the Gramophone Company released a small portion of Grainger’s recordings of English traditional folk songs on a commercial 78 rpm record in 1908, Grainger pointed out in the liner notes that “These records are not folksongs sung at second hand.” Perhaps he wanted us listeners to know that what we would hear on record was not only the voice of a folk singer, Joseph Taylor of Saxby-All-Saints, North Lincolnshire, but also the echoes of time: “the very men who have passed such songs down the centuries to us.” Grainger insisted on this fidelity whilst also acknowledging that folk singers were individual creators, capable of creatively impressing their personality on their versions of inherited tradition. He was able to capture and analyse the individuality of folk singers in England thanks to the novel phonograph technology and his musical transcriptions of these sound recordings, which were meticulously detailed. 

To celebrate the publication of these unique sound recordings and their interlinking with Grainger’s manuscripts, we asked Steve Roud to write a short article exploring the importance of these resources. In the following piece he also explores Grainger’s position in the English folk collecting scene as well as the nature of his collaboration, in the making of these sound recordings, with women such as Lady Winefrede Cary-Elwes or Miss Eliza Wedgwood.

In correspondence files held at the Music Division of the Library of Congress, kindly made available to the project by Judith Gray from the The American Folklife Center, we find a letter from Grainger, from October 26, 1939, in which he says,

"I have the Edison Bell phonograph [cylinder machine] on which these records were made and can play them on this machine.  But there is a good deal of scratch (partly mould?) on these old records.  In copying them, can you get rid of part of this scratch by eliminating (filtering out) certain frequencies?  If your Music Division has facilities for making such copies from wax cylinders I would be happy to let your Division keep copies of all my folksong phonograph records if you would provide me with copies in return.  I could bring the phonograph (Edison Bell) and the wax cylinders to Washington (perhaps at the time I play with the National Symphony Orchestra in March?) or wherever needful."  

The digital copies of Grainger’s sound recordings now publicly available via British Library Sounds, were digitised from one of three existing sets of lacquer disc dubs of the contents of the original wax cylinders, made at the Library of Congress c. 1940. Whilst we could consider these digital versions ‘second hand sounds’ it’s also true that the different generations of carriers condensed into them have rendered unique the texture of the folksingers' voices who once ‘sang so sweetly’ to Grainger and his collaborators.

This project was realised thanks to the collaborative effort of many people in the sound archive and music department at the British Library; Steve Roud and Andrew Pace who catalogued and uploaded the sound recordings to the British Library’s catalogue and Sounds website; Judith Gray at the Library of Congress for making the Grainger correspondence accessible; Barry Ould of The International Percy Grainger Society in White Plains, NY, for granting us permission to use it; John Bird for contextualising these sound recordings within Grainger’s biography.

Liner notes
         Facsimile of HMV liner notes included in Leader release, 1972 (British Library reference: 1LP0157546)

Percy Grainger and English Folk Song by Steve Roud

Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961) was born, as George Percy Grainger, in Victoria, Australia, and first came to Europe to study music in Frankfurt in 1895. He settled in Britain in 1901, left for the USA in 1914, and lived there until his death, having taken American citizenship in 1918. In his time he was an extremely popular concert pianist, but is now chiefly remembered as the composer of over 400 classical pieces, many of which are still regularly played in the concert repertoire.

His 13-year period of residence in Britain coincided with the brief golden age of folk song collecting, which was the culmination of an interest in traditional music which had been building steadily during the late Victorian period. The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, and the diarist Revd Francis Kilvert, for example, were both interested in seeking out songs in 1870, and by 1900, Sabine Baring-Gould, Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson, Marianne Mason, and W.A. Barrett had all published books of songs collected from ordinary people up and down the country. The Folk-Song Society (now subsumed in the English Folk Dance & Song Society) had been formed in 1899 to provide these enthusiasts with a network of contacts, and to further the cause of folk song collection, publication, and study.

It is not surprising that an up-and-coming young musician/composer like Grainger would catch the ‘folk song bug’, as the subject was very much in the air.

It was a lecture on folk song by Lucy Broadwood to the Royal Musical Association in March 1905 which prompted Grainger’s active involvement, and he accompanied her, and Frank Kidson, to the Musical Competition Festival, at Brigg, in Lincolnshire, which included a section devoted to Folk Song at which several local singers had been persuaded to perform. Grainger returned to Lincolnshire in July the following year to begin his fieldwork in earnest, and noted songs by hand, and was back again in 1907, armed with an Edison phonograph, the latest in sound technology.

Over the next three years, Grainger spent a total of 52 days in the field, and collected over 400 songs. About two-thirds of these were gathered in Lincolnshire, but he also made important forays into Gloucestershire, and a few other places. It is the wax cylinders made at this time which are now made freely available on the British Library’s Sounds website. Grainger was not the only collector to experiment with phonograph recording, but he quickly became convinced of its vital importance in the field of song gathering, and was its most vocal advocate, and he used it more than all the other English collectors put together.

Wax cylinders were not designed for long-term survival, so we are particularly fortunate that the originals survived long enough to be copied onto a more permanent format in 1940, and to still be available in the present day. Apart from a relatively small number of surviving cylinders recorded by other collectors - including Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Lucy Broadwood, amongst others, whose recordings also appear on British Library Sounds - Grainger’s recordings provide our only opportunity to hear what traditional singers from the Edwardian period really sounded like. Only one other collector made systematic sound-recordings in England before the Second World War; the American academic James Madison Carpenter, who collected in Britain between 1929 and 1935. His recordings are housed in the Library of Congress, and will very soon be available online through the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website. We had to wait until after 1950, and the invention of the portable tape-recorder, for sound-recording to become the normal way of collecting folk songs.

What was really ground-breaking about Percy Grainger’s approach was that he quickly realised that it was not just the songs and tunes which were remarkable and worth preserving, but also the highly skilled and creative way in which traditional singers performed a song. He became fascinated with the minute details of performance and set out to devise a way of representing the nuances of pitch, rhythm, accent and so on, which a skilled singer brought to each rendition of a song. This approach was only made possible by the availability of recorded sound - the ability to play an otherwise ephemeral performance over and over again, and even to slow it down to really understand what the naked ear could only fleetingly register. But neither Grainger nor the others who experimented with the new technology saw the phonograph cylinders as a way to preserve the singers’ voices for posterity, as we would today. In those early days, the recordings were regarded primarily as an aid to analysis and transcription, and it was still the paper copies of the tune and words which mattered.

His attempts to replicate on paper what he heard on the cylinder were too complex for any but the most experienced musician to understand. Again, we are fortunate that his written material has survived. He used a hectograph (sometimes spelled hektograph) - a primitive but effective way of duplicating pages - which enabled him to make several exact copies of his transcriptions. One set of these transcriptions is in the British Library, and another in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, which be seen on their website.

In 1908, he persuaded the Gramophone Company to bring one of his favourite Lincolnshire singers, Joseph Taylor, into their studio, and nine of his songs were issued commercially - again a first in our field, and decades before any other attempt to issue real traditional singing on record for public consumption.

Disc-0002_copy
                               His Master's Voice, 6-2238 (British Library reference: 9CS0028758)

Grainger failed to persuade other folk song collectors to follow him in his quest for more detailed investigation of singers’ performance, and nor did his radical re-thinking of the technical aspects of the music find favour with others in the field. He did no more collecting in Britain after 1909, and within five years he had left for America. But the heyday of folk song collecting in England was over anyway, and even if he had stayed it is unlikely he would have done much more fieldwork here.

Grainger published very little on folk song, although he continued to use the tunes in his compositions throughout his life. The 1908 volume of the Journal of the Folk-Song Society was dedicated to his work, which included two articles by him, ‘Collecting with the Phonograph’ and ‘The Impress of Personality in Traditional Singing’, along with his transcriptions of 26 songs. He also contributed an article to the Musical Quarterly in 1915, also listed in the bibliography at the end of this article. These tell us something of his thoughts on the subject, and along with his manuscripts, published letters, and several general biographies, we can get a pretty good idea of what made him tick. But in the folk song research world he remains a controversial figure and there is still much more to be learnt and said.

Without wanting to detract from the achievement of the great collectors of the Edwardian era, it is only fair to say that they often had significant help from other folk song enthusiasts, often women, whose contribution often remains unacknowledged and thus forgotten. All collectors faced similar problems if they were moving outside their own immediate circle and locality. How to find singers at a distance was a particularly knotty problem, and they were always concerned to arrange things to make the most efficient use of their limited time and resources. They needed someone on the ground who could find singers, organise trips, and arrange itineraries. These collaborators often provided a base of operations and a place to stay, and also wrote down the words while the visiting collector noted the tune. But most importantly, they had to be someone that the singers would trust and be comfortable with, even if they were normally shy of singing in front of strangers.

Grainger’s reliance on a not-very-portable, fragile and temperamental phonograph, which even needed a certain ambient temperature to ensure that the wax remained at the right consistency, meant that he required a highly static and controlled environment in which to operate. Not for him the bicycling round the country lanes collecting from road-workers and farm labourers met on the way, like Cecil Sharp did, or popping into cottages or rowdy pub sessions on the off-chance.

In Lincolnshire, it was Lady Winefrede Cary-Elwes who provided the necessary local contacts and gave him a place to stay, and he was invited to Gloucestershire by Lady Elcho of Stanway. But the most important figure in Gloucestershire was Lady Elcho’s friend and neighbour, Miss Eliza Wedgwood (1859-1947), the last surviving granddaughter of the famous eighteenth-century master potter Josiah Wedgwood. For much of her long life, Miss Wedgwood lived at Charity Farm, Stanton, and was long remembered for her extremely active participation in village affairs and local philanthropy. She also had a wide circle of friends which included the painter John Singer Sargent and his sister Emily, the novelists James Barrie and H.G. Wells, the ex-Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (who leant his car for one of the collecting trips), members of the Guild of Handicraft, and many others involved in the cultural and artistic life of the region.

Grainger wrote in a letter (published in Kay Dreyfus’ volume of his correspondence):

“Miss Wedgwood who prepared the folk song ground for me was quite splendid. I am so certain of her gift for collecting that I hope to get her to collect in other places as well. Everything was faultlessly prepared for me. I phonographed without interruption all the days through.” (9 Apr 1908)

And it is clear from the evidence of the cylinder recordings themselves that Miss Wedgwood’s role was not simply administrative, because her voice is clearly heard telling the singers when to start, and it is clear she was actually operating the machine. Eliza also helped Cecil Sharp with contacts and local knowledge. For more on Eliza Wedgwood, see the article by Paul Burgess listed in the bibliography.

1LP0157546
                                 Leader Records, LEA 4050 (British Library reference: 1LP0157546)

A note on the numbering of the Grainger recordings

Several numbering systems exist within the Grainger collection, and they present quite a challenge to the cataloguer, and the user. The three main sequences are Cylinder number, Disc number, and Melody number, which are explained below. It is also helpful to distinguish Performances from Parts.

Grainger started collecting with pencil and paper, but in 1906 he acquired the phonograph which recorded onto wax cylinders, and from then on this was his preferred method of noting songs. Armed with the phonograph, he re-visited some of his early singers, and recorded them singing the same songs, and he subsequently transcribed these cylinder performances onto paper. He also made multiple recordings of some songs, so that the same song from any particular singer can appear more than once - on paper and on more than one cylinder. He documented these multiple recordings as ‘1st performance’, ‘2nd performance’, and so on.

Each cylinder has a number (1 - 216). Phonograph cylinders last a little over two minutes, so one cylinder can include several short songs (e.g. one verse from each), or the same short song sung more than once, or, most commonly, half of a longer song, with the rest of it continued, if we are lucky, on the next cylinder. The sections of these songs split onto different cylinders were designated ‘part 1’, ‘part 2’, etc. These numbers can be combined with the repeated renditions already described, so that we can get ‘1st performance, part 1’, ‘2nd performance, part 1’, and so on.

In 1940, the surviving cylinders were copied onto lacquer discs at the Library of Congress, and it is copies of these discs which were digitised to create the sound files offered on British Library Sounds. These discs also have numbers, and two sides, designated A and B. They can take up to five minutes of sound on each side, so the most common scenario here is for two cylinders to be dubbed onto each disc side. Occasionally the transfer from cylinder to disc did not go well, or, even more infrequently, the engineer made a mistake, so some tracks appear twice on the discs - usually with one track labelled ‘poor copy’ or ‘incomplete’, and the other ‘good copy’ or ‘complete’. We have not included these substandard transfers online when a better one exists.

When Grainger organised his collection, he assigned numbers to the songs. He gave the same number to all versions of a song from a particular singer, so that, for example, all versions of ‘Brigg Fair’ by Joseph Taylor are assigned the number 200. These are usually referred to as ‘Melody’ numbers, and are included in our catalogue, for reference. Unfortunately, they are not always as helpful as they might be. Grainger started re-organising, but never finished and some items were re-numbered, and others were left un-numbered.

025I-1LL0010255XX-AAZZA0
                                                Image of disc label (British Library reference: 1LL0010255)

The Library of Congress disc labels, shown above and included on British Library Sounds, show the disc and side number. They typically also show the titles of the songs, the name of the performer, and the year of recording, plus the relevant cylinder numbers, and Grainger’s melody numbers. The disc series starts at 12, because numbers 1-11 are assigned to his Danish recordings. Also included are dubs of the 78rpm records of Joseph Taylor’s singing issued by the Gramophone Company in 1908.

The best way to see a comprehensive listing of the whole English collection, organised by Grainger’s Melody number, is to consult Jane O’Brien’s published catalogue, Grainger English Folk Song Collection (University of Western Australia Music Dept., 1985).

Roud numbers

One more set of numbers appears in our catalogue entries, the ‘Roud number’. This number refers to songs as listed in the online databases Folk Song Index and Broadside Index (both available on www.vwml.org). Because folk songs can appear in many places (books, records, manuscripts, and so on), and because the same song can appear under a multitude of different titles, the Roud numbers are designed to help researchers find ‘other versions’ of a song. So, for example, all the versions of the song variously called ‘The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies’, ‘The Gipsy Laddie’, ‘Gypsy Davy’, ‘Seven Little Gipsies’ (and more than 50 other titles and spellings), are assigned the number Roud 1. By searching for ‘Roud 1’ in the Folk Song Index, the researcher can find all the available versions, including those now published on the British Library Sounds website.

Bibliography -

There has been a great deal written about Percy Grainger’s life and works, but the following references concentrate solely on his folk song collecting in England. For the Grainger items included on the Vaughan Williams Memorial (VWML) website, see: https://www.vwml.org/archives-catalogue/PG

By Grainger himself -

‘Collecting with the phonograph’ and ‘The Impress of personality in traditional music’, Journal of the Folk-Song Society 3 (1908) pp.163-169.

‘The Impress of personality in unwritten music’, Musical Quarterly 1:3 (Jul 1915) pp.416-435.

By others -

C.J. Bearman, ‘Percy Grainger, the Phonograph, and the Folk Song Society’, Music & Letters 84:3 (2003) pp.434-455.

John Bird, Percy Grainger (Rev. edn., Oxford Univ. Press, 1999).

John Blacking, A Commonsense view of all music. Reflections on Percy Grainger’s contribution to ethnomusicology and music education (Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Gwilym Davies, ‘Percy Grainger’s Folk Music Research in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Warwickshire 1907-1909’, Folk Music Journal 6:3 (1992) pp.339-358.

Paul Burgess, ‘Eliza Wedgwood and folk song collecting in Gloucestershire’, in David Atkinson & Steve Roud (Eds.), Proceedings of the English Folk Dance & Song Society folk song conference 2013 (Camsco Music, 2015) pp.22-34.

Kay Dreyfus (Ed.), The Farthest north of humanness: The Letters of Percy Grainger 1901-1914 (Macmillan, 1985).

Graham Freeman, Percy Grainger: Sketch of a new aesthetic of folk music (unpub. PhD thesis, Dept. of Music, University of Toronto, 2008).

Graham Freeman, ‘It wants all the creases ironing out: Percy Grainger, the Folk Song Society, and the ideology of the archive’, Music & Letters 92:3 (2011) pp.410-436.

Note: Percy Grainger’s legacy is scattered across the world in various repositories such as the Grainger Museum (Melbourne, Australia); The Library of Congress (Washington D.C., U.S.A.); The Grainger House / International Percy Grainger Society (White Plains, NY, U.S.A.); The UK Grainger Society (Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland); the Royal Danish Library (Det Kgl. Bibliotek, Copenhagen, Denmark ) and the National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh, Scotland).

22 January 2018

Recording of the week: Benno's Emperor

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This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

The last Classical Recording of the Week was of George Szell conducting Haydn. Here he is again fifteen years earlier in 1938 during his time as conductor of the Scottish Orchestra (1936-1939) just before he left for the United States. He conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra for soloist Benno Moiseiwitsch in Beethoven's immortal Piano Concerto No. 5, the Emperor Concerto. The music of a genius performed by one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. Conductor and soloist are in total accord in the magisterial first movement; Szell shapes the poetic slow movement to perfection (beginning at 20'32") while both have fun in the rollicking third movement (beginning at 28'42").

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no. 5 op. 73 E flat (Emperor)

Benno_Moiseivitsch

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16 January 2018

A Franck connection - the pianist Cécile Boutet de Monvel

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By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Disc label

Two of my previous blogs were about unknown pianists, both of whom had recorded César Franck’s great work for solo piano, the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue.  American Marion Roberts recorded it in 1927 and the French pianist Yvonne Levy recorded it in 1932.  They were both these artists’ only solo piano recordings.

There is another little known recording of this work made on 21st April 1937 in Paris for French HMV by Cécile Boutet de Monvel.  One of nine children, she came from an artistically talented family with her father Benjamin Boutet de Monvel (1820-1880) being a chemistry and physics professor while her maternal grandfather was famous tenor Adolphe Nourrit (1802-1839) who at the age of twenty-four became leading tenor of the Paris Opéra creating all the major tenor roles in Rossini’s French operas working closely with the composer.  One of Cécile’s brothers was Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel (1850-1913) a French painter famous for his illustrations of children’s books. 

Drawing_by_Louis-Maurice_Boutet_de_MonvelEverybody's St. Francis by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel

Louis-Maurice was also a portrait painter.

Portrait_de_Paul_Mounet_By_Louis-Maurice_Boutet_de_MontvelPortrait of Paul Mounet by Louis-Maurice Bouvet de Monvel

One of his two sons, Cécile’s nephew Bernard (1881-1949), was also a well-known painter while the other, Roger (1879-1951) was a writer.

Cécile was born in 1864 and although she studied at the Paris Conservatoire it appears that she did not have a career as a concert pianist.  She took part in the Concerts Colonne in 1897 playing the Franck Violin Sonata (described as ‘Musique Moderne’) with Monsieur Parent and the following February gave a recital at the Salle Pleyel which included Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 26, and a Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major by Bach.  Composer Paul Dukas, who reviewed the concert, found her ‘particularly interesting’ and declared that she was ‘an artist as much as a pianist.’ 

Quite why Cécile came to make her only recording on the 21st April 1937 at the age of seventy-three is uncertain.  She was a cousin of César Franck’s wife and had been the composer’s pupil so it is possible that someone thought her interpretation of one of the composer’s major works should be preserved and presented to the public as this is not a privately made recording.  She was already twenty years of age when Franck wrote the work in 1884 and he had died in 1890 so there must have been few people alive in the late 1930s who had had such a close association with him.

The performance has inaccuracies, but the wrong notes do not detract from the nobility of conception.  It has weight without being ponderous while her wide ranging contrasting dynamics and subtle use of the pedal all make for fascinating listening.  The recording is spread over five sides and as a filler for the sixth side she plays the Mazurka in A minor Op. 17 No. 4 by Chopin.

Franck Prelude Chorale & Fugue 1CL0019480

Cécile Boutet de Monvel died less than three years after making the recording on 13th February 1940 in a Paris very different from the one she had known with German forces invasion only three months away.

I have not been able to find a picture of Cécile but here is her nephew Bernard with the great pianist Alfred Cortot who made a famous recording of the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue in 1929.

Bernard_Boutet_de_Monvel _Paul_Schmidt _Alfred_Cortot _1927Bernard Bouvet de Monvel (left), Paul Schmitt (centre), Alfred Cortot (right) at the Cercle Interallié in Paris 1927

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21 December 2017

Fabulous Flutes

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Aerophone

When a collector’s interest covers a very specific area of recording they often amass something valuable and comprehensive over a lifetime of acquisition.  One such collector is Christopher Steward whose collection of recordings on shellac discs of flute and piccolo recordings seems second to none.  I am delighted to have negotiated for this important and large collection to come to the British Library, even more so as Mr Steward generously decided to donate it.  It is a veritable history of the flute on record.

Christopher Steward studied at Trinity College completing his studies with William Bennett.  A former member of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and BBC Northern Orchestra, he also taught at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

The treasures of the collection include many very early discs by artists born in the middle of the nineteenth century – Léon Fontbonne (1859-1940), Albert Fransella (1865-1935), Adolphe Hennebains (1862-1914) and Edward de Jong born in 1837 when Brahms was only four years old.  Not only are there representations of the great flautists of the past, but Mr Steward also collected recordings by uncredited flute and piccolo players, many from the first two decades of the twentieth century.

A small representation of discs from Mr Steward’s collection have been posted online here on Robert Bigio’s Flute Pages.  I have chosen to present some below that do not appear on these pages.

Because it is Christmas and we are gearing up for the holiday mood we start with Léon Jacquemont, a flautist with the Garde Républicaine.  This is a recording of him playing a delightful showpiece for piccolo, La Tourterelle (The Turtle Dove) Op. 119 by Eugène Damaré recorded around 1909 for the rarely seen Aérophone label.

Jacquemont Aérophone 1047

In the Menuet from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne suite No. 2, the harp accompaniment had to be played on the piano in order for it to register through the acoustic horn, but the Lamoureux Orchestra join in on this disc from 1st March 1910 to support their principal flautist Pierre Deschamps (1874-1922).

Deschamps 030540

Fontbonne

Léon Fontbonne (1859-1940) became first flautist and piccolo player with the Garde Républicaine, a position he held for twenty five years.  Here he is with a great virtuoso showpiece recorded 116 years ago in 1901, Carnaval de Venise Op. 2 by Matheus André Reichert, a work published in 1872.

Fontbonne 39151

HennebainsAdolphe Hennebains (Pierre Petit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Another fine French flautist, Adolphe Hennebains (1862-1914) can be heard in early recordings of chamber music on BL Sounds.  Here he plays a Chopin Nocturne arranged for flute by Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) – not the famous one in E flat Op. 9 No. 2 as one may suppose, but the beautiful F sharp major Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2.  The recording was made in the year of Taffanel’s death, 1908, and it is remarkable that even in this primitive acoustic recording with orchestral accompaniment Hennebains’ intake of breath can be heard during the opening phrases.

Hennebains 39200

A surprising disc from the collection appears on the Odeon label.  The flutist is George Ackroyd (1880-1960) who was principal flute with the Covent Garden Orchestra, but it was the violinist’s name that caught my eye – Albert Sammons (1886-1957), one of England’s greatest violinists, who went on to make the first recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto in October 1916 for Columbia.  Here they play an arrangement of Mendelssohn’s immortal Spring Song recorded around 1915 with W. Barker on harp.

Ackroyd Odeon 0788

BoehmTheobald Boehm (WikiCommons)

Edith Penville was an impressive player who died as recently as 1981, at the age of nearly one hundred.  This Homochord disc is a conflation of two works - part of the Variations sur un air Allemand Op. 22 by Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) preceded by part of a Faust Fantasie by Edward de Jong (1837-1920) who became the first flute with the original Hallé Orchestra in 1858.  Penville could have studied with him as she was born in the North of England and he worked in the Manchester and Derbyshire area.  De Jong himself recorded in 1907 and these recordings and more details about him can be found on this excellent blog. Penville’s impressive recording was made on 11th December 1923.

Penville H544

We end with an electrical recording.  Jacques van Lier (1881-1934) (not to be confused with the Dutch cellist of the same name) was principal flautist with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from 1907 to his death in 1934.  He made two sides for HMV on 18th June 1931 in Czechoslovakia with accompanist Otto Schulhof who had accompanied many great soloists including Heifetz as a child prodigy, Pablo Casals, Fritz Kreisler, Bronislaw Huberman and Jan Kubelik.  Van Lier plays the flute solo from Gluck’s opera Alceste.

Van Lier AM3673

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30 November 2017

Is there such a thing as an “old” sound recording?

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Age is relative of course: Compared with Roman coins or Stonehenge, even the oldest sound recordings seem young. This matters when you are arguing for the means to preserve sound recordings, which are seen by some as being too modern to warrant the status of cultural heritage. With that in mind, we’ve just passed a small but interesting milestone.

Contemporary illustration of the recording of Israel In Egypt

The oldest surviving recording of a public musical performance dates back to 29 June 1888, made at the Handel Festival in Crystal Palace, London, held to celebrate the work of the composer who wrote for both King Georges I and II. It features an excerpt from Handel’s Israel in Egypt, performed by an orchestra and choir of literally thousands, and earlier this year was rightly added to the US National Recording Registry in recognition of its cultural, artistic and historical importance. Today, the original wax cylinder resides in the hugely important Edison National Historical Park collection.

The recording was made a little over 129 years after the death of Handel, and so must have seemed at the time like a performance of music from a distant, remote age. As of right now however, an even greater period of time has passed since the recording was made. In other words, the recording itself is now closer to Handel’s time than it is to ours. As more years, decades and centuries pass, it will come to seem more representative of Handel’s era than the era of the listener. Will this change our perception of its age?

Stonehenge was only 129 years old too, once. Part of its cultural value comes from its age, and its age is a by-product of having being preserved throughout its life. Sound recordings on many legacy formats are now critically endangered, due either to degradation, or to the obsolescence of replay equipment. Funding to digitise them isn’t easy to find, and is often contingent on making them available online, which is difficult or impossible when the life of copyright is longer than the shelf life of the physical artefact. The problem is not the duration of copyright; it’s our limited ability to recognise the long-term value and vulnerability of what we have.

We can’t care for old things if we don’t care for them when they are younger. Our sound heritage deserves the chance to grow truly old.

09 November 2017

The unlikely musical family of Parlophone records: George Martin’s early years

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Guest blogpost by Edison Fellow Myles Eastwood, a London-based producer and engineer who runs Eastwood Records, alongside co-founding FixTheMusic, an online platform for booking musicians.

When George Martin died in March 2016 aged 90, the headlines predominantly focused on his work as producer of The Beatles. The infamous “fifth Beatle” moniker was taken up by both The Guardian and The Telegraph, whilst The Economist celebrated “their humble servant”.[i] Martin’s input as musical and technical enabler for the so-called Fab Four is well documented, but his role also spread into pastoral and even paternal territory – Paul McCartney spoke of a “second father” figure – so it’s no wonder the band and their producer are treated as synonymous.[ii]

Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966

Beatles and George Martin in studio 1966 (Wikicommons)

Martin’s discography beyond The Beatles also received some attention, though perhaps not as much as it deserves. Many of his obituaries celebrated the comedy and children’s records Martin produced for Parlophone in the late 1950s and early 1960s, several of which still hold up to contemporary ears, but beyond that his early Parlophone releases have not made it into mainstream cultural memory. Chris King’s review of a six-CD box set release of Martin’s work epitomises this pattern of reception:

While the concept of paying tribute to one of music's most illustrious producers is commendable, the truth is that his mainstream output during the 1960s eclipses the rest of his work, thus rendering the other CDs all but redundant. Perhaps a box set concentrating solely on Martin's 1960s pop productions might have proved the better option.[iii]

It is these earlier, ‘eclipsed’ records on Parlophone that have been the focus of my Edison Fellowship at the British Library. They are many and varied in musical style, often twee and quaint by modern standards, but they also say a lot about Martin’s formative years as a producer, and more broadly the musical landscape of postwar Britain.

Martin joined the German-British record label Parlophone in 1950 under the tutelage of Oscar Preuss, whose recording Parlophone logocareer was typical of his generation. Joining the Berlin-based International Talking Machine Company in 1904 aged 15, Preuss toured the world recording musicians from across Europe, as well as Brazil, Mexico and a number of Asian countries. Perceval Graves’ 1928 interview with him centres on his “log-book, [...] a complete chronicle of recording on Four Continents”, with Preuss recalling “long and tiring journeys, sometimes over miles of desert”, including one trip to Aleppo where wax disc shortages led to a two-week wait for the missing cases to reappear on camel-back.[iv]

Preuss’ attitude towards Arabic music is both uncomfortably colonial and endearing, with one Egyptian singer, a cotton magnate, thanking him for their sessions by gifting Preuss a rug that he hangs at home in South East London. Other projects are remarkably prescient of scenes from psychedelic recording sessions of the mid-1960s: “The amount of raw spirits, cocaine and other drugs absorbed by artistes and their entourage throughout sessions lasting from early evening till two and three o’clock in the morning [...] rather alarmed me until I got used to it!”[v] Yet Preuss’ description of musical devices, instrumentation and improvisation, alongside the pragmatic concerns of capturing the material on a limited medium (“their songs are customarily of an interminable length [...], a prompter is inevitable”), convey a sensitive listener who was, as Christopher Stone puts it, “a leisurely, rather cynically genial man, whom you recognise instantly as a master of his craft and a devil for work.”[vi]

Preuss retired in 1955, shortly before his death in 1958, and was succeeded by the 29-year-old Martin as head of Parlophone. The label was one of several EMI subsidiaries alongside HMV and Columbia. In his 1979 autobiography Martin bemoans Parlophone’s marginalised status in the organisation, held back by reluctant management staff and a limited budget. The label showcased a huge variety of music at this time including jazz, classical and various folk traditions, and when Martin began signing acts the label’s output diversified further still. Joy Nichols’ rendition of “Little Red Monkey” from 1953, sung alongside Jimmy Edwards and Dick Bentley, typifies Martin’s novelty output, a clip of which can be heard below.

1CS0075275 Little Red Monkey (excerpt)

More rare is the instrumental version performed by Frank Chacksfield, whose orchestras were middle-of-the-road powerhouses that churned out numerous light music releases during this period. This release features the composer himself, Jack Jordan, on the clavioline, an electronic keyboard instrument with a distinctly reedy sound.

9CS0010019 Little Red Monkey instrumental (excerpt)

Though Martin later claimed his ambition was to find an equivalent to Cliff Richard, an artist whose sales hugely bolstered EMI’s Columbia in the late 1950s, the route taken by the producer was somewhat circuitous. He tried his hand at “do it yourself” records in 1956, a proto-karaoke series of backing tracks performed by Ron Goodwin’s “Parlophone Pops Orchestra” and aimed at amateur singers,[vii] and when he began signing up comedians and variety acts such as Flanders and Swann it was difficult to predict which records would sell. “Mock Mozart”, for example, was a novelty release by actor Peter Ustinov, who sang the harmonies of a miniature opera parody by overdubbing his own voice and bouncing down takes between two tape machines. Martin spent hours coaxing him through the process, yet the record only sold a few hundred copies.[viii]

1CS0075217 Mock Mozart (excerpt)

Martin also supervised a number of classical sessions when he joined Parlophone. Artists included pianists such as Sidney Harrison and George Chavchavadze, as well as the London Baroque Ensemble, whose rendition of the last movement of Mozart’s Serenata notturna, K. 239 conducted by Karl Haas can be heard below.

1LP0164908 Mozart K239 (excerpt)

It would be tempting to paint Martin as the classically-schooled practitioner whose trained hand turned whatever pop he produced to gold. A cursory survey of his classical credentials throws up familiar biographical milestones. After serving in the Royal Navy, Martin won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, following which he played oboe in various orchestras and worked at the BBC Music Library. He brought his compositional experience to numerous Beatles records, arranging string parts for tracks like “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby”, to the extent that some commentators have portrayed Martin as the literate Beatle, the one who realised ideas for the band members who could not read music.

Yet this would be a disservice to Martin’s eclecticism. Sidney Harrison was actually his senior and had recommended Martin years earlier to the Guildhall following a bout of written correspondence. In one letter Harrison advised Martin, who had sent him his own Chopin-inspired compositions, to “know his marine band and start arranging for them.”[ix] The London Baroque Ensemble was never quite as grand as its title implied, and Martin delighted in recounting the unassuming nature of the affair: having met eighteenth-century music aficionado Peter Ustinov at a party, musicologist and conductor Karl Haas “decided to form the London Baroque Society and invited Peter to be the President. Karl was the conductor, I was the secretary – and that was the London Baroque society”.[x] When the narrative of lofty classical producer was bolstered by classist connotations in relation to The Beatles, Martin was most at pains to set the record straight: “I’ve been cast in the role of schoolmaster, the toff, the better-educated, and they’ve been the urchins that I’ve shaped [...] It’s a load of poppycock, really, because our backgrounds were very similar. [...] I wasn’t taught music and they weren’t, we taught ourselves.”[xi]

What, then, might a suitable lynchpin be for understanding Martin’s career? Another Parlophone artist gets us a little closer. “My Lady Greensleeves” sung by Luton Girls Choir in 1950 is part of the prolific recorded output of a choir that began at the most local level (“The girls must live within five miles of Luton’s Town Hall”) and grew to international fame with appearances in front of the Royal Family, gracing iconic venues like St Paul’s Cathedral. The choir was run for several decades by the enthusiastic Arthur E. Davies, who wanted to revive the “dying art” of choral singing, and its membership ranged from schoolgirls to the age cap of 23. “Greensleeves” is of course the quintessential English folk song, and under Davies’ direction and an orchestra led by Ivor Novello Award-winning film music composer Philip Green, the choir achieved a rousing rendition.

Luton

1CS0075002 Greensleeves (excerpt)

This was part of the soundworld Martin inherited when he joined Parlophone. It is surely telling that the next time he encountered the tune he was hastily writing an arrangement to close “All You Need Is Love” for the Our World television special. “Write absolutely anything you like, George,” The Beatles asked him: “The mixture I came up with was culled from the ‘Marseillaise’, a Bach two-part invention, ‘Greensleeves’, and the little lick from ‘In the Mood’.” The broadcast went out in June 1967 to an estimated half a billion people. If Mozart, Chopin and other accepted greats were central to Martin’s canon then so too were the British traditions of folk song, community choirs and parochial classical societies. He may not have had a signature sound like other leading producers of his generation, say John Culshaw or Quincy Jones, but his eclecticism was a trademark of sorts.

Here I am positing the Englishness of Martin’s records not as some nebulous nationalistic quality, but rather a specific phonographic heritage unique to postwar Britain. It is rooted in a DIY mentality of re-purposing technology and circumventing corporate regulations. It draws on the sound worlds of revue, music hall and brass bands, as well as various non-Western music traditions, though always filtered through a Eurocentric lense inherited from mentor Preuss. These elements pervade British popular music of the 1960s as much as the loudly celebrated American strands of rock ’n’ roll, R&B and Tin Pan Alley, yet they receive considerably less scholarly attention. Music historians should dig here before signing off on George Martin’s inestimable contribution to recorded music.

With thanks to Joanna Hughes and Sonita Cox at the EMI Archive Trust, Mark Lewisohn and Kenneth Womack

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Images reproduced through Fair Use from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parlophone; http://www.infotextmanuscripts.org/webb/webb_luton_pageant.pdf; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966.JPG 

[i]    Cf. Sweeting, A. “Sir George Martin Obituary”, The Guardian, 9 March 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/mar/09/george-martin-obituary (accessed 21 August 2017); “Sir George Martin - Obituary”, The Telegraph, 18 March 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2016/03/18/sir-george-martin---obituary/ (accessed 21 August 2017); “Their Humble Servant”, The Economist, 19 March 2016; https://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21694967-jack-all-trades-behind-much-beatles-success-was-aged-90-obituary-george-martin (accessed 21 August 2017).

[ii]   McCartney, P. “Paul McCartney on George Martin”, 9 March 2016, Paul McCartney [website], https://www.paulmccartney.com/news-blogs/news/paul-mccartney-on-george-martin (all accessed 21 August 2017).

[iii]  King, C. “Produced By George Martin: 50 Years in Recording [review]”, Amazon [website], https://www.amazon.co.uk/Produced-George-Martin-YEARS-RECORDING/dp/B00005BCHH/ (accessed 10 August 2017).

[iv]  Preuss, O. C. “Round the Recording Studios / No. 1 - ‘Songs of Araby’”, The Gramophone, March 1928, 411-412.

[v]   Ibid., 412.

[vi]  Stone, C. “Our Masters and Mothers”, The Gramophone, December 1929, 293.

[vii] “Sing to these Records!”, New Musical Express, 12 October 1956, 6.

[viii] Martin, G. (1979) All You Need is Ears, London, 53-55.

[ix]  Lewisohn, M. “George Martin: A Sound Life”, Produced By George Martin: 50 Years in Recording [liner notes], May 2001, 4.

[x]   Martin, G. (1979) All You Need Is Ears, London, 39.

[xi]  Quoted in “George Martin obituary: The Beatles producer who made the Fab Four a worldwide success”, The Independent, 9 March 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/sir-george-martin-obituary-the-beatles-record-producer-who-made-the-fab-four-a-worldwide-success-a6920546.html (accessed 15 August 2017).

[xii] “Luton Girls Choir”, Luton Coronation Pageant Book, Luton, 24, http://www.infotextmanuscripts.org/webb/webb_luton_pageant.pdf (accessed 10th August 2017).

[xiii] Martin, G. (1979) All You Need Is Ears, London, 192.

26 October 2017

Black History Month – Dean Dixon

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Dean_Dixon_(1941)

Dean Dixon photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1941 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For Black History Month this year I have chosen to highlight the work of African American conductor Dean Dixon who was a familiar figure in the London concert halls of the 1960s.

Born in Harlem, New York in 1915 to West Indian parents, Dixon studied at the Julliard School of Music and graduated from Columbia University.  His professional debut was in 1937 at Town Hall, New York and in 1941 he was the first African American to guest conduct the New York Philharmonic receiving further engagements with other first rank American orchestras.  He founded the American Youth Orchestra in 1944 and became responsible for various university courses in music education while later in his career he was responsible for organising children’s concerts.  However, the 1940s was a difficult time for African Americans to succeed in the United States and many musicians went to Europe in the search for fulfilling work.  Dixon first went to Paris in 1949 then worked in Israel and Scandinavia.  During the 1950s he was director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and from 1961 to 1974 director of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra during which time he was also director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  During the 1970s Dixon returned to the United States to guest conduct many of the well known orchestras.

Dixon first appeared in London in May 1955 conducting an all-Beethoven concert with Eileen Joyce as soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 4.  He was often a guest conductor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and when Rudolf Schwarz’s contract as director of the orchestra came to an end in 1962, Dixon was one of a team of conductors chosen to take his place in the forthcoming season.  He was in good company as some of the others included Colin Davis, Antal Dorati, Rudolf Kempe, Lorin Maazel, Jean Martinon and Igor Markevitch.  When Dixon conducted Mahler’s First Symphony in May 1963 the Times critic corrected his own ‘mental reservations’ when he wrote: ‘Mr Dixon is an American Negro conductor, and as such might be supposed to feel alien to the music by a Central European composer of the decadent “fin de siècle.” In the event, these mental reservations proved entirely unfounded, for Mr Dixon’s performance recaptured on the whole the spirit of the First Symphony most admirably.’

Dixon recorded for the Westminster label including an excellent disc of Liszt Symphonic Poems with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Schubert Symphonies, the Dvorak Cello Concerto with Antonio Janigro and MacDowell Piano Concertos with his first of his three wives, Vivian Rivkin.  Recently, German label Audite has issued radio broadcasts of Dixon accompanying the great Rumanian pianist Clara Haskil and a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 from 1962.  With the Prague Symphony orchestra he recorded a disc of Weber Symphonies for Supraphon.

Dixon championed American music making recordings for the Desto label, and the British Library holds a rare recording of excerpts from the American Music Festival of 1948 with Dixon conducting the premiere of the Viola Concerto by Quincy Porter with Paul Doktor as soloist. 

Porter Viola Concerto

Dixon also broadcast rare repertoire for the BBC including the Second Symphony by Humphrey Searle.  When he accompanied Greek pianist Gina Bachauer in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Fairfield Hall in Croydon one critic wrote, ‘…the highlight of Beethoven’s third piano concerto was the rapport between the soloist (Miss Gina Bachauer) and orchestra in the Largo.’  Here is the opening tutti of the concerto demonstrating Dixon’s attention to detail with crisp wind playing and fine moulding of phrases.

Beethoven Concerto No. 3

Dixon died in 1976 at the age of 61.

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23 October 2017

Recording of the week: not on period instruments

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This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Those of us brought up in the 1980s and 1990s only hearing Haydn performed on period instruments missed a lot. While these were innovative and fascinating, older recordings of symphony orchestras - with large string sections performing Classical repertoire on contemporary instruments - became outmoded. This recording from 1953 of the Oxford Symphony by Geroge Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra is a delight, full of elegance, wit, virility and humour - all the best traits of Haydn's genius.

Haydn Symphony no. 92  G major (Oxford)

  Joseph_Haydn

A collection of Haydn's symphonies can be found on British Library Sounds.

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