Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

114 posts categorized "Classical music"

22 May 2024

SIVORI IS DEAD! VIVA SIVORI! The haunting recorded legacy of Paganini’s only pupil

Guest blog by Andrew O. Krastins

'Now he is dead. And the most bitter regret that, of so much artistic value, there remains only a memory, such being, unfortunately, the fate of the great performers: to survive only by the virtue of tradition, also fallacious and dying.' – Supplemento al Caffaro di Genova, February 19, 1894, announcing the death of Camillo Sivori earlier that morning.

'This newest invention of Mr. Edison is indeed astonishing. The phonograph makes it possible for a man who has already long rested in the grave once again to raise his voice and greet the present.' – Baron Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891), spoken into an Edison phonograph in 1889.  


Photo of August Wilhelmj
Sivori-pic2-Siv to Selene Hofer
Photo of Sivori, inscribed to Selene Hofer

'Sivori is dead. He dies the last of his generation and school' the Violin Times announced on March 5, 1894, 'and his death severs the last link that connected the present day with what we may almost call the era of romance in the history of violin playing. . . It is therefore an event of no slight importance to musical history, this extinction of what might be called the Paganini School.'  Sixteen mysterious brown wax cylinders which the British Library holds and has provisionally attributed to the great German violinist August Wilhelmj (1845-1908), suggest that this bold but melancholy statement is not entirely true, and that Camillo Sivori (1815-1894) – the only pupil of Niccolo Paganini – long rested in the grave, is ready, in the words of Baron von Moltke, 'to again raise his voice and greet the present.'

Before the phonograph, musical performance was ephemeral. If one wanted music, one had either to make it oneself or be in the presence of other humans making it. Once a performance ended, it was lost to posterity, and remained with the auditor only as a fading memory, like the voices of the dead. Hence the bitter melancholy of the Genoese obituary above.

Music is now omnipresent, to be purchased, packaged and consumed at the listener’s whim. Concert audiences, 'smart phones' in hand, record rather than listen; musical amateurs easily and routinely document and post their efforts on social media. Students learning a new piece turn first to YouTube to compare a dozen different performances before venturing their own.

It is impossible to 'unremember' or 'unexperience' technologies to which we have grown accustomed. But to grasp the significance of the British Library cylinders, it is essential to attempt, through imagination, to place oneself back into the musical world of the late 1880s and early 1890s, when performing musicians first experienced the preservation and reproduction of human sounds, when for the first time in human history, a performer’s art could be immortalized as was the art of painters, sculptors and poets; it is essential to contemplate the awe and dread the new technology inspired in musicians suddenly faced with the terrifying prospect of chiseling their own artistic epitaphs, indelible and permanent.

In 1823 and 1824, when Sivori was studying with Paganini, Beethoven completed his Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis, and was planning his last string quartets. In 1827, the year of Beethoven’s death and a year before Schubert’s, Sivori was already an international concert artist at age 12, acclaimed in London.1 The earliest-born classical violinists to record commercially were Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) and Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), whose recordings date from 1903 and 1904 respectively. If the British Library cylinders are by Sivori rather than by August Wilhelmj, to whom they are presently attributed, then they necessarily date from before February 19, 1894, the date of Sivori’s death.

Should the weight of the evidence point to Sivori rather than Wilhelmj, then the British Library cylinders memorialize performances by a Romantic virtuoso nearly a full generation older than any other classical performer known to have recorded, not from the world of Debussy or even Brahms, but of Paganini, Spohr, Bellini, Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn; they are a portal into a lost musical world, a world as strange to us as ours would be to the mysterious performers whose artistry the cylinders preserve.

A personal note and roadmap for the reader

One winter afternoon in 2008, while my employer was otherwise distracted, I chanced upon the 'Wilhelmj' recording of Paganini’s Witches’ Dance on the British Library website, and, with office door closed, listened intently. As a lifelong student of lore pertaining to the great 19th century violin virtuosi, I was excited to learn that the great August Wilhelmj (1845-1908) had made recordings. At the time, the only sample of these 'Wilhelmj' recordings available online was the 'Witches’ Dance.' To hear the remaining sets required a trip to the British Library’s reading room and listening stations.

In London the following year, I for the first time listened to the whole collection – five classical violin compositions recorded in their entirety: the first movement of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto, the first movement of Camillo Sivori’s unpublished and lost Second Violin Concerto, Paganini’s Witches’ Dance, a major unaccompanied work entitled 'The Gypsies' and a 'Minuetto Pizzicato.' Because of their early vintage, I knew that these multi-cylinder recordings of lengthy concert pieces were unique among known existing cylinder recordings.2

The Sivori Second Violin Concerto, The Gypsies and the Witches’ Dance created in my mind such a storm of excitement, perplexity and astonishment that I paced several times around the reading room, and listened again and again, and paced again and again, arousing curious glances. I knew that there was far more to these intriguing artifacts than the perfunctory attribution to Wilhelmj suggested. The Gypsies, for solo unaccompanied violin, in particular, stunned me with the unearthly evocation of a Romani chorus in sustained and unbroken three-part chordal passages and hair-raising octave passages at lightning speed – passages that professional violinists who have heard them cannot explain or duplicate. Neither the composer nor the performer is identified anywhere on the cylinders.

Gypsies ex 1

Gypsies ex 2

In 2018, Jonathan Summers, the British Library’s curator of classical music, generously allowed me to examine the cylinders themselves and the boxes they arrived in, and I began solving the riddle of the Mystery Cylinders in earnest. My first stop was the Wilhelmj Archive in the German village of Usingen, where I combed through a lifetime’s worth of Wilhelmj’s collected papers and discovered no evidence that Wilhelmj ever performed a work by Sivori. My further adventures took me to the winding streets of Genoa, to Paris where I stayed in the modest rooming house where Sivori lived for three decades, and to various used book dens, flea markets and auction houses. And, of course, to the British Library, the Bibliotheque nationale de France, and, of crucial importance, Genoa’s Biblioteca Civica Berio.

My subject necessarily deals with three distinct and arcane specialities: (1) the history of early sound recording and related technical minutiae, (2) the interrelationships between Thomas Edison’s various corporations and business entities, and (3) the history of 19th century violin performance practices. A specialist in any one of these fields, alas, might well be bored to tears by the two thirds of my essay pertaining to the speciality of another. But not so the general reader, to whom my essays are respectfully dedicated.

The story we are about to begin is set largely between 1889 and 1894, in London, Paris and Genoa. It is rife with intrigues, implausible coincidences, hair’s breadth rescues, and treasures snatched from oblivion in the nick of time. And it is suffused by the then novel and frightening idea that the human voice could survive death. If you detect the fragrance of Victorian detective and ghost stories found in the pages of old pulp magazines now long-decayed, it is simply the nature of the raw material itself, with the caveat that our story happens also to be true – verifiably so.

Among the characters, in addition to Maestro Sivori and August Wilhelmj, is Thomas Edison, whose broad experimental curiosity and creative impulses were wedded to the purely practical, stingy and bitterly litigious temperament of a business magnate. There is the eccentric Colonel George Gouraud, who controlled Edison’s European Phonograph operations headquartered in London – a blustering, adulation-seeking and hucksterish American entrepreneur Mark Twain might have created. There are important cameo appearances by the eccentric Hungarian violinist and political revolutionary Edouard Remenyi and Mrs. Remenyi, and by the enigmatic Hungarian-Jewish-German-French diplomat, impresario, journalist, novelist, librettist, translator and polyglot Emile Durer, who recorded Italian musical celebrities at the very dawn of sound recording, was Edison’s first French biographer, and had enduring relationships with both Edison and Gouraud.

But most important and least known is Enrico Copello of Genoa, who at 15 fought alongside Garibaldi in the wars for Italy’s unification and independence, emigrated to America to seek his fortune, and in the very earliest years of recorded sound, traveled throughout Italy as Edison’s representative, demonstrating the Phonograph and recording Italian musical celebrities, only to be mangled in the machinery of Gilded Age American “Business.” Misled by Edison and thwarted by Gouraud, Copello lost what money he had invested and, beggared by his former colleagues, returned with his family to America to live in obscurity in a New York boarding house. He is an unsung hero, his legacy never before excavated, his achievements buried and his memory sullied by the enduring falsehoods of a single English journalist. We will visit his grave presently. 

Here is the roadmap. Wilhelmj is extremely unlikely to have recorded the cylinders because by the earliest time the cylinders could have been made, he had already given up public performance and none of the pieces recorded but one was ever in his known concert repertoire. The only person presently known to have performed and have had access to the Sivori Second Violin Concerto was Sivori himself. The inscription on the Witches’ Dance cylinder box states: 'as played by Paganini.' As Paganini’s only pupil, Sivori knew how Paganini played; Wilhelmj could not because Paganini died five years before Wilhelmj was born. However, at the time of Sivori’s death, the Phonograph was extremely rare in Europe and was not available to the general public. At the earliest date that Sivori could possibly have recorded, he was already in his late seventies. In the last months of his life, his health fluctuated.

Sivori remained an active soloist in public concerts at least until late 1892, and as a musician in private soirees at least up to the spring of 1893. His last private performance likely took place in Genoa, in the weeks before his death on February 19, 1894. Enrico Copello is the only person presently known of to have conducted Phonograph demonstrations in Italy and recorded Italian classical musicians sufficiently early to have recorded Sivori. The Phonograph was exhibited in Genoa in 1892 during the time when Sivori was giving a series of valedictory concerts and private recitals. Sivori returned from Paris to Genoa in October 1893 and remained there until his death on February 19, 1894. The Phonograph reappeared in Genoa in January 1894 where it was demonstrated at the Sala Sivori concert hall and later at the music store of Sivori’s friend Giuseppe Bossola, while Sivori was in Genoa.

Sivori therefore had the capacity to make the recordings, and access to the Phonograph, in 1892, and again in early 1894 when his health by then was precarious. Because Sivori was the only known violinist with access to the unpublished Sivori Second Violin Concerto, he is almost certainly the performer on the cylinders. Documentary and circumstantial evidence also point to Sivori as the performer on the Paganini cylinders as well. Copello was working on behalf of the branch Edison Phonograph enterprise headquartered in London and made numerous trips there. This explains how and why the British Library’s Mystery Cylinders wound up in London.

Evidence is one thing, inferences drawn from it quite another. Claims about events long past and people long dead are necessarily provisional, especially where, as here, little or no prior excavation has been done. This Adventure of the Mystery Cylinders has led to the discovery of hidden treasure chambers long closed off, namely, the previously unknown and unsuspected legacy of Copello’s pioneering recordings of great classical musicians in Italy beginning in 1889. I hope that the curiosity of the general reader, and of specialists and hobbyists in these very interesting overlapping areas, will be sufficiently sparked to unabashedly point out any errors in the facts and any flimsiness in reasoning. The best insurance against persistent historical error is its early detection.

I hope that readers will join in this adventure by adding to our knowledge with their own discoveries. For example, some of Sivori’s closest acquaintances in Genoa and Paris described him as a life-long confirmed bachelor. This is consistent with what is known of his life in in both cities. Some scholars claim otherwise.3 At one point he was rumored to be engaged to marry the French actress Hortense Damain, but news accounts state that the plans were cancelled and there is no evidence that any wedding took place.4 According to Damain’s death certificate, Damain died a 'celibataire,' that is unmarried. I have found no reference to Sivori’s children in the Genoa newspapers covering his funeral, nor in the published collections of his letters I have examined. Any documentary evidence that Sivori had children – even just their names – would be immensely useful and interesting, if indeed there ever were any children. Perhaps I have aroused the curiosity of readers with a penchant for genealogy.  

Anyone who can identify the performer, composer or even just the tunes in 'The Gypsies' cylinders will have solved puzzles that still perplex me. They arrived in the same container and from the same source as the other Mystery Cylinders, but the handwriting on the individual boxes does not match that on the Sivori or Witches’ Dance boxes. Nor is there any evidence I have found of any such composition in lists of Sivori’s lists known works, or the known works of Wilhelmj and Paganini himself. My own wish-driven impulse is to attribute them to Sivori, but without more, this cannot be done. And I hope that additional fragments of Sivori’s Second Violin Concerto will surface. From my own experience, I know that such discoveries are to be expected provided the mind is prepared.

And I hope that the Mystery Cylinders are not only read about but listened to – listened to with at least some of the patience, effort and sacrifice that went into creating them. The uninitiated listener’s first reaction might well be annoyance at the huge amount of noise and difficulty in making out the performance. This is where patience and a willingness to gamble away some of one’s own time are essential. I hope that readers who have never experienced recordings from the early 1890s will indulge me and listen repeatedly, without judgement or expectation, to one of the performances, simply to let the mind and ears adjust. Let the sounds be what they are, like listening to ambient sounds in a forest, by a waterfall or at the seaside. The experience is rather like seeing something one knows to be exquisite and irreplaceable, but seeing it through very dirty and sooty old window of an long-abandoned house. The longer one looks, the more one sees; the longer one listens, the more one hears.

Sivori very possibly made his recordings only weeks and maybe even days before his death, while wracked by recurring illness. If that is the case, the Mystery Cylinders are a true final artistic testament made under circumstances as heroic as they are heartbreaking. I hope that listeners will make a fraction of the effort to reach into the past that Sivori made to reach into the future and out to posterity.

In matters such as this, I follow three maxims: (1) if an artifact is known to have been created, I presume that it still exists absent evidence to the contrary; (2) the truth is in the detritus; and (3) nothing is too preposterous to be true nor too plausible to be false. And with those thoughts, I invite the British Library’s readers to join in the hunt.

The British Library’s Mystery Cylinders

In 2005, an elderly former employee of the London branch of the Schott music publishing house donated a box of 16 brown wax cylinders to the British Library. The donor had retrieved the cylinders from a rubbish bin where they had been discarded in the course of clearing out the Schott firm’s old facilities and moving to a new building in the 1960s. According to the donor, the cylinders were found in the desk of Charles Volkert, the German-born head of Schott’s London branch. There they apparently had remained through Volkert’s death in 1929 and up to the time the old Schott facility was cleared. Had the donor been home sick that day, or on the telephone, or otherwise distracted, and had he not, at the last moment, rescued the Mystery Cylinders from the garbage bin, they would have been forever lost and even their creation would never be known. These are the first of our treasures snatched from oblivion in the nick of time.

The donor informed the British Library that the cylinders were thought to have been recorded by the great German violinist August Wilhelmj, who resided in London from the end of 1894 until his death in 1908. Schott published Wilhelmj’s compositions; during his London years, Wilhelmj edited and transcribed dozens upon dozens of major and minor compositions for Schott. These included Paganini’s Witches’ Dance and Paganini’s first and second violin concerti. Based on this information, the British Library identified the cylinders as 'believed to be by August Wilhelmj,' presumed they were made in London after Wilhelmj’s arrival, and estimated the cylinders to date from 1895 to approximately 1900.

The British Library’s attribution to Wilhelmj was eminently plausible in light of the information then available. Wilhelmj lived in London from until his death in 1908. In the first decades of sound recording, London was the hub of Edison’s phonograph enterprise for all of Europe.5 Wilhelmj easily could have made phonograph recordings if he wished, because by the time of Wilhelmj’s death in 1908, sound recording in the United Kingdom was a fully developed and highly competitive commercial enterprise. And if the recordings were made on the Continent by someone else, what were they doing in Volkert’s desk for three quarters of a century?

To the untrained eye, nothing about the British Library’s 16 Mystery Cylinders or any other brown wax cylinders – considered simply as objects – inspires awe; they look like obsolete clutter.

Brown cardboard box with wax cylinders
Photos of Cylinders (C1210) at the British Library

But to students of the earliest recorded music, and of the history of violin performance, they present a tangle of mysteries and contradictions which, if one did not know better, seem deliberately crafted to vex posterity. Unlike most recordings of the era, they do not announce the performers. Nor are the performers identified anywhere on the cylinder boxes. Unlike any other early cylinder recordings known to exist, they memorialize entire classical concerto movements and lengthy instrumental compositions recorded over four and even five cylinders, rather than short compositions which fit neatly on a single cylinder. To add to the mystery, one set memorializes a performance of the first movement of Camillo Sivori’s Second Violin Concerto – a composition which was never published and the manuscript score and solo part of which are lost.

Casing for Sivori Concerto wax cylinder
Sivori Concerto box

The label of the four-cylinder recording of Paganini’s 'Le Streghe,' or 'Witches’ Dance' is as puzzling as it is tantalizing: 'The Witch’s Dance, - a Song of the Old Woman under the Walnut Tree, as played by Paganini. During the dark ages, the Walnut Tree was believed to be the trysting place of witches. Hence the Old Woman’s Song.'

Casing for Witches' Dance
Witches' Dance box with inscription 

Is the phrase 'as played by Paganini' mere 'AS SEEN ON TV!' hyperbole? Or did the writer instead mean that the performance reflected the actual style of Paganini himself? And what is the significance of the curious language about walnut trees and an Old Woman’s Song? Like the other sets, no performer is identified, either on the boxes or the cylinders themselves. But the version of 'Witches’ Dance' on the Cylinders is substantially different from the 1851 first edition of the piece, from Wilhelmj’s edition for Schott published around 1905, and from Paganini’s own manuscript. A puzzle indeed.

Finally, two of the most intriguing performances are also the most mysterious. A four-cylinder set memorializes a major multi-movement piece for unaccompanied violin entitled 'The Gypsies.' This set of cylinders contains some of the most astonishing violin playing on record, including sustained three-string legato passages, as well as complicated trills and rapid octave passages that would do credit to any modern virtuoso. The other single-cylinder composition is entitled 'Minuetto Pizzicato,' and contains similar sustained three-string passages. Neither set identifies even a composer, let alone the performer.  No such compositions are among the known works of Paganini or Sivori or Wilhelmj. While these cylinders are, as objects, substantially identical to the others and arrived at the British Library in the same box and from the same source, there presently is no additional documentary evidence to suggest that they were recorded by Wilhelmj, Sivori or any other particular violinist.

The Mystery Cylinders, by their nature, inspire wish-driven reasoning. The idea that Paganini’s only pupil left a major recorded legacy is inherently appealing; it is all too tempting to bury the absence of actual evidence in 'surely would have' and in surmises which are as enticingly plausible as they are unsupported by anything beyond the author’s hunches. Nothing is easier than unwittingly imputing to historical actors presumed behaviors derived from one’s own wishes, fears and prejudices rather than from verifiable evidence; the only thing sillier than telling the dead what to do is expecting they’ll obey. Therefore, our inquiry begins with the artifacts themselves in light of what is known of the history of early sound recording, independently of what might be recorded on them.

The threshold question is whether there is anything about the cylinders themselves that precludes them from dating before February 19, 1894, the date of Sivori’s death. The answer requires a short excursion into early recording technology. The very earliest cylinders for Edison’s 1888 “perfected” phonograph were made of a yellowish and rather soft waxy substance. These are referred to as 'white wax' or 'yellow wax' cylinders. Some of these very early cylinders had cores of wound string. By late 1888, Edison replaced the wax with a ceresin-based darker-colored 'metallic soap' which produced cylinders that were more durable. These latter are called 'brown wax' cylinders. These brown wax cylinders were also more conducive to recording music.

There is as of yet no comprehensive and authoritative reference work for the dating of brown wax cylinders. The essential knowledge needed to create such a reference resides primarily in the minds and memories of passionate but aging private collectors and a sprinkling of archivists and academics who have devoted their lives to the hands-on study of these musical artifacts. Just as in the rare violin trade, opinions of experts regarding the age or origin of a particular artifact can vary because their opinions derive from the particular expert’s lifetime of personal experience and the particular artifacts which have passed before the expert’s eyes and ears. Nonetheless, brown wax cylinders have some characteristics which can establish some facts with certainty.

British Library string core cylinders
Core of British Library cylinder

String-core and white wax cylinders were manufactured only up to mid 1889 and are now as rare as Mozart manuscripts and Gutenberg Bibles. Edison abandoned string core cylinders because they were prone to break. From late 1889 through approximately 1897, the cores of brown wax cylinders newly manufactured by Edison contained a single spiral by which the cylinder was fitted to the mandrel of the machine. Around 1897, Edison began manufacturing cylinders with double spiral cores. Later, Edison began manufacturing cylinders with concentric circles and discontinued the single-spiral type. Thus, if any of the cylinders have cores with concentric circles or which are double-spiraled, they necessarily were manufactured after Sivori died.

The British Library’s Mystery Cylinders are all made of brown wax and have single-spiral cores. Therefore, it is entirely possible, but not certain, that they were manufactured and recorded prior to Sivori’s death on February 19, 1894. Dr. Michael Khanchalian is one of the world’s leading authorities on early cylinder recording and recording technology and has assisted museums and sound archives around the world. Dr. Khanchalian examined detailed photographs of the Mystery Cylinders. He compared them with exemplars from his collection and those he has examined in his decades of direct experience and concluded that the Mystery Cylinders are consistent with European brown wax cylinders recorded between 1891-1894, including exemplars from Dr. Khanchalian’s own collection.

Another factor pointing to extremely early vintage is the inherently experimental nature of the recording project itself. Almost all known early brown wax musical recordings of the early to mid 1890s, whether commercial or private, consist of short selections of two to three minutes duration – short enough to fit on a single cylinder or disc. This lasted into the early twentieth century. The keyword is 'almost.' The Mystery Cylinders, by contrast, record entire classical concert pieces and concerto movements up to some 15 minutes in length on successive cylinders. In this, they are unique, at least among brown wax cylinders presently known to exist, and they present us with the most tantalizing of anomalies. To fully appreciate these anomalies  requires questioning some widely accepted ideas about Edison’s attitudes toward music and resulting presumptions about the repertoire contained in the earliest cylinder recordings.

Edison and Classical Music

In much literature about early classical recordings, Edison appears as a caricature – a hard-nosed stone-deaf American philistine businessman interested only in how much money he might leech from his inventions, famously regarding his phonograph primarily as a business dictation machine and 'serious' music as a commercially worthless waste of effort. The violinist Carl Flesch, who recorded for Edison from 1914 through 1928, claimed that Edison knew only two types of music: 'good seller' and 'no seller,' an opinion echoed by other classical musicians in the first decades of the 20th century.6

However, Edison as a crotchety and crankish but ruthless laissez-faire captain of industry is an incomplete portrait. Edison at 80 was not Edison at 40. The Edison of the 1880s surrounded himself with musicians, both in the laboratory and in his private life. His chief recording engineer, Theodore Wangemann, a trained musician from Germany, was the piano accompanist in many of Edison’s earliest recordings. Wangemann described his duties as: 'Experimenting on phonograph recording with a view to making better musical records, vocal and instrumental.'7 It was Wangemann who recorded Johannes Brahms in December 1889.

The earliest Edison phonographs were sophisticated precision scientific instruments and works of art created by some of the most skilled engineers and craftsmen in the world. They were powered by electrical batteries and listened to through tubes that channeled the sound directly into the ear. While, with sufficient training, office workers might use them for stenographic purposes, recording classical music successfully was quite another matter. The violin and other stringed instruments were among the most difficult of all to record successfully and required technical expertise. To successfully record entire violin compositions over a span of several cylinders necessarily required at least one, and most likely two, highly trained technicians.

Some time prior to 1880, an abiding friendship arose between Edison and the Hungarian violin virtuoso and political revolutionary Edouard Remenyi. While Edison was working on the phonograph, Remenyi frequently visited Edison’s Fifth Avenue offices after concerts and the two would talk philosophy late into the night. Their jocular correspondence suggests that they were on intimate terms. For example, on August 19, 1881, Remenyi wrote to Edison:

Since I was with Victor Hugo and Liszt I never was so much in a [sic] intellectual heaven as day before yesterday--I was wide awake, still I was in a dreamland, and I want to remain there, and to nourish myself on that heavenly food--and in the same time I do not wish to be so terribly in debt toward you--otherwise I will be soon bankrupt,--therefore prepare yourself immediately--if not sooner, to a musical assault on your doomed head--and then, only then we will be even. (Remenyi adds a postscript: 'looking at your photo--I invent also all sorts of melodies--you bet.')8

Reminiscing to journalists at age 70, Edison recalled Remenyi as 'a long-winded talker . . . a Socialist or something' who would spontaneously take up his violin. 'He would sit there talking, and bye the bye start playing the most beautiful things – wailing soft music. He’d play two or three thousand dollars worth every night.' Edison was a pallbearer at Remenyi’s funeral in 1898. Edison, Remenyi and their mutual friend, the musician Julius Fuchs, also were involved in an effort to present German operas at the Metropolitan Opera. Later, Fuchs asked Edison to recommend Fuchs for the position of musical director of the Metropolitan Opera to its Board of Directors.9

In March or April 1889, Edison met personally with the great German pianist and conductor Hans von Bulow, who asked Edison to record von Bulow’s performances in Boston.  Wangemann testified in legal proceedings: 'I left for Boston on very short notice, as I remember about three hours, von Bulow having asked Edison if his playing of the Beethoven sonatas could be done in one of his concerts, and Mr. Edison ordered me at that time to go to Boston and take them.' Wangemann spent some two months in Boston recording some of Boston’s finest classical musicians. One newspaper reported that Wangemann even 'attempted what he considers as the most difficult test, a string quartette (sic), especially with ‘piano’ passages, the Listemann Quartette furnishing the instruments.'10

On May 2, 1889, von Bulow gave his farewell concert in New York, conducting Brahms’ Tragic Overture, Haydn’s Symphony in B flat (no. 12), Meyerbeer’s Struensee Overture, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Wagner’s Meistersinger Vorspiel. According to numerous news accounts, Edison had the entire performance recorded on cylinders, using four phonographs to record the entire concert. Bulow left before he could hear the cylinders, but according to reports, others heard them and marveled at their high quality.11 On June 11, 1889, Wangemann or his colleagues appear to have recorded an orchestral performance by the Wagner disciple and future conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Anton Seidl.12

If one accepts the caricature of Edison the Philistine American Businessman, the idea that Edison, while engaged in intense scientific work and presiding over his numerous litigation-heavy interrelated businesses, would have any interest in the musical directorship of the Metropolitan Opera, or the late-night philosophical musings and improvised concerts of an eccentric Hungarian violinist, or the making of expensive but commercially useless large-scale recordings of entire two-hour classical music concerts is counterintuitive – downright preposterous. However, these documented actions reveal a side of Edison, at least while engaged in creative experiment, quite at odds with the Edison of popular imagination. More important is the freedom and encouragement he gave to Wangemann to experiment, at great cost in time and money, to record the greatest classical musicians then at hand.

But what has any of this to do with the British Library’s Mystery Cylinders? The answer is that Wangemann’s and Edison’s documented experiments with recording classical music, including entire works over numerous cylinders with multiple machines, provide a documented precedent and a context for the multi-cylinder whole-movement performances that the Mystery Cylinders preserve. The only recordings presently known to have been made bearing any similarity to the Mystery Cylinders were the cutting-edge experimental recordings made through Edison at the very beginning.

Is Wilhelmj a plausible candidate?13

The British Library based its provisional attribution to Wilhelmj on (1) what the donor said he had heard four decades earlier, (2) the fact that Wilhelmj was active in London from his arrival in 1894 until his death in 1908, and (3) that Wilhelmj had a decades-long connection with the Schott company as an editor and arranger. At first glance, this provisional attribution seems quite solid. But there are three difficulties which make Wilhelmj a singularly implausible candidate. First, there is no evidence that Wilhelmj ever met Sivori, or had access to, let alone performed, Sivori’s unpublished Second Violin Concerto. Second, the version of the Witches’ Dance on the cylinders bears little resemblance to Wilhelmj’s own edition of the work. Finally, by the time Wilhelmj arrived in London in late 1894, he had given up public performance despite public demand and generous offers from impresarios.

Wilhelmj was born in the village of Usingen, Germany in 1845. He studied violin with Ferdinand David, to whom Mendelssohn dedicated his violin concerto; he studied composition with the composer Joachim Raff. Wilhelmj was on intimate terms with Wagner and his circle; Wagner chose Wilhelmj as his concertmaster at Bayreuth for the premier of the Ring cycle, and again for the 1877 Wagner Festival in London.  During his short performing career, Wilhelmj was known for his performances of the Beethoven concerto, the Bach Chaconne and other high classical works, and his heroic, statuesque 'Classical' stage presence.

In 1908, Albert Franke, chairman of the 'Usingen Beautification Society,' wrote to Wilhelmj asking if he would donate his musical papers to the local history museum. Franke received no reply because Wilhelmj was gravely ill and then had died. Wilhelmj’s widow found Franke’s request and readily sent numerous boxes of letters to Usingen, followed by other memorabilia including more letters, documents, albums, portraits, manuscripts and other items. The town of Usingen formally established and funded a Wilhelmj Archive, which ultimately came to be housed in the Usingen municipal history museum, where the materials are now stored. Franke wrote to Wilhelmj’s other remaining relatives and descendants, who also readily supplied additional materials to the Wilhelmj Archive. Franke also visited Schott’s London office and obtained 73 folders containing Wilhelmj’s various editions, compositions and transcriptions which Wilhelmj published through Schott up until his death.

 Over the next century, other Usingen residents passionate about preserving Wilhelmj’s legacy continued collecting Wilhelmj memorabilia and adding to the archive. The Wilhelmj Archive presently consists of twenty-three large storage boxes containing Wilhelmj’s scores, manuscripts, a manuscript autobiography, programs, scrapbooks, and almost five decades of correspondence between Wilhelmj and his family – in essence, all the papers which the emissaries from Usingen gathered upon his death and through most of the twentieth century. It is a true fortune that a town of less than 15,000 inhabitants created and has maintained such an invaluable and irreplaceable resource and made it available to Wilhelmj researchers and admirers. Because Wilhelmj himself was a meticulous collector of printed material pertaining to his own career, including hundreds of newspaper reviews and programs, a thorough examination of these materials necessarily provides an idea of his repertoire and acquaintances.

Wilhelmj’s performing career was notoriously short. His last documented major public concerts as a violin soloist occurred in Germany in 1890. In December 1893, a year before Wilhelmj resettled permanently in London, the secretary of the London Philharmonic Society wrote to Wilhelmj asking whether Wilhelmj wished to be included in the list of soloists for the coming season. The tone of the letter suggests it followed up on prior correspondence: 'do you wish to be included or not in this list? I [illegible] be sending the proof to the printer this week and will esteem your reply one way or the other; so please let me hear from you.' The Archive does not contain a response; there is nothing in the 1894 musical news of Wilhelmj performing publicly in London in 1894. Wilhelmj also appears to have agreed to perform at a concert in Nottingham on March 9, 1894 but was “unavoidably absent,” requiring a last-minute substitute.14

From his arrival in London until shortly before his death, Wilhelmj received numerous offers to perform, none of which he accepted. On November 22, 1905, an A. L. De Robert, of De Robert’s Music House in New York, tried to induce Wilhelmj to tour America from October 1906 through April 1907, promising to make it a “most phenomenal success.”15 In 1906, Daniel Mayer, 'Sole Agent for Mischa Elman,' wrote to Wilhelmj: 'Will nothing induce you to accept a few concerts in Germany? Mannheim especially is very desirous of fixing an engagement with you and I have no doubt they would pay about 2000 marks or even more to have the pleasure of securing your services. Kindly let me hear from you on this matter.'16 Later, Mayer sent an equally unsuccessful follow-up.

Similarly limited was Wilhelmj’s documented performance repertoire. This can be seen by examining the voluminous notebooks and programs documenting his entire performing career, held by the Wilhelmj Archive. Wilhelmj’s active repertoire consisted of the major concerti then in fashion, including the Beethoven, Bruch G minor, Mendelssohn, Vieuxtemps’ fifth, and several other concerti, his own reworking of the first movement of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto in his own arrangement, a violin concerto by his composition teacher Joachim Raff, the Bach Chaconne with and without added accompaniment, several other Bach compositions, his own compositions, and a few other then-standard virtuoso works. Nowhere among these is there any composition by Camillo Sivori, neither the concerto nor anything else. Nor is there any mention of Sivori in the decades of correspondence spanning Wilhelmj’s entire career, from touring virtuoso to London violin teacher, arranger, and violin dealer.

Prominent in Wilhelmj’s own performing repertoire were his Wagner transcriptions and paraphrases, including his transcription of the Albumblatt (originally for piano), the Preislied from Die Meistersinger, the song Traume, and paraphrases on Siegfried and Parsifal. These memorialized Wilhelmj’s roles as an intimate member of Wagner’s circle and Wagner’s concertmaster at Bayreuth and the London Wagner Festival, roles which were central to his musical and public identity. Other exceedingly popular arrangements in Wilhelmj’s performance repertoire were taken up by nearly every major violin virtuoso, by amateurs and students, and are played to this day. These include the Bach Air for the G String (extracted from the Bach D major Orchestral Suite and transposed) and the Schubert Ave Maria.  

Wilhelmj gained fame as 'the German Paganini' and was celebrated for his performances of several of Paganini’s compositions and his technical and tonal prowess. However, his actual Paganini performing repertoire was limited to the first movement of Paganini’s First Concerto in Wilhelmj’s own 'modernized' arrangement, the Moses variations, several caprices arranged as an 'Italian Suite,' and perhaps a few other pieces. Notably absent from these is Le Streghe, the 'Witches’ Dance' memorialized on the Mystery Cylinders.

After abandoning public performance, Wilhelmj devoted his time to teaching, dealing in violins, and editing and arranging dozens of compositions for Schott by other composers, the bulk of which he never performed. This continued almost up to his death in 1908. Wilhelmj’s edition of Le Streghe dates from approximately 1905, well over a decade after he abandoned public performance. Le Streghe was never in his active repertoire. Wilhelmj’s edition of Le Streghe is substantially identical to the first edition published in 1851, with added fingerings and bowings but no substantial changes to the music.

The version of Le Streghe on the Mystery Cylinders bears little resemblance to Wilhelmj’s edition. Even the simple theme on which the variations are based differs in key ways from Wilhelmj’s version and from the 1851 first edition. The variations appear in a different order and are frequently interrupted by a strange wailing repetition of the theme, apparently intended to represent the 'old woman’s song' noted on the cylinder boxes. There also are a coda with chromatic octaves and other passages which do not appear in Wilhelmj’s version, or in the 1851 first edition, or in Paganini’s manuscript. This raises the obvious question of why Wilhelmj, a violinist who consistently refused to play publicly, would record a multi-cylinder non-commercial version of a famous virtuous composition which bears scant resemblance to his own edition of the work, and perform it in a manner completely at odds with his reputation as a classicist and Wagner’s concertmaster.

And then there is that curious copperplate inscription on the boxes: 'as played by Paganini.' Wilhelmj was born five years after Paganini’s death. If Wilhelmj was indeed the performer, that wording must be mere hyperbole because Wilhelmj could have no direct knowledge of how Paganini played. Perhaps Wilhelmj was performing in accordance with his own notion of Paganini’s style. Or – perhaps – there is another candidate who might give more substance to that curious phrase.

The Sivori Concerto is even more problematic. There is no evidence in the voluminous and meticulously collected papers in the Wilhelmj Archive that Wilhelmj ever met Sivori, or performed any of Sivori’s works, or had access to Sivori’s manuscripts, let alone made a recording of an unpublished 1841 violin concerto movement which had not been publicly performed in London since 1871 or anywhere else since 1877.

Wilhelmj demonstrated a reverence for his earlier colleagues: the Wilhelmj Archive contains a manuscript Suite for solo violin dedicated and inscribed to Wilhelmj by his teacher, Ferdinand David (1810-1873), a manuscript by Heinrich Wilhelmj Ernst (1812-1865), and a manuscript prelude and fugue by Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881) which Vieuxtemps inscribed to the great Henri Wieniawski (1835-1880). However, the Wilhelmj papers contain no manuscripts or memorabilia from Sivori. None.

Nor does a thorough review of Wilhelmj’s public performances through the digitized newspaper archives created by the British Library, the Bibliotheque national de France and the Library of Congress disclose any performance by Wilhelmj of a Sivori work. Nor does Sivori appear in Wilhelmj’s four decades of correspondence. This raises the question of how Wilhelmj managed to obtain the Sivori concerto manuscript, and why, after famously abandoning public performance entirely, he would learn it and memorialize it on record.

Much of Wilhelmj’s reputation as the German Paganini derived from his version of the first movement of Paganini’s First Violin Concerto. Wilhelmj created a lush, late Romantic 'modernized' orchestral accompaniment and added melodic material to the solo part to comport with the reworked orchestra accompaniment. Nothing in the Wilhelmj Archive, nor in the American or British press suggests that Wilhelmj performed any other version. The version on the Mystery Cylinders is not Wilhelmj’s, and contains none of the obvious changes Wilhelmj made to the solo part and accompaniment. This raises the same question as the Witches’ Dance recording: Why did Wilhelmj record a version other than his own?

Next there is the question of why Wilhelmj, famed intimate of Wagner, did not record any of his own very popular Wagner arrangements with which his name was associated, or why Wilhelmj did not record his most widely played transcriptions, namely the Air on the G String, the Schubert Ave Maria, and the others with which his name is linked to this day. When Joseph Joachim recorded commercially for the Gramophone & Typewriter company, he chose works with which he was intimately associated – two Brahms Hungarian Dances in Joachim’s own arrangements, two movements from the unaccompanied Bach partitas, and Joachim’s own early Romance for violin and piano. Similarly, in 1904, Pablo de Sarasate recorded seven of his own Spanish Dances and his popular transcription of a Chopin Nocturne. In 1912, Eugene Ysaye (1858-1931) recorded virtuoso pieces by his teachers, Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps, and two of his own compositions in addition to one short piece each by Brahms and Fauré. What might have propelled Wilhelmj, long retired from the stage, to make complicated non-commercial recordings of forgotten compositions which were never in his known repertoire – but include nothing for which he was famous – is a question which presently eludes credible explanation.

Presently there is nothing connecting Wilhelmj to the Mystery Cylinders beyond what the donor recalled that he had heard decades ago at the time he retrieved them from the garbage. Unless additional evidence is discovered, there is no basis for attributing the Mystery Cylinders to Wilhelmj, beyond the donor’s vague recollection, Wilhelmj’s presence in London at the turn of the last century and his work for Schott, and we must look elsewhere.

'But if not Wilhelmj, then who?'

 This was the question raised over dinner by the British Library’s curator of classical music recordings upon learning of the difficulties with the Wilhelmj attribution in 2018. If one is confronted with a recording of an unpublished composition, the manuscript of which is lost, but of which there is no documented performance by anyone other than the composer, the answer ought to be obvious – namely the composer. But nothing is obvious about the Mystery Cylinders because, by their nature, they lead the investigator perilously close to a nether region of fraudsters and hoaxters, and into a dark historical murk as yet uncharted.

We begin with the Sivori Concerto: unpublished, manuscript lost, cylinders fished from a refuse bin half a century ago, no information about who oversaw the recordings or who wrote the labels, no known trace of the composition in any institutional archive. Unless we can demonstrate that the piece on the Cylinders is indeed the first movement of Sivori’s Second Violin Concerto, there is no more reason to attribute the Mystery Cylinders to Sivori than there was to Wilhelmj. And if it is not the Sivori Concerto, we are left with no plausible candidate because the universe of possible violinists who could have made the cylinders expands to every technically proficient fiddler active when the cylinders could have been made.          

This might seem like contrived quibbling. But few guilty pleasures are as universally appealing as a well-wrought pretension-puncturing hoax. The internet is awash with fake 'historical' recordings of Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman and others. There is even a film of Franz Liszt himself giving a master class, in a preposterous white wig, surface noise added to what is obviously a modern film doctored to look old. These Barnumesque wonders are too often embraced unquestioned by people who should know better. Antique phonograph hobbyists and collectors frequently shave defective early brown wax cylinders and use them to make their own cylinder recordings on original early phonographs lovingly restored to pristine working order. They have done so for years, simply for the joy of it.

Anything relating to Paganini is, for reasons unknown, particularly inspiring to tricksters. In 1900, the renowned violin maker Giuseppe Fiorini forged a 'daguerreotype' of Paganini himself in an extravagant pose embodying all the clichés regarding Paganini’s appearance, copyrighted it, sold the 'original' to a collector, and allowed it to be included in countless books and magazine articles as genuine, as it sometimes is presented to this day. In 2000, Giuseppe Gaccetta, an elderly Genoese carpenter, gained international attention by claiming a direct pedagogical lineage to Paganini via Sivori and Francesco Sfilio, who Gaccetta claimed was one of Sivori’s last pupils and with whom he claimed to have studied.

Gaccetta, who claimed to have inherited Paganini’s 'secret,' passed off a 1970s commercial LP recording of several Paganini Caprices as his own, insisting that he recorded them as a teenager in 1931 on wax cylinders in Genoa under the direct guidance of Sfilio, the last exponent of the Paganini tradition. The City of Genoa gave him a medal; the President of the Republic of Italy gave him the title of 'Commendatore.' Numerous internationally recognized academics and professionals caught in the whirlwind of wishful thinking fully endorsed Gaccetta, some even after the fraud was discovered.

Had Gaccetta enlisted the help of an antique phonograph hobbyist, simply recorded the 1970s LP through a horn onto brown wax cylinders and rolled them around in some moist dirt, his hoax might yet be undetected. Because we do not know who wrote the labels on the Sivori cylinder boxes and under what circumstances, there is no basis to presume they are true without corroboration. However, if the labels are true, the possibility of a hoax is eliminated because the pool of possible candidates is necessarily limited to those who had access to the solo part of the Sivori manuscript. That pool presently consists of one known person, Sivori himself. However, if the labels are false, then the pool of violinists who, as a logical possibility, could have recorded the cylinders swells to include every fiddler with access to a cylinder phonograph, and we can make no guess about the performer’s identity based on direct evidence.

An implausible coincidence and another treasure snatched from oblivion in the nick of time

And now for our first implausible coincidence. In 2021 a curious manuscript, privately owned, turned up in Italy, a 'Cantabile Moderato' which consists of a twenty bar musical fragment in E major consisting of a solo line with piano accompaniment on two pages of hand-lined paper.17 The inscription reads: 'Alle Signore Sorelle Branca / distintissime dilettanti di canto / questo semplice saggio musicale / dedicava in segno di distinta stima / Camillo Sivori / Vienna 23 aprile 1841.' ('To the Branca Sisters / distinguished amateurs of singing / this simple musical essay / dedicated in token of distinguished esteem / Camillo Sivori / Vienna 23 April 1841.') 

Sivori-pic9a-cantabile moderato pt 1 crop 2
Sivori Cantabile Moderato manuscript, first line
Sivori-Pic10b Cantabile moderato pt 2
Sivori Cantabile Moderato manuscript, last line and signature.

 The fragment resembles a typical musical album leaf of the type once popular among people rich enough to entertain musical celebrities. Sivori does not indicate whether the solo line is intended for voice or violin or some other instrument, or whether it is part of a larger composition. It is, in fact, the second major theme of Sivori’s Second Violin Concerto which he premiered in Vienna three days earlier, notated with careful attention to expression markings and phrasing. We know this because it matches the music on the Mystery Cylinders.

Sivori Concerto Moderato Cantabile

Because Sivori chose not to identify the source of his musical souvenir, it could not possibly be identified now but for the existence of the British Library’s Mystery Cylinders. This highlights the immense importance of these precious musical artifacts.  

But for the Mystery Cylinders, this precious and irreplaceable fragment easily could have been forever lost in a dealer’s or collector’s stock of countless similar nondescript “autograph musical quotations signed” and never been identified for what it is. The only way to identify other fragments of the Concerto, should they turn up, is by being thoroughly familiar with the recordings. On April 30, 1863, Sivori inscribed the opening four bars of his Second Concerto to an admirer and clearly identified it as such, also obtained through blind fortune. It matches the opening four bars on the first of the Sivori Concerto Cylinders.

ivori 2d Concerto opening bars album leaf
Sivori 2d Concerto opening bars album leaf

Sivori Concerto opening

These manuscript items confirm that the composition on the Mystery Cylinders is indeed as described on the labels.

So far, we’ve only gotten through the curtain-raiser, and our inquiry is far from over. Just because Sivori himself is the only person presently known to have performed his Second Violin Concerto and to have access to the solo part of the manuscript doesn’t establish that, in his late 70s, Sivori had the physical capacity to make the recordings, or that he even had access to a phonograph. Unlike in the United States, at the time of Sivori’s death there was no established French or Italian phonograph recording industry, and the devices in Continental Europe were exceedingly rare. Then, we still have the questions of how and why, if the Mystery Cylinders were indeed recorded in Continental Europe, they were deposited in the desk of a London music publishing executive and forgotten. And what about the 'Old Woman’s Song' and the walnut tree and the Witches’ Dance recording that does not match any published edition? There is much still to do.     

Wary readers might begin to wonder where exactly they are being led. Is the author going to prove that, instead of being recorded by a violinist nobody’s ever heard of who died in 1908, the Mystery Cylinders were actually recorded by a violinist nobody’s ever heard of who died in 1894? We have already met Wilhelmj. In our next installment, we will get to know Sivori, a violin virtuoso from an earlier and wilder age when the distinctions between 'classical' and 'popular' were not so sharp, when a Beethoven symphony could occupy the same program as 'Kathleen Mavourneen' or some other popular hit without the least condescension, and when a virtuoso violinist’s acceptable palette of emotional and expressive devices was far broader than today.

By Andrew O. Krastins

© 2023 by Andrew O. Krastins. All rights reserved  


  1. The London newspapers and even the Government Gazette in Madras, India reported on the young prodigy, describing him as a pupil of the legendary Paganini, who was then known outside of Italy only through travelers’ accounts and rumour. See the London  Morning Herald, July 17, 1827, Morning Post, June 7, 8 and 23, 1827, Evening Mail, May 25, 1827, Government Gazette, November 27, 1827, available online through the British Newspaper Archive.  The 1827 program is in the Krastins Sivori Archive.
  2. The closest examples are the astonishing Julius Block cylinders recorded in Russia and Switzerland between 1889 and 1927. These include truncated movements of Arensky’s D minor Piano Trio with Arensky at the piano and dozens of other fascinating recordings. However, all the compositions on the set issued by Marston Records are short enough or cut to fit on a single cylinder. A superb essay by John A. Maltese and Gregor Benko is available on the Marston Records website.
  3. Inzaghi, Luigi (2004) Camillo Sivori: Carteggi del grande violinista e compositore allevio di Paganini; Zecchini Editore, Varese, Italy, p. 15; Menardi Noguera, F. (1991) Camillo Sivori, La vita, I concerti, le musiche; Genoa, Graphos, p. 65.
  4. November 27, 1863, L’Europa, p. 2; See Retro-news/Gallica:
  5. See Andrews, F. (1986); The Phonograph: the British Connection; City of London Phonograph Society; Hope, H. (2021); The Remarkable Life of Colonel George Gouraud: the Man who Brought the Edison Phonograph to Britain, Howard Hope’s pioneering and wide-ranging biography Gouraud.
  6. Flesch, C. (1957), The Memoirs of Carl Flesch, tns. Hans Keller; Rockliff Publishing Corp., London; pp. 289-291.
  7. “Legal Testimony, Adelbert Theodor Edward Wangemann, October 1st, 1903,” Edison Papers Digital Edition, accessed September 27, 2018,
  8. Rutgers Edison Papers, digital edition document accessed on September 25, 2023: TAED
  9. All of the Edison/Remenyi/Fuchs correspondence is easily accessed through the invaluable Edison Papers Digital Edition through Rutgers University at
  10. “Clipping, Boston Journal, April 20th, 1889,” Edison Papers Digital Edition, accessed September 25, 2018, Thomas Alva Edison Digital (TAED)
  11. The Musical Times, June 1, 1889, London; Philip G. Hubert, “The New Talking Machine,” Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1889; Musical Courier, v. 18, no. 19, May 8, 1889, p. 367; Philip G, Hubert, “What the Phonograph will Do for Music and Music Lovers,” Scribner’s Monthly, v. 46 (1893) p. 152-154; Hubert in Century Magazine, May, 1893 p. 153.
  12. A. Theo E. Wangemann, Walter H. Miller, Henry Hagen; First Book of Phonograph Records (1889), p. 2. This invaluable historical document can be accessed through the website of the Association of Recorded Sound Collections at
  13. The facts in this section are drawn from (1) my personal review of materials at the August Wilhelmj Archive in Usingen, Germany; (2) Detmar Dressel’s invaluable but extremely scarce memoir, Up and Down the Scale (1937); the Memoirs of Carl Flesch; early articles in The Strad magazine; and various news accounts in the British and American press.
  14. Nottingham Evening Post, “Concert at the Nottingham German Club,” 10 March 1894, p. 4; (accessed 25 September 2023).
  15. August Wilhelmj Archive (AWA) item W756 A.
  16. AWA, W756a,
  17. Krastins Sivori Archive/Branca liber amicorum (1841).

27 October 2023

Listening to Clara Schumann through her pupils: A pianistic orchestration of tones and rhythms

Franz_Hanfstaengl_-_Clara_Schumann_(1857)Photograph of Clara Schumann by Franz Hanfstaengl 1857

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Yanran Li

            I was fortunate to obtain a fellowship at the British Library last fall. As a pianist, given my interest in Robert Schumann, I was delighted to be able to take advantage of the many unusual recordings of Clara Schumann’s students., a number of them becoming famous in their own right. Mr. Jonathan Summers afforded me access to the rich collection of these audio recordings. He also made available contemporary interviews with musicians, as well as the archive of newspaper reviews of both Clara’s and her students’ concerts in the possession of the British Library.

            As one of the most prominent pianists and educators of the 19th century, Clara Schumann (1819-1896) has made immense contributions to the evolution of modern and contemporary piano performance. Her musical sphere is familiar to a broad range of music practitioners and enthusiasts, creating an entire generation of remarkable pianists. By analysing the surviving musical recordings, one can discern the multifaceted interpretations that these pianists have gained from her teachings. This, in turn, broadens our understanding of how Schumann's piano music can be performed.

            Within a single pedagogical framework, students of the revered educator naturally develop unique styles. Examining diverse interpretations by musicians connected to Schumann’s musical world offers a rich tapestry of insights. This analytical approach aids contemporary musicians in understanding Schumann's piano music by identifying commonalities and differences among Clara Schumann's students, providing profound insights into his compositions.

            Before delving into my in-depth study of performances by several of Clara's students, like many pianists, I was already familiar with some of Clara's teaching principles, particularly her emphasis on touch. Indeed, among numerous concert reviews of her solo and chamber performances that I found in the Newspaper Archive, the most prominent praise often centered on the kaleidoscopic tonal qualities she elicited by her touch on the keys. Additionally, in Nancy Reich's renowned biography of Clara, there are multiple references to the influence of her father, Friedrich Wieck, demanding absolute uniformity in touch, cultivating a fine touch. Clara would use this touch to construct incredibly smooth and nuanced musical phrases.

            As Robert Schumann entered the creative realm of the 1830s, deepening his relationship with Clara, he nearly exclusively envisioned and styled his compositions based on Clara's performance manner. One of the most conspicuous resultant stylistic traits was Schumann's pursuit of orchestral expression on the piano, a direct and passionate tribute to Clara's rich tonal palette. It is the intricate inner voice-leading and counterpoints, which are the most distinctive compositional characteristics in Schumann's piano works, that are closely related to Clara's keeping of her fingers close to the keyboard. From a technical standpoint, this was a consistent feature in both Clara's and her father's techniques. Even when playing demanding passages or powerful chords requiring substantial force, they employed the method to produce sound. According to Clara’s pupils, she often explained the method as playing the instrument through "pressure rather than percussion”, which is a rather unusual concept for a modern pianist like myself.  With access to the Library's resources, I have been able to systematically compile Clara's piano-playing principles, refining them through comparisons of Schumann's piano solo recordings by pianists directly connected to her, resulting in the following insights.

            Edith Heymann (1872–1960), an English pianist who visited Clara Schumann's home in Frankfurt in 1894, provided valuable insights into Clara's approach to piano touch. According to Heymann, Clara was known for her soft, warm touch, particularly in her mastery of intertwining melodies, exhibiting a super legato touch without exaggerating tone or tempo, and she rarely used the pedals except for chords. Clara's technique emphasized sensitive fingers, resulting in a fine tone, and phrasing through subtle tone gradations. Many biographies of Clara highlight her dedication to achieving an even touch and cultivating a refined sense of the use of soft pedal and tone quality in her teaching.

            However, as I explored reminiscences of Clara by pianists like Fanny Davies, Adelina de Lara, and Carl Friedberg, it became evident that Clara Schumann's emphasis on touch had a deeper purpose – transforming the piano into a fully symphonic instrument. Adelina de Lara (1872-1961), in her Farewell Lecture and concert at Wigmore Hall in 1956, recalled Clara Schumann's insistence on treating piano solo works as if they were orchestral compositions. Clara believed that, just like in an orchestra, every minute phrase in piano music could be seen as a separate instrument. Clara encouraged her students to develop "visions" of the music, granting individual life to each musical element within a piece and imagining orchestral effects to enhance the piano's timbre.

            In this context, Clara's requirements for pressing the keys (rather than striking them), which resulted in consistent touch and flawless legato, align with the requirements for flexible and relaxed arm and wrist movements. This approach facilitated seamless coordination between the pianist's key touch and their sensitivity to sound nuances. Such training undoubtedly laid the foundation for executing and distinguishing more intricate and nuanced tonal qualities with pianists’ fingers.

            Not only a solid foundation for the execution of a diverse tone quality is essential, but the idea of timing in piano playing is also crucial to ensure the accomplishment of an orchestral-sounding piano which was mutually desired and pursued by Clara and Robert Schumann. Clara, as documented in the Pearl Collection of her pupils and in Adelina's interviews, emphasized the rejection of mechanical or rushed playing.  Whenever the student was rushing through transitional segments, Madame Schumann would point out agitatedly, ‘No Passages!’, from the other side of the room. Viewing musical elements as individual instruments, each with an irreplaceable role, Clara expected her students to master timing – both the overall tempo selection and the precise timing of each musical element's entrance. Upon examining recordings by Clara Schumann's students, I observed distinct timing styles that breathe vitality and a full orchestral dynamic quality into the piano. Subsequent passages will elaborate on these observations.

            One of the most influential pupils of Clara Schumann, Fanny Davies (1861-1934), has demonstrated a most notable rhythmic interpretation through the way she handled the pronounced independence of the middle voices and her creative phrasings. An exemplary instance can be found in her 1930 recording of Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze. Davies's interpretation resonates with the distinctive style of Robert Schumann and aligns with the principles emphasized in Clara Schumann's teaching. In this recording, during the first ritardando, where the melodic line leans on an E flat major chord borrowed from the parallel minor key, G minor, Davies pays special attention to the concluding note, F sharp. She sustains it with a string-instrument-like quality while complementing the fermata effect with a series of arpeggio chords in the left hand. Subsequently, she continues the sustained left-hand note, F natural, from the preceding F sharp, thus weaving a melodic line that traversed F sharp – F natural – E – D – C – E – D – B. This intricate approach intertwined the upper-voice melodic line with the middle voice, infusing it with vibrant tonal colours, especially as it progressed into the "Im Tempo" section.

Fig.1_Davies no.1

Fig.1 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 01 Lebhaft: Lively (Vivace), G major, Florestan and Eusebius, mm. 16-21

Davidsbundlertanze 01 Lebhaft

            Another instance can be found in the second piece, “Innig”, from the same work. Schumann's notation suggests a rhythmic pattern ambiguously involving a parallel existence of three and two groupings per measure. Davies enhances the audibility of the middle voice, G, by slurring the second and third eighth notes, E - G, in each measure. Consequently, not only does the small slur of E - G become an independent musical unit, adding another viola-like tonal layer to the sonority, but it also serves as a complement to the high-register melodic line, C sharp - G.

Fig.2_Davies no.2

Fig.2 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 02 Innig: Intimately (Con intimo sentimento), B minor, Eusebius, mm.1-6

Davidsbundlertanze 02 Innig

            In the final movement of the first section of Davidsbündlertänze, No. 9, “Lebhaft," Davies demonstrates another unexpected phrasing technique. This section comprises two groups of four measures forming an eight-measure long phrase. When the low bass melody, outlined by octave intervals in the left hand, first appears in measures five to eight, Davies not only allows the low B flat to slightly precede the right-hand melody, disrupting the straightforward 3/4 rhythm established in the first four measures but also elongates the rhythmic gap between G – D – B in measure six. This guides the listener's ear to the left-hand melody and makes them momentarily forget that it's a repetition. As the music enters a new phrase, she similarly hastens the left-hand F sharp in measure twelve, ensuring a seamless transition of the melodic line to the left hand. The combined effect of tonal variation and the timing of different layers' appearances illustrates one of the key technical approaches in revealing the tonal structural complexity in Schumann's piano compositions.

Fig.3_Davies no.9-1

Fig.3 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 09 Lebhaft: Lively (Vivace) (2nd edition), C major, Florestan, mm.1-8

Fig.4_Davies no.9-2

Fig.4 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 09 Lebhaft: Lively (Vivace) (2nd edition), C major, Florestan, mm.12-14

Download Davidsbundlertanze 09 Lebhaft

            Fanny Davies' unexpected phrasing in her performances often integrates precise timing of the lower bass notes, creating an independent yet cohesive effect in the low registers, which Clara Schumann highly valued. What is notable in her performance is her interpretation of Schumann’s rhythmic notation, which incorporates characteristic variations within an unchanging rhythmic pattern.

            The nuances of voice layering and timing intricacies shine through in Adelina de Lara's performances, particularly in her rendition of Schumann's polyrhythm. These instances are abundant in her playing, with the most representative example being her 1951 recording of the second movement, "Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch," from Kreisleriana. In this passage, measures cease to adhere to a rhythmically uniform structure; instead, they suggest opportunities for breath and expression. De Lara's interpretation allows for a freer, more flowing sense of rhythm. Both the left and right-hand melodies maintain relatively independent rhythms, and the appearance of triplets and sixteenth notes in the bass melody after the double bar carries an improvisational quality, unburdened by rigid rhythmic divisions. De Lara's approach to ornaments is equally intriguing. These inherently rhythmically complex elements offer a broader canvas for Schumann's polyrhythm. De Lara's fingertips evoke a sensation akin to playing the cello, with the resonance produced by the bow's friction on the strings and subtle rhythmic delays contributing to the overall experience.

Jacob_Hilsdorf_-_Carl_FriedbergCarl Friedburg

            The flexibility of tempo serves as a potent expressive tool in Carl Friedberg's musical interpretations. Friedberg (1872–1955), who met Clara Schumann and maintained a close connection with Brahms, has left a limited body of recorded material. However, Mr. Allan Evans compiled and published a set of two CDs about Brahms in 2015, which includes precious recordings of Friedberg's performances. This album even features a remarkable performance segment of Brahms' Piano Trio in C minor by the Trio of New York in 1939. Among others, one of the most impressive recordings is a brief excerpt on Disc 2, less than two minutes long, featuring Friedberg's rendition of Schumann's Arabeske.

            In Minore 1, in e minor, of Arabeske, Friedberg demonstrates a flexible sense of rhythm. This enables him to delineate layers within what initially appears to be a straightforward eighth-note melody. First, there's the slightly impulsive melodic line of B – C – B – F sharp – G. Then, he lingers briefly on the highest note of the melody, transforming the descending scale in the second measure of every two measures into an inner voice that enriches the upper-register melody’s colour. His musical consideration also makes the arrangement of every three harmonies in a small phrase more musically sensible and natural to the listener's ear.

Fig.5_ArabeskeFig.5 Arabeske op.18, mm.40-48

Arabeske Friedberg

            Having written above, a significant moment during the entire fellowship experience was the discovery of recordings by Australian pianist Elsie Hall (1877-1976). Her farewell concert at the age of 90 not only showcased the highly infectious musical expression and extraordinary technical prowess of a mature and eminent pianist but also embodied the soul of the Schumann era and a unique personal touch. Originally from Australia, Elsie Hall relocated to Germany at the age of 11 to pursue her piano studies. Following a performance by the young Elsie in England, Fanny Davies encouraged her to play for Clara Schumann. In 1896, Elsie had the opportunity to perform for Clara Schumann. This encounter did not directly propel Elsie's performing career, and they did not show much mutual interest - Clara's remark, as later recalled by Hall in interviews, was that she “…is much too delicate ever to be a concert player…hasn’t got the particular stamina for it.” Though the meeting with Madame Schumann was not entirely harmonious, the Classical musical world of the late 19th century definitely left an indelible mark on Elsie Hall's musical journey. Not only did she receive patronage from Marie Benecke, Felix Mendelssohn's eldest daughter, Elsie Hall also once mentioned that she gained the most musical inspiration and advice from Joseph Joachim, the Hungarian violinist, an intimate friend, and collaborator of Clara and Brahms. Hall's ability to seamlessly combine the nuances of phrasing, timing, and an extensive palette of tonal colours resulted in a continuous and captivating musical narrative. Her musical style perfectly aligned with Clara Schumann's emphasis on orchestral quality and her insistence on “no passages.”

            Even though Elsie publicly stated (multiple times on various occasions) that she “did not like the Schumann coterie at all”, during her farewell concert, she gave Schumann's Fantasie, op. 17 a prominent place. She performed the first and third movements of the piece. The performance was grand and impactful, exuding orchestral tonal qualities and volume. The separate treatment of the left-hand bass and right-hand melody, both in terms of tone and rhythm, maintains their independence while interweaving with each other, a characteristic performance style emblematic of the 19th-century era. Furthermore, Elsie Hall's meticulous handling of internal layers ensures that not a single note goes unnoticed. For instance, in the first movement, when “Adagio” transitions back to “Im Tempo”, falling into a C major chord, she carefully leads dynamics from piano to fortissimo over six measures, assigning each note of every chord a distinct position. Her attention to detail is equally evident in the opening passage of the third movement with chromatic signs. Hall’s interpretation does not overly indulge in any of the chromatic signs, neither rhythmically nor sonorously, yet she thoughtfully incorporates every harmonic colour outside of C major, capturing the audience's attention. The most sublime musical treatment is in the ritardando of the third movement. Her ritardando is executed with an absolute legato while preserving the individuality of inner and outer voices. The rhythmic complexities, such as two against three, presented her with an excellent opportunity to demonstrate her mastery of polyrhythm.


Fig.6 Fantasie op.17, mm. 272-278

Elsie Hall Schumann Fantasie extract

            Concluding this discussion with admiration for Elsie Hall is a deliberate decision. My immense gratitude to Mr. Summers and the British Library for providing this enlightening and educational opportunity. This research journey, initiated with profound respect and curiosity for Clara Schumann, has illuminated diverse facets of the 19th-century classical music universe. The Geist, or spirit, embedded in this music continues to inspire generations, a testament to Clara Schumann's steadfast training methods, the harmonious collaboration of musicians from varied backgrounds, and the relentless pursuit of artistic excellence worldwide. And all these precious spiritual experiences and artistic insights are transmitted vividly and directly to our ears through precious historical recordings, through the medium of sound, almost two hundred years later, continuing to fascinate musicians, inspiring us to explore tradition and the progressive evolution of musical expression.

22 March 2023

Two Rachmaninoff Discoveries - Two Knights in 1937

Sergei RachmaninoffSergei Rachmaninoff (Bain News Service, publisher - Library of Congress)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

I recently acquired for the British Library Sound Archive an important collection of discs professionally recorded from radio broadcasts during the 1930s.  The donor, Mike Sell, had known Harold Vincent Marrot in the 1950s.  Marrot had a passion for Russian music and the means to have a number of broadcasts professionally recorded onto disc for his own personal listening pleasure.  Among these are broadcasts of two important works by the great Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff who was born 150 years ago this year.

Rachmaninoff left Russia in 1917 and lived in Europe and the United States for the remainder of his life.  In the mid-1930s he built a house, Villa Senar, on the shores of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, and it was here in 1935 and 1936 that he wrote his Third Symphony.  The work was first performed by Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) and the Philadelphia Orchestra on 6th November 1936 but Europe had to wait a year before it was heard for the first time there, in London, on 18th November 1937 at the Queen’s Hall.  This premiere was given by Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and fortunately, this was one of the broadcasts recorded by Mr Marrot.  How wonderful to be able to hear this important premiere, recorded more than 85 years ago! 

Disc labelDisc label of Symphony No. 3

Beecham repeated the symphony in Manchester with the Hallé Orchestra the following month, but apparently after that, he never performed the work again due to its lukewarm reception by both critics and audience.  Indeed, some critics were unnecessarily harsh in their reviews of the work – ‘S. F.’ in the Daily Herald heading his review ‘Music for Tea-Shops’ claimed that ‘its melancholy minor key….its faint aroma of incense, its tea-shop sentiment, and its mildly alarming melodrama all mark the composer as living in the past.’  The Times correspondent made a far more intelligent criticism:

The surprise at this procedure is due to the fact that Rachmaninoff’s invention has always lain in the direction of lyrical melody and picturesque orchestral colour, and not in the creation of the kind of pregnant themes that develop into the kind of symphonic texture he has here essayed.

With Rachmaninoff writing in a melodic and emotional style at odds with the then current trends in music, he was a sitting target for biased critics who saw him as out dated and old fashioned.  The notorious entry in the 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians states, ‘The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favour.’  How wrong critics can be, but how unfortunate that they also try to denigrate the work of an artist in this way, because as we know, 150 years after his birth, Rachmaninoff’s music is more popular than ever.  If the Third Symphony is not as familiar to many as his Second or Third Piano Concertos, or the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, it is because it is played less often.  The composer himself believed strongly in the worth of this composition and conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in a commercial recording of it for Victor in 1939.  In a letter to Vladimir Wilshaw the composer wrote:

It was played in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc.  At the first two performances I was present.  It was played wonderfully.  Its reception by both the public and critics was sour.  One review sticks painfully in my mind: that I didn't have a Third Symphony in me anymore.  Personally, I am firmly convinced that this is a good work.  But—sometimes composers are mistaken too! Be that as it may, I am holding to my opinion so far.

Here is the opening of the Symphony.

Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 3 1st mov extract

Although Beecham did not perform the work again,  it was taken up by Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944) who heard the London premiere and wrote to the composer:

Just a few lines to tell you we dashed from Southport to London last Thursday and arrived at Queen's Hall at 9:30 pm just in time to hear your splendid 3rd Symphony - it scored a real success - what a lovely work it is - I thought the orchestra gave a fine performance of it.  I am playing it twice after Christmas, at a Liverpool Philharmonic Concert on March 22nd and a studio concert on April 3rd.  If there is any advice you can offer me as regards your feeling or readings, of the Symphony, please do so and I shall be most grateful.....

Rachmaninoff attended the March rehearsal and performance of the Symphony by his friend.  Later Wood wrote to the composer:

It was so kind of you to come and you were so helpful and sympathetic.  I predict that if I keep on playing this symphony for a year or two (which I fully intend to do), it will find a place in the repertoire of every conductor.

Rachmaninoff & Henry Wood at the Royal Albert Hall 1938Henry Wood and Rachmaninoff at the Royal Albert Hall 1938 (Associated Press)

Wood may have been optimistic about the Symphony and its promotion by other conductors, but he seems not to have broadcast it again.  However, Sir Henry was also connected with another important work by Rachmaninoff, The Bells.

Rachmaninoff wrote his choral symphony The Bells in 1913.  Konstantin Balmont published a Russian version of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem which Rachmaninoff set to music.  The four movements are Silver Sleigh bells, Mellow Wedding bells, Loud Alarm bells and Mournful Iron bells.  The work is dedicated to the great Dutch conductor Willelm Mengelberg and his Concertgebouw Orchestra and again, the US premiere was given by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra on 6th February 1920. 

The British premiere was due take place at the 1914 Sheffield Festival but the First World War prevented this and it was not until 1921 that Sir Henry Wood and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus gave the premiere on 15th March.  Fifteen years later, at the committee’s invitation, Rachmaninoff participated in the Sheffield Festival of October 1936 where Wood had suggested the composer conduct a performance of The Bells.  Rachmaninoff declined as he was due to play his Second Piano Concerto in the same concert; therefore Wood conducted The Bells himself on 21st October where a new, rewritten version of the third movement was heard for the first time.  Sir Henry commented on this in the programme notes:

The voice parts of this movement were entirely rewritten for the Sheffield Festival last October, 1936, and published separately, as the composer told me he found the choral writing too complicated, that it did not make the effect he intended.  Certainly at Liverpool in 1921, I had the utmost difficulty in getting the chorus to keep up the speed and maintain any clarity, amongst the great mass of chromatic passages, and certainly vocal power was out of the question, and I feel the composer did very wisely in re-writing this section of the work.  As it now stands, the chorus writing is splendidly distinctive, full of colour, and easily ‘gets over’ the brilliant orchestral texture.

The composer expressed dissatisfaction with the acoustics of Sheffield City Hall, ‘It is the deadest hall I have ever been in,’ was his view to which Wood added that he was glad to have his opinion substantiated by such an eminent authority.

The following February Sir Henry performed the work at the Queen’s Hall and Mr Marrot had the broadcast recorded. 

Rachmaninoff The Bells 1st mov extract

Listen, hear the silver bells!

Silver bells!

Hear the sledges with the bells,

How they charm our weary senses with a sweetness that compels,

In the ringing and the singing that of deep oblivion tells.

Hear them calling, calling, calling,

Rippling sounds of laughter, falling

On the icy midnight air;

And a promise they declare,

That beyond illusions cumber,

Generations past all number,

Waits an universal slumber – deep and sweet past all compare.

Disc labelDisc label of The Bells

This is a tremendous performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and particularly the 400 strong Philharmonic Choir coached by Charles Kennedy Scott (father of aviator and RAF heavy-weight boxing champion C. W. A. Scott).  Here is an extract from the third movement, Loud Alarm bells which gives an idea of the power and drama one must have felt at the performance, particularly when the choir sings ‘I shall soon’.  This work is in better recorded sound than the Symphony; the BBC had one microphone suspended above and to the left of the head of the conductor in the Queen’s Hall and it is amazing to hear not only what it picked up, but also the high quality and wide frequency range of the disc cutting equipment.

Rachmaninoff The Bells 3rd mov extract

Hear them, hear the brazen bells,

Hear the loud alarum bells!

In their sobbing, in their throbbing what a tale of horror dwells!

How beseeching sounds their cry

‘Neath the naked midnight sky,

Through the darkness wildly pleading

In affright,

Now approaching, now receding

Rings their message through the night.

And so fierce is their dismay

And the terror they portray,

That the brazen domes are riven, and their tongues can only speak

In a tuneless jangling, wrangling as they shriek, and shriek, and shriek,

Till their frantic supplication

To the ruthless conflagration

Grows discordant, faint and weak.

But the fire sweeps on unheeding,

And in vein is all their pleading

With the flames!

From each window, roof and spire,

Leaping higher, higher, higher

Every lambent tongue proclaims:

I shall soon.

Leaping higher, still aspire, till I reach the crescent moon;

Else I die

Radio Times listing 10 February 1937Radio Times 10th February 1937

In this performance Isobel Baillie (1895-1983) is the soprano soloist, Parry Jones (1891-1963) the tenor and, as a last minute substitute, Roy Henderson (1899-2000) sang the baritone role replacing Harold Williams (who was listed in the Radio Times).  The performance is sung in an English translation by Fanny S. Copeland of Balmont’s Russian version.

The work ends with Mournful Iron bells and the chance for us to hear baritone Roy Henderson followed by the wonderful orchestral coda in the major key.

Rachmaninoff The Bells conclusion

While those iron bells, unfeeling,

Through the void repeat the doom:

There is neither rest nor respite, save the quiet of the tomb!

The programme had commenced with the Italian Symphony of Mendelssohn followed by pianist Arthur Rubinstein as soloist in the Piano Concerto by John Ireland and the Variations Symphoniques by Franck, another change from the advertised programme of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  The Bells ended the programme and apparently was not heard again in the UK until the late 1960s.

These two performances of Rachmaninoff’s music are by people associated with the birth of these works and as such are of great historical importance, particularly from a performance perspective.  Both recordings will be issued complete on CD by Biddulph Recordings in May.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

06 March 2023

Recording of the week: August Wilhelmj performing Paganini's Concerto No. 1, Op. 6

This week’s post comes from Tom Miles, Metadata Coordinator for Europeana Sounds.

August Wilhelmj (1845-1908) was a violinist and teacher. He was born in Usingen, Germany. Referred to by Liszt as ‘the future Paganini’, he gained a reputation as a child prodigy and was at the height of his career in the second half of the 19th century. He was a friend of Wagner and led the violins at the première of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in Bayreuth, 1876. Later, in 1894, he became Professor of Violin at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He died in London in 1908.

Photograph of the violinist August Wilhelmj in 1870

Image credit: Wien Museum, via Europeana / CC0.

This week’s recording is of Wilhelmj performing Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 6 (arranged for violin and piano) (British Library reference: C1210/1-4). The recording is from a series of brown wax cylinders privately made in the 1890s or early 1900s. The first cylinder is missing, but the remaining four contain most of the first movement of the work, beginning part-way through. The concerto is in D major, but there are some substantial pitch fluctuations in playback:

Listen to Paganini's Concerto No. 1 Op. 6 mov. 1 part 1

Listen to Paganini's Concerto No. 1 Op. 6 mov. 1 part 2

Listen to Paganini's Concerto No. 1 Op. 6 mov. 1 part 3

Listen to Paganini's Concerto No. 1 Op. 6 mov. 1 part 4

Although there is no mention of Wilhelmj on the cylinders themselves, all the evidence points to the violinist being him. The cylinders were in the possession of Charles Volkert, director of the London branch of Schott, which was Wilhelmj’s publisher, and Wilhelmj would have been working in London at the time. Volkert died in 1934. During an office clear-out in the 1960s, the cylinders – labelled ‘thought to be by Wilhelmj’ – were rescued and later donated to the British Library.

Europeana has more material about August Wilhelmj from other cultural heritage institutions, including this letter from Wilhelmj in 1889, stating that the addressee's wish is his command and Miss Wiborg will sing in his concert:

Letter from Wilhelmj in 1889 to unknown addressee

Image credit: Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, via Europeana / CC BY-NC-SA.

Wilhelmj played a 1725 Stradivarius violin throughout his working life. This violin, the ‘Wilhelmj’, is now owned by the Nippon Music Foundation, on loan to the violinist Baiba Skride. You can see it and read more about it here:

24 February 2023

Jelly d’Arányi - The recorded legacy and career of a virtuoso violinist in the roaring twenties

Portrait of d'Aranyi in 1926Jelly d'Aranyi in 1926 (The Strad 37: no.437, 1926 supplement. BL collections)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Victoria Bernath, PhD, professional violist, composer, and researcher


Jelly d’Arányi (1893-1966) was a British-Hungarian violinist, celebrated as a leading artist in 1920s Britain. This was a decade in which British violin playing underwent profound development, bolstered by crucial technological advancements in the recording industry. With a recording legacy of 36 sides (78rpm) for British record label Aeolian-Vocalion (18 sides as a soloist, and 18 sides as a duettist with her sister, Adila Fachiri), and a further 14 sides with prestigious label U.S. Columbia, d’Arányi was a key contributor to the expressive developments of her time, and hailed as ‘one of the greatest living violinists…here and on the Continent’.1  However, her recordings and career during this decade (her most prolific period as a performer) have been largely overlooked by academia, presenting a fertile legacy to re-evaluate.2  This is the first critical evaluation which encompasses her musical life, published writings and recorded catalogue during the twenties, and seeks to restore Jelly d’Arányi to her rightful position amongst the greatest violinists of her day.

Early Years: musical foundations and first years in Britain

Born on 30 May 1893 in Budapest (Hungary), Jelly Eva Arányi de Hunyadvár was the youngest daughter of Budapest’s Chief of Police Taksony Hunyadvár Arányi (1858-1930), and homemaker Adrienne Nievarovich de Ligenza (1864-1923). Her father’s family belonged to nobility and her paternal grandaunt was married to violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), one of the 19th century’s most celebrated artists. However, the family fortune had long disappeared and d’Arányi grew up in a strict household with few amenities.3 Furnished with an entrance scholarship, d'Arányi began her formative music education at the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music in 1901. She first studied preparatory violin lessons with Wilhelm Grünfeld (concert master of the Budapest Opera, 1855-1921) and then graduated to the advanced class of violinist Jenő Hubay (1858-1937), with whom she studied for 5 years.4 Hubay’s pedagogical method fused the principles of two prominent schools of violin playing – the stylistic refinement of the German school and the virtuosic brilliance of the Franco-Belgian school – equipping d’Arányi with both the tools of a thinking musician and the technical abilities of a virtuoso.5

Following her music studies, d’Arányi, her mother and two older sisters made their first visit to Britain in 1908. It was a hostile time for foreigners, hopeful asylum-seekers, and migrants, alike.6 Luckily, d’Arányi and her family had letters of introduction from a family friend, the musicologist and pianist Donald Tovey (1875-1940), and their cousin Gertrude Joachim Russell (1865-1942). This was further bolstered by their respected family connections to violinist Joachim, recently deceased but whose legacy was still very much alive and respected by the British concert-going public. In d’Arányi’s own words, ‘being Joachim’s great-nieces drew the attention of interested people and made our first success more easily won than in the case of equally gifted but less fortunately placed musicians’.7 Three initial concert engagements were scheduled in Haslemere for the end of February 1909.8 A very successful reception saw the von Arányis (as they were first known in Britain) extend their initial visit from one to four months, and they embarked on a hectic performance itinerary across the country, performing programmes which showcased their abilities as soloists, and as sister duettists. The d’Arányi sisters were loved by British society, a crucial endorsement in launching and sustaining an artist’s career (regardless of nationality). Appreciated for their talent and wit, the sisters were, ‘in love with everyone and everyone with them’.9

Solo works performed by Jelly d’Arányi in her first visit to Britain included selections from Joachim’s arrangements of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. Her great uncle’s arrangements had, by then, assumed canonical status in the recital repertoires of violinists, and these popular virtuosic recital pieces featured in many early 78rpm recordings, including those made by the first generation of recorded violinists (e.g., Joachim and Ysaÿe). At her debut in Haslemere, ‘Miss Jelly von Arányi’s interpretations…were remarkable for verve and emotional warmth, especially for such a youthful player’.  She recorded selections from this set of Hungarian dances throughout her professional career,10 and the works became synonymous with her expressive style of performing, often erroneously associated with Romani performing traditions. Hungarian-born d’Arányi never studied Romani violin performance methods: however, for her entire performance career d’Arányi was frequently associated with prejudiced notions of Romani playing, due to her physical appearance and musical interpretations. She felt strongly about national stereotypes, and the resultant bias:

 I remember having been offered much for playing nothing but Hungarian music through whole recitals […]. The point I want to make here is it does not follow that because a Spaniard, for example, plays Spanish music better than a Frenchman, he therefore plays Spanish music better than, say, Bach11

In the following excerpt from Hungarian Dance No.8, d’Arányi is not afraid to let heightened musical expression shine in her performance. D’Arányi’s fingerings are carefully chosen to enable her interpretation: she balances her choice of glissandi (inaudible slides used for technical facility) with portamenti (deliberate and audible slides for expressive or tonal effect). She further enhances her expressive interpretation (and the distinctive tempi changes of the dance’s verbunkos form) by exaggerating respective rhythmic values, a rubato technique achieved by rhythmic adjustment (as heard between 1’25”-1’38”). Through this moderate rhythmic distortion, the listener experiences the mercurial aspects of Hungarian Roma music.

01 Brahms Joachim Hungarian Dance No. 8 extract

Portrait of Aranyi and Fachiri in 1912Adila and Jelly d'Aranyi in 1912 (The Strad 23, no. 268 (1912) supplement. BL collections)

The Enemy Alien: Formative years in Britain

Immediately prior to the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, the von Arányis permanently relocated to England, a spur-of-the-moment decision.12 Britain declared war upon Germany on 4 August 1914, and this marked the beginning of a difficult period of discrimination for the von Arányis. Due to the political alliance of Germany with the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, Germanophobia affected not only the German community in Britain but any other perceived enemies of state, including Hungarian nationals.13 The livelihoods of many Hungarian and Austrian musicians living in Britain were affected, including the von Arányis.  Labelled as enemy aliens, the von Arányis were required to report regularly to the police. 14 With few performance opportunities (due to work restrictions facing alien enemies), the family experienced severe financial difficulties. To make ends meet, Adila taught any willing pupil privately, and the family permanently Gallicised their surname to d’Arányi, in the hope of being associated with their mother’s partial French heritage. The family relied on the support of pacifist or sympathetic friends for living arrangements (e.g., Lady Ottoline Morrell) and the occasional drawing room concert for income. A turn of events saw both of d’Arányi’s older sisters marry in 191515 which provided the newly espoused a degree of stability. However, d’Arányi and her mother were still somewhat adrift: having no fixed address, they vacillated between accommodation with friends in Garsington and a rented flat in Beaufort Gardens, Chelsea. 

Despite prejudice and poverty, d’Arányi continued to secure occasional chamber concert engagements and school recitals with sympathetic hosts.  In November 1914, she formed a duo partnership with pianist Fanny Davies (1861-1934), and shortly thereafter a piano trio with Davies (piano) and Portuguese cellist, Guillermina Suggia (1885-1950). She also performed in rare, one-off, violin-piano recitals with family friends such as Donald Tovey or Frederick S. Kelly (whom she first met in 1909). One such example includes a concert given by Kelly at Wigmore Hall (then known as the Bechstein Hall) on 11 March 1914.16 Along with solo piano repertoire by Mendelssohn, the programme featured d’Arányi (violin) and Kelly (piano) performing Brahms’ Violin Sonata No.1 in G Major Op. 78.17 It was through her friendship with Kelly that d’Arányi received one of her first dedicated works: Kelly’s Sonata in G Major for violin and piano. She never forgot Kelly’s kindness during those lean years and recorded her own arrangement of an earlier Kelly composition, Jig, for Vocalion in 1924. These vital chamber music relationships helped d’Arányi make ends meet during the war and she began to build her profile as a notable solo talent, ready to take to Britain’s great concert halls.

The following sound clip is from d’Arányi’s 1924 recording of Kelly’s Jig. Originally the fifth movement from Kelly’s Serenade in E minor for chamber ensemble: d’Aranyi arranged the jig for violin and piano in 1914, with Kelly’s blessing.18 In this simple ‘ear tickler’19 we hear d’Arányi playing in a similarly uncomplicated manner. It is d’Arányi’s choice of bowing and bow stroke which truly evoke the dance’s jovial character: she edited the original legato writing for flute by removing slurred notes and playing short spiccato strokes on most separate quavers (0’09”-0’16”). The overall effect is a light-hearted and characterful dance movement.

02 Kelly Serenade extract

Double Act: Rising soloist and sister duettist

D’Arányi’s career took off after the Great War with an explosion of high-profile, solo concerted work in London, throughout Britain and continental Europe.  In 1919 she made her first recordings, three test pressings for the Gramophone Company (now thought to be lost), which included one of the Brahms-Joachim Hungarian Dances (unnamed).20 For unknown reasons, her tests never materialised into a contract with Gramophone, and it wasn’t until d’Arányi signed with Vocalion in 1923 that she began recording in earnest. Subsequent to her recording tests, d’Arányi premiered many new works for the violin, including the first British performance of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello (in 1922, at Ravel’s request),21 Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and two new sonatas written for her by family friend, Béla Bartók (in 1922 & 1923).22 As her ‘reputation among musical folk advance[ed] by leaps and bounds’,23 evidence from concert programmes and reviews (c.1919-1923) suggests that d’Arányi’s budding career featured mostly solo work, and only a few duet performances in partnership with her sister Fachiri (a stark contrast to their early years on the British concert circuit). With her first major recording on the horizon, it seemed as if nothing could diminish d’Arányi’s meteoric rise. Then tragedy struck on 10 June 1923: d’Arányi’s beloved mother died from cancer.

In the face of adversity, d’Arányi’s relationship with her eldest sister Fachiri proved to be a lifeline, both professionally and personally. Following her mother’s death, d’Arányi ceased performing in public. Three months later, d’Arányi resumed some professional commitments in September 1923, which included her first release for Vocalion: two sides (12-inch, 78rpm records) containing Paganini’s Caprice No.24 and the Minuet from Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major K. 334, as accompanied by Ethel Hobday (piano). However, it wasn’t until 17 October 1923 that d’Arányi resumed performing in public. She and her sister mutually chose to appear together as duettists for a Proms concert performing Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043. From this point onwards, the frequency of their duet performances together increased, and in 1926 d’Arányi officially moved in with her sister, Fachiri, and her husband, lawyer and amateur cellist, Alexandre Fachiri. The sisters’ closeness was no surprise to the British public: the sisters’ first steps into the upper echelons of British concert life had been as sister duettists, both in live concert and in the press.24 Their close bond, domestic rehearsing space, and living arrangements were captured in a photo essay by The Sketch in 1926.25 Their subsequent concert appearances as duettists were hugely popular, and critically acclaimed: ‘no two violinists in the world could be more perfect when playing together’;27 they ‘accomplis[h] the art of playing duets with complete sympathy and understanding;’28 their ensemble ‘seems to us to be one of the most perfect things in contemporary music’.29  Their calling card became Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043, and together these ‘Valkyries of the violin’26 recorded extensively as duettists for Vocalion, releasing 18 sides (78rpm) of violin duet repertoire, between 1923-1926. Their dedication as a duet ensemble, and recorded output for Vocalion, was a rarity not matched by any other pairing of violinists in 1920s London.

Violin duets, particularly featuring two female performers, were not commonly performed in concert when the d’Arányi sisters made their debut in 1909, nor in the 1920s when they recorded as duettists for Vocalion. In Britain ‘there [had] never been a large number of violinists who devoted themselves to playing duets for two violins in public’30 although we do have evidence of female violin duettists in Britain prior to the d’Arányi sisters.31 Violin duets were primarily used as teaching aids for the instruction of violin technique. As such, there was limited repertoire available: however, the d’Arányi sisters were not dissuaded. Initially, they performed a limited set of works from the Baroque and Classical periods, including Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043, an arrangement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Harpsichords BWV 1060R, and Spohr’s Duo for Two Violins in D Major Op. 67. As their popularity grew, the d'Arányi sisters began to programme less well-known examples from the repertoire (incl. the British premiere of Darius Milhaud’s Sonata for Two Violins and Piano Op. 15). Furthermore, they inspired new violin duets from British composers including Arthur Somervell’s 2 Conversations about Bach, Norman Fraser’s Chilean dance, Cueca for Two Violins and Piano, and Gustav Holst’s Concerto for Two Violins Op. 49. Their dedication to the genre was unsurpassable in the 1920s, and their efforts popularised violin duets (most notably Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043) into the mainstream repertoire of other well-respected soloists, including their contemporaries David Oistrakh and Jascha Heifetz, and rising stars Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, and Erica Morini, who all made violin duet recordings in subsequent years.

In this recorded excerpt, a lesser-known example from the sisters’ recorded duet catalogue,32 we hear d’Arányi and Fachiri performing together as a cohesive unit. Rhythmically, their opening note (the anacrusis) is not quite together: however, they subsequently play almost as one. Their intonation is perfectly in tune (especially noted in the unison passages: e.g., 0’00”-0’11”), and their use of articulation is almost uniform (e.g., 0’11”-0’20”).

03 Bach Concerto for two keyboards 3rd movement extract

Aranyi sisters at home 1928The Sketch, July 1928, page 162. BL collections

The greatest woman violinist: Promoting new music

Jelly d’Arányi’s rise to fame as a soloist after the Great War is a testament to the strength and sensitivity of her musical personality, and her dedication to promoting new music. Prior research only serves to account for nine new works written for d’Arányi (two of which were co-dedicated to other artists). This includes Bartok’s Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2, Ravel’s Tzigane, and Vaughan Williams’ Concerto Accademico, each written and dedicated to d’Arányi, in response to her expressive and virtuosic musicianship. From my own research, I concluded that during a sixteen-year period (1915-1931), twenty-four new compositions were dedicated to, and premiered by, d’Aranyi.33  The diversity of repertoire written for d’Arányi reflects a general trend in her performed repertory, which was greatly varied (a relatively uncommon feature for solo violinists in the 1920s, who typically performed a limited set of concertos and virtuosic ‘ear-ticklers’, as d’Arányi called the latter).34 She not only performed the established ‘classics’, but firmly championed new music which tested the limits of violin-playing, both in terms of extended techniques and interpretive musicianship.35 As a testament to her ability and standing amongst the male-dominated field of violin virtuosi, d’Arányi was the only female violinist included in a 1928 article published by the authoritative voice on string playing in Britain, The Strad, debating and defining the greatest celebrity violinists of the day: ‘Who are these Violinists?’.36 The author describes d’Arányi’s playing as follows:

A golden volubility of tone, considerable fire, and an eloquence almost didactic; a genius at making clear the structure of the music she is playing, at least as she (a very high authority) conceives it to be. Much of the grave, clear breadth of [Joachim] mixed with moments of pure Paganinistry. A great musician occasionally great self-effacement. Insolent or cavalierly ease of movement in the bow arm. Finest Brahms player (a personal view), finest player of Ravel. A bridge between [Sauret] and [Elman].37

Barring one exception, d’Arányi’s recorded catalogue reflects none of the contemporary works she premiered, championed, or inspired during the same period (i.e., 1919-1929). In live performance, her recital repertoire included an astonishing scope of music: ground-breaking world premières, concerti from Bach through Tchaikovsky and Szymanowski to Ethel Smythe, solo Paganini caprices, virtuosic character pieces, classical sonatas, and salon pieces by contemporary British composers. By contrast, her solo recorded catalogue offers a restrictive spectrum including only one concerto38 and a selection of shorter character pieces (often arranged) for violin and piano. These popular works were guaranteed to sell: the financial ramifications of making records meant violinists had to record works that appealed to a broad audience base. According to the autobiographical accounts of her contemporary and fellow Hungarian violinist, Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973), he suggests that prior to the 1930s record companies were loath to the financial risk of recording new works by unknown composers (a financial risk), and had to be convinced to issue challenging, contemporary repertoire.39 As such, the recorded catalogue of d’Arányi reflects only a small fraction of her performance practices and performed repertoire.

The following musical excerpt is the only recorded example we have of d’Aranyi performing an entire concerto (albeit there are no cadenzas) and it is a wonderful example of her expressive playing with ensemble. In this clip, we hear d’Arányi’s use of tempo adjustment (i.e., tempo rubato) to heighten expression. Her opening line (starting at 1’20”) begins brightly in tempo. However, she rhythmically elongates an ornament, the accent fallend (or, descending appoggiatura) at 1’20” which begins a rallentando carried through to the end of the phrase at 01’28”. The overall effect is not gratuitous, or heavy, but rather that of a musician carried away by expression, sympathetically mirrored by the orchestra. After demonstrating such elasticity with time, a degree of compensation in tempo is needed: d’Arányi, with the orchestra, begins the subsequent phrase back in tempo.

04 Mozart Violin Concerto in G major 1st movement extract

Aranyi with Bartok 1922Bela Bartok and Jelly d'Aranyi in 1922 Illustrated London News, April 1, 1922: 478

Violin playing: In her own words

Following the First World War, a new ideal of beauty emerged in violin playing.40 Violinists trained during the 19th century faced a decision: to develop alongside new trends or remain connected to the past. New trends included a faster oscillating vibrato, a continuous vibrato (versus its application as a selective, emotive device for long notes), changing attitudes to tempo modification, and an increasingly chaste approach to musical expression (i.e., the application of fewer expressive devices, such as portamenti). Although never verbally expressed, d’Arányi’s recordings illustrate her decision to bridge the gap between tradition and innovation. She did, however, write two articles (a privilege not readily extended to female violinists), which both directly, and indirectly, reveal her opinions on the contemporary state of violin-playing in the 1920s, and early 1930s.41

D’Arányi described herself an artist-executant not afraid to take risks: it was her duty to become the unselfish medium of expression on behalf of the composer. As previously evidenced, she relished performing new music as well as standard repertoire, and she sensitively approached each work as its own entity. D’Arányi believed that a great artist showed their talent by demonstrating ‘a technique sufficient to master the difficulties of the moderns …[and] subtlety and precision demanded by the classics’.42 If she was able to perform in such a capacity, she did not take umbrage with new trends in performance. For example, she remembered her beloved great-uncle telling her ‘Never too much vibrato! That’s circus music’.43 However, d’Arányi was not afraid to experiment with newer notions of vibrato usage (e.g., continuous vibrato, as heard most clearly in the final excerpt of this study, Vitali’s Chaconne). By contrast, she believed ‘there is altogether too much importance given both to smoothness and volume of tone as such…no amount of gesticulating and shouting will make simple truths more convincing’.44 In her opinion, the burgeoning trend towards tame playing was predominantly found in the bow arm:

It’s safety first in violin playing today, especially in bowing. In the Brahms and the Schubert Trios for instance, there are passages of repeated notes which Joachim and the older violinists like Hubay and Ysaÿe took as a ‘flying staccato’ – the notes detached but in a single movement of the bow. Today, even the celebrated violinists take them spiccato. Easier, but much less thrilling. The older way was perilous and for that is avoided. Nobody dares throw their bow about. They play on the string for the fine safe clarity.45

D’Arányi did not favour ‘safe’ playing and blindly following the tastes of others: ‘I have heard a certain type of person say with rather offensive conceit that they believe in the opinion and taste of the Great Majority…were we to see the pictures on their walls, read their books, hear the kind of music they habitually favour we could not accept their verdict as decisive as to the merits of an executant’.46 For d’Arányi, ‘force, tenderness, masterly power; colour, in fact’,47 were the enviable qualities of a violinist, qualities she always aimed for, as an artist-executant. Despite efforts to evolve, by the 1940s tastes changed faster than d’Aranyi: coupled with increasing health complications, it ultimately came to the cost of her career.

In this recording, gone are the various forms of expressive sliding and tempo manipulations: this is d’Arányi performing with an awareness of contemporary attitudes to expression. From the still, quiet atmosphere of the Sarabande’s ‘Largo’ to the vivacious ‘Presto’ of the Tambourin, d’Arányi demonstrates consummate attention to musical detail and character. At the beginning of the clip (the closing phrase of the Sarabande), d’Arányi is judicious in her use of expressive devices: she employs minimal vibrato and delivers a clear, articulated trill (1’48”-1’51”) to convey notions of an earlier musical style. Analysis reveals that it is a distortion in the recording equipment which affects the quality of her final note. Her transition into the Tambourin (a lively duple-meter Provençal dance) is instantaneous: she lets the music speak for itself, and the wonderful variability of her bowing arm is on full display, with special mention going to her flying staccato technique (1’58”-2’00”).

05 Leclair-Sarasate Sonata Op. 9 No. 3 extract of Sarabande & Tambourin

Swansong: Health complications and professional decline

Despite a prolific set of performances, premieres, and recordings through the 1920s, from 1935 onwards (the year she naturalised as a British citizen) d’Arányi was less often seen on the elite concert circuit or heard on the BBC’s airwaves. This continued until a virtual disappearance by 1944. A private letter from literary reviewer and drama critic, Sir Desmond MacCarthy, to poet, Robert C. Trevelyan, offers a crucial glimpse of the situation:

There is a movement to do something for Jelly d’Arányi, who is never employed, supposedly due to a quarrel with [pianist and duo partner] Myra Hess…[my] plan is to persuade Sir Henry Wood or someone who organises concerts to use her talents48

Unknown to d’Arányi, a group of her friends and supporters (including Sir Ralph Vaughan Williams and Lady Violet Bonham Carter) rallied together in a letter writing campaign to get to the bottom of an important issue: why was Jelly no longer performing in the upper echelons of musical Britain, and why was she no longer broadcasting with the BBC? Writing individually to the celebrated conductor, Sir Henry J. Wood (1869-1944), friends asked for Wood’s help in securing performance work for d’Arányi. Vaughan Williams asked if d’Arányi could have a Promenade Concert appearance (which would reinstate her as a leading, solo artist), and another co-authored letter asked if the great artist, neglected for unknown reasons, may be given any opportunity to perform with Wood himself (Wood was a family friend of the d’Arányis). Lady Bonham Carter decided to get straight to the heart of the matter and wrote directly to the Music Director of the BBC, Sir Adrian Boult, to clarify the reason for d’Arányi’s musical disappearance. Although the rumour of a quarrel between d’Arányi and her duo partner Hess was true, it is unlikely to have derailed her career to the point of complete isolation. My research indicates the cause behind d’Arányi’s lack of employment was more nuanced. Three dates signalled the early end to Jelly d’Arányi’s illustrious career as a professional violinist: 14 January 1934; 11 July 1941; and 16 July 1941. The first signalled a decline in physical ability, the latter two pertain to changes in taste and expulsion from the BBC.

In the winter of 1934, a 41-year-old d’Arányi was thrown from a vehicle during a road accident in Amsterdam. Caught broadside by an unexpected and erratic car, d’Arányi was ejected from her seat and thrown head-first into the road.49 She arrived home to England with a black eye and severe bruising to her forehead,50 but the catastrophic accident received little press coverage in Britain.51 The event was shrouded in secrecy, and there is no medical evidence to suggest how badly d’Arányi was injured. However, given the physical description of her external injuries, it is likely that d’Arányi also suffered from mild trauma, too (possible side effects range from dizziness, sensory problems, and headaches to sensitivity to light and sound).52 Although d’Arányi resumed her performance commitments by the end of that same week,53 sporadic mentions of poor intonation began to appear in subsequent concert reviews. Coupled with the onset of arthritis a year earlier, it was clear d’Arányi’s health and hearing would never be the same. Despite occasional reports of uncertain intonation, d’Arányi continued to perform and she recorded a wonderful Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major Op.87 with Gaspard Cassadó (cello) and Myra Hess (piano) in October 1935, for Columbia Records.

A live broadcast performance on 3 July 1941 acted as a further catalyst in calling time on d’Arányi’s performance career. The event was a live, transmitted orchestral concert from BBC’s Broadcasting House in Bristol. It featured d’Arányi playing Beethoven’s Romance and Ravel’s Tzigane, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was a particularly difficult period for the BBC Symphony. At the outbreak of the war in 1939, 34% of the orchestra left for military service, and the ensemble was evacuated from London to Bristol (to minimise disruption to their broadcasting commitments). However, the bombing of Britain began in earnest in June 1940 and Bristol was one of the prime targets. The orchestra relocated again for safety around 1 August 1941 (to Bedford), which situates d’Arányi’s concert on 3 July as one of the final wartime broadcasts from the BBC SO in Bristol. D’Aranyi, herself, was mourning the death of a life-long mentor54  but agreed to the performance opportunity. Live radio broadcasts were not reviewed, and consequently the dearth of press coverage does not offer any insight regarding the quality of performance. However, a small collection of listening reports and internal circulating memoranda from the BBC do. Written by six members of the BBC’s Music Department, including Sir Reginald Thatcher (Deputy Director of Music) and pianist Clifton Helliwell, these internal memos culminated in a private and confidential memo authored by Thatcher and subsequently sent to Sir Adrian Boult (Director of Music) on 11 July 1941. Initial feedback in the listening reports was varied, and the most negative and damning accounts came from Thatcher and Herbert Murrill. Disregarding the breadth of opinion expressed, Thatcher adopted a wholly negative tone in his letter to Boult. The document stipulates that, due to the clutch of adverse reports regarding d’Arányi’s performance, she clearly no longer met broadcasting standards and should not be engaged for any future important broadcasts (i.e., solo concerted work), and she was not likely to be fit for secondary work (including chamber performances and feature programmes). With this letter, Thatcher downgraded Jelly d’Arányi from concert soloist to ‘has-been’. It would be d’Arányi’s penultimate broadcast as a soloist. 55

Boult took responsibility for informing d’Arányi of the decision by committee, which he did in a letter dated 16 July 1941.  As evidenced in the collection of memos, Boult did not wholly agree with Thatcher: he did not believe d’Arányi was washed up and unfit to broadcast. He believed she was still capable of good performances (a view supported by Helliwell). This is reflected in his letter to d’Arányi. He writes in an apologetic tone and mentions that while the Tzigane was given a wonderful interpretation, the Beethoven Romance fell short of her usual standards in three ways: out-of-tune double-stopping in a difficult passage, scoops and slides between notes (i.e., portamento), and liberty taken with time (i.e., rubato). While poor intonation is a commonly agreed ‘flaw’, the other two perceived shortcomings concern taste. To use expressive devices like portamento and rubato is at the discretion of the performing artist. Clearly, aesthetic change at the BBC no longer tolerated methods of expression from the 19th or early 20th century, and it was reason enough to expel an artist from the BBC’s books. Jelly d’Arányi never discussed the BBC’s cancellation of her as an artist, nor its seismic effect on her career at large. Apart from one additional BBC Latin America broadcast on 26 July 1944, Jelly d’Aranyi never again graced the airwaves, or the major concert halls of Britain.

Having listened to more than fifteen different recordings (c.1920s-2020s) of Tomaso Vitali’s Chaconne in G minor, Jelly d’Arányi’s interpretation stands the test of time as one of the most musical and sensitive versions I have had the pleasure to listen to. Contrary to prior research, Jelly d’Arányi did not play with a ‘slightly nagging, wide, and slow vibrato’,56 and this excerpt effortlessly dispels myths of a cumbersome vibrato and lack of sensitivity. A beautiful, shimmering vibrato paired with a near-seamless legato bow stroke perfectly complements the violin’s cantilena line. Further sensitivity is illustrated through melodic rubato (just enough to bring to the listener’s mind a singing approach to violin playing), and wonderful, graded dynamic contrasts. The latter are not as evident in the opening minute of playing, but transpire throughout the recording.

06 Vitali-Charlier Chaconne extract

Aranyi's hands 1933Jelly d'Aranyi (The Sketch, June 7, 1933: 411


The transformation of Jelly d’Arányi from young, immigrant ingénue of great talent to one of Britain’s most recognisable solo violinists in the 1920s was meteoric and remarkable: she transformed from enemy alien in 1914, to a nationally renowned soloist with her first Vocalion record in 1923. Hers was a brave and distinctive musical voice in Britain’s musical landscape: not only did she promote contemporary music, she performed at the most prestigious concert halls and concert series in Britain with other leading music luminaries, and she also devoted herself on an annual basis to giving charity concerts on behalf of the British peoples (often taking no fee at all). By 1930, she was one of the most recorded female instrumentalists for the Vocalion record label. Together with her recordings for U.S. Columbia, this great artist leaves behind a testimony of her sensitive musicianship and virtuosity. Her playing clearly illustrates hallmarks of both her initial training in Hungary (at the academy and following the advice of her great uncle Joachim) and the influences of her formative years in Britain, revealing a style of performance that reflected an awareness of contemporary aesthetics. Jelly d’Arányi’s recorded legacy from the 1920s not only shares with us her musical talents, but greatly enhances our understanding of an important chapter in the history of British violin performance.

I would like to thank the following people, without whom this publication would not have been possible: Jonathan Summers and the British Library for the opportunity of being an Edison Research Fellow, and for their support and expertise throughout the fellowship programme; Raymond Glaspole for providing copies of some rare discs not held by the British Library; Robin Bernath, Hannah French, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Tully Potter, and Nikos Zarb for their expertise, words of wisdom and encouragement; Peter Mallinson, Chris O’Shea and Travis Winstanley for their invaluable proof-reading, and support.


1 Frank Thistleton, “Jelly d’Aranyi,” The Strad 17, no.437 (September 1926): 270.

2 There is no stand-alone, comprehensive biography of Jelly d’Arányi. Author and journalist Joseph Macleod wrote an invaluable group biography of Jelly d’Arányi and her sisters, The Sisters d’Arányi (1969), which is replete with wonderful anecdotes (some of which were shared by d’Arányi in interview with Macleod). However, the book is not without shortcomings. For example, d’Aranyi’s performance practice is not discussed in any great depth nor are her recordings. Many important details concerning her artistic development and decline are also missing, while the narrative of the book tends to veer frequently towards purple prose. Where my research has been informed by Macleod’s work, it is acknowledged with a footnote. Otherwise, it is my own original research.

3 Joseph Macleod, “Childhood in Budapest.” In The Sisters d’Aranyi, 13-25. Boston: Crescendo Publishing Company, 1969.

4 Jelly d’Aranyi’s music education in greater detail: in 1901, after learning the violin for six weeks with her older sister Adila, d’Aranyi was given an entrance scholarship to the Budapest Academy of Music (since renamed the Franz Liszt Academy of Music), aged only 8 years ol She began preparatory violin lessons with Wilhelm Grünfeld (concert master of the Budapest Opera), and then graduated to the advanced class of Jenő Hubay for 5 years, from 1902-1907.

5 How Hubay’s pedagogical style translates into the repertoire studied by his students was succinctly observed by one of d’Aranyi’s classmates, the violinist Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973). Szigeti studied with Hubay for two years (1903-1905), and an autobiographical account gives us a detailed view into Hubay’s teaching curriculum, which increasingly favoured developing virtuosic prowess. Joseph Szigeti, Szigeti on the Violin (New York: Dover Publications, 1979), 4.

6 A vocal, anti-alien backlash towards recent waves of migrants from Eastern Europe resulted in Parliament passing the Aliens Act in 1905, which limited the number of eligible immigrants to Britain, as described in Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain (London: Little Brown, 2004), 194-200.

7 Joseph Macleod, The Sisters d’Aranyi (Boston: Crescendo Publishing Co., 1969), 85.

8 Ibid., 60.

9 Ibid., 65.

10 These include: a test pressing for the Gramophone Company in 1919 (the dance is not named/numbered); Hungarian Dance No.5 for Vocalion in 1925; Hungarian Dance No.8 for U.S. Columbia in 1928.

11 Jelly d’Arányi, “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing,” Farrago 1, no. 2 (1930): 109.

12 Jelly had injured her ankle badly during a trip to London (n.) and was convalescing with her mother and sisters at the sea-side town of Knokke-Zout, Belgium. The clouds of war, however, were roiling. The Arányis had hoped to travel home to Hungary to be with their father, but there were no trains running from Frankfurt onwards and the Arányis decided instead to make for the safety of England (as recounted in Macleod, The Sisters d’Arányi, 89-90). According to my research, d’Arányi’s final pre-war performance happened on 31 January 1914 ([n.a.] “Mrs Alexander Maitland’s Concert.” The Scotsman. February 02, 1914: 9). D’Arányi reappears in the press in November 1914.

13 Restrictive government measures and vitriolic press coverage culminated in a hostile and thoroughly Germanophobic environment for German families. Germanophobia took many different guises during WWI. Firstly, the Aliens Restriction Act (passed on 5 August 1914), along with the Trading with the Enemy Act (18 September 1914), meant that all German-owned business were confiscated, and by the end of the month non-naturalised German men of military age were rounded up and interne In London alone, more than 1,500 German businesses were vandalised, and numerous anti-German riots took place across the country.  Even the performance of music by German composers faced censorship: concert series (including Henry Wood’s Promenade Concerts) adapted concert programmes to prominently feature music composed by citizens of the Allied powers.

14 Macleod, The Sisters d’Aranyi, 91-94.

15 Adila d’Arányi married American-born barrister, Alexandre Fachiri (1887-1939), and Hortense d’Arányi (1887-1953) married British economist, Sir Ralph Hawtrey (1879-1975).

16 Due to the amended Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act (1916) and anti-German sentiment at large, Bechstein Hall was forced to cease trading and closed its doors in June 1916. The hall reopened in 1917 under the new name, Wigmore Hall.

17 Frederick Kelly and Thérèse Radic, Race Against Time: The Diaries of F.S. Kelly (Australia: National Library Australia, 2004), 28.

18 Ibid, 328.

19 Jelly d’Arányi, “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing”, 108-9.

20 Jelly d’Arányi (1919), 1. Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music Discography 1500 to 1950, accessed 6 June 2022.


21 Musicus, “World of Music,’ The Daily Telegraph, July 01, 1922: 4.

22 Written for d’Arányi in 1921 and 1922 (respectively), Bartok’s two violin sonatas were premiered in London in 1922 and 1923 as noted in: Malcom Gillies. “A Conversation with Bartok: 1929,” Musical Times 128, no. 1736 (October 1987): 557.

23 As noted in a concert review following a successful recital at Wigmore Hall: [n.a.] “A d’Arányi Triumph,” The Pall Mall Gazette April 28, 1923: 5.

24 Henderson, “Adila and Jelly von Arányi,” The Strad 23, no.268 (August 1912): 139-140.

25 [n.a.] “Famous Sister Violinists at Home: Studies of Mme. Fachiri and Mlle. Jelly d'Aranyi” The Sketch. July 28, 1926: 20-21.

26 [n.a.] “Valkyries of the Violin.” The Irish Times. November 08, 1926: 232.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid., 140.

29 [n.a.] “Music in Rochdale: Chamber Concert Society.’ Rochdale Observer. November 24, 1926: 5.

30 Henderson, “Adila and Jelly von Arányi”, 139.

31 Sisters Teresa (1827-1904) and Maria Milanollo (1832-1848) toured Europe and England as a duet act in the 1840s; sisters Isabel and Eldrede Watts supplemented a thriving teaching practice with an intensive burst of public performances exclusively as duettists (c.1902-6) with prestigious concert appearances including the Bechstein Hall in 1903 and the Promenade concerts in 1906 (as described in Henderson, “Adila and Jelly von Arányi,” 139-140).

32 Vocalion Record Catalogue, [n.a.] (London: Vocalion Gramophone Co., November 1925). Records catalogue accessed 01 May 2022,

33 My research concludes: a) she is to be credited with premiering an additional six new works in concert (from concerti to short character pieces); b) four dedicated works were only recently acquired by the British Library, in manuscript form. A complete list of titles will be shortly released via publication.

34 “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing,” 108.

35 Selected works include Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat, Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 1 and Tzigane, as well as Bartok’s two violin sonatas.

36 H. P. Morgan-Browne, “Who are these Violinists?” The Strad 39, no.462 (October 1928): 324.

37 Ibid., 324.

38 Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3 in G Major K.216, our fourth audio example in this blog post.

39 Szigeti’s relationship with gramophone companies as outlined in: Boris Schwartz, Great Masters of the Violin (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), 387; Joseph Szigeti, Szigeti on the Violin (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1979), 18-20.

40 Parsons, “Stylistic change in violin performance 1900-1960” (2015), 68.

41 Jelly d’Arányi, “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing,” 107-11; Jelly d’Arányi, “The Violin Sonatas,” Music & Letters 8, no.2 (April 1927): 191-197.

42 “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing,” 110.

43 Macleod, Sisters d’Arányi, 48.

44 “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing,” 108.

45 Macleod, Sisters d’Arányi, 278.

46 “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing,” 109-110.

47 Ibid., 107.

48 Desmond McCarthy, letter to Robert C. Trevelyan, March 15, 1944.

49 [n.a.]. “Violinist in Car Smash,” Daily Telegraph, January 17, 1934: 11.

50 Ibid.

51 Apart from limited press coverage, there is no further mention elsewhere, not even in Macleod, Sisters d’Aranyi, (1969). 

52 As discussed in conversation with a private GP (with the author).

53 Ibid.

54 At the time of the broadcast, d’Arányi was still mourning the loss of two close friends, and champions of her playing: Alexander Fachiri on 27 March 1939 (her sister’s husband), and Sir Donald Tovey on 10 July 1940 (her former guarantor, mentor and first duo partner in Britain).

55 D’Aranyi’s final broadcast as a soloist took place on 26 July 1944, with Sir Henry J. Wood conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Together, they performed Bach’s Violin Concerto No.1 in A- BWV 1041. Less than a month later, her dear friend Sir Wood died on 19 August 1944.

56 David Milsom, “Jelly d’Arányi (Jelly Eva Arányi de Hunyadvár) Violin,” liner notes for Jelly d’Arányi, A-Z of String Players, Jelly d’Arányi et al., Naxos 8.558081-84, 2014, CD, 107.

28 October 2022

Black History Month – The Cullen Maiden collection

By Frankie Perry, UOSH Cataloguer and Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Newspaper clipping Cullen Maiden 1958

When I acquired the collection of African American singer and poet Cullen Maiden in 2015 I wrote a blog about him which you can read here.  Since then, the British Library sound archive has digitised a large number of its collections under the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Maiden collection was one I was keen to have digitised, so as to make it available to researchers in the Reading Rooms of the British Library.

A further bonus of the UOSH work is having every recording fully catalogued and thus visible through our online Sound and Moving Image catalogue SAMI.  For a collection as large and complicated as this it took up to five cataloguers working full time, while the audio presented problems of differing speeds and track figuration within many of the tapes.

Now that it is completed, Cullen Maiden’s life and career is traceable through his performances around the world.

Frankie Perry, one of the cataloguers of the collection, has selected some extracts of the recordings and through her efforts has followed the thread of Cullen Maiden’s life and work.

Cullen Maiden’s collection of 590 open-reel tapes has now been digitised and catalogued as part of the UOSH project. By way of introduction to an extensive and diverse collection spanning around fifty years, here we share four short recordings that represent various strands of Maiden’s singing career (he was also a poet, composer, and actor). As very little information about Maiden is available online, this post weaves in biographical context gleaned from interviews, programmes, and other material held in the Music Manuscripts collection also deposited at the Library in 2015 (MS Mus. 1894).  Many thanks also to Maiden’s widow and donor of the collection Christine Hall-Maiden for sharing some of her memories during a recent visit to the Library.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Maiden was named after the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, and attended the same high school as Langston Hughes (Central Senior High). His lifelong immersion in and advocacy for Black American culture is palpable throughout the collection, evident in the themes of his youthful poetry sketches right through to the repertoire selected for song recitals given in the 1970s-90s. Maiden was introduced to classical music by his school teachers, who encouraged him to nurture his talent for singing alongside his development as a promising welterweight boxer; his points of entry were recordings of Paul Robeson and Feodor Chaliapin, and he later described this pair as ‘idols of my life’.[1]

Early recordings in the collection include national broadcasts of the 17-year-old Maiden singing ‘Waterboy’ and demonstrating his fantastically low bass range against a piano on the ‘Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour’ talent show.[2]

Following his bachelor’s degree at Ohio Wesleyan University, his vocal studies at the Juilliard School in New York were interrupted by a call-up for national service: he was sent as a Private First Class to Pusan Area in South Korea, where he worked primarily as an entertainment director. As a performer, he appeared in four Seoul Symphony concerts, and appeared on both AFKN radio and television and Korean radio networks. He also put on numerous concerts for troops and wider audiences in 1957 and 1958, in division and area command service clubs.

One example is a concert given with soprano Hai-Kyong Chang of the Seoul Opera Company and pianist PFC Richard Jennings, where we see the emergence of a signature Cullen Maiden programming strategy of pairing classical staples with spirituals and work songs; his Korean concerts also included Korean folk songs. Maiden had acquired a volume of traditional Korean songs in delicate arrangements by Sung-Tai Kim for voice and piano, and annotations in his heavily-used copy suggest he sang several. The one we have on record (in a couple of different renditions) is Kim’s arrangement of the popular song ‘Arirang’.

Arirang 1958 South Korea

Concert of Song with piano programme

Maiden also appeared as a soloist with the Seoul Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the influential Korean-American conductor John S. Kim, performing Mozart arias and show tunes (he was known throughout his career for his renditions of ‘Ol’ Man River’). Here’s ‘La vendetta’ from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro:

Mozart La vendetta 1957 South Korea

Seoul Orchestral concert programme cover

On returning from military service, Maiden returned to his Juilliard studies, and became a vocal soloist for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company (he had sung for Dunham during one of the dancer’s goodwill visits to Korea) and toured Europe with the company in 1959; he also toured the US with the Harry Belafonte Folk Singers. In 1962, Maiden spent six months in Stockholm performing in Lia Schubert’s Jazz-Balett 62, paired in a duo with the young guitarist Lars [Lasse] Åberg, who would go on to become a celebrated actor.

Periods of study in Rome with Luigi Ricci followed, as well as a year in London during which he had poems published in Tribune and gave poetry recitals. In the knowledge that many Black classical musicians found more employment opportunities in Europe than in the US, Maiden moved to Munich, together with Christine, and began auditioning widely. But the barriers were present there too: Maiden auditioned at companies across East and West Germany, but ‘for many of them, the idea of fitting a Black man into a German ensemble seemed to be a great hurdle. That caused a lot of problems. My Blackness prevented me from getting a job’.[3]

Maiden persevered and successfully auditioned for Walter Felsenstein’s Komische Oper, which was in East Berlin: his early roles in the company included the Town Mayor in Henze’s Der junge Lord (1968), and Farfarello in Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges (1969), both of which he performed in white make-up. His defining part came as the title character, opposite Carolyn Smith-Meyer, in the company’s 1970 production of Porgy and Bess, which was directed by Felsenstein’s second-in-command Götz Friedrich and widely praised for being a thoughtful production that highlighted social issues, and avoided the racist stereotyping upon which many productions of the opera (both before and since) relied. For Maiden, the role was ‘defining’ for the best and worst reasons. On the one hand, his performance received rave reviews that reached across the operatic world – photos of Maiden and Smith-Meyer appeared on the covers of major magazines – and led to a steady stream of further engagements to perform the role in English and German-language productions. On the other hand, Maiden’s success in the role also resulted in a long-term struggle to escape from his close association with Porgy and to be cast in other roles. Maiden’s testimony in a 1974 interview makes plain the reasons why:

‘No one accepts me as Cullen Maiden. They accept me as Every Black Man. […] When Robert Merrill is offstage, no one greets him as Rigoletto. But when I am offstage, people call me Porgy’.[4]

At the time of this interview, Maiden thought he had given over 250 performances of the work, and was trialling a policy of only accepting Porgy engagements if the company in question hired him for another opera too. Maiden also spoke of his desire to develop his US opera career, and of his fears that this would be impossible: he acknowledged that ‘Europe is relaxed and wonderful [...] it is not bi-racial, so you do not feel this pressure’, but that ‘most Americans I meet traveling miss America. You love your country, and you feel frustrated in Europe. I miss my family and my friends and just being here’.[5]

Maiden’s differing experiences of structural and everyday racism in America and Europe resonate in many ways with the stories and histories illuminated in Kira Thurman’s recent book Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.[6] The deep tensions of Maiden’s experiences as a Black American abroad, and the different struggles of Black German communities in his adopted home, are implied in a quote from a later interview: ‘It is time for African Germans to wake up and to stop agonising about whether they are black or white. They are Black. This society does not accept them as full Germans’.[7] This archive contains a wealth of material relating to Black cultural life in West Germany (and East Berlin) between the late 1960s and mid-1990s, and great potential for future research in this area.

Maiden did find operatic success in America, especially through a series of engagements with the pioneering Black-led company Opera/South.[8] The collection holds rehearsal recordings of his animated Osmin in a punchy English-language version of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and recordings of him workshopping the role of Father Lestant ahead of the PBS television production of William Grant Still’s A Bayou Legend (this was the first opera by an African American composer to be televised in the United States). There’s also plenty of photos, reviews, and other material relating to this production.

Below is a concert recording from 1992 of a song from a different opera by Still, ‘Our fathers taught us to be pure in heart’ from Costaso.

Still Our fathers taught us 1992 West Berlin

A hallmark of Maiden’s later solo recitals is his inclusion of music by Black composers: the collection includes live recordings spanning from 1977 to 1992 of songs by Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Still, Charles Naginski, and Howard Swanson, which was unusual in Europe at the time. Many of these songs set poetry by Langston Hughes, and Maiden emphasised the importance to him of performing music that sets Black poetry that in turn draws upon Black experience. Advocacy was at the heart of Maiden’s recitals, as is clear from their titles which include ‘My Soul is a Witness: Black History in Song, Poetry and Prose’, “The Souls of Black Folk’ – The Black Experience in a White World’, and ‘Aspects of Black History and the Black Experience in Songs, Poetry, Prose, Black Drama and Black Humor’’. From the early 1980s he performed under the auspices of Black Arts Theater Productions – details of this venture are unclear, but correspondence in the papers shows his ambitious visions and plans for a Black arts company in Berlin. Several programmes were given during February, the American Black History Month, including the concert advertised here:

Programme for 1992 concert in Berlin

These concerts usually combined songs with poetry and prose readings, and Maiden typically gave lengthy semi-scripted introductions to individual items – the recordings are moving and humorous in equal measure, and Maiden often had to wait for the audience’s laughter and applause to die down before continuing. The spirituals, work songs, and prison songs in the recitals were sometimes performed unaccompanied, and sometimes sung in voice-piano arrangements from the ‘concert spiritual’ tradition – including versions by Black composers and versions made famous by singers such as Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes. Maiden also wrote his own arrangements of several songs, variously with piano or guitar accompaniment.

Maiden said in an interview that:

Black music is not like pop or classical music. One has to know the agony, the doubts and trials that Black people are subjected to daily. Only then can they fully understand the rich heritage in Black life’.[9]

The recording below, of ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’, uses an arrangement adapted from that of Harry T. Burleigh, and is introduced through a brief story of Maiden’s own family history.

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child Hanover c1977

In addition to his singing, Maiden’s seemingly limitless artistic talents included poetry and prose writing, musical composition (in several styles), film and theatre acting, and drawing – his sketch of world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949 Joe Louis, signed by ‘Curly Maiden’, is below. A poetry collection, Soul on Fire, was published in 2008,[10] and the Music Manuscripts collection includes annotated copies of the poems and lengthy feedback notes from Audre Lorde, who lived for a while in Berlin. Beneath one of Maiden’s poems, ‘A Black Mother Asks of the Lord’, Lorde simply wrote: ‘This reminds me of Langston’.

Sketch of Joe Louis

Alongside 120 tapes containing Maiden’s original recordings, another substantial portion of the donation includes his extensive collection of off-air recordings, copied from German (pre- and post-unification), Italian, and British radio broadcasts over several decades. Maiden clearly made a concerted effort to record broadcasts of Black musicians, both classical and in various popular styles. Highlights range from live broadcasts from European festivals by figures like Leontyne Price and Simon Estes, to rare live recordings of twentieth-century repertoire sung by William Pearson, to Annabelle Bernard singing orchestrated Schubert lieder with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. This strand of the collection is testament to Maiden’s lifelong advocacy for Black music and art: his capturing of these broadcasts will mean that many recordings which were previously inaccessible or buried in European radio archives can now be heard again.

Maiden died in 2011, having moved to London in the late 1990s where he continued to sing, teach, and compose and write. Cataloguing of the Sound Archive’s collection is now complete, meaning the recordings are searchable online and will soon be listenable on-site at the British Library.


[1] ‘Interview with African-American Opera star, the bass-baritone Cullen Maiden’ [author unknown], Isivivane: Journal of Letters and Arts in Africa and the Diaspora, 3, January 1991, 20-25: 24.

[2] Name of the talent show inferred from a newspaper cutting: ‘Cullen Maiden develops qualities of leadership at Central Sr. High’, Call & Post, [author and date unknown]. Held in MS Mus. 1894.

[3] Isivivane, 21.

[4] Wilma Salisbury, ‘Heart and soul, singer’s quest is for identity’, The Plain Dealer, 1 September 1974. Newspaper cutting held in MS Mus. 1894.

[5] Salisbury, ‘Heart and soul, singer’s quest is for identity’.

[6] Cornell University Press, 2021.

[7] Isivivane, 25.

[8] See Ben E. Bailey, ‘Opera/South: A Brief History’, The Black Perspective in Music, 13/1, 1985, 48-78.

[9] Isivivane, 25.

[10] Cullen Maiden, Soul on Fire: Poems and Writings (AuthorHouse, 2008).

24 October 2022

Recording of the week: Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6 - the premiere

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

Photo of Vaughan Williams disc

I was looking for something by which to celebrate the 150th anniversary this month of the birth of one of England’s greatest symphonic composers of the twentieth century, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). His nine symphonies span more than fifty years from the first, which he began in 1903, to the last, composed in 1956 and 1957.

More than twenty years ago the British Library sound archive acquired the collection of engineer Kenneth Leech, who began to record radio broadcasts from the mid-1930s on to lacquer discs. I was delighted to discover that Mr. Leech had recorded the opening of the Symphony No. 6 from its first performance on 21st April 1948.

Extract from the Radio Times

Adrian Boult is conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a Royal Philharmonic Society Concert from the Albert Hall. The sound from the unique lacquer disc is low fidelity and the beginning is clipped, but the power and impact of the music of this arresting opening is undeniable. Apparently, this is all that has survived of that first performance.

Listen to British Library disc 1LL0009106

Boult made a commercial recording of the work for EMI with the London Symphony Orchestra on the 23rd and 24th February 1949 at Abbey Road Studios, but he was pipped to the post by Leopold Stokowski who recorded it with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for Columbia on the 21st February 1949 making it the first studio recording of the work. All of these performances are of the work before it was revised by the composer in 1950.

11 October 2022

Classical Podcast No. 6 Philip Fowke

Philip Fowke in the recording studio Philip Fowke  (photo © Jonathan Summers)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

One of our great British pianists, Philip Fowke performed and broadcast on BBC radio and television from the late 1970s for more than two decades.  He also made studio recordings for EMI, CRD, Naxos, Chandos, Dutton and Unicorn-Kanchana.

In this podcast I talk to him about his life and career including the pitfalls of excessive working and playing the piano too much.  He also talks candidly about learning major works for one performance and never playing them again and gives his views on current teaching and performing.

For me, the highlight is the performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor Op. 40 at the Proms in 1986.  Mr Fowke has supplied some photos of the rehearsal for this performance with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Photo of Philip Fowke with Simon Rattle and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra rehearsal 1986

Photo of Philip Fowke with Simon Rattle and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra rehearsal 1986Philip Fowke rehearsing with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra September 1986.  (Photos courtesy of Philip Fowke)


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