Recording’s early years. Part 1 – The musicians spill

Recording’s very early years were technically very different from today. The effect that recording had on musicians of those times has seldom been reported. The following quotations are from insight-full 1987 book Edison, Musicians and the Phonograph by John and Susan Harvith. It collects interviews with dozens of musicians from those times. IS

From the Preface:

When we began to examine Thomas Edison’s attitudes toward music and recording and his unsuspected intense involvement with every aspect of his record company, including the selection of artists and repertoire, we immediately sought out surviving Edison artists to hear their attitudes toward Edison…. What we discovered in talking to the musicians stunned us.

* Lotte Lehmann, for example stated that she did not consider her recordings the most important part of her legacy, [rather] her live concert and opera appearances ….

* Ernest Stevens, Edison’s staff pianist for two years in the 1920s, stated flatly that he performed differently for recordings passed upon by ‘the old gent’ because Edison would not tolerate pungent harmony or complex textures….

* Vladimir Horowitz compared recordings to photographs, mere mementos of the actual performances….

* Members of the Guarneri Quartet voiced the conviction that their genuine music making occurred in the concert hall and not in the recording studio and that recordings could not capture this magic; that the performancer of music is a continual process of becoming….

Paradoxically, today’s musical public tends to perceive recordings as the … most significant contribution of the musician…. The public (and many critics) have come to equate musicians with their recordings; many musicians, however, regard their most important mission the live performance of music….

“Indistinguishable from the actual performances…” Edison’s advertisements used to boast. Few artists have echoed this sentiment with respect to recordings, whether in the age of acoustical recording or in today’s era of digital sound.

In the first few chapters we learn how an unmusical, deaf Edison who wanted to ‘put music on a scientific basis’ twisted some musicians arms, turned away some greats, decided in a few seconds whether a performance was worthy … and how that affected his record business.

For example, beginning with cylinder recordings, Edison had insisted that the needle should move up-and-down in the groove, rather than the back-and-forth (or ‘lateral’ motion) used by other large recording companies. ▸ Dr. Electro Oct 13 He was so attached to the idea that he preferred to hold onto it despite the higher sales other companies enjoyed.

ERNEST L. STEVENS (pianist): There was an arrangement for Rachmaninoff to come in and play for Edison one day in 1919…. [Edison] sat down in a chair alongside the piano … and he put a special horn to his ear and said, ‘Go ahead.’ So Rachmininoff played the first notes of his C-Sharp Minor Prelude. The old gent said, ‘That’s enough. Whoever told you you were a piano player? You’re a pounder.’ Rachmaninoff never said a word. He got up … got his hat and coat, and walked out the door.

ANNA CASE: Edison was extraordinary in his demand for everything that was just perfection. He was very strict with everybody. He was very deaf; he used to sit with his hand cupped over his ear.

SAMUEL GARDNER (violinist, Pulitzer Prize winner): I worked for Edison one summer when he was starting to work on the flat records [Diamond Discs]. It must have been 1911…. One day he called me and said, ‘I want you to listen to these records. They’re awful.’ I took a quick look at the names of the artists, whom I knew — Albert Spanding and Carl Flesch. They were great players, but I wasn’t going to say anything. He said, ‘Those people have a very shaky bow.’ And I thought, ‘That’s very strange.’ He said ‘Draw a straight sound for me.’ I knew immediately that he didn’t like the vibrato. So I drew a dead sound, the worst kind possible. He said, ‘That’s great!’ …
HARVITHS: Did you think his poor hearing interfered with his appreciation or understanding of music?
GARDNER: His deafness had nothing to do with his musicality, because he didn’t have any.

IRVING KAUFMAN (singer, recorded ‘Sonny Boy’ about thirty times under different names):
HARVITHS: Tell us about the groups you played with at Edison.
KAUFMAN: They had five musicians, six musicians — if you were lucky you had six musicians. All the recordings were made in the horn, which was known as acoustic recording. The other musicians were all around the room. When they had to play a solo, they would move in close, and I’d move away….
HARVITHS: So very often they’d give you music you had never even seen before?
KAUFMAN: Most likely! I knew nothing about what I was going to sing until I got to the studio….
HARVITHS: Victor did this, and Columbia too?
KAUFMAN: All the companies!