The First Recordings by Composers

Theo Wangemann

The man who recorded Brahms: Theo Wangemann (1855-1906), shown in an 1890 postcard to Edison. Born into a musical family, he was a capable pianist and also composed. He began working for Edison in 1888 and is regarded by some to be the world’s first recording engineer. Among those he recorded were Hans von Bülow, John Knowles Paine, Édouard Risler, Charles-Marie Widor, Alfred Grünfeld, and Otto von Bismarck.

The very earliest recordings of all mostly involved a voice, with piano accompaniment, or a solo piano. Fortunately for posterity, voices were comparatively well captured by the primitive techniques of the time and give us a reasonably good indication of the qualities possessed by the greatest singers of the day. Piano tone was less faithfully reproduced, though the percussive nature of the instrument came across well. 

Before disc recording came into practical being during the early 1890s, the only means of making a recording was via a wax cylinder, which rotated on a base, and was powered either by hand or later by clockwork. Sounds of the playing or singing were projected into a horn attached to a stylus, which engraved sound wave forms on to the wax. In due course it became possible to duplicate cylinders for commercial purposes, but all the cylinders I now discuss were made privately. 

Brahms was the first composer to record his own music, an arrangement of part of his Hungarian Dance No. 1. A great deal has been written about this now somewhat notorious cylinder, which was recorded by Thomas Edison’s agent Theo Wangemann on a publicity tour of Europe. It was made in Vienna on 2 December 1889 and is preceded by an announcement which has usually been taken as having been made by the composer himself, though evidence now suggests that it was made by Wangemann. Brahms then completed his recording with part of Josef Strauss’s polka-mazurka, Die Libelle

By January 1935 the cylinder was in poor condition owing to physical deterioration and wear through repeated playings, but the Brahms piece was transferred to a lacquered aluminium disc from which a few shellac copies were made (the Strauss was irretrievable). This re-recording has been published commercially and can also be readily heard on the Internet, but not even the latest techniques can radically improve its poor sound. Attempts to analyse Brahms’s playing and construct evidence of a performing style from it seem very conjectural. The recording is just a curiosity and a faint aural souvenir. 

Many early composer performances come into the same category. In 2008 the Marston label issued a three-disc set of cylinder recordings made mostly in Russia by another Edison associate, Julius Block, entitled “The Dawn of Recording”: 53011-2. This three disc set is invaluable in that it preserves the playing of several prominent artists who otherwise left no recorded legacy. These include the playing of Anton Arensky in ten of his piano pieces, recorded between 1892 and 1894. The repertoire on these brief cylinders focuses on the lighter side of the composer’s output: three of his 24 Morceaux charactéristiques, for instance. His playing is accomplished and full of charm, but these pieces have little in common with Arensky’s larger-scale works. It might have been hoped that excerpts from Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1, with the composer partnered by the eminent Czech-born violinist Jan Hrímalý, and Anatoly Brandukov, dedicatee of cello works by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, would produce something of more substance, but unfortunately the sonic range of a piano trio was beyond the capability of Edison’s machine, and we can only hear a very incomplete sound picture above the background noise. 

A VAI Audio CD, entitled “The Catalan Piano Tradition” (VAIA/IPA1001) contains three improvisations played by Isaac Albéniz on cylinder recordings made in 1903 by one Ruperto Regorosa on an Edison machine at his home near Barcelona. The music recorded may be of limited interest, but the playing confirms Albéniz’s reputation as a virtuoso pianist. 

With the arrival of the flat disc it became possible to manufacture pressings pressings from originals much more easily than was the case with cylinders, and the new format led to the formation of more commercial enterprises. Soon composers were invited into their studios to make records. The first of any importance was Cécile Chaminade, a protegée of Bizet who was then much in fashion as a performer of her own pieces. On a visit to London in late 1901 The Gramophone and Typewriter Ltd’s recordist Fred Gaisberg captured her playing on six discs, and this comprised her solitary studio session. Chaminade fell out of favour in later years and her compositions became considered to be of little worth. But the seven chosen pieces for the recording are very well crafted and attractive, and both they and the composer’s, fluent, clear-cut playing are well suited to the limitations of early recording techniques. The performances have been issued on an Appian CD (APR 5533). In recent times Chaminade’s music has achieved more availability through several new recordings. 

The Dawn of Recording

Julius Block (1858-1934), a fervent believer in and proselytizer of the phonograph, as well as an astute businessman. Among those whose artistry he preserved for posterity were the very young Josef Hofmann and Jascha Heifetz, as well as Paul Pabst, Anton Arensky, Sergey Taneyev, Jules Conus, and the voices of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein. These remarkable recordings have been painstakingly restored by Marston Records on a 3CD set titled “The Dawn of Recording.”

G & T’s Paris branch was particularly enterprising in tempting notable artists into its studio. For the first time recordings by three eminent composers became more than interesting curiosities and assumed important historical status. But one semi-casualty was Claude Debussy. It was of course significant to record the first Mélisande, Mary Garden, in a fragment, “Mes longs cheveux”, from his opera Pelléas et Mélisande and in three of his Ariettes oubliées. And it was important to have Debussy as accompanist in these 1904 discs. But that was all he did, and it is frustrating to think of what might have been. The pianist George Copeland, who studied with Debussy in 1911, remarked that in just one instance, parts of the song “Green”, one could gain some idea of the composer’s playing, which from contemporary accounts was very remarkable. But all we have are some clearly unrepresentative piano roll recordings The subject of piano rolls is highly controversial, and this means of recording the piano attracts both fervent support and outright dismissal, but it can be said with some confidence that roll recordings of the early twentieth century do not represent the playing of eminent artists with any fidelity. 

Fortunately for posterity, the playing of the great Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate was captured in Paris on ten ten-inch discs dating from 1903. Eight of these feature Sarasate in his own pieces, which are significant enough to have been kept in the repertoire of virtuosi ever since. Despite cuts and truncations dictated by the limitations of the format (it is a great pity that the great man was not allowed to record on 12-inch discs), the recordings represent reliable template performances for violinists everywhere to study if of course not actually to imitate. All of Sarasate’s recordings have been issued on LP (Pearl Opal 804) and CD (Testament SBT2 1323). (A detailed discussion of Sarasate’s life and career is contained in an article by the Editor in the Spring 2012 edition of Classical Recordings Quarterly – see page 97 for a very special offer from CRQ. 

Another great violinist, Joseph Joachim, included his own Romance in C in addition to two unaccompanied Bach movements and two Hungarian Dances by his friend Brahms in a solitary Berlin G & T recording session of 1903, but in common with other pianists and violinists who essayed their own encore pieces on disc at the time the Romance is no more than a pleasing curiosity. Another interesting item is an unissued test pressing of the soprano Georgette Leblanc, a famous Carmen of the day, singing “Pendant un an” from Massenet’s Sapho, with the pianist-composer accompanist making his only appearance on disc. 

The second great composer whose playing was captured by G & T in Paris was Edvard Grieg, who on a visit to the city in May 1903 recorded nine of his works, comprising five Lyric Pieces, the Bridal Procession, Humoreske and two movements from his Sonata, Op. 7. These are precious documents, for through the primitive sound shines playing of great beauty, affection and warmth of personality. Their artistic quality is supreme. Unfortunately, in common with the Debussy recordings, the Paris recording turntable revolved unevenly at the time, and until recently, Grieg’s and Debussy’s recordings had to be heard through a degree of pitch fluctuation known as “wow”. It seems incredible now that this fault was allowed to persist over a period of at least several months before being corrected. For instance, all the recordings made by the great pianist Raoul Pugno are afflicted on the same way. Fortunately, modern technology has found a way to stabilise these pitch variations and in a Marston issue of 2008 the Grieg and Debussy recordings (as well as the Pugnos) can be heard pretty well free of wow ( 52054-2). 

The third great composer to be heard on Paris G & Ts is Camille Saint-Saëns. He made two visits to the recording studios, in June 1904 and November 1919. The first comprised five solo pieces and four in which he accompanied the mezzo-soprano Meyrianne Héglon in arias from his operas Ascanio and Samson et Dalila and two songs. Héglon had sung the role of Anne Boleyn in Saint-Saëns’s opera Henry VIII at Covent Garden, and in the year of these, her only recordings, she sang the role of Dalila at Monte Carlo. 

Saint-Saëns’s solo recordings are infinitely more interesting in that they show the composer’s quite extraordinary technique in an improvised cadenza for his Fantasy for piano and orchestra, Africa and in an excerpt from his Rhapsodie d’Auvergne, again for piano and orchestra. Perhaps the most valuable of these solo discs is a substantial transcription of part of the first movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2, played immaculately in an aristocratic, commanding fashion. Two trifles, Valse mignonne and Valse nonchalante are by contrast brought off with great charm. Saint-Saëns was then nearing the age of 70, and by the time of his 1919 sessions he was almost 85, but he still had a formidable technique. Consideration of these and other slightly later recordings by composers such Granados, as well as Cilea, Giordano and Leoncavallo accompanying great singers of the day will have to wait for another time. 

Discography and Further Listening in Issue 7 – available in your subscriber account – on page 89.