Edison phonograph cylinders (1888-1899): Sullivan/Handel etc

Labels: , ,

This playlist contains the 1888 phonograph recording of Sir Arthur Sullivan's (1842-1900) speech for Thomas Edison, along with the 1888 recording of Sullivan's "The Lost Chord": the oldest "listenable" musical recording in existence. There are also some 1888 recordings from Crystal Palace of Handel's oratorio, Israel in Egypt, which are the first existing recordings we have of music at all - albeit hard to hear.

Edison phonograph cylinder (1888): Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) - The Lost Chord & Speech
On 5th October 1888 (yes, you read that year right), Sir Arthur Sullivan was present at a "phonograph party". At this event, he made a recording of his own voice to send to Thomas Edison (who had the idea that the phonograph may be used in a way similar to the letter). His comments are made having heard various recordings played to him at the event.

Also, earlier in 1888, a press conference was played a recording of Sullivan's "The Lost Chord" (amongst others). This recording is thought to be the same recording, made in 1888, and is performed by anonymous artists on cornet and piano. While not all that interesting musically, the recording is of supreme historical interst as being the first properly listenable recording of music ever made. One musical observation I have is to note the restrained attitude towards rubato - the presumably British players don't seem to be indulging in the sometimes wayward rhythmic tos and fros of the Austro-German piano school in this recording. There is still a degree of non-sychronisation between cornet melody and piano accomaniment though, typical of the treatment of melody and accompaniment in piano solo recordings from a few years later.


Edison phonograph cylinders (1888): Handel - Israel in Egypt

On Friday 29th June 1888, from 2pm, a performance of Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt was captured on a number of wax cylinder recordings. This performance was part of the trienniel Handel Festivals mounted in the UK. They were recorded from the press gallery in Crystal Palace by Edison-representative Colonel Gouraud, as a way to test and show off Edison's phonograph. Three of these cylinders still survive.

The conductor was Sir August Manns, conducting an orchestra of some 500 musicians and a choir of over 4,000 voices, in front of an audience of 23,722 people.

These are the earliest deliberate recordings of music known to exist (earlier recordings from the 1870s are considered lost). Fortunately these can be played back at a quite definite pitch, as we know the pitch of the Crystal Palace organ at this time.

Unfortunately, the recordings are in very poor shape, audibly speaking. You are going to have a very hard time grappling with the sound, and trying to make out anything. Each cylinder contains a number of tracks. This is what you are hearing:

Cylinder 1 (0:00 - 2:27) -

The first text is "[Mo]ses, and the children of Israel sung unto the Lord and spake saying", from the chorus at the opening of Part II (very hard to hear the orchestra in this).

Following this is "I will sing unto the Lord for he hath triumphed" from the next number in Part II (you should be able to hear the altos and tenors singing at the start of this). Near the end you might make out the word "gloriously" sung in Handelian semiquavers.

Cylinder 2 (2:30 - 5:10) -

The first track on this cylinder is effectively inaudible. We do not know what the music is on it.

The second track is no.24 from the Oratorio: "Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power". Unfortunately, the stylus sticks in this track.

The third track is from the same number at "Thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy", also with some stylus sticking problems.

Track 4 is yet more of this movement, ending with "For He hath triumphed gloriously".

Cylinder 3 (5:14 - 7:45) -

The first track is the last part of movement 37: "...ever, the Lord shall reign for ever and ever".

The second track is a fragment of number 39: "For ever and ever"

The third track is a continuation of the previous one from "...shall reign for ever and ever", and continuing as far as "For He hath triumphed gloriously".

The last track is the very end of the oratorio, from "...horse and his rider, the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea".

Well, as I say, all very hard to make out. You can perceive a very slow tempo being employed at least.

Incidentally, Colonel Gourard was also present at the "phonograph party" in 1888 which captured Sullivan's voice (see my posting of this), and his voice too exists on wax cylinder.


The Pattison Waltz (1889)
Another of Edison's early music recordings; this one from 1889 (recorded 25 February). This is the ever-so-slightly silly "Pattison Waltz" (no text I can make out at all, just lots of la-ing and so on - but she *mIght* be singing words I guess) . The singer is Effie Stewart (a New York soprano of no particular fame) and the pianist is Theo Wangeman, one of Edison's technicians.

"Soft Piano Solo by Mrs Eyre" (aka Mendelssohn Song Without Words op. 62 no.6) (1888)
This is another early Edison cylinder, dating from 1888. I have no idea who "Mrs Eyre" was, nor why the recording is labelled so strangely when the piece is so well-known. What I do know is that she was recorded in England, as the recording was sent to Edison by Colonel Gourard (the same chap who recorded Arthur Sullivan and co. at dinner).