The recording business and performance, 1925-32
Whereas three of CHARM's research projects involved the analysis of performances as preserved through commercial recordings, using computer-based techniques as a starting point, the University of Sheffield component of the research programme considered the impact of economic, social and technical factors upon what and who was recorded in the past, and the consequences of these influences. The period selected for this examination was 1925 to 1932, one of the richest, if until now relatively under-explored, periods in the history of recording in the United Kingdom.
As well as providing a narrative of this critical period of commercial, technological, and musical transformation, the questions on which we particularly wished to throw light included the following:
- In what way did the structures, policies and practices of the record industry during both the 1920s and the 1930s influence the decisions regarding artists and repertoire recorded during these periods, and what have been the enduring effects of this influence through the recordings thus produced?
- What part did the recording industry play in the development of musical celebrity during this period, and in the formation of a canon of great performers and of related views as to appropriate and inappropriate interpretation?
- Why were some esteemed concert performers initially recorded but later neglected?
- What does this tell us about reconstructing a narrative of musical performance on the basis of the recorded repertory?
The project involved the synthesis of a wide variety of documentary sources, ranging from reviews in Gramophone and articles in journals and newspapers, through company documentation held in the EMI Archives, to the memoirs and biographies of musicians active during the period under review. Its outputs include studies of the strategies of the major companies active at this time, as well as of some of the musicians who worked at the interface of performance, technology, and commerce. For details of outputs, with links to abstracts, see the project publications page.
The following is a brief synopsis of the key features of the historical development with which we were concerned.
The early gramophone industry was dominated in Europe by The Gramophone Company, founded in 1898 and a global partner of the American Victor Company from 1902. The Gramophone Company's recording activities covered a wide range of repertoires, and in the field of classical music was especially strong in operatic excerpts. Its principal rival was the Columbia Graphophone Company, which in an attempt to challenge The Gramophone Company's hegemony from 1915 sought dominance in the field of conductors of orchestral music on record.
Columbia's competitive policy bore fruit with the introduction of electrical recording during 1926. This development greatly improved the fidelity of recorded sound. Demand for music which displayed its benefits, such as that written for the orchestra, increased rapidly during the second half of the 1920s, bolstered by strong economic growth. In addition, under the leadership of Sir Louis Sterling, Columbia set about building an international network of recording companies which began to challenge The Gramophone Company.
These two developments - improved sound and commercial competition - drove a significant expansion of the classical music catalogue, as both Columbia and The Gramophone Company sought dominance in the prestigious classical music market. As a result both the number of artists and repertoire represented on record expanded rapidly, and created the foundation of what later was termed 'the music appreciation' repertoire. At the other end of the commercial scale specialised companies, such as the National Gramophonic Society (of which a doctoral student associated with the project, Nicholas Morgan, made a special study), entered the field to develop further those aspects of repertoire, such as chamber music, which it felt the major companies were ignoring.
This rich period of recording activity came to an end in 1931 with the merger of Columbia and The Gramophone Company to form EMI (Electric and Musical Industries). Whereas traditionally the cause of this has been seen to be the consequences of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, our research indicates that plans for the merger were being pursued well before the Crash occurred, and that they conformed closely to more general consolidation strategies pursued on the other side of the Atlantic.
The creation of EMI, the Great Depression which followed the Crash of 1929, and the rise of Fascism, completely changed the landscape for recordings in Europe. Competition effectively was replaced by monopoly. Repertoire development became more restricted and many of the numerous conductors featured on record during the 1920s sank into recorded oblivion. In this relatively limited field the meteoric rise of Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra from 1937 onwards, boosted by trans-continental promotion through both radio and gramophone and later television, had profound consequences for the popular portrayal of the role of the conductor in particular and of recorded musicians in general.
Among the 'lost' musicians of the 1920s are several conductors of interest. They include for instance Albert Coates, a principal conductor at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg both before and after the Russian Revolution of 1917; Sir Dan Godfrey, conductor of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, the forerunner of today's Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Alick Maclean, a leading exponent of the light music of the day and conductor of the Scarborough Spa Orchestra; Percy Pitt, England's first radio conductor, and greatly admired by Richard Strauss; Sir Landon Ronald, a leading figure in the work of The Gramophone Company from its inception; and Sir Henry Wood, the founder of the BBC Promenade Concerts held annually in London.
The dominance of international artists in EMI's classical music catalogues resulted in the work of these musicians gradually fading away, but here are a few examples, both acoustic and electrical (transfers and discographical information kindly provided by Damian Rogan):
- Albert Coates: Gounod: Faust: La Kermesse (mp3 file) / Chorus and Symphony Orchestra, solo baritone possibly Edward Halland (electrical: His Masters Voice D 1047, matrix 7065-II (single sided number 4-0750), recorded 26th October 1925, Hayes, Middlesex).
- Dan Godfrey: Auber: The Bronze Horse Overture (mp3 file) / Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra (electrical: Columbia DX 69, matrices WAX 5565-?, 5566-? (13617, 13616), recorded 1930, Bournemouth Pavilion).
- Alick Maclean: Bizet: Selection from Carmen (mp3 file) / New Queen’s Light Hall Orchestra (acoustic: Columbia L1485, matrices 76991-2, 76992-2, recorded 10th May 1923).
- Percy Pitt: Wagner: Selection from Lohengrin (mp3 file) / BBC Wireless Symphony Orchestra (electrical: Regal G1074, matrices WAX 4598, 4599, recorded circa 1929).
- Landon Ronald: Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture (abridged) (mp3 file) / Royal Albert Hall Orchestra (acoustic: His Masters Voice D133, matrices Cc 1503-II, 1504-II (single-sided numbers 2-0678, 0866), recorded 20th June 1922, London). Side 1 contains bars 1 to 70, omitting the final bars of the opening Andante maestoso. Side 2 begins at the start of the Allegro, and contains bars 81-179, 289-320 and 379- end. The two sides are not joined, given the 11-bar gap.
- Henry Wood: Beethoven: Coriolan Overture (abridged) (mp3 file)/ New Queen’s Hall Orchestra (electrical: Columbia L1021R (third version), matrix: WAX 2578-2, recorded 13th April 1927, Scala Theatre, London).
David Patmore's House conductors pages on the CHARM website contain biographical information about, and recordings by, Landon Ronald and seven of the other best known conductors of the period: Joseph Batten, Gustave Cloez, Piero Coppola, Lorenzo Molajoli, Carlo Sabajno, Bruno Seidler-Winkler, and Frieder Weissmann.
This project was directed by Eric Clarke (formerly University of Sheffield, now University of Oxford), with David Patmore as Project Research Fellow, and Nicholas Morgan as a British Library/University of Sheffield concordat PhD scholar.