Updated and enhanced version of a lecture paper, held on May 9th 2010 by Stephan Puille, Berlin at the 11th International Conference of Discography (“11. Diskografentag”) in Hildesheim.
In late October 1889, Adelbert Theodore Wangemann, Edison’s emissary for the introduction the improved phonograph into Europe, arrived in Vienna, where he stayed at the Grand Hotel. The bearded Wangemann is seen standing behind Edison on the only image I know of him (see figure 1). Soon after his arrival, Wangemann received from the Edison Laboratory in West Orange new cylinder blanks of a light yellowish brown colour, mixed from a new and more stable compound which was better adapted for recording music. They replaced the soft, sticky white wax blanks used until then. (1)
Fig. 1: The bearded Wangemann standing behind Edison
In the forenoon, the phonograph was reserved for important artists and academics, to make the instrument known and, of course, to make recordings, which Wangemann afterwards performed to notables for free, and at public gatherings against payment. Six persons could always hear the phonograph at the same time through earphones. Demonstrations with mounted horn were also performed occasionally, but the sound was less true to the original, being much lower and metallic.
The visit of Johannes Brahms at the Vienna Grand Hotel on October 30th, 1889 was especially highlighted by the press. (2) Brahms heard, among other things, an aria sung by Lili Lehmann, a spoken telegram by Werner von Siemens and a piano piece. Filled with enthusiasm he wrote to Clara Schumann: “It’s as though one were living a fairy-tale” (3), and presented Wangemann a dedicated picture of himself. Three days later, the mezzosoprano Rosa Papier recorded Brahms’ “Sapphische Ode”, which was soon afterwards performed to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. A press report mentions the recording of some of Brahms’ dances by the famous pianist Alfred Grünfeld with a newly introduced funnel on November 14th, 1889, which was mounted at the underside of the instrument. (4) On December 2nd, 1889 a few days after a private gathering at the house of Dr. Richard Albert Fellinger, the head of the Vienna branch of the important firm of Siemens & Halske, Wangemann came back to demonstrate some of his latest cylinders and to record Johannes Brahms, as arranged with him before.
Richard Fellinger, one of Dr. Fellinger’s sons, described the order of events: At first, Brahms was so excited that he felt unable to perform. When he was ready, he couldn’t wait and teased poor Wangemann and his assistant to hurry. As with Grünfeld, the funnel was mounted at the underside of the piano. Wangemann spoke an introduction in German. Suddenly Brahms interrupted him calling out: “Gespielt von Frau Dr. Fellinger!”, and began playing. (5)
The introduction by Brahms, at least as reported by Richard Fellinger, would make no sense. Fellinger must have wrongly or imperfectly remembered the incident, but perhaps there is some truth in what he wrote. It seems to me that the introduction is indeed spoken by two persons: “Dezember 1889, [and in another voice] im Haus von Herrn Doktor Fellinger, by [sic] Herrn Doktor Brahms, Johannes Brahms.”
The cylinder, presented by Wangemann to Dr. Fellinger on this evening, was long forgotten by the public when his son Richard Fellinger noted in his memoirs that it was extremely difficult to reproduce, because the sound was too weak and, despite of several attempts, a suitable method hadn't yet been found. (6) Obviously the cylinder was played more than once on a phonograph the family had bought for that purpose. Early cylinders are comparatively soft, requiring a lightweight reproducer like the Edison “Standard” speaker, and are usually reproduced by earphones. The family members certainly had no clue about such technical refinement. I am sure they employed a common Edison phonograph model with a heavy “Automatic” or, even worse, a “Model C” reproducer and stressed the groove with each play-back. Later, the phonograph was equipped with an electric reproducer, but the damage was already done.
The course of events in January 1935 is controversial. Ludwig Koch, director of the culture department of Carl Lindström AG (see figure 2), claimed that Fellinger approached him, asking if he would try to improve the recording by transferring it to disc. (7) Fritz Bose, director of the newly created music department of the Institute for Sound Research at the University of Berlin, which was founded on April 1st, 1920 by Wilhelm Doegen as Archive of Sound, told another story. Thus Bose had discovered the Brahms cylinder and written Fellinger on January 12th, 1935 for his approval to dub the cylinder to disc, to which the same had consented four days later. (8) Be that as it may, Fellinger handed over the precious cylinder, padded with cotton wool, in a special box manufactured of mahagony and crystal glass.
Fig. 2: Ludwig Koch during field recordings
When he was a boy, Ludwig Koch had met Johannes Brahms who told him about the cylinder of 1889, but the famous pianist did not know what became of it. Naturally, Koch was extremely curious about the recording, but wrote in 1955 that the piano could hardly be distinguished through the loud noises due to inexperienced recording. (9) This was a posthumous slap in the face of Wangemann, responsible for Edison’s recording department since 1888, who had died 1906 in a train accident. Despite the shortcomings, the cylinder was important enough and Fritz Bose exploited its rediscovery and transfer on disc in the national press.
No doubt it was also a valuable addition to the stock of the Institute for Sound Research. Each recording made for the collection of the institute was documented in an application form. Fritz Bose had approved serial number La 1415, recorded at a quarter past six in the evening of January 23rd, 1935. The application form mentions that the sound level of the Strauss waltz was lower than the record groove noise, and that the dubbing was therefore broken off after the last bars of the preceding Hungarian Dance. (10)
Ludwig Koch was responsible for the transfer by means of either a microphone put up in front of a phonograph horn or, more likely, an electric pick-up applied on an Edison phonograph. The signal output was amplified and filtered from disturbing noises before it drove a cutting head to inscribe the sound on Draloston disc. (11) This recording medium, an aluminium disc coated with a thin layer of lacquer, had been manufactured since 1932 by the Dralowid plant in Berlin, Pankow. The lacquer was soft enough to be cut and less fragile than wax. After hardening in an oven for two hours it could be replayed a number of times.
The small monogram “OB”, an acronym for Lindström’s recording engineer Otto Birkhahn (12), followed by the sequenze number “9” is carved in the dead wax under the serial number and the letter “P”, which has yet to be interpreted (see figure 3). Birkhahn transferred the sound recording from the Draloston disc, completed with a spoken introduction, to the wax master. By electroplating the wax master, a stamper was created to press a small number of shellac discs. All had a paper label of the Institute for Sound Research with handwritten information. Instrumental recordings like the Brahms disc got an orange label, voice recordings a green label (see figure 4). (13) The German inscription reads “Brahms Edison Walze überspielt 1935” (Brahms Edison cylinder dubbed 1935).
Fig. 3: Otto Birkhahn’s small monogram “OB” to the very left, under the mysterious letter “P”
and the serial number “La 1415”, whereby “La” is synonymous for Archive of Sound (“Lautarchiv”)
On June 3rd, 1937, under pressure from Fritz Bose who stirred up hatred against the Fellingers claiming that they deprived the Brahms recording from the German people, the cylinder was presented to Professor Georg Schünemann, director of the music department of the then Prussian State Library in Berlin. (14) On September 20th, 1938, only three and a half years after the first transfer, the Brahms cylinder was again dubbed on disc. At least two takes were recorded, this time also containing the Strauss waltz, and subsequently pressed by Telefunken Platte G.m.b.H. on a small number of double-sided shellac discs. The music department at Berlin State Library holds two samples of the Telefunken disc. (15)
All stampers kept in the Institute for Sound Research in Berlin were melted down during the war, and the 1935 Brahms transfer is not among the 4500 surviving shellac pressings. Hence it was thought that all that remained was the Draloston disc presented by Ludwig Koch to the National Sound Archive in London, now a department of the British Library. But a short time ago, a genuine Lindström pressing of 1935 in good condition surfaced which is now in my possession. (16)
Fig. 4: Label scan of the 1935 Lindström pressing
On December 20th, 2010, I heard at the Berlin State Library a transfer of both Telefunken shellac pressings on DAT tape, with the sad conclusion that the original 1889 recording had gotten much worse in the short period between 1935 and 1938. Only fragments of both the introduction and Brahms’ piano playing, disturbed by numerous pops from cracks, could be identified. Besides physical damage by breakage, the cylinder was obviously played once more with the wrong reproducer before the small remnants were again dubbed on disc.
At least the cylinder itself survived the war. On March 30th, 2011, I examined the original Brahms cylinder at the Berlin State Library. Judging by optical evaluation, the wax substance is in good condition and free from mold, but many grooves, especially in and after the middle section, are worn out beyond reconstructibility. Furthermore, the cylinder was cracked several times over its entire length with loss of substance. A large piece from the left rim had broken-off, affecting the first fifty grooves, and was missing until 1997, when the cylinder was reconstructed and glued together with a mixture of wax and epoxy resin during an elaborate restoration at the Phonogram Archive in Vienna. As a positive result, the cylinder can now safely be handled and viewed from all sides. After the restoration the cylinder was transferred at the Phonogram Archive and published on CD. (17)
to the Johannes Brahms transfer of the 1935 Lindström pressing:
2011 by Stephan Puille