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. Updated on March 12, 2013
On 15 June 1889, Adelbert Theodor Edward ("Theo") Wangemann, Thomas Alva Edison’s emissary for the introduction of the improved phonograph, started out on a trip to Europe. (1) On 25 October 1889, after visiting Paris and Berlin, he arrived in Vienna, where he stayed at the Grand Hotel. The bearded Wangemann is seen standing behind Edison on an image taken in mid-June 1888 (see figure 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 for free to notables and at public gatherings. 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 30 October 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 I. A press report mentions the recording of some of Brahms’ dances by the famous pianist Alfred Grünfeld with a newly introduced funnel on 14 November 1889, which was mounted at the underside of the instrument. (4) On 2 December 1889, a few days after a private gathering at the house of Dr. Richard Albert Fellinger, the head of the Vienna branch of the 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, the mechanic Devrient of Siemens & Halske in Berlin, 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) A close inspection of the announcement on the Brahms cylinder revealed a most interesting result which supports Richard Fellinger's testimony! Wangemann firstly named the date: "Dezember 1889." Shortly afterwards the recording was interrupted and restarted after an unknown period of time. This time it was clearly another, audibly excited and nervous voice which shouted: "im Haus von Herrn Doktor Fellinger, by [bei?] Herrn Doktor Brahms, Johannes Brahms." This kind of announcement, for example naming the recorded person twice, is unparalleled in all known recordings under the supervision of Wangemann. The Fellingers surely kept the remembrance of the adored Brahms recording in their music room alive. Even if we must take into account that Richard Fellinger wrote down his memories more than fourty years later, I cannot imagine that he errs in the important detail of Brahms announcing his own recording.
The use of "by" instead of the German form "von," has already led to much speculation about the identity of the announcer in the past. In case it is really "by" and not a slip of the tongue ("bei"), I cannot provide a solution but a possible explanation. Brahms heard a larger number of cylinders before he himself recorded. Wangemann probably recorded hundreds of notables during his stay in Europe and only a small fraction of their recordings came down to us. One of these could be important to solve the mystery, because "by" ("bei"?) is also heard in Wangemann's announcement of the recording of the baritone Karl Mayer, accompanied by the pianist Franz Wüllner in January 1890 in Cologne. I treat this and other recordings in my essay (see endnote 1). Could it be that Brahms adopted Wangemann's diction in this detail? I am of course open for further discussions on this matter.
The Brahms 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 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 A.G. (see figure 2), claimed that Richard 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 1 April 1920 by Wilhelm Doegen as Archive of Sound, told another story. Thus, Bose had noticed a report on the Brahms cylinder and written Fellinger on 12 January 1935 for his approval to dub it 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 composer and 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. Despite its obvious shortcomings, the cylinder was a national icon and Fritz Bose exploited its rediscovery and transfer in the press. As the galvanic copying process would have involved the destruction of the cylinder, it was decided to cut the Brahms recording on a wax disc. Each recording made for the collection of the Institute for Sound Research was documented in an application form. For the Brahms cylinder, Fritz Bose had approved serial number La 1415, recorded at a quarter past six in the evening of 23 January 1935 in the Lindström recording studio in Berlin. (10)
Although Bose claimed the carrying out for himself, (11) Ludwig Koch was quite likely responsible for the transfer. He directly applied a microphone on the reproducer of an, purportedly, Edison phonograph type "Class M," driven by an electric motor. I infer this from Bose's statement, that an Edison phonograph from the time of origin of the cylinder had been employed. The signal output from the microphone was amplified and filtered from high and low frequency noises before it drove a cutting head to inscribe the sound in the wax. As reported in the above mentioned application form, the sound level of the Strauss waltz was lower than the record groove noise, and the dubbing was therefore broken off after the last bars of the preceding Hungarian Dance (No. 1 in G minor, author's note). After recording, an acetate was cut from the wax disc and kept by Ludwig Koch.
In a second step, performed by Lindström’s recording engineer Otto Birkhahn, whose acronym "OB" (12) followed by the sequenze number “9” is carved in the dead wax under the serial number La 1415 (see figure 3), a spoken introduction was added to the Brahms recording. Finally, by electroplating the wax master, a stamper was created to press a small number of shellac discs for the use of the Institute for Sound Research and very few other archives. All pressings 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
serial number La 1415, whereby “La” is synonymous for Archive of Sound (“Lautarchiv”)
On 3 June 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 20 September 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 were melted down during the war and the Lindström pressings could neither be found in Berlin nor in other archives. Hence it was thought that all that remained was the acetate presented by Ludwig Koch to the National Sound Archive in London, now a department of the British Library. Luckily, a short time ago, a genuine Lindström pressing of 1935 in good condition surfaced which is now in my possession. If reproduced with the standard speed of 78 rpm, the Hungarian dance is performed in the "wrong" key of A minor. I am grateful to Mr. Roman Flury for pointing this out. Provided that Brahms did not change the key, it follows that the playback speed of the Brahms cylinder was set too fast during transfer. To correct the speed for the digital transfer, please note the added audio file at the bottom of my essay, the Lindström disc was reproduced with a speed of only 71,5 rpm. (16)
Fig. 4: Label scan of the 1935 Lindström pressing
On 20 December 2010, at the Berlin State Library, I heard a transfer of both Telefunken discs on DAT tape, with the sad conclusion, that the Brahms cylinder had gotten much worse in the short period between 1935 and 1938. Only fragments of the piano playing, disturbed by numerous pops from cracks, could be identified. Besides physical damage by breakage, the cylinder was obviously played with the wrong reproducer before the small remnants were again dubbed on disc.
At least the cylinder itself survived the war. On 30 March 2011, I examined the original Brahms cylinder at the Berlin State Library. Judging by optical evaluation, the light ochre 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 is 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 fixed and reconstructed 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)
Listen to Johannes Brahms performing his Hungarian Dance in G minor from the 1935 Lindström pressing:
2013 by Stephan Puille
Published by Verlag Norman Bruderhofer
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