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[ARSCLIST] Article in today's WSJ on Collecting 78s.
Interesting article on the Leisure and Arts page of today's WSJ on the joy
of listening to 78s. I thought it was generally well written and certainly
helps to increase awareness of the fun of collecting shellac.
For those who don't get the Journal, I've copied text below. Article has a
graphic of a horn gramophone and 2 78 discs.
Waxing Nostalgic About Early Recordings
By BARRYMORE LAURENCE SCHERER
January 18, 2005; Page D9
Recently, while looking through an old house for sale in our neighborhood, I
came upon a pile of 78s in the attic. (Note to those who regard even vinyl
LPs as antiques: 78 rpm shellac discs were the recording-industry standard
before 1950.) I mentioned my interest to the owner, who was delighted that the
records would have a good home. They had been her grandmother's, and when I
came by to remove them, I discovered that the single pile was only the tip of
the iceberg. There were several hundred in all.
I grew up in the era of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. My family and friends all
played LPs and 45s on their "hi-fi" sets. But a different drummer set my
musical gait. Not only was I drawn to classical music, but I preferred to listen
to it on old 78s. My affinity had been seeded by a small parcel of old
records that had been my grandfather's. They were a motley assortment of 1920s
dance music, comic songs, some orchestral selections and opera records.
Two discs particularly fascinated me: Enrico Caruso singing "Rachel, Quand
du Seigneur" from Hálevy's opera "La Juive" and John McCormack singing "Una
Furtiva Lagrima" from Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore." I loved everything about
these relics: I loved the heft of these old discs in my hands; I loved the way
they sounded, not just the expressive power of the two tenor voices but also
the wheezy orchestras that accompanied them. I loved the way the big red
Victor Talking Machine label looked as it spun so fast on the turntable. (As a
kid, I used to wonder if the dog listening to his master's voice was getting
dizzy.) And I was mystified by the black, blank side of each disc, for until
1923 Victor red seals, the label's premium line, were all single-sided; only
cheaper black seals, and records by other labels were double-faced.
It wasn't until high school that I was able to indulge my passion for old
music on old shellac at the Salvation Army depot on Manhattan's West 46th
Street. There was a room in that blessed establishment piled high with 78s and old
books -- five cents a disc, 10 cents a volume. For $2 I could fill two
shopping bags. I'd stuff one with the works of Lord Macaulay, broken sets of
Bulwer-Lytton, leatherbound texts on practical surgery (whose colored engravings
were just as horrifyingly detailed as any photograph). In the other I'd load 20
78s (as many as I could carry), everything from Franz Léhar conducting
selections from his operettas to Sousa's Band playing his "Pathfinder of Panama"
march and the Peerless Quartet singing "Will You Love Me in December as You Do
in May," with lyrics by New York's dapper future mayor, Jimmy Walker.
Soon I was hunting for the Holy Grail: a genuine spring-wound Victrola. I
finally found a 1917 table model in a little antiques shop in Queens. The price
was $8, and I carried it home in my arms by bus. Upon arriving with my new
treasure, I raised the heavy mahogany lid, savoring the motor's characteristic
aroma of lubricating oil. I wound it up, placed a carefully chosen record on
the green felt turntable, inserted a steel needle in the sound box, and felt
my heart nearly burst as the voices of Caruso, Marcella Sembrich, Antonio
Scotti and their colleagues melded together in my first experience of pure
acoustical reproduction, the "Lucia" Sextet.
Acoustical recording and playback fascinated me because of their sheer
mechanical simplicity. Before the introduction of electrical recording with a
microphone in 1925, the recording industry still used the basic method invented
by Edison in 1877: You sang, spoke or played into a recording horn -- a large
metal funnel -- which collected the sound and channeled it to a recording head
containing a micadiaphragm attached to a cutting stylus. The sound waves
vibrated the diaphragm, which vibrated the stylus, which made a groove along the
surface of a revolving wax disc or, in Edison's case, a cylinder. The
resulting wax master was then used to create metal dies from which records were
pressed. Basically, the process is reversed for playback on a gramophone. No
vacuum tubes, no digital wizardry, no electronic amplification comes between you
and the original performers.
Play a well-preserved acoustical record on a well-preserved gramophone (with
a big external horn) or a Victrola (with the horn concealed inside the
cabinet), and the sound usually surprises listeners because there's hardly any
proverbial "scratchy" surface noise. That noise is only apparent when you play
78s on an electrical pickup, which amplifies the scratch along with the music.
This historical immediacy is especially telling when you consider that a
number of major composers made 78 rpm records, among them Sir Edward Elgar,
Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Ruggiero Leoncavallo supervised the
first complete recording of "Pagliacci" in 1907; four years earlier he had
composed his famous song "Mattinata" especially to fit on a 10-inch disc, and then
accompanied Caruso's recording of it at the piano. And virtually all of this
historic material is available on CD.
More than mere nostalgia, 78s are valuable historic documents of the way
music was performed a century ago. Old 78s have attuned my ear to
early-20th-century performance practice, especially in the case of vocal style, string and
wind articulation, flexible tempo and phrasing that had been standard when
Brahms, Dvorak, Verdi and Puccini were actively composing. For instance,
singers and string players used to slide between important notes of a phrase, an
articulation called portamento that generally vanished by 1950. And thanks to
the crystalline diction of early recording artists, vocal discs, especially
comic songs and scenes by prominent actors and comedians like John Barrymore, Al
Jolson and Billy Murray, document subtle American accents that are no longer
I maintained my interest in old 78s while pursuing the university and
postgraduate degrees that led me from singing to musicology and finally to
journalism. And even though I treasure the thousands of CDs I've collected as a
critic and lecturer, my passion has never abated.
That trove of 78s I found in my neighborhood proved to be gold. Once I began
to sort through them (and to clean off half a century's accumulation of
dust) I was astonished at the variety. There are several complete symphonies and
operas, complete recordings of Gilbert & Sullivan, and an extraordinary
wealth of dance music performed by Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington. There are
discs by Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor (gallows humor on the stock market,
recorded right after the crash in 1929: "Reserve a hotel room and the clerk asks,
'For sleeping or jumping?'"). There's Gershwin playing piano in his "An
American in Paris," Carl Sandburg singing and strumming folk songs, and a
lugubrious ditty called "William Jennings Bryan's Last Fight," praising his old-time
religion upon his death following the Scopes Monkey Trial. And there is a true
novelty, a "Message by His Excellency Benito Mussolini to the North American
People and the Italians of America." Recorded around 1929, in Italian, it
reveals him as having a surprisingly well-modulated voice, quite unlike the
ranting of his Nazi ally to the north.
I admit that I don't often go hunting for such troves -- our house has only
so much room to store them. But I'm one of the lucky ones, for my wife is not
only patient with my obsession but over the years has come to understand it
herself, just as, soon after we met, I came around to her enthusiasm for
Mr. Scherer writes about classical music for the Journal.