The year under the spotlight is 1888. The date, the same as the publication of this blog: 14 August. The featured inventor is Thomas Edison, to whom companies like Naxos owe their very existence. The new technology: the phonograph.
Not brand spanking new, though. Edison had got his ground-breaking invention out of the blocks eleven years earlier, almost to the day. But it was on 14 August, 1888 that the phonograph’s latest model was paraded before a press conference held in London. The machine had metamorphosed from the prototype to the New Phonograph, the Improved Phonograph and, finally, the Perfected Phonograph, by now using a cylinder coated in wax instead of the original tin foil. Edison had used a nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb, to demonstrate his invention’s first steps in play-back capability. But what was used at that press conference on August 14, 1888 to wow the audience?
The medium chosen was a splendid piece of musical Victoriana by Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) titled The Lost Chord. If you’re puzzled by the name of the composer, think Onward, Christian Soldiers. If you’re curious about the song’s musical style, the postcard shown below gives a clue. The lyrics were taken from “A Lost Chord” by Adelaide Anne Procter, an English poet and philanthropist. The opening stanza sets the scene:
Seated one day at the organ, I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wander’d idly over the noisy keys;
I knew not what I was playing, or what I was dreaming then,
But I struck one chord of music like the sound of a great Amen.
The recording used at the 1888 press conference (for cornet, piano and passing steam train) has thankfully been preserved, and you can hear it by following this YouTube link. Next time you download your latest from the Naxos ClassicsOnline HD•LL, you’ll appreciate just how far we’ve travelled in reaching today’s state of high definition and lossless sound.
Tracing the early stages in that journey, we can use three recordings from the Naxos catalogue as snapshots of audio development. For each extract we’ll focus on the closing section of Sullivan’s song; the words are as follows:
I have sought, but I seek it vainly, that one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the organ and enter’d into mine.
It may be that Death’s bright Angel will speak in that chord again;
It may be that only in Heav’n I shall hear that grand Amen!
The first extract (8.110724) is sung by Enrico Caruso (1873–1921), the legendary Italian operatic tenor (but singers among you may baulk at the snatched breath and breaking of melodic line before the climax). The recording was made in 1912. The three years prior to this had seen Caruso having to cancel performances and undertake an operation to remove nodules from his vocal chords, but his career soon regained a foothold. On the evening of the very day he made this recording (April 29th), Caruso was asked to sing it again live at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where a benefit concert had been arranged to raise money for the families of the victims of the Titanic, which had sunk just two weeks earlier.
Our second extract (8.111385) was made a decade later, in 1922, by the Irish tenor, John MacCormack (1884–1945), who enjoyed a mutual admiration with Caruso. Realising, however, that if he pursued a career in opera he would always be denied supremacy by the Italian, MacCormack wisely chose to plough his talent and energy into recital work. The decision brought him huge professional and financial rewards, including the 1918 accolade by a national music magazine of “the most popular singer in the world”, plus an income of a million dollars a year. Renowned for his remarkable breath control, McCormack had no need for a top-up intake in that approach to the climax, as our clip demonstrates.
The last extract (8.110268) dates from 1931 and features another Italian opera star, Beniamino Gigli (1890–1957) who was at the height of his fame around the time of the recording. The following year he undertook an extensive concert tour of Germany, but managed to lose his passport by the time he arrived at the border. The story goes that he decided to prove his identity by singing a few bars of La donna è mobile to the border guards, which was enough to persuade them to let him pass. Listen out for that breath control issue again.
We’ll let the composer, however, have the last word. In the aftermath of The Lost Chord being featured on that 1888 recording for the London press conference, Sullivan himself recorded a phonograph message for Edison at an event held later in the year by the Edison corporation. This is what he had to say:
“I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening’s experiments—astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever! …I think it is the most wonderful thing that I have ever experienced, and I congratulate you with all my heart on this wonderful discovery.”