"This is not a high fidelity record"
August 19, 2011 11:30 PM   Subscribe

In 1900, Lionel Mapleson - librarian at the Metropolitan Opera - acquired a Bettini cylinder recorder. Equipped with the machine and a giant recording horn, Mapleson began to make covert recordings of Met performances from the flies of the stage. Over the next few years, he made some of the earliest live recordings (and in some cases the only recordings) of many of the most popular voices of the late 19th and early 20th century. (Sometimes he also recorded his family).

"Voices in those days had more sound-pressure level than their modern counterparts... I spent 1 1/2 years doing acoustical analyses of these cylinders and I find that when I compare the results with modern test cylinders, I find that singers in the 1900's projected better from a technical standpoint than singers do now... Those live performances are much better than most of the recent material that I work with, so they must have been doing something right."

(Acoustical engineeer Tom Owens, who worked on the restoration of the cylinders after their rediscovery, in a 1985 New Yorker write-up which is sadly behind a paywall).

The liner notes of the New York Public Library's 1985 restoration and release of the recordings are chock-full of other exciting technical information, details, and minutia.


Of the recordings of the cylinders available on YouTube, these are among the most listenable:

1903 (also here) - excerpts from Act 3 of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, with the voice of Lillian Nordica, also known in her day as the face of Coca Cola.

1903 - excerpt from Act 2 of Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, with the voice of Antonio Scotti.

1903 - excerpt from Verdi's Ernani, with the voices of Antonio Scotti, Marcella Sembrich, Emilio de Marchi, and Edouard de Reszke.

1902 - excerpt from Wagner's Tannhäuser, with the voices of Johanna Gadski and Emil Gerhäuser.

1901 - excerpt from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, with the voices of Jean de Reszke and Lucienne Breval.
posted by bubukaba (13 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Mapleson began to make covert recordings of Met performances from the flies of the stage

Wow! The first bootleg taper I reckon! Thanks for the post!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:54 PM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

The first Bootlegger! If there had been an RIAA in those days, he'd have spent the rest of his life in jail. (maybe some things way back then WERE better)
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:54 PM on August 19, 2011

that's my second JINX this evening. I quit.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:55 PM on August 19, 2011

Wow. they're not easy listening, but thank you all the same. There's something about really old recordings that just sends a chill up my spine - especially the family one.

Also, isn't there something just a wee bit ironic about the New Yorker deciding to enforce their copyright on an article about a publicly funded project to restore the works of an illegal clandestine recording artist..
posted by Ahab at 11:59 PM on August 19, 2011

If there had been an RIAA in those days

IIRC, there was an RIAA-equivalent at the time. They got their jollies going after player-piano rolls.
posted by hattifattener at 12:41 AM on August 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's difficult to imagine him doing anything "covert" with that four-foot high horn. But listen to those voices coming through the fog of time. You really can hear the brilliance and projection. What presence. They liveth!
posted by shambles at 4:26 AM on August 20, 2011

I cannot begin to tell you just how much up my street all of this is. Best of the web. You've made my weekend.

That family recording is extraordinary: I keep thinking, 1902? The son of Queen Victoria's librarian? Astonishing.
posted by pyotrstolypin at 4:47 AM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

The restoration was in 1985? It seems like, with today's much more modern technology, they could probably do a lot to increase the fidelity and such of those recordings if they were to take another pass at restoring them now.
posted by hippybear at 4:49 AM on August 20, 2011

This post, it is very good.
posted by killdevil at 6:56 AM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like that technologies for listening and technologies for recording happen about the same time, and that has it is easier to listen it is easier to distribute and record. This is really awesome!
posted by PinkMoose at 10:21 AM on August 20, 2011

hippybear, I was wondering about that too. Tom Owen, the acoustical engineer, sort of addresses the question at the bottom of the "restoration" link above (he basically says, "yeah - but then you'd also lose all of these important and subtle vocal qualities, not to mention the captured "room sound" of the Met" - but that's still 1985 talking.

There's an uncited statement in the Wikipedia page on the cylinders that says, "In 2000, David Hamilton and Seth Winner gave a lecture-demonstration to determine if any more sound information could be retrieved from the cylinders using the most modern technology then available. Their verdict was that the cylinders are now too deteriorated to retrieve much more information than previous dubbings."

So maybe that's it - but who knows?
posted by bubukaba at 10:33 AM on August 20, 2011

Thank you thank you thank you.
posted by jokeefe at 11:05 AM on August 20, 2011

Ok first, totally spooky.
Second, omg! People really did talk like that. Why don't people talk like that anymore?
posted by Glinn at 8:38 PM on August 20, 2011

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