SEPTEMBER 24th 2018 — The third issue of THE GRAMOPHONE bears the cover date August 1923.
Reverend Edmund H. Fellowes, Doctor of Music, contributes a one-page article on English Renaissance composer William Byrd to mark the 300th anniversary of his death. This was a time when music from times this far in the past was only starting to be recorded, and its admirers therefore treasured every new release.
Few of these early recordings of Byrd are on Spotify, but four that are are mentioned in the reviews section. All played on the harpsichord by Violet Gordon-Woodhouse:
- “ROWLAND OR LORD WILLOBIE’S WELCOME HOME”, FVB. 160.
- “THE QUEENE’S ALMAN”, FVB. 171.
- “GALIARDA”, FVB. 255.
- “EARLE OF OXFORD’S MARCHE”, FVB. 259.
See this earlier post in this “Let’s read” series for a photo of Ms. Gordon-Woodhouse. She did a lot to increase the popularity of the harpsichord and awareness of its importance in the history of music.
I have to mention one more Byrd song cited in this issue, though the recording is not on Spotify, because it has such a great title: “WHY DO I USE MY PAPER, INK, AND PEN?” Most great composers also had great senses of humor. Bach composed a COFFEE CANTATA.
An aside: These back issues of nearly a century ago (at the time of writing this) are treasures. But they are also relics. For example, the N word appears in this issue.
As someone with an academic background (the unwelcome effects of which I have long worked to shed), I am personally not shocked by such things — because anyone who has done any reading of old texts has seen this type of language in old texts all too often. But it is good to realize times have changed since then.
That said, I assume an intelligent readership, so I won’t be climbing on any soapboxes or wasting space commenting further on matters like this. But I did not want to sweep this under the carpet.
Francis Brett Young in an article called “At Random”:
“A little time since, I was asked to contribute to a symposium on a question raised in America […]: whether the cinematograph had not rendered the novel superfluous. The question seemed to me a silly one, for it disregarded one of the fundamental functions of the novelist, which is the achievement of verbal beauty, with all its suggestions, in prose.”
“Z.” rues the loss of a record:
“I only had an opportunity of playing the last-mentioned record once, when the interpretation made a great impression on me, and I am sorry to say that the disc has disappeared from my review shelves. Perhaps my colleague, Mr. J. Caskett, was so much pleased with it that he has literally devoured it, or it may be that he sat on it by accident and buried the fragments in the garden without daring to confess his crime.”
I miss this kind of relaxed, conversational style in publications like THE GRAMOPHONE (these days minus the definite article). Also, digital music — much as I deeply appreciate it and its availability — means no such anecdotes or musings could come about anymore, except with the hardy souls who never abandoned physical media.
Another flight of fancy from “Z.”:
“Much is lost if they are not played with the loudest needle, and although the scratch is not unduly in evidence, so exquisite is this music that I have never felt such bitterness against chemists for not being able to do what they ought to be able to do. If I were a despot, I would summon before me the leading chemists of the day; I would immure them in a completely equipped laboratory, and I would give them two years to eliminate the scratch from gramophone records. The penalty for failure should be imprisonment for the term of their life in a cell lit by acetylene gas and covered with encaustic tiles. Here they should spend the rest of their unnatural lives, listening day and night to the strains of a cheap gramophone playing on a scratchy record ‘I’M FOR EVER BLOWING BUBBLES’. Their food should be sent in to them from the Eustace Miles restaurant in Chandos Street; their lightest reading should be Freud, Jung, and Ernest Jones; and doubtless, if I really were a despot, I should be able to devise all sorts of additional horrors, which in my present state of limited power I have neither space nor time to enumerate.”
He did well enough already. Eccentric digressions like this in these vintage issues often make me smile. They are very human, and more of human life and of humanity comes through when writers are allowed real freedom of thought and expression, and the luxury of enough space. Something has been lost since these days, at least when it comes to most music journalism.
Less charmingly, “Z.” strays from the eccentric to the crude with this:
“Not that I crave to hear the words of what is one of the most tiresome songs ever written, and one that by some curious misfortune of mine second-rate sopranos always choose to sing whenever I go to a concert in Italy. I nearly committed sopranocidio by throwing a lemon squash at the last woman I heard sing it.”
Hardly gracious or gentlemanly.
So while I admire some aspects of these older approaches to music journalism, things like this occasionally cool these warm feelings.
Back along more amusing lines, “Z.” again of a record:
“I thought that it was a really good record; but, alas, with each succeeding performance it becomes more tinny, and if I play it much more I shall be able to preserve tomatoes in it.”
Frank Swinnerton comments on the limitations of the day’s recording technology:
“The gramophone cannot yet reproduce the letter ‘S’. It cannot yet render satisfactorily the full volume of an orchestra or the pure tone of the pianoforte. Always the orchestra has a tinny vibration — a dwarfing of the original; nearly always the piano has many notes — particularly loud notes — resembling the banjo. Pang, pang, pang… Strings are still the most satisfactory instruments for mechanical reproduction.”
A recording already mentioned in this “Let’s read” series and available on Spotify:
- Norman Allin singing Albert Ketèlbey’s Shakespeare setting “BLOW, BLOW, THOU WINTER WIND”. “Z.” says it “can be used for frightening cats.” I like this composer’s orchestral pieces more, though.
In the “Gramophone Societies’ Reports” (yes, people used to gather together to listen to music on the gramophone), Ernest Baker of The South-East London (Recorded) Music Society comments on Wagner’s music:
“It covers the whole gamut of musical emotion; it has such amazing descriptive power and is so full of pure musical beauties. We have the music of the sea, of fire, the air, love, life, and death — all painted by a master-hand upon an immense canvas.”
All this reminds me of Iceland as well.
An article called “A Decca Romance” tells the story of a portable Decca gramophone that a British battalion hauled around in “a large clothes basket” in World War I. Everyone brought back records when on leave, in England or Paris, for example, and records were also ordered by post.
“Strange homes that old Decca has had, up and down the villages of France, in ruined houses, in huts, in tents, in transport lines.”
After the war was over:
“It was put up for a raffle in the village, and no less a sum than five pounds was raised for the Benevolent Fund of the battalion’s Old Comrades’ Association, while the man who won it for one shilling is not grumbling at his bargain. Long may it flourish in its new home!”
Wagner pieces or extracts mentioned in this issue with some relevance to Icelandic sagas (though none of the recordings mentioned is on Spotify), cited again here for their evocative titles (Wotan = Óðinn / Odin):
“Forging Songs” / “Siegfried Forges the Broken Sword”
“Mime’s Treachery to Siegfried”
“Siegfried Follows the Forest Bird”
“Brünnhilde Hails the Radiant Sun”
“Brünnhilde Recalls Her Valkyrie Days”
“Introduction: Wotan Invokes Erda”
“Siegfried’s Ascent to the Valkyrie Rock”
“Brünnhilde Yields to Siegfried”
Plus the related composition, not part of the opera:
GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG (TWILIGHT OF THE GODS)
“The Parting of Brünnhilde and Siegfried”
“Hagen Meditates Revenge”
“Gunther and Gutrune Welcome Siegfried”
“Prelude: The Rhinemaidens Scene”
“Brünnhilde Kindles the Funeral Pyre”
Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 3 — August 1923”:
This issue is available as part of the magazine’s digital archive, which every subscriber (a month or a year, digital or print+digital) gets access to.
Earlier entries in this series: