In Victorian and Edwardian times, there was a great vogue for female singers with deep, contralto voices, who drew huge audiences to concerts of arias from operas and oratorios as well as popular ballads. Clara Butt (1872–1936) was one of the most famous and was under exclusive contract to The Gramophone Company from 1899, when she made her first recording on a 7-inch Berliner disc. A number of composers wrote songs specially for her, including Sir Edward Elgar (Sea Pictures) and Samuel Liddle (‘Abide With Me’).
She was such an important artist that the company gave her an exclusive rich dark blue label. Imagine the shock at The Gramophone Company’s headquarters at Hayes when it became known in 1915 that Madame Butt had been poached by the company’s arch-rival, the Columbia Graphophone Company! She re-recorded all her principal repertoire for Columbia and remained with them until the end of her career. Sir Thomas Beecham once remarked of her powerful voice that on a clear day one could have heard her across the English Channel.
Listen to Clara Butt rendition of Land of Hope and Glory (Benson/Elgar) Recorded: June 25, 1930. If you’re a SOTH subscriber following by email please go to the actual blog to get the full posting.
“My first visit to Milan..in 1899 was rich in experiences…I often saw Verdi (below) who would regularly take an afternoon drive in an open landau drawn by two horses. People would stand on the curb and raise their hands in salute as the carriages proceeded down the Via Manzoni to the Park. A frail, transparent wisp of a man, but the trim of his pure white beard so corresponded with the popular picture of him that one could not fail to identify him….
Gramophone Company agents were already operating in Italy. Alfred Michalis worked Milan and his brother William worked in Naples. They were building the company but unfortunately the promise of Milan and the Michaelis brothers proved greater than the reality. Almost 250 recordings were made in Milan but the artists were largely “nonentities.” The big stars were not yet interested in or possibly even aware of the new recorded medium. Despite loving the experience of the Italian city, Gaisberg left Milan a tad professionally disappointed in mid-July. Future trips would prove much more successful, including the recording of Caruso in 1902, but until then the memory of the wonderful Italian food would have to suffice. Here’s a photo of Gaisberg and colleague William Sinkler Darby enjoying some local nosebag! It looks like a scene from Lady And The Tramp. Darby is looking up and into the camera and you can see Gaisberg’s trademark boater on the chair opposite him.
And here’s a little bit of Verdi to accompany the meal.
They hooked up with Thomas Birnbaum, the Manager in charge of the German office of The Gramophone Company and made their first recordings in Leipzig. On Tuesday 30th May 1899, they boarded a train at Leipzig station arriving in Budapest where they began recording on the following Saturday.
This picture shows Fred (left on the pianothat is raised up to the level of the recording horn), Sinkler Darby (on the right) and Thomas Birnbaum horsing around with Marcella Lindh, a talented soprano who was based in Budapest at the time. Marcella was not Hungarian; she was American born and had performed with the John Sousa Band. This is probably where Fred knew Marcella from as he had worked with Sousa on several occasions. Lindh was a successful singer in the States, having sung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and various social events in New York area before heading to the continent and ultimately Budapest with her Hungarian husband becoming Marcella Lindh Jellinek in the process. After her husband died, Marcella returned to America, settling in Detroit where she lived until 30 July 1966.
Gaisberg recorded over 200 sessions in Budapest. There do not seem to have been any recordings of Marcella Lindh on this trip which suggests that her visit to the studio was a social one. Many of the sessions were of gypsy style music, including some of this guy, Török Istvan:
As a whole, however, the Budapest stopover did not lead to any landmark recordings. On 15th June the recording team boarded the 8am train to Vienna.
The biggest success of Vienna was the recordings that Gaisberg and Sinkler Darby made of the piano virtuoso Alfred Grunfeld. Grunfeld was one of the great pianists of the era and perhaps the most prominent artist yet recorded at that point in time. Grunfeld played a stand up piano as featured in the photo of Marcella Lindh, above, rather than the grand piano he had been used to. . You can learn more about Grunfeld here, and listen to one of Gaisberg’s recordings of him:
By Christmas 1899 many of the supply chain problems had been fixed and gramophones and discs were pouring into the market. Even the company’s advertising looks established. Here is an advert from that busy season:
The Gramophone Company decided to step up their recording programme in 1899 by sending Fred Gaisberg to the continent to record local artists in several countries. He was to take the recently arrived William Sinkler Darby with him as his assistant. It was to be the first of many great adventures that the two would share in pursuit of “capturing the sounds out of the air.” Here is a picture of the pair of them messing about. Fred is the one looking devotedly at his partner.
The “portable” recording equipment they took with them was anything but… It comprised six large packing cases which weighed up to 260lb’s each.
Birnbaum was in fact a Londoner, born in 1865 to Russian-German parents. He would go on to a significant career with The Gramophone Company in both Russia and Germany.
The three of them reached Leipzig in May 1899 and began sessions on May 17th. Their very first recordings sessions in their first “foreign” city would reap 213 7″ recordings. Recorded artists included the Leipziger Musiker Vereiningung
Clark, pictured above, proved to be a canny businessman. He contacted Trevor Williams, the Chairman of the Gramophone Company and persuaded him to pool resources rather than go head to head against each other.. The Gramophone Company would lead the recording programme. Clark would contribute towards the costs of the recording programme and in return would be able to use the recordings on the cylinders that he would sell for playing on Edison’s phonographs. The Gramophone company would be able to sell the same recordings on their own format. This co-operation seems extraordinary today but Clark was able to secure the deal and it had the consequence of putting more pressure on Fred Gaisberg to deliver more high quality recordings.
To this end, the Managing Director of the Gramophone Company, William Barry Owen, decided to step up the recording programme and send Gaisberg on what must be one of the first field recording trips – to the continent with special portable recording kit.
Fred had moved to London to help grow The Gramophone Company in 1898, leaving Clark behind in Washington. The opportunity of working with Edison gave Clark a chance to follow Gaisberg across the Atlantic but rather than move to London, Alfred Clark took up residence in Paris at the very end of that city’s “naughty nineties”. It must have been a great posting.
As you can see from this handwritten letter by Thomas Edison, Clark was Edison’s representative in the city and his role was to market the Edison cylinders and phonographs. He was also instructed to begin a programme of recordings to rival that being made by Fred Gaisberg. This would put Gaisberg and Clark head to head as they pursued new recordings for their rival companies.
This week we are planning to run a five day series of blog entries about Russell Hunting, a maverick who was involved at the start of the very start of the record business when its pioneers were searching to find the best business model to capitalise on the new sound-recording and playback technology. Hunting tried all sorts of ways to make money. One or two of them sailed close to the wind. None were boring. This is day #4 of 5 about the early years of Russell Hunting.
In the autumn of 1899, the United Kingdom was embroiled in the Boer War and the newspapers were dominated by stories from the front. Fred Gaisberg had the idea for a mini drama to be acted out in the recording studio. But Gaisberg’s friend, Russell Hunting, fresh from his attempts at comedy and semi-pormographic recordings, had a better idea:
It was, as Gaisberg later recalled, for “a descriptive record entitled “The Departure of the Troop Ship”, with crowds at the quayside, bands playing the troops up the gang-plank, bugles sounding “All ashore”, farewell cries of “Don’t forget to write”, troops singing “Home Sweet home”, which gradually receded in the distance, and the far-away mournful hoot of the steamer whistle.
The record became enormously popular and eventually historic. It brought tears to the eyes of thousands, among them those of Melba, who declared in my presence that this record influenced her to make gramophone records more than anything else. I was directly and solely responsible for acquiring “The Departure of the Troopship” for my company, and together with my good colleague Russell Hunting, its author staged the recording. ”
The first London recording studios were established next door to this place. Fred Gaisberg’s early recordings in the capital were made in the Gramophone Company’s premises at 31 Maiden Lane in the Covent Garden area, Rules restaurant was then (and remains to this day) at 35 Maiden Lane. It became a central point to the fledgeling company where both artists and staff congregated to prepare for and wind down after recording sessions. Rules therefore acted as the first studio bar or green room.
Gaisberg remembered these 19th century days in his diary:
“Stout was the great standby of our artists in those days. It amazed me to see the number of empties that accumulated at the end of a sesssion. Harry Fay’s capacity was six bottles, but Ernest Pike and some of the ladies ran him a close second.
In Maiden Lane we kept open house and our good friend Mr Hyde, himself a publican, acted as runner. I had my recording machine ready to recieve at any time the interesting visitors Mr Hyde would bring in from Rule’s”
Interesting to see the opportunistic nature of the early Gaisberg operation. Presumably the arists that Mr Hyde lured up to record had already sung that evening at the nearby opera house in Covent Garden. Also, whilst Fay & Pike were among the early recording artists on The Gramophone Company label, Mr Hyde may have more long term significance as possibly the first ever studio runner. Little is known about him, but we’ll raise a virtual glass to him and all the runners without whom the history of recording would have been very different and certainly a lot drier.
Stouts all round!
And leave you with a recording by the thirsty Harry Fay:
One hundred and eleven years ago today Fred Gaisberg was in the middle of his third big recording expedition. He’d travelled to continental Europe over the summer of 1899 and the British Isles over the autumn of that year and had already made hundreds of the world’s first recordings.
In spring 1900 he and his colleague William Sinkler Darby travelled to Russia to make some more recordings of local artists. You can see them posing in newly purchased fur coats which were necessary to ward off the effects of the savage cold weather they encountered. Gaisberg is on the left.
Getting into pre-revolutionary Russia had proved a task in itself. Their equipment was packed in 7 huge cases and Russian customs extracted a then-hefty £7 charge as duty for it’s import into the country. The country was covered in thick snow and the trip to St Petersburg took 8 days by train but they passed the time giving gramophone concerts at the different stop offs. This would have been the first time the listening people would have heard recorded music. It must have seemed like magic to them. Gaisberg remembers the impact they had:
“We would give a gramophone concert at these stops and the amusement of the natives was great to see. I really think the train tarried an extra long time so we could finish our concert.”
Once they arrived in Russia their principal method of transport was a sleigh. Gaisberg got a real kick out of travelling around on the horse drawn sleighs and volunteered to do a lot of the leg work whilst in Russia because it gave him a chance for more sleigh-rides. It was all very Dr Zhivago. Gaisberg and Darby complained constantly about the cold (which they ward off with local vodka) until 110 years ago today when they bought the bear skin coats that you can see in the photo. Gaisberg’s diary recalls intriguingly:
“Sunday 1st April, 1900. We bought our huge bear-skins. After dinner we visited our friends on Milka Prospect where we met an English chap who was nearly crazy. We cut up high.”