Musical Theater on Record: a History of Recorded Music by Ron Penndorf
The Civil War: Mercury's Sound and Music Documentary by Harold Lawrence
Thoughts on the Early Years by Harold Lawrence
Live and Recorded Music: Two Views by Ron Penndorf or W.D.
Of all the types of music, the most difficult to record convincingly on LP is musical theater. It is so because of its complexity. The producer and engineer must not only capture the singers and their songs, but must render characters, dialogue and plot. They must also portray the musical accompaniment, usually a pit orchestra, and sometimes a chorus of characters on stage. And they must do this in a way that reminds the listener of the live performance in a real theater.
Recordings of musical theater reached this level of sophistication only in the 1950s, when the original cast album became a form of entertainment unto itself. But, material from musicals was recorded as early as the 1890s. Musical theater on record has had a long and loved tradition.
It is generally agreed that the first successful production of musical theater in America was The Black Crook. It opened in New York City on September 12, 1866. The story of its creation could itself be the plot of a musical.
The production of The Black Crook. . . achieved unprecedented success, as it were by accident. Two producers, Henry Jarrett and Harry Palmer, had imported a ballet company from Paris, but before the show's opening, the theater burned down. In the meantime another producer, William Wheatley, had announced "The Black Crook-a melodrama without music." The ballet producers-with a company of dancers and minus a theater-conceived of the idea of joining forces with the play producer and converting his melodrama into a musical spectacle. To meet the production demands of this hybrid, the stage at Niblo's Garden had to be remade so that part of it could be slid aside or lowered. The scenery and lighting were elaborate. More than 100 ballet dancers, all exhibiting their legs . . . in tights, were employed. The opening performance lasted five-and-a-half hours. The newspapers were unimpressed by the melodrama, but enthralled by the display of female beauty; and The Black Crook was flocked to by [the] public. . . 1
Of course no records were made at the time of this production. It would take the development, manufacture and marketing of the "talking machine" for this to happen; and popular songs from musical theater were among the first records made.
Among the early recordings of songs from musical theater is "Gypsy Love Song" by Eugene Cowles. The song is from Victor Herbert's The Fortune Teller and was recorded for Berliner on October 20, 1898. It was released as Berliner-1909. Eugene Cowles appeared in the original cast of this production. Recorded on May 8, 1896, also for Berliner (1302), was Maurice Farkoas' "The Laughing Song". Farkoas was a member of the original cast of An Artist's Model. Both were popular songs from the shows, and are acoustic recordings made on one-sided, seven inch, 78RPM discs.
A popular Irish tenor of the period, Chauncey Olcott, sang in a musical show called A Romance of Athlone. The show opened in New York City on January 9, 1899. Among the songs featured in this production was Ollcott's "My Wild Irish Rose", which he recorded for Columbia (A-1308) years later in 1913.
In the late 'teens both Victor and Columbia began to release 78RPM single-record medleys from popular shows. These records hint at the cast album. Sometimes they are recordings of the original cast, while at other times they are studio cast recordings. In November 1919, the Columbia Light Opera Company recorded four selections from Irene on Columbia A-6142, and The Victor Light Opera Company recorded Gems from Irene (Victor 35697) on May 20, 1920. This recording of a medley from a production is an early attempt to recapture something of "the night at the theater." It is an attempt to tell the story on record. Both the Columbia and Victor records are 12" acoustic recordings.
On December 27, 1927 Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Showboat opened in New York City. "Bill", and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", sung by cast member Helen Morgan, were released on Victor 213238 about the same time. Some four months later, in May 1928, the show opened in London. On March 1, 1928, before the production opened, Victor recorded Gems from Showboat (35912). Gems from Showboat is performed by the Victor Light Opera Company, conducted by Paul Whiteman. The record includes "Ol' Man River", "Why do I Love You", "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", "You are Love", and "Make Believe". Although the record label lists the performers as simply, The Victor Light Opera Company, they are in fact members of the London original cast. They include Paul Robeson, who sings "Ol' Man River", and Olive Kline singing "Why do I Love You". The record is not merely a collection of songs but is a production of continuous music, including chorus, orchestra and vocalists. Gems from Showboat, Victor 35912, is a 12", two-sided, 78RPM record. It was recorded electrically.
In Berlin, Die Dreigroschenoper opened in 1928. On August 31, 1928 Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Die Dreigroschenoper had its first performance at the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm. Recordings of songs from this production were made on December 7, 1930 and include "Die Moritat vom Mackie Messer", "Seerauberjenny", "Kanonesong", "Liebeslied", "Barbara-Song", "Absheid", "Zuhälterballade", and "Ballade vom angenehmen Leben". These recordings were released on Telefunken/Ultraphon as 10" records A-752 thru A-755 . "Kanonesong" and "Liebeslied" were released together on Ultraphon A-752, and 1. Akt finale appears on Ultraphon A-753. All were recorded by members of the original cast, including Lotte Lenya and Willy Trenk-Trebitsch. Singers were accompanied by the Lewis Ruth Band directed by Theo Mackeben. Both were from the original cast production. These are exceptionally fine electrical recordings, and Kurt Weill was himself involved with the recorded production.
Weill [was] a major operatic figure in Germany and also a spokesman for the then prevailing vogue for Zeitkunst. The cult of Zeitkunst glorified all art that was vibrantly contemporary in theme and style . . . The operas Weill wrote during this period were admirable examples of this Zeitkunst. The librettos were usually as timely as the front pages of the newspapers, and the musical style was an offspring of the times, borrowing rhythmic and melodic techniques from popular sources. . . In his fabulously successful [Die Dreigroschenoper] he evolved a song form which belonged more to the musical comedy stage than to the opera house . . . [Die Dreigroschenoper received] over four thousand performances in 120 German theaters. 2
The Berlin production of Die Dreigroschenoper ran for almost five years.
Die Dreigroschenoper has been popular in America as The Threepenny Opera; probably because its style fits nicely with that of American musical theater. Productions of it were mounted in New York City in 1933, 1954-55 and 1976. LPs were released of both the 1954-55 (MGM E-3121) and the 1976 (Columbia PS 34326) shows.
At the urging of Otto Klemperer, music from the original production was arranged by Weill as a suite entitled Kleine Dreigroschenmusik; and excerpts from it were recorded by Klemperer with the Berlin Staatsoper orchestra in 1929. It was released on Orchestrola 2131.
An American classic opened on October 10, 1935 at New York City's Alvin Theater. It was George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. In the same year, Victor released an album (Victor C-25) which contained highlights from the production. This set consists of 4-12" 78RPM records and includes "Summertime", "A Woman is a Sometimes Thing", "My Man's Gone Now", "I Got Plenty O'Nuthin'", "Buzzard Song", "Bess, You is My Woman Now", "It Ain't Necessarily So", and "Oh Bess Oh Where's My Bess". The album was made with some members of the original cast as well as artists brought in just for the recording. The orchestra and chorus were from the original production, as was their director Alexander Smallens. Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson were brought in to sing some of the songs that Todd Duncan and Anne Brown sang in the New York production.
The music critics seemed to have had some difficulty in trying to determine what Porgy and Bess really was. . . . Whether Porgy and Bess is really an opera is still being debated; that it is surely one of the most fully realized musical plays of the American theater there is no doubt. By combining elements of the Broadway stage that he knew so well with the more challenging features of opera with which he was less familiar, Gershwin created a theatrical and musical entity that still stands as a drama of towering emotional power and vitality. More than any other work, it is most universally accepted as a genuine American opera. 3
It seems clear that with the folk-opera Porgy and Bess, native American musical theater reached artistic maturity. It had become more than just simple entertainment.
A revival production of Porgy and Bess was mounted in New York in 1942 and opened at the Majestic Theater on January 22. The same year Decca issued two 78 RPM albums of selections from the show. The first, A-145, contained 4-12" records plus a program. The second, A-283, contained 3-10" records. The A-145 volume is one of the first original cast albums. It offers the show's music performed on record exclusively by members of the original cast, and produced so that the listener, in addition to enjoying the songs, gets some sense of the story. The "theater program" was offered with the records in order to help the listener understand the plot.
During the following year, 1943, the records that began the widespread interest in the original cast album were released.
A new musical [by Rodgers and Hammerstein] called Oklahoma!, which had recently opened in New York, was captivating the country with its sunlit tunes. If you asked for them at a record store [because of the American Federation of Musicians' strike] you were out of luck. Oklahoma! was not in the stockpiles. [In September 1943 Decca accepted the AFM terms and began recording again]. One of Decca's first issues . . . was an album of songs from Oklahoma! performed by members of the New York cast. . . . Americans were to buy 1,300,000 copies of the Oklahoma! album-at $5.00 apiece. 4
Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! opened in New York City at the St. James Theater on March 31, 1943. Decca recorded all the music with the original cast and released it in two 78RPM albums. The first album, A-383, contains "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'", "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top", "Kansas City", "I Cain't Say No", "Many a New Day", "People Will Say We're in Love", "Pore Jud is Daid", "Out of My Dreams", "All er Nothin'" and "Oklahoma". The music is arranged in the sequence in which it appeared in the show, beginning with the 'Overture' and ending with the 'Finale'. The listener is meant to hear the music in the order in which it was performed in the theater. These records are in changer sequence. A second album of two 10" records (Decca 23380/81) contains "It's a Scandal! It's an Outrage!", "Lonely Room", and "The Farmer and the Cowhand". Together the two sets contain the complete show music, except for the "Dream Ballet".
Listening to this Decca set of Oklahoma! on a portable 78RPM phonograph helps one get a sense of what it was like to hear the records when they were released in 1943. The sound on these fast spinning, small records is distant and a little scratchy, but the singers and their songs are still very much alive. However, using a portable record player without a changer breaks the continuity of performance, for the listener must change the records by hand every few minutes. A 78RPM record changer, a common piece of equipment in the 40s, provides continuity; for the single records more easily combine to give the listener a sense of "the show". This is especially so if one had gone to a live performance. Changing a record by hand destroys the continuity necessary to give the listener a sense of the story. Playing single records is like playing individual songs, and even playing the records in sequence on a changer doesn't entirely recreate "the evening". Actually having gone to a live performance was a prerequisite for enjoying these early cast albums to their fullest; that is, to recreate 'a night in the theater'. Although Oklahoma! was issued as a cast album, it is still mostly a collection of songs; and without knowing something about the production beforehand, the listener is probably enjoying the album just as a collection of beautiful melodies.
It would take the LP, with its twenty some minutes a side, to provide the continuity necessary to create the illusion of a theater production; for when listening to an LP, it's simply more difficult to play the individual songs. It's much easier to just play the whole record and, in doing so of course, hear the whole show.
In 1948, Columbia released the first "cast album" produced specially for LP, Kiss Me, Kate.
Kiss Me, Kate, the first LP production of a work of musical theater, was recorded by Columbia Records in 1948. The recording was made at Columbia's New York studios and was originally released by the prestigious Masterworks Division as ML 4140. It was later redesignated OL 4140, the OL prefix indicating that it is an original cast album-this is the more common edition. The record contains sixteen songs, an overture and a finale. The songs are placed on the record in the same sequence that they were sung in the show, with the overture at the beginning and, of course, the finale at the end. Although there is a touch of dialogue on the record it is not enough to tell the story. The listener must read the liner notes to get a sense of the plot, or must have seen, or otherwise known about, the production. The LP format, with twenty some minutes a side, does provide continuity.
The singers and musicians on the record are from the original cast; they include Alfred Drake, Patricia Morrison, Lisa Kirk and Harold Lang. The orchestra is directed by Pembroke Davenport.
Kiss Me, Kate was written and composed by Cole Porter, with book by Bella and Samuel Spewack. Songs are arranged by Pembroke Davenport and orchestrations are by Robert Russell Bennett. The Broadway production opened December 30, 1948, at the New Century Theater.
The plot is that of a play within a play.
"In merry and melodious fashion the show describes the Baltimore opening of a revival of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, alternating between Elizabethan jests and Twentieth Century sophistication with style, color and originality . . ."5
Kiss Me, Kate is certainly one of Cole Porter's most successful efforts, and it is his longest running show, with 1077 performances.
"Porter created a score for Kiss Me, Kate that is universally conceded to be his masterpiece. Although as was his customary professional habit, he remained somewhat aloof from the actual production, he was extremely concerned for the way his music fit the characters and the situations. . . Porter's unique accomplishment in Kiss Me, Kate lay in his facility for creating melodies and lyrics of uncommonly high standards while, at the same time, successfully bridging the completely different worlds of Broadway and the Bard."6
Best known among
the songs in Kiss Me, Kate are "Another Op'nin', Another
Show," "Wunderbar," "Too Darn Hot," "Always
True to You (In My Fashion)" and "So in Love."
Although most of the numbers in the show are written for soloist,
there are a few duets and some choral numbers.
Though monaural, the recording is an exceptionally clear one, and is wonderfully warm and simple. The four lead singers are particularly well rendered and the vocal style of each, as well as every voice's special tone and timbre are beautifully captured. Also beautifully presented is what had become the 'musical comedy' style of singing-not quite classical and not quite pop, but characterized by an energetic delivery probably necessary to be heard at the back of a theater. All the singers here sound very real.
The scale of the recording is good and often there is even the illusion of the setting of a theater performance. The accompanying orchestra is always in good balance with the performers, and the orchestra's playing of the overture is particularly exciting- a proper beginning for the show.
This is an extremely natural sounding recording and is a worthy debut for the LP.
With the release of Candide by Columbia (OL 5180) in 1957 the original cast album took on a life quite independent of the staged show. Although the production of Candide ran for only 73 performances, the show was kept alive by the fine-selling record album. The album was a success even though the show wasn't. It simply succeeded on its own. The album does tell the story of the stage production-with a little help from the liner notes-but we must look elsewhere for the record's appeal.
Lillian Hellman's book is based upon Voltaire's satire and the lyrics are mostly written by Richard Wilbur, with a few by John Latouche and Dorothy Parker. The music is, of course, by Leonard Bernstein.
In Candide Bernstein wrote "a mock operetta perfectly in tune with Voltaire's corrosive ridicule of button-eyed optimists. Bernstein's score for Candide (1956) parodied, with great affection, the popular set pieces of nineteenth and early twentieth-century operetta: the coloratura extravaganza ("Glitter and Be Gay"), the grand waltz ("What's the Use?"), the nationalistic dance ("Mazurka" and "Gavotte"), the effervescent choral salute ("Bon Voyage"), the rapturous duets ("Oh Happy We" and "You Were Dead, You Know"), and the contest of vocal power always prompted by quartets ("Quartet Finale to Act I"). The hilarity of these florid, posturing numbers was doubled by their popping up in the middle of earthquake, inquisition, torture, slavery, rape, drowning, and a colorful variety of other degradations visited on Candide and Cunegonde."7
For whatever reason, the show failed, yet the record album was a great success, this in large part because of Bernstein's brilliant score. The music is filled with memorable melody and energetic rhythm. The lyrics of Richard Wilbur, Latouche and Parker regularly bring up chuckles and guffaws. Hellman's plot, though absurd, is good-spirited. Always of high quality and often inspired, the singing too is memorable. Barbara Cook's tour de force "Glitter and Be Gay" is a particular joy to the ear. Max Adrian's delivery of 'worldly advice' as Dr. Pangloss is engaging, and Irra Petina's whining interpretation of "What's the Use?" probes the lyric essence.
Candide opened in New York City at the Martin Beck Theater on December 1, 1956. The Columbia original cast recording was made on December 9, 1956, also in New York City. The cast included Max Adrian, Barbara Cook, Robert Rounseville, Irra Petina, William Olvis, Boris Aplon, William Chapman, George Blackwell, Thomas Pyle, Norman Roland and Robert Mesobian. The chorus and orchestra were conducted by Samuel Krachmalnick. Although the cast album OL 5180 was originally released just in mono, the recording session was done in both monaural and stereo. Candide, then, was the very earliest stereo recording of a cast album, although the stereo version was not released until seven years later in 1963. This stereo version is put together with some alternate takes from the original 1956 session.
The album that
became popular and kept the show alive was the mono version (OL
5180). Beginning with the overture and ending with the finale,
the dialogue and songs are in the same sequence as they appear
in the stage production. This gives the record some dramatic continuity.
Yet this mono album is mostly a showcase for charming melodies
and witty lyrics. It is a collection of great songs, sung with
exuberance and brilliantly interpreted. Perhaps more important
than the music in explaining the album's popularity are the lyrics:
their gentle satire is particularly incisive.
The recorded sound of a 1957 monaural first issue is warm and pleasing, and the recording beautifully renders vocal color and nuance. The character of each voice is pleasantly revealed, and so each singer's individual style is easily heard. The monaural sound is focused with minimal spatial effect. Rather than being aware of the placement of the singers, actors and musicians the listener is aware of timbre, melody, rhythm and lyric-and these are inviting. The mono focus also gives the album great emotional impact.
Although Columbia released stereo records as early as 1958, the stereo takes of the December 9, 1956 Candide recording session were not released until 1963. They were then released as OS 2350.
By 1963 stereo
sales were probably strong enough to warrant a stereo version
of Candide. Or perhaps Columbia felt that the stereo release
of this classic would promote stereo sales. In the mid-sixties
browsing stock in a record store was still generally mono, the
stereo copies being kept in back or understock.
The composition of the stereo release of Candide closely follows the monaural release, though some alternate takes are used for OS 2350. These alternate takes do not at all change the flavor of the album. It is still the same respectfully irreverent piece.
What this early stereo recording does do that the monaural doesn't is give us a sense of a staged production by the skillful suggestion of breadth, depth and height. There is a convincing performance perspective and performance setting, "My Love," "Quartet Finale" and "Make Our Garden Grow" are especially effective.
Often the recording
conveys a sense of being in a theater with the pit orchestra in
front of us and the cast members convincingly arrayed up on a
stage. Yet there is an overall uneasiness or searching quality
about the recording, perhaps because it was one of the earliest
stereo renderings of a musical and because the producers and engineers
were not yet comfortable with their new techniques. Certainly
the occasional clumsy over-dubbing detracts from the otherwise
natural perspective and setting. More importantly some of the
emotional impact of the monaural recording is lost by diluting
the music in stereo space.
Clearly the monaural setting is the more musical one: it's simply easier to hear the funny songs. Yet at its very best the stereo recording gives the listener a feeling of a real staged theater production.
On January 11-15, 1958, at the Afifa Studio in Tempelhof, Berlin, Columbia Records recorded a studio cast production of the complete Kurt Weill and Bertolt BrechtThreepenny Opera. The recording was done in German. Columbia released this recording as a two-record set in 1958 as O2L 257 (Monaural) or O2S 201 (Stereo). Not only was it the first 'complete' work of musical theater to be released in stereo, but it also claimed to be the first complete recording of the original Die Dreigroschenoper. The recording includes music and linking dialogue.
Die Dreigroschenoper is Bertolt Brecht's politicized re-telling of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728). It is re-told to Kurt Weill's music, and Weill's compositions make this a special event. Brecht's satire of decadent society is set among beggars, thieves and prostitutes, yet some of the songs- "Moritat," "Barbara-Lied" and "Seeräuber-Jenny"-have virtually become lieder. This recording presents these 'tunes' without pretense. A colorful expressionist production, this is a world filled with strongly drawn, often grotesque, cartoon characters. It is a place where the singers irreverently belt out and growl out their songs, and it is the home of a blaring honky-tonk band.
The first edition of this set comes in a sturdy box with a color drawing by Ben Shahn on the cover. Inside is an informative and beautifully produced booklet that includes the complete libretto with English translation. Among its illustrations are photos of the recording session plus another full-page Ben Shahn drawing- a pen and ink rendering of three characters from the opera. The photographs of the recording show the singers-soloists and chorus-behind a small orchestra. Where the singers are facing the camera, the orchestra players have their backs to it, and face the singers. Drapes and baffles are at the studio walls, and the session appears to be heavily miked.
Included in the booklet is, an introduction by Goddard Lieberson, Hans W. Heinscheimer's "The Berlin of the Threepenny Opera," and "Rebirth and Homecoming"- a story about Lotte Lenya. There is also a beautifully arranged photo essay of the 1955 Die Dreigroschenoper production at the Theatre de Lys. The booklet was designed by S. Neil Fujita.
This studio cast includes two members of the original 1928 Berlin production-Lotte Lenya and Willy Trenk-Trebitsch-though neither play the roles they played in the original production. In the 1928 production Lotte Lenya played Polly, where she now sings the role of Jenny, and Willy Trenk-Trebitsch now sings Mr. Peachum where he was the original Macheath. Other members of the studio cast include Wolfgang Neuss, Trude Hesterberg, Erich Schellow, Johanna v. Grunert and Inge Wolffberg. The Sender Freies Berlin Orchestra and the Günter Arndt Chorus are conducted by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggerberg. Lotte Lenya's supervision of the production was thought to give it an authentic 'Berlin style.' This recording includes all of the music of the original Berlin show.
The music on this two-record set is arranged as it was performed in the stage production. The song titles give some of the flavor of the show. It begins with "Overture" and continues with "The Ballad of Mack the Knife," "Mr. Peachum's Morning Hymn," "Instead-of Song," "Wedding Song for Poor People," "Canon Song," "Love Song," "Barbara Song," "The Uncertainty of Human Conditions," Polly's Farewell Song," "Intermezzo," "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency," "Pirate Jenny," "The Procurer's Ballad," "The Ballad of Pleasant Living," "The Jealousy Duet," "Fight About the Property-Lucy's Aria," "Ballad About the Question: 'What Keeps a Man Alive,' " "The Song About Inadequacy," "Song of Solomon," "Call from the Grave," "Ballad in Which Macheath Asks Everyone for Forgiveness," "The Riding Messenger," "Threepenny Finale," and "The Reprise."
Dialogue and narration are effectively used not only to connect the songs, but also, along with the music, to reveal the plot.
The atmosphere created for this recording is in keeping with that of The Threepenny Opera. The stereo setting is a small one, like that of a cabaret. It seems to be a place crammed with people. It is a cabaret in which the performers are milling around, moving in and out of the band and toward and around the listeners. This is an intimate performance given in what might be a small, dingy club. The intimacy is furthered by the use of a narrator who seems to be talking just to the listener. The close miking of the singers and actors also contributes to the illusion, for they seem to be in the room with the person listening and performing just for him.
This miking is also extraordinarily accurate and captures well the character of each voice. Finally, artful mixing contributes to the illusion of a small performance and setting.
For this 1958 studio cast Dreigroschenoper the music and dialogue successfully suggest the plot, and the recording sympathetically sets the songs and story.
This two-record album is by itself a musical event.
Though the Dreigroschenoper was originally written for the stage, the 1958 studio cast Dreigroschenoper was performed just for the ear-it was meant to be fully satisfying simply on hearing.
But Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Old Maid and the Thief was written just for the ear. This work was commissioned in 1937 by NBC as an operatic piece of radio theater. Written by a twenty-eight-year-old Menotti, it was first broadcast April 22, 1939, from Studio 8H, Radio City, New York. Traditionally considered an opera rather than a musical, The Old Maid and the Thief is important because it was written to be understood completely on being heard, not seen. And it is very light opera, written after all, for a mass radio audience. It is also a little silly and a touch camp. Perhaps unwittingly it is an opera parody.
The story and dialogue are Menotti's.
Of his work Menotti wrote in 1970, "On listening to The Old Maid and the Thief, I no longer smile at what for a while seemed utter naiveté, but, rather, admire the courage of the young man who wrote it. . . . I had already lived in America for a few years, but my knowledge of the English language was yet rather primitive to say the least. Still, the sound of it fascinated me. I thought that because of its greater sharpness and greater variety of sounds, it offered to the musician much greater rhythmic possibilities than Italian. . . . As for the subject, youthful arrogance, again, encouraged me to tackle what I considered, then, a very American plot . . . . [yet] the opera is more or less stock commedia dell'arte. . . . If The Old Maid and the Thief has any merits, the main one is that it faithfully reveals the young man that I was."8
"The locale could be any typical American town (although the composer's model was West Chester, Pennsylvania). The characters are few: Miss Todd, the "old maid" of the title; Laetita, her maid; Miss Pinkerton, the village gossip; and a vagabond named Bob. Ignoring its Freudian overtones, the plot unfolds straightforwardly: Bob is given shelter by the respectable Miss Todd, and very elaborately waited upon by Laetita. Both women connive and even commit robbery to make Bob comfortable and hopefully, delay his departure. Then comes the news that a notorious criminal is somewhere nearby, and the ladies immediately decide that their Bob is the man. He denies this, but they do not believe him. When he declines Miss Todd's offer to elope (with a honeymoon in France), she threatens to expose him. In the end he is forced to flee, but while he is at it he takes her car and her maid (who by then is more than willing). The turnabout moral of all this: that a truly virtuous woman can make a thief of even an honest man."9
An effective stereo
recording of all this was made by Mercury in 1970. One of Mercury's
last releases, it is SR 90521. Jorge Mester conducts the Orchestra
of the Teatro Verdi di Trieste, with Margaret Baker, soprano,
as Laetita; Judith Blegen, soprano, as Miss Pinkerton; Anna Reynolds,
contralto, as Miss Todd; and John Reardon, baritone, as Bob. (In
addition to his opera roles, John Reardon sang with companies
such as the San Francisco Civic Light Opera and performed in the
musical Kismet.) Jerry Buck was the recording engineer,
and Margaret R. Turner coordinated production.
Conceived in terms of radio transmission,The Old Maid and the Thief takes advantage of . . . radio's realistic sound effects, and best of all, the imaginations of the radio listeners, which permit the invisible audience to conjure up ideal settings and ideal protagonists . . . millions of people seated before their radios . . . heard clearly the words of Mr. Menotti's hour-long opera [and] followed its story with ease . . . The event established the fact that radio opera is an . . . art form . . .10
If The Old Maid and the Thief is a radio opera, then Tommy is a record opera.
Tommy was written expressly for record by Pete Townshend of the rock group The Who, and the original recording was made by this group. "Tommy has become Rock's Pirates of Penzance, [both] through The Who's performances on stage [and] their original album."11 AlthoughTommy was never meant to be a true opera, "The Who's audience and many of the Rock press took it very seriously . . ." 12
was released on May 23, 1969. In the U.S. it was released
on Decca DXSW-7205 and in England on Track Record 2657 002. Both
releases are packaged in the same beautiful two-record gatefold
album designed by Mike McInnerney. Pete Townshend played demo
tapes for McInnerney as early as 1967 so that the artist could
get a feel for the music before designing the album. From that
time on McInnerney played an important role for Townshend. "Mike's
appreciation and reaction to Tommy ideas kept me moving
when the thing was underway . . ."13 Townshend later wrote.
An attractive booklet containing the complete lyrics comes with each album. This booklet is particularly important in helping the listener understand the story and in providing some continuity. The Decca and Track Record issues are slightly different, with some songs from different takes. (The original Track Record albums are numbered limited editions.)
The release of the album brought The Who much-needed recognition in the U.S. and revived the band's career. "Tommy was the crest of a breaking wave for the band [and] it liberated us financially. . . "14 The album resulted in a U.S. tour as well as increased record sales.
In addition to conceiving the story, Pete Townshend wrote most of the songs and music. "In a sense, Tommy really does form a tremendous part of my retrospective writing output. Such a lot of time and energy went into it, so many ideas were used in Tommy. Sometimes they were used up, changed about from original songs intended for other purposes, or written specially for the opera, then ditched."15
In a 1968 late-night interview, an exhausted Townshend revealed, "Well, the album concept in general is complex. . . . it's derived as a result of quite a few things. We've been talking about doing an opera; we've been talking like about doing albums, we've been talking about doing a whole lot of things, and what has happened is that we've condensed all these ideas. . ."16
The story seems simple. It's about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who is healed.
The intense Townshend continued:
The deaf, dumb and blind boy is played by The Who, the musical entity. He's represented musically, represented by a theme which we play, which starts off the opera itself and then there's the song describing the deaf, dumb and blind boy. But what it's really all about is the fact [the boy's] seeing things basically as vibrations which we translate into music. That's what we want to do: create this feeling that when you listen to the music you can actually become aware of the boy, and aware of what he is all about, because we are creating him as we play. . . . inside, the boy sees things musically. . . . He is touched from the outside . . . but he just interprets this as music. . . [Yet] slowly but surely the boy starts . . . to realize that he can see and he can hear and he can speak; they are there and they are all happening all the time. . . . At this point, the theme, which has been the boy, starts to change. . . . The music has got to explain what happens, that the boy elevates, and finds something which is incredible and overwhelming; this is what we want to do musically. . . . every pitfall of what we're trying to say lies in the music . . . The main characters are going to be the boy, and his musical things, he's got a mother and a father and an uncle. . . . The first two big events are when he hears his mother calling him and hears the word, "Tommy" and he devotes a whole part of his life to this one word. The second important event is when he sees himself in a mirror for the first time . . . The music and lyrics become introverted and he starts to talk about himself, starts to talk about his own beauty. Not knowing of course, that what he saw was him. . . . 17
Tommy's tale is a mystical one. "In my first notes I talked of an opera that would tell a spiritual story in a parallel way, from the inside and from the outside, but the solid undercurrent riding through all the material was the fact that I was in a 'newfound spiritual mood.' When looking through my past notes . . . I found prayers to Meher Baba.18 I don't remember praying much before that date, but I do believe in the power of prayer. . . . Some of the prayers I wrote to Meher Baba became lyrics of songs. . . . " Though his use of prayer waned, Pete Townshend maintained his interest in mysticism throughout the writing of Tommy. "Richard [Stanley] was . . . one of the bouncing boards for many of my ideas regarding the early Tommy. I was full of mystical feelings, but Richard, though a great friend, was less interested in Meher Baba than in the music I was coming up with. When I showed him a piece of paper with two lines that embodied the original Tommy theme he seemed pretty confused. . . . The two lines were meant to represent the two aspects of the way we live our lives-the two viewpoints . . . My idea was that I would write a series of songs that flashed between the point of view of reality and the point of view of illusion. . ."19 An intriguing but naive concept, this would eventually change.
Although the composition of Tommy was completed during its recording in late 1968 and early 1969, much of the material was written and composed earlier. In 1966, for instance, Townshend wrote a pop single, "Rael." "Musically it is interesting because it contains a theme which [he] later used in Tommy for 'Sparks' and the 'Underture.' "20
The early composing
of Tommy reveals something of the process of creation and
In 1967 I moved to my wife's flat in Victoria and later to Lower Belgravia (Ebury Street) where Tommy began to take shape. . . . I had a studio at Ebury Street on the top floor. I had nice big playback speakers at the time, and as usual when writing I would prepare demos (test recording of songs) before I even played them to the group or even suggested to the group that there might be a possibility of a song. One of the reasons I still find to this day the need to make a recording of a song myself, is that songwriting to me (and probably to everyone) is a very impulsive process and a very revealing process. . . . Making tapes, complete tapes in fact, you don't just have an idea whether a song is good, you also know whether it is going to be possible to complete it. You get some glimpse as to how best it will be arranged. Perhaps in the process of sorting it out at home, adding instruments-adding organ, drums or bass to a simple guitar part-you'd get the feeling. . . . The most fascinating thing about this recording studio in particular, was that it was the room in which Tommy-the first few songs from Tommy were born. I worked pretty much when I liked . . . In my studio I had a drum kit, an organ, an electric piano, two old Revox stereo tape recorders, a rather ancient but well made microphone mixer, and some odd effects that I used to enhance my recordings-limiters and some echo . . .21
During this time, it became apparent to Townshend that the idea of writing Tommy on two levels was becoming awkward. ". . . it struck me that the two pronged concept was very cumbersome. . . I had to find some way of making the illusion of life organic and graspable by someone listening to the story."22
As he continued to compose, Townshend strove to giveTommy some coherence, to make Tommy more than just related songs. "The hero, still unnamed in 1968, was to begin his operatic career by dying in a car crash. . . . I already had written songs which were to become, 'Welcome', 'Not Gonna Take It', 'Sensation', and 'Sparks', and the 'Underture'. But when the songs that I wrote before Tommy were brought together as an idea they didn't really have any meaning out of context, and it was only later, when I brought them together as part of Tommy, that I saw their meaning. . . . 'Sensation', for example, was another song I wrote before Tommy, and I wrote it about a girl that I felt had a tremendous spiritual presence. At that time the lyric was 'She's a Sensation', rather than 'He's a Sensation'. . . . 'We're not Gonna Take It', the whole finale of Tommy (excluding 'Listening to you, I Get the Music', which was composed at a much later date), was again something that was written before Tommy had actually been formed as a total idea, and that song wasn't about Tommy's devotees at all . . . 'Eyesight to the Blind', I incorporated, because it actually mentioned the words, deaf, dumb, and blind, in it, and then it turned out to be fundamental to the whole idea. The whole concept of 'Holiday Camp' was something that came up much later toward the end of the recording session, and Keith [Moon] suggested that the whole thing be set in a Holiday Camp . . . As we were leaving IBC studios one day . . . Keith said, 'Well I've been thinking that it would be a good idea to set the whole thing in a Holiday Camp' . . . and when I got home I wrote a short piece."23
By late 1968, recording had begun at the IBC Studios in London, but songs continued to be written and rewritten to make the story more coherent and easier to follow. "Still, while we were pottering about in the studio at IBC trying to pull an unfinished story into shape, while I was rewriting lyrics to songs about other things to make them fit. . . the story was made more real and organic, the music more contemporary and reachable."24 Multiple track recording, over-dubbing and sound effects were used to heighten the score. Finally in early 1969 Tommy was finished and the album was ready.
The album was promoted with live concert performances of Tommy, the first given at Dolton, England, on April 22, 1969. A U.S. tour followed which included Woodstock, and in June 1970 The Who gave two performances of Tommy at the Metropolitan opera.
Tommy's sound is pure Rock & Roll, a fabric of electric guitars, drums and raw vocals. The recording itself is elemental, even though it is a highly produced studio mix. The sound is lightly layered with exciting side-to-side movement, but the perspective is a tight one, with setting provided entirely by your listening room. An unsophisticated production, this is a refreshingly simple recording.
The musicians featured on the recording are the members of The Who: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend sing and play guitars; John Entwistle plays bass and horn; and Keith Moon is the percussionist.
The record producer for these sessions was the band's manager, Kit Lambert, and the recording engineer was Damon Lyon-Shaw. (The 'original' master tapes of these sessions have been lost.)
The music, in the order of the Track recording, is "Overture," "It's a Boy," "1921," "Amazing Journey," "Sparks," "The Hawker," "Christmas," "Cousin Kevin," "The Acid Queen," "Underture," "Do You Think It's Alright," "Fiddle About," "Pinball Wizard," "There's a Doctor," "Go to the Mirror," "Tommy Can You Hear Me?," "Smash the Mirror," "Sensation," "Miracle Cure," "Sally Simpson," "I'm Free," "Welcome," "Tommy's Holiday Camp," and "We're Not Gonna Take It." Townshend composed and wrote all but four of the pieces: "The Hawker: Eyesight to the Blind" was written in 1951 by the blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson, "Cousin Kevin" and "Fiddle About" were written by The Who's bass player, John Entwistle, and "Tommy's Holiday Camp" was written by the group's drummer, Keith Moon.
In the Tommy album the songs alone tell a story, and, because of this, the work might be thought of as a song cycle. But the work is more than that, for these lyrics and the music provoke the imagination and create a musical theater of the mind.
Yet Townshend had some reservations. "I had tried desperately during the recording of Tommy to make the story work. . . . In the end though Tommy was disjointed and took quite a lot of explaining." 25
The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released as Parlophone PMC/PMS 7027 on June 1, 1967. Poet and critic Allen Ginsberg described Sgt Pepper as "a towering modern opera" and reviewer Jack Kroll wrote, "It is like a pop Façade, the suite of poems by Edith Sitwell, musicalized by William Walton. Like Façade, Sgt Pepper is a rollicking, probing language-and-sound vaudeville . . . a pulsating collage about mid-century manners and madness . . . "26 Whether fully operatic in nature or just a musical revue, Sgt Pepper certainly is musical theater on record.
The release of Sgt Pepper predates The Who's Tommy by almost two years (Tommy was released on May 23, 1969; Sgt Pepper came out on June 1, 1967). Sgt Pepper is perhaps the original example of the LP as Musical Theater. Where earlier musical theater LPs were collections of songs from musicals, or were used to document a stage production, or even became musical events in themselves through studio recordings, Sgt Pepper involves LP production in music creation: recording becomes composing. Here the recording becomes part of the creative process as tape-generated and manipulated sounds become music. Also, here the length of the musical production is determined by the length of an LP record and, most importantly, recorded sound alone creates the complete dramatic illusion. Sgt Pepper certainly presents the LP itself as Musical Theater.
The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is made up of thirteen numbers. They are in order of appearance: "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"; With A Little Help From My Friends"; Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"; "Getting Better"; "Fixing A Hole"; "She's Leaving Home"; "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!"; "Within You, Without You"; "When I'm Sixty-Four"; "Lovely Rita"; "Good Morning, Good Morning"; "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)"; A Day In The Life." The songs were not composed or recorded in this order; the sequence was determined only after all compositions had been recorded and mixed. But the idea of a "concept" album, that is, an album that tells a story, had been with the Beatles from the album's earliest song.
The first song recorded for Sgt Pepper was "When I'm Sixty-Four." This song, along with the title song, "Sgt Pepper," its "Reprise," and "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite" set the Vaudeville tone of the album and provide some stylistic continuity. "When I'm Sixty-Four," a slightly satiric song, is a tribute to Paul McCartney's father, who loved the music hall. It was recorded on December 20 and 21, 1966, in Studio Two of EMI's Abbey Road facility. The mono mixing took place on December 29-30, 1966, and January 2, 1967, in Studios Two and Three at Abbey Road. The January 2 session was devoted to mono remixes especially for the American market.
It is important to understand that "the only real version of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the mono version. . . . The Beatles were there for all the mono mixes. Then after the album was finished [the producer, George Martin, and engineers Geoff Emerick and Richard Lush] did the stereo in just a few days . . . without a Beatle in sight. There are all sorts of things on the mono, little effects here and there, which the stereo doesn't have. . . . [Further] almost all of the Beatles' recording sessions-including those for Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band-were monitored in the control room through just one mono speaker."27
Recording for what would become the album's last song, "A Day In The Life," began on January 19, 1967, and continued on January 20, February 3 and 10. Monaural mixing was done on February 13 and 22, with the preliminary stereo mixing done on February 23. It's telling that two full days were spent on the monaural mix and only part of one session was spent on the stereo.
The sound and lyrics of "A Day In The Life" betray the Beatles' use of mind-expanding drugs as well as the group's expanding spiritual awareness. It seems right that in the Beatles' highly materialistic society, spiritual awareness would be attributed to things-drugs. The same state of awareness can be achieved, perhaps more blissfully, by meditation or religious conviction. Of course drugs are faster, if more dangerous and more superficial. From the song's start, Paul McCartney's trance like delivery of the lyrics sets an other worlds tenor. Drug-culture phrases like "He blew his mind," "I'd love to turn you on," and "had a smoke and . . . went into a dream" abound. Music illusions are used that can only "truly" be understood by the psychedelic. These effects not only were instantly recognized by people with drug experience, but became important in-group references. Among the memorable examples are the famous twenty-four-bar "whaa, whaa crescendo" and the tantalizingly long fading last note. The "whaa, whaa crescendo" is a product of the innovative yet almost simple-minded use of forty classical musicians. Here, as elsewhere, some of the Beatles' greatest musical creativity is simply a result of their lack of musical sophistication: or could it be their new awareness? It certainly was unusual in 1967 to hear no difference between classical and popular styles, to understand the complete unity of music. "It was Paul who decided upon the best way of filling the 24 bar gap. . . . : an orchestral build-up, with perhaps 90 musicians playing from a pre-selected low note to the highest their respective instruments could play. As usual, the task of making this vision a reality fell to [producer] George Martin. 'At the very beginning I put into the musical score the lowest note each instrument could play, ending with an E-major chord. And at the beginning of each of the 24 bars I put a note showing roughly where they should be at that point. Then I had to instruct them. "We're going to start very very quietly and end up very very loud. We're to start very low in pitch and end up very high. You've got to make your own way up there, as slide-y as possible so that the clarinets slurp, trombones gliss, violins slide without fingering any notes. And whatever you do, don't listen to the fellow next to you because I don't want you to be doing the same thing." Of course they all looked at me as though I was mad.' "28 It didn't make any sense to them because they were all classically trained. And in 1967 the ordinary world of classical music was very, very far removed from the ordinary world of pop music. Yet among the classical musicians assembled for the recording were members of both the Royal Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestras. Present were violinist Erich Gruenberg; oboist Roger Lord; clarinetist Jack Brymer; and French horn player Alan Civil. Civil recalls, "Such a big orchestra playing with very little music." It was very little music perhaps, but it was played for a very big event. In addition to these important classical players, other musicians present included Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richards, and Donovan-an impressive confluence.
On February 1, 1967, the third song for the album was begun-it was the title song, "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." "Sgt Pepper" was recorded February 1-2, March 3, and March 6, with mono mixing done on March 6. Composed from the start as the rec-ord's opener, "Sgt Pepper" sets the album's vaudeville tone. The song also creates the illusion of live performance through the use of recorded audience sounds. The live-audience recordings came from the EMI Sound Effects Library. "Extracts from 'Volume 28: Audience Applause and Atmosphere, Royal Albert Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall' were used for the audience murmuring at the start of the song. The applause and laughter were taken, appropriately, from 'Volume 6: Applause and Laughter,' a tape from the Fortune Theater, London live recording of the 1961 comedy revue Beyond the Fringe." 29 The effects successfully create the excitement of sitting down and getting ready to hear a live performance.
The Beatles next turned their efforts to John Lennon's happy-sad but down-to-earth "Good Morning, Good Morning." A song inspired by an English breakfast cereal commercial, it is about still being awake from the previous night as the world gets up "next morning." "Good Morning, Good Morning" was recorded on February 8, 16, March 13, 28, and 29, 1967, and the mono mix was made on February 16, 20, April 6 and 19, 1967. Some stereo mixing was done on April 6. Again the Beatles devoted much more time to the monaural mix, with four sessions devoted to mono mixing and only part of one to the stereo mix. The many recording sessions were used to overdub music and sound effects. The end result is a forceful sound painting made up of Lennon's acrid vocal, a repeating, reassuring group chorus, raw electric guitar and many recorded morning sounds- especially clanking milk bottles.
"Fixing a Hole" was recorded on February 9, 1967, at
the Regent Sound Studio, London. Since EMI's Abbey Road Studio
was not available that night, the Beatles used this inferior facility.
The recording session began with three full takes of the song-unusual
for the Beatles at this time. The mono mixing took up the entire
February 21 session while the stereo mix was made along with the
mixes of three other songs on April 7. Using a harpsichord like
a rhythm guitar, the wistful "Fixing a Hole" meanders
as if daydreaming. It's as much about "meaning" as it
is about fixing the roof.
Inspired by an old circus poster, Lennon's "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" evokes a carnival mood and furthers the music-hall character of the album. Though a little seedy and surreal, the act certainly entertains. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" was recorded February 17 and 20, 1967, with mono mixing done on March 29 and 31. The surreal sound effects of the carnival midway were done on February 20. Stereo mixing was done on April 7.
My favorite, "Lovely
Rita," was recorded on February 24 and March 7, 1967. Mono
mixing was done on March 21, 1967, and stereo mixing was done
on April 17. Again, more time was spent on the mono mix. As much
as anything, "Lovely Rita" is a funny, apt and telling
look at "mid-century manners."
One entire evening, that of February 28, was spent in the studio just rehearsing Lennon's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." The actual recording was done on March 1 and 2, 1967. Mono mixing was done on March 3 and the stereo mix was made on April 7. "'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' was one of the quickest Sgt Pepper recordings: one night for the rhythm track, one for overdubs." 30 Inspired by a painting of his three-year-old son Julian, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is rich in phantasmagoria-images easily understood and appreciated by his young boy. Though the song's instrumental texture is thick, its subtly different vocal styles provide tantalizing variety.
"Getting Better," the next recorded song, captures the optimism of the period: a time in which some sensed new and exciting possibilities. The recording was done on March 9, 10, 21, and 23, 1967. George Martin played piano for the recording but, rather than using the keyboard, struck the piano strings much the way a classical pianist would render a piece for prepared piano. (During the March 21 recording session Pink Floyd, who were working on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in Abbey Road, met the Beatles. They exchanged "half-hearted hellos." 31) Mono mixing was also done on March 23 and stereo mixing on April 17.
George Harrison's "Within You, Without You" was recorded on March 15, 22 and April 3, 1967, with mixing done on April 3 and 4. "A beautiful blending of Eastern and Western musical styles 'Within You, Without You' was written in early 1967. . . ."32 Its use of Indian instruments was as timely as its Eastern message. It is a work of sweet inspiration.
McCartney's wistful, bittersweet "She's Leaving Home," particularly appropriate in that time of great generational divide, still speaks to this rite of passage. This beautiful ballad's score calls for four violins, two violas, two 'cellos, a bass and a harp. Classical players were used in the recording, which was done on March 17, 1967, with tape reduction and mono mixing done on March 20. Stereo mixing was done on April 17.
"With a Little Help from My Friends" was the last new song to be recorded. It was done March 29 and 30, 1967; the mono mixing was done the next day, March 31. Stereo mixing was done along with mixes for three other songs on April 7. Ringo Starr is the vocalist and makes it through in workmanlike fashion with a little help from his friends-an appropriate illustration of the song's lyrics.
A version of "Sgt
Pepper" known as "The Reprise" was recorded on
April 1, 1967. A tighter version than the original, it was inserted
toward the album's end. The mono mix was made the same day and
the stereo mix, the last for the album, was done on April 20,
With Sgt Pepper, the LP itself becomes a work of musical theater, often composed during recording and completely satisfying in sound alone. At the very least it is a variety show for the ear; at most, a beautifully composed, abstract aural musical. A labor of the '60s it is innovative and brimming over with good feeling.
1 Lehman Engel, The American Musical Theater.
2 Selections from the Weill-Brecht Operas: Three Penny Opera and Mahagonny.
3 Stanley Green, The World of Musical Comedy, 97 and 99.
4 Roland Gelatt, The Fabulous Phonograph 1877-1977, 279 and 280.
5 George Dale, Kiss Me, Kate.
6 Stanley Green, The World of Musical Comedy, 156.
7 Cecil Smith and Glenn Litton, Musical Comedy in America, 233.
8 Gian-Carlo Menotti, The Old Maid and the Thief.
9 James Lyons, The Old Maid and the Thief.
11 Richard Barnes and Pete Townsend, The Story of Tommy.
13 Ibid., 19.
15 Ibid., 6.
16 Jann Wenner, The Rolling Stone. September 14, 1968.
18 Meher Baba (1894-1969) was an Eastern mystic influenced by Sufism. He was silent after 1925 and prophesied (incorrectly) that he would eventually speak the one Word of words.
19 Richard Barnes and Pete Townsend, The Story of Tommy, 22.
20 Ibid., 18.
22 Ibid., 22.
23 Ibid., 22 and 23.
24 Ibid., 30.
25 Ibid., 31.
26 George Martin, With a Little Help from My Friends, 154 and 155.
27 Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions., 108.
28 Ibid., 96.
29 Ibid, 101.
31 Ibid., 104.
32 Ibid., 103.
Barnes, Richard, and Pete Townshend. The Story of Tommy. London, 1977.
Dale, George. Kiss Me, Kate. Columbia Masterworks ML 4140. New York, 1948. Record album liner notes.
Engel, Lehman. The American Musical Theater. New York, 1967.
Gelatt, Roland. The Fabulous Phonograph 1877-1977. New York, 1977.
Green, Stanley. The World of Musical Comedy. New York, 1980.
Lewisohn, Mark. The Beatles Recording Sessions. New York, 1988.
Lyons, James. The Old Maid and the Thief. Mercury SR 90521. Chicago, 1970. Record album liner notes.
Martin, George. With a Little Help from My Friends. New York, 1994.
Menotti, Gian-Carlo. The Old Maid and the Thief. Mercury SR 90521. Chicago, 1970. Record album liner notes.
Selections from the Weill-Brecht Operas: Three Penny Opera and Mahagonny. Telefunken TH 97012. New York. Record album liner notes.
Smith, Cecil, and Glenn Litton. Musical Comedy in America. New York, 1981.
Wenner, Jann. The Rolling Stone. September 14, 1968. San Francisco.
copyright 2001 by Ron Penndorf, RECOLLECTIONS
In publicizing its eleven-hour series, The Civil War, PBS pointed out that producer Ken Burns used hundreds of archival photographs, period paintings, lithographs, posters and other historical visual materials to tell the story of the war. Critic Harry F. Waters gave due credit to the impressive pictorial coverage in his review of the epic documentary. He noted, however, that "ironically, it's the sounds rather than the images that strike most movingly." Waters referred specifically to the authentic-sounding artillery cannonades accompanying the chilling pictures of major battles.
But like most reviewers, he overlooked the fact that the authentic sounds of Civil War weapons, as well as much of the music heard in the series, were taken from the four-LP audio documentary recorded by Mercury Records in 1960 to mark the Civil War Centennial.
In many ways, The Civil War - Its Music and Its Sounds, Mercury Living Presence LP2S 202 (1961-62) was the sonic precursor of the immensely popular PBS TV documentary.
Like Burns, Frederick Fennell was obsessed with authenticity. Founder and director of the Eastman Wind Ensemble, Fennell was determined to create a sonic documentation of the music of the Civil War. "I felt it my vital responsibility," he wrote in 1960, "to seek only that music which was known to have actually been played by the musicians of those (Union and Confederate) regiments . . . on the authentic and unique over-the-shoulder brass instruments for which the music was written, thus to afford the listener a faithful representation of the music of the period in its true and long-forgotten medium of expression."
Fennell was ahead of his time. Today's conductors are unearthing neglected scores and painstakingly re-creating the way music of past centuries really sounded when performed on period instruments.
When Fennell first dreamed of bringing to life the band sounds of mid-19th century America, Civil War music in movies, recordings and television was performed on modern instruments in contemporary arrangements, including the well-intentioned Bales-Columbia album on music of the period.
The idea for the Mercury project was born in a hotel room in Gettysburg in 1956. Along with hundreds of other visitors, Frederick Fennell, had made the pilgrimage to the battlefield and was reading himself to sleep with W.C. Storrick's "The Battle of Gettysburg" when he came across this entry from the diary of Lt. Col. Arthur J. L. Fremantle, a British observer with Lee's forces: "When the cannonade was at its height, a Confederate band of music, between the cemetery and ourselves, began to play polkas and waltzes, which sounded very curious, accompanied by the hissing and bursting of the shells."
At these words, Fennell leaped from bed, dressed and went out into the moonlit field to try to locate the exact spot where the Confederate band had played. As he sat on one of General Longstreet's cannons, his mind raced with the speed of a solid-shot projectile. Why not recreate the music of Civil bands using authentic period instruments?
Fennell approached Howard Hanson, director of the Eastman School of Music and the artistic supervisor of the Eastman School/Mercury Living Presence American Music series, with his idea. Hanson enthusiastically endorsed their project and Fennell plunged ahead.
The first priority was to identify the Confederate band that Fremantle heard on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. For months, he searched through history books, periodicals, Civil War studies, and regimental records of the Confederacy. He struck pure gold when he found a re-print of a speech given by member of the 26th North Carolina Regiment Band. There was no doubt that this was the band referred to in Fremantle's diary.
Finding musical parts for the 26th North Carolina, however, was a big challenge to Fennell. Not surprisingly, there were no printed scores. Fennell observed in his profuse notes for the Mercury album that it wasn't until the next century that bandmasters were supplied with "more than a sometimes-cued one-line cornet part". The original Confederate band parts of the 26th were in varied condition. One had a hole through it, probably caused by a Minie ball during a battle. Others were faded so badly that Fennell had to decipher where the staves and the bar lines were. And the many different musicians who copied music into the individual band parts made lots of mistakes. After struggling with the often illegible parts, Fennell finally arrived at a point where he could test what he'd transcribed.
He invited six Eastman Wind Ensemble players to his studio to read through the 40 tunes he had written out. Errors were fixed as they turned up. Fennell prepared his final band scores from the tapes he recorded at this session.
The musicians of the 26th performed a dual function, Fennell learned, which may account for the amateur-looking parts he found: "They played when it was appropriate for them to do so, cheering the troops in camp or on the march. They served under the surgeon and their military duties were confined to that of field hospital corpsmen."
He had a much easier time with the Union band parts of the Third New Hampshire Regiment, which was formed in 1861 and spent the war years in the Port Royal sector of South Carolina after a Federal expeditionary force landed at Hilton Head and established a permanent garrison there.
Armed with these historic manuscripts, Fennell got to work ferreting out the authentic brass instruments played by Civil War bands. He found most of them in private museums and instrument collections. These horns were designed so that their bells were pointed back to deliver their sounds to the troops marching behind them.
Over-the-shoulder brass instruments were an outgrowth of rotary valve horns which began to be manufactured in Germany and Austria in the early 19th century. An American brass maker, Allen Dodsworth, copied the European designs and, in 1838, "invented" a family of conical-bore rotary valve brasses whose bells pointed back over the left shoulder of the player. The Dodsworths reached their peak during the Civil War when regimental bands North and South used them on parade.
Fennell made a few concessions to practicality in re-constituting his Union and Confederate marching bands. Since there wasn't any appreciable difference in sound between 1860 and 1960 clarinets, he used contemporary instruments. He also decided not to use period fifes as the stretches needed to cover the open holes in the old instruments are simply "too demanding". So he selected piccolos instead.
The job of restoring the antique instruments to playing condition was entrusted to a horn-playing member of the Eastman Wind Ensemble.
There was a dramatic difference between the Confederate orchestrations and those of the Union bands. The 26th North Carolina was made up of over-the-shoulder brass, with no drums. The Port Royal band was a far cry from the simple musical style of their Confederate counterparts. The larger Federal ensemble included 3 piccolos, 4 clarinets, 17 over-the-shoulder horns, and 2 drums, small and large. Fennell contends that there is not one note of cymbal music in the books of any Civil War band. Historical photographs bear him out.
The 26th North Carolina scoring produced a plain, naive, sound. Hearing "Dixie" played by such a small ensemble will come as a refreshing surprise to listeners familiar only with the full band or orchestral versions. The performance on this Mercury Living Presence recording generates a kind of excitement far beyond the number of players.
The rest of the repertoire of the 26th North Carolina consisted largely of hymns, marches, sentimental ballads and quicksteps.
The Port Royal Band's music was more cosmopolitan. Apart from such home-grown products as "Hail to the Chief", "Hail Columbia", and "Cape May Polka", the larger band drew much of its material from Europe, including medleys from operas like Weber's Der Freischutz and Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, Strauss waltzes and the stirring "La Marseillaise".
In addition to the authentic sounds of these re-constructed bands, Fennell devoted the rest of his Civil War musical survey to marching tunes for fifes and drums and cavalry bugle signals.
Fennell discussed the project with Mercury Records from the start. The idea for recreating the sounds of the Battle of Gettysburg was the brainchild of Wilma Cozart Fine, director of the label's classical division. On October 31, 1960, after four years of planning, Fennell and the recording team began to put the pieces together. The Eastman Wind Ensemble assembled on the stage of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester with their lovingly restored period instruments.
It was quite a sight! With his back to the exposed bricks of the Eastman Theatre (the orchestra shell had been removed), Fennell looked out over what was probably the strangest deployment of instruments in recording history. The reeds were placed on the apron of the stage, facing the audience seats. The players were "upset" over losing eye contact with their conductor. Fennell's solution to the problem was simple: he went to the nearest auto supply house and purchased seven rear-view mirrors which he fixed to the music stands.
Unlike the reeds, the horn players faced the conductor, although the bells of their over-the-shoulder instruments pointed toward the microphones on the stage apron. The two percussionists faced each other from positions on either side of the stage. Fennell called it a "heterodox" arrangement - which was his way of saying that "unorthodox" didn't quite do it justice.
The music sessions all took place in December, 1960. But the recording project as a whole actually began in Gettysburg, where the sounds of The Battle were recreated. Drawing on its experience with period weapons the Mercury crew decided to add to its recorded arsenal. With the help of Gerald C. Stowe, curator of the Museum of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and now military adviser to the project, Mercury assembled an impressive array of battle weapons.
All the firing
was recorded on 35mm magnetic film recorders and half-inch three-track
tape machines. In addition, Mercury staged cavalry charges on
the historic site. The cannons were set up across the lower end
of the battlefield, with C.R. Fine's custom-designed recording
van a safe three hundred yards away. The three Schoeps mikes were
placed on 15-foot poles, facing the firing line. Members of Battery
"B" of the 2nd New Jersey Light Artillery Unit rammed
wads of water-soaked paper down the muzzles of the cannons, which
were aimed at a point not too far below the microphones.
Power for the recording equipment came from a special line erected on the highway-half a mile from the truck. Every foot of audio cable that chief engineer could lay his hands on had been brought to the battle site. The microphones were placed on fishpole booms, tall wooden posts, or suspended from clusters of heavy-duty balloons, according to the sounds being recorded. Four Civil War cannons-a 10-lb. cast-iron Parrott, a 3.67 bronze field gun firing a 12-lb. James projectile and two 12-lb. Napoleon bronze gun-howitzers-were recorded firing repeatedly.
The effects tracks included more than cannonades. There were gun crews plunging rammers into muzzles, the clip-clop of horses hooves, rumble of caissons, horses neighing, whish of sabres, rattle of canteens and frying pans in a mess kit, Rebel shouts, firing of sidearms, the cocking of a hammer on a Colt .44 or a Remington revolver, the clatter of ejected cartridges, the lever action of a single-shot Sharp breechloader, the fitting of a bayonet on a rifle and the rapid fire of a 7-shot Spencer repeating rifle (the only rapid-fire repeating rifle Federally issued in the Civil War)-each played a key role in constructing the sound-effects mix.
The task of editing the music and sound effects of the Battle of Gettysburg alone was formidable. Over 1,500 shots from authentic Civil War weapons were combined with music, narration and sound effects, using 93 separate 35mm magnetic film tracks, to create this sonic documentary.
W ithout fanfare,
without the "greatestness" that today accompanies the
publication of a book or the release of a new series of CDs, Decca
Records Ltd quietly issued its renowned 78 RPM "full frequency
range recordings" 55 years ago.
The first record
shop in New York City to receive that historic shipment was The
Gramophone Shop, which was in the business of selling imported
records to a select number of discophiles. Its client list read
like a Who's Who in Music and Letters, including Leonard Bernstein,
Sir John Barbirolli, Edward Albee, Noel Coward, Joseph Szigeti,
and Walter Legge, as well as virtually every serious discophile
in the Western World.
Shop was a record store with a special point of view. It championed
the cause of recorded music at a time when most musicians had
not yet recognized the enormous potential of the medium. In 1936,
it published an Encyclopedia of Recorded Music, meticulously
compiled by R.D. Darrell (today the dean of American record and
audio critics) and containing a foreword by Lawrence Gilman, the
eminent New York Herald Tribune music critic. It also published
a record magazine whose first editor was Herbert Weinstock, biographer
of Handel, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Rossini and Donizetti. The Gramophone
Shop periodical was certainly the first - and probably only -
magazine published by a record shop in which reviewers dared to
criticize records offered for sale on the shelves of the shop
Brogan created his own record label, recorded the legendary soprano,
Maggie Teyte, whom Debussy once accompanied in a song recital
and who was his second Mélisande (after Mary Garden). Brogan
also negotiated exclusive U.S. distribution of James Joyce's historic
recording of excerpts from Finnegans Wake.
When the news
spread that the first European discs to arrive in America since
Pearl Harbor were being unloaded at The Gramophone Shop, record
collectors poured into Joseph Brogan's small emporium to snap
them up. Given access to the basement of the narrow store, these
imported-record-starved customers might have jimmied open the
heavy wooden crates themselves. They would have found such shellac
treasures as Schubert's Die Winterreise sung by Gerhard
Hüsch, the wartime recording of Bach's St. Matthew Passion
with the great Tiana Lemnitz - and the astonishing new Decca ffrr
recording of Khachaturian's Piano Concerto performed by Moura
I had read about
Decca engineer Arthur Haddy's wartime experiments in submarine
detection, which led to the development of new lacquer mastering
techniques. Encouraged by his boss, Sir Edward Lewis, Haddy continued
his pioneering work after the war; he formed a team of recording
engineers which was to have a profound impact on the history of
classical recording for years to come. Haddy gave his new recording
technique a trademark: "full frequency range recording".
As a new employee
of the Gramophone Shop, it was my job to arrive an hour and a
half before the rest of the staff in order to take inventory and
replenish the stock. It also gave me an opportunity to audition
new releases. I can recall my excitement on hearing the Decca/
Khachaturian recording fill the empty shop. It didn't seem possible
that such glorious sounds could emerge from the grooves of a 78
Seven years later,
a young Chicago-based label, Mercury Records, was to make the
same impact on vinyl microgroove that Decca had made on the shellac
disc. I was director of recorded music for radio station WQXR
when Mercury's recording of Pictures at an Exhibition arrived
at our studios in the New York Times building. I programmed it
at once. After the first broadcast, listeners rang the station,
asking for information about the recording. Even with the limitations
of radio transmission, with its dynamic compression, one could
still sense that a threshold in sound had been crossed.
The New York Times
chief music critic, Howard Taubman, described the experience of
listening to the new release as "like being in the living
presence of the orchestra." Always on the alert for marketing
opportunities, Mercury's vice president in charge of the classical
division, Wilma Cozart, seized on Taubman's phrase and made it
part of the label's name. Recalling those heady days, audiophile
and record producer Tam Henderson wrote: "These records had
big bass sound, these records had hall sound, these records had
dynamic range. Each release was an event."
In quick succession,
Mercury released one remarkable recording after another. One spectacular
disc comes to mind: Respighi's Roman Festivals and Church
Windows, conducted by Antal Dorati. "Here are some of
the most awe-inspiring, ear-shattering noises ever played in grooves,"
wrote High Fidelity Magazine's J.F. Indcox in 1956. "Recommended
to owners of really wide-range equipment, but beware of fractured
Engineer C. Robert
Fine's single-microphone technique (used for all of Mercury's
monophonic recordings) became legendary in the recording industry.
When RCA signed an exclusive agreement with the Chicago Symphony
after Mercury's contract with that orchestra expired, it was reported
that the Red Seal recording team interviewed members of the orchestra
as well as Orchestra Hall stagehands to find out exactly where
the Mercury crew had placed its Telefunken microphone for Pictures
and how the orchestral forces were deployed.
Bob Fine's recording
technique was simplicity itself. He disdained the conventional
method of recording orchestras, i.e. placing microphones throughout
the ensemble, in front of sections and individual instruments.
In these multi-microphone setups, the signals from each microphone
were fed into a mixing console operated by an engineer and/or
producer who balanced the inputs. Fine contended that given a
hall with excellent acoustical properties, a single ultra-sensitive
microphone should be capable of capturing the full sound of an
orchestra with clarity, definition and in perfect balance.
The idea of recording
large-scale orchestral works like Ravel's Daphnis and Chloé
or Respighi's Pines of Rome with only one microphone
was bold and innovative, especially considering the state of the
art in April 1951 when Mercury embarked on its "Living Presence"
adventure. Fine/Mercury did not invent single-microphone recording,
of course. In the past, however, the method was employed for the
sake of convenience or budget, rather than as the result of a
carefully conceived approach to sound reproduction.
pre-Living Presence experience was in the pop field, he had an
instinctive "feel" for orchestral recording. He also
understood the needs of the musician for artistic control. Why
should a recording technician have to "ride gain", thereby
manipulating the dynamics of a performance? Surely, this means
encroaching on the realm of the musical interpreter.
Fine also found
the single microphone technique avoided the "flattening effect"
so characteristic of multi-microphone recording.
To achieve these
musical objectives, Fine set out in April 1951 to identify the
"focal point" of Orchestra Hall in Chicago, where Rafael
Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony were to record Ravel's glittering
arrangement of the Mussorgsky score. The aural focal point was
that elusive spot somewhere above and in front of the orchestra
where the sound of every instrument and section will converge.
Like an explorer in the heart of a mysterious new continent, Fine
supported his quest with electronic gear of the highest quality,
starting with a microphone that would respond to the challenge
of the hall.
Fine and the Mercury
team determined the placement of the microphone through close
audition of the orchestra in preliminary takes, shuttling back
and forth from the control room to the hall, changing the height
and angle of the Telefunken microphone, and making critical seating
adjustments. In the end, the microphone was placed 25 feet directly
above the podium. True to Fine's vision, the gain controls on
the Ampex tape recorders were left untouched once the maximum
levels were set.
Fine once again
blazed new trails when he adapted the Living Presence technique
to stereo. Using the single microphone as the center track, he
added two "outrigger" microphones to the setup. He then
used the same method to locate the aural focal point for each
microphone. As in the monophonic sessions, the center track was
designed to capture the sound of the entire orchestra. Expressed
in visual terms, each microphone projected a beam of light; together,
their overlapping beams lit the entire ensemble. The three discrete
signals would be recorded on three-track tape recorders.
At the time Fine
was working on extending the Living Presence technique to stereo,
EMI and RCA were experimenting with binaural "stereo"
- with less than startling results. Their engineers reasoned that
since the ultimate form of a "stereo" recording was
to be on a two-channel tape a binaural pickup would result in
pure stereo. For large musical forces, however, a two-microphone
recording setup produced a "hole in the middle" effect
when the mikes were placed in a widespread configuration. Placed
close together at the center, there was an absence of clarity
around the edges.
By using three
microphones feeding a three-track half-inch tape recorder, Fine
avoided the limitations of binaural recording. Mercury's first
stereo recordings, made in November 1955, set the standard for
the Living Presence catalog for the next 12 years.
When Fine was
developing his idea of recording on three-channel half-inch tape,
no such machine existed. That didn't deter Bob Fine. He discussed
his plan with Ampex and commissioned them to manufacture such
a machine to his specifications.
Next came the
challenge of combining the three discrete channels on to a two-track
master disc. This was achieved by "phantoming" the middle
track into the left and right channels, thus incorporating the
third channel into the final sonic image.
discs were an immediate success. The recording team had succeeded
in capturing an airy spaciousness, spread of sound and depth of
field that placed its entries in the stereo field well ahead of
Much has been written about the Mercury recording technique. A lesser known fact is that the artists who recorded for the label appreciated the technique for purely musical reasons. One such artist was Maria Callas.
The year was 1957.
Mercury's Wilma Cozart had just concluded arrangements to record
Cherubini's Medea at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, with
Callas singing the title role. Callas was at the height of her
powers. Her recreation of the part of Medea created a sensation
at the 1953 Florence May Festival, with Leonard Bernstein conducting,
and she had been performing the role ever since in opera houses
around the world. Bernstein described her interpretation as "pure
colleagues and I expected sparks to fly during the sessions. Sparks
flew, all right, but they were all in Callas's interpretation
of Cherubini's score. Off the stage, the singer was calm and businesslike.
Her special brand of intensity emerged in playback sessions, when
her eyes seemed to enlarge and glow as she relived a scene or
After recording the climactic scene in Act 2, she walked into our small control room with conductor Tullio Serafin and members of the cast. In this scene, Medea is pleading with King Creon to delay her banishment in order to allow her to be with her children one more day. Everyone was congratulating Callas on her moving performance. She listened to their enthusiastic comments, silently. Then she announced that she was dissatisfied:
see, at this moment Medea already knows that she will use that
one day to carry out the revengeful murder of her children. Her
mind is on other things than pleading and the music must bring
out that ominous undertone. I must do it over.
Callas complimented us on the clutter-free recording setup.
What, only three microphones to record the orchestra, the chorus and the soloists! How is it possible? EMI gives us each our own microphone.
Medea was recorded in collaboration with the Italian publishing firm, G. Ricordi. It was one of six operas which Mercury produced in Italy between 1957-1960. For contractual reasons, Mercury lost the manufacturing and distribution rights to these Living Presence recordings in the mid-1960s. They are probably unique in the annals of operatic recording, since all six were recorded using only three microphones.
copyright 2001 by Harold Lawrence, RECOLLECTIONS
Now, as in the past, lovers of music think of live and recorded music in much the same way. This tendency comes from the notion that listening to and appreciating live music and listening to and appreciating recorded music are somehow the same. Not so. The experiences are significantly different. The dissimilarities are many and their consequences are great. Perhaps the differences are large enough to require one set of standards for evaluating music that is recorded and another set for evaluating music that is live. We can no longer pretend that listening to recorded music is the same as listening to live music.
The pretense does a disservice to both, for we are in danger of not hearing each for what it truly is.
There are many factual differences, some of which are obvious. Most obvious is that live music is real and recorded music is a reproduction.
Of course the settings of live music and recorded music are different. Live music is heard in the concert hall, where recorded music is heard in one's listening room. Thus, listening to live music is both an aural and visual experience, where listening to recorded music is entirely an aural experience. Further, the perspective of a live performance is determined by where in the hall the musicians are playing and where the listener is seated. In recorded music the perspective is determined not only by the location of the musicians in the recording setting, but by microphone placement, recording and production techniques, reproducing equipment and finally by the listener's room itself.
In addition, listening to live music is a social experience, while listening to recorded music is usually done alone or in the company of a few. Either way listening to recorded music is a more intimate experience.
With live music the musicians alone create the performance. However, the recorded performance is created not only by the musicians but also by the production staff.
In addition, where in live music the performers, along with hall acoustics, determine the sound, in recorded music the sound is determined not only by the players and setting, but also by the recording process, the playback process and the acoustics of the listening room. Live music is usually transmitted directly to the listener, with the vibrations of instruments and voices arriving at the listener's ears often without benefit of amplification, except perhaps for the effect of the acoustic characteristics of the performance space. But recorded music, in addition, requires combinations of mechanical, electromechanical, electromagnetic or photoelectric processes.
The kind of music that can be heard live is limited to what's being performed and the listener's access to it-a real limitation at the end of the twentieth century. However, the kind of recorded music that can be heard is limited only by the available software. At the twentieth century's end, there are countless available records and CDs. Also, through recording it is possible not only to hear music of the present but music of any era that was recorded and we are not limited to to the currently popular repertoire. So, although it is easy to hear most recorded performances, the repertoire that can be heard live is fairly limited.
Finally, while recorded music can be played at any convenient time, one can listen to live music only at the time of performance.
Some differences are less obvious.
live performances almost always are heard as monaural or as a
vague kind of stereo. But sophisticated stereo, stereo clearly
of three dimensions, is presented best through recordings. The
performance of satisfying and involving breadth and depth is most
often the recorded performance.
Importantly, a recorded performance can be understood as an aural scale model of a live performance. In some cases it may be a full-size model, but it is a model nonetheless. However, the scale is rarely one-to-one-although it certainly can be. The recorded performance is more often a fraction of the size of the live performance. The size of the aural scale model is determined by the recording, the size of the reproducer, the size of the listening room and the playback volume of the recording. The recording may be one-tenth the the size of the live performance, that is, a scale of one to one-tenth; or it may be one-half the size of the real performance; that is one to one-half. The scale may even be one-to-two. That is, the recorded model may be twice the size of the actual performance-for instance a recording of a solo violin piece played through a very large reproducer.
It is important that in a recording, volume and tone should match scale. Life size dynamics in a one to one-half recording would be much too great, as would a one to one tone in a one to one-tenth scale recording. In each case the total illusion would be unsatisfying. Also, in a scale model there must be a balance between the parts and the whole. One to one-tenth-scale detail in a one to one-half-scale aural model would, of course, be unsatisfyingly busy. All the variables of a recording-tone, dynamic range, frequency response, etc.-should be at the same scale to be really pleasing. Naturally, artful highlighting, the kind that is almost imperceptible, can be used to enhance the musical presentation without violating the overall scale of the recording.
Some differences between live music and recorded music, though not strictly factual, can be inferred. Related to the factual differences are differences in perception, i.e., differences in how the music is heard. Because we do not see the recorded performers and only hear the recorded performance, we are not distracted by seeing things that are not musically important. We don't look at the beautiful young 'cellist. Our attention doesn't wander to the attractive decorations in the hall. In our listening room we can close our eyes and concentrate fully on listening. After all, we know our listening-room surroundings intimately. It's simply easier to concentrate on the music without the visual distractions of the concert hall.
Our listening room is also quieter and more comfortable than a concert hall. We have our perfect spot in our favorite chair. We don't have to squirm and shift to find a comfortable position. And if a really good position cannot be found, we can stop the music. Our attention isn't bound by the length of the piece, and we can determine just the right length of time to listen and indulge our ability to focus and concentrate. It's simply more convenient to hear the music in a listening room than in a concert hall.
With a good recording, in a good listening room, in the right spot, we can hear the music more clearly than in even the best seat in a good hall. After all, we have chosen fine high-resolution equipment, planned an excellent listening room, and selected a recorded performance of beautiful music, accurately rendered. We are relaxed, ready for the recording and able to hear the music intimately-to appreciate the recorded music fully.
At best the concert experience is an excellent night out of live music with friends, and perhaps a good meal and a fine wine. Even though, ever so rarely, the performance is magical and the experience unforgettable as no recording can ever be.
And yet, it is very difficult to escape the conviction that live performance is the real, authentic thing, while recorded performance at the beginning of the twenty first century is an imitation.
What typically ends up on a CD is well known to be a pastiche of takes-so much so that even a casual listener can often sense a generic quality, a lack of tension and commitment to the moment and to its emotion as heard in the best live concerts, and, for that matter, in recordings of live concerts. The layers of intervention, of production and engineering, the mere fact of being compressed onto a black or silver disc can seem to rob recordings of the kind of authenticity that we associate with live performance.
In live music, even at its worst, the listener is immersed in the human presence, both the fellow beings of the audience, and the musicians striving visibly to produce the sounds. A rock concert, for example, with its passionate throng of intoxicated attenders, is propelled to a lift-off of communal rapture just by the knowledge that "they" are here, even though "they" are half a mile away on a wired-up stage playing amplified instruments and heard through mega-versions of the same electrical devices we use in listening to records. And in an important way, the live presence of musicians in a concert hall reinforces the sense of occasion, of uniqueness, of everything that can make a concert memorable-even life-changing.
The concert listener, who is also an observer, literally sees where the music is coming from. Rather than being distracting, this seeing can be reinforcing and involving. Who could forget the sight of the horns rising at the end of Mahler's First Symphony, even when seen from the last row of the balcony, and who would claim that this bit of theater, once seen, distracts attention from the music? And the sight of a string quartet playing, with bows flashing, swaying bodies, and glances (above all the glances), can seem to be a complete guide to the conversation inherent in the music.
Even the discomforts of the concert hall or opera house can serve to heighten the musical experience. The cheap seats in Chicago, for instance, or at the old Met, reached by freight elevator, were so high up that one seemed to be hanging out over the stage from above the edge of the dome, with the performance reduced in aural scale to about half size, or less (rather like a record), the singers and players so far away as to seem like little puppets, with no fine movements perceptible, but still present enough to provide a focus, a point toward which to strain one's attention.
But there is more. Music video, for instance, is a curiously unsatisfying medium, with opera video especially inadequate. Even when the sound quality is high, the presence of visual images seems to deflate the gesamtkunstwerk irretrievably, with nothing much left to appreciate but a kind of documentary record of a particular, sometimes interesting, production, or of the physiognomy of a particular, perhaps legendary, singer.
However, listening to opera on record one becomes aware of singular quality of recorded performance, that of perspective, or point of view. One can easily be led to imagine a production going on somewhere behind the speakers, with quite definitely embodied singers perceptibly moving about in the stereophonically defined space. And although the listener's mind's eye probably does not go so far as to conjure up a stage and costumes, this theater of the mind can be quite overwhelming in its very definiteness, much like the actual experience of live opera. The story, the characters, the music, seem to unite in a palpable representation of the work and seem to invite our participation by identification, in the ancient manner of the drama.
And so do recordings of other music invite our participation by identification. For instance, who among us conducts the orchestra from their seat in the audience the way we often do when listening to records? At concerts we assist in the proceedings only by being present-we are witnesses. Listening to records, we are the soloist surrounded by the orchestra; we are Menuhin, we are Nijinsky, we identify.
One thing seems curious. The more literal the recording, the more effective the stereo effect, the more difficult it becomes to identify. This may be an unfortunate side effect of the search for the illusion of reality in recording and playback. Fine recordings of single instruments, such as pianos or 'cellos, however, escape this effect, for in listening to them it is not necessary to locate other instruments and players in phonographic space.
And a paradox. While situated in objective time and space, in a concert hall listening to a performance of a symphony, we can be lifted to such a state of high subjectivity that, if things are going well, we sense the music as a world complete in itself and happening within us. If this doesn't happen, we remain in an objective mood and might even be bored.
With records, on the other hand, we have clear choices. We can listen as an audience of one, paying close attention, and possibly have, as in a concert, the transcendental experience we know some music can bring. Or, we can listen in an utterly objective way, playing a record over and over, listening for details, comparing it almost immediately with other recorded performances, taking pleasure or not, but learning much in any event.
Here again the notion of the aural scale model becomes useful. Just as the live experience of a fighter plane screaming overhead leaves us unable to grasp the actual dimensions of the object causing the commotion along with our emotional reaction to it, the live experience of a musical performance can flash past so quickly, or seem so overwhelmingly dimensionless, that the availability of the recorded, controllable, repeatable, detailed simulation gives us the opportunity to turn the experience around in our mind's ear, to study it from different angles. Even though this quality of repeatability may conceal the seeds of boredom and may neutralize the surprise and novelty that play a large part in our experience of live concerts, there is, as if in compensation, a kind of objectivity born of our ability to hear and rehear recorded details of tempo and phrasing, to perceive the inner workings of a performance.
With records, we are free to choose the uses we make of music, for better or worse. We can be cold-blooded analysts, or passionate transcendentalists, or curious musicologists. We can be kids hearing Beethoven for the first time, led there by a reference in a Beatles song. We can dance to Strauss waltzes without ever seeing the inside of a ballroom. We can listen to Satchmo improvise over and over again.
And we can wish,
with Mort Sahl, for the perfect jazz record, one where the solos
change each time you play it.
copyright 2001 RECOLLECTIONS
Much of this material originally appeared in "RECOLLECTIONS Journal of Recorded Music." Back issues of the journal are available for US$15.00 at RECOLLECTIONS-by email at email@example.com
can also be found and browsed in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive
of the New York Public Library, the Stanford Archive of Recorded
Sound and the Music Department of theChicago Public Library.