1925 - First Electric Recordings of
Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski - Philadelphia Orchestra
1925 - First Electrical Recordings
Joseph P. Maxfield and Henry C. Harrison
of the Bell Laboratories
As described in the page: Bell Laboratories development of the Western Electric electrical recording system by late 1924, Bell Telephone Laboratories, lead by Joseph P. Maxfield and Henry C. Harrison had developed an electrical phonograph recording system using a Bell Labs microphone connected to a vacuum tube (valve) amplifier, and feeding the amplified signal to an electromagnetic disc cutting head which Bell Laboratories had also developed.
As described in Licensing the Westrex Electrical Recording System to Victor and Columbia , Victor Talking Machine Company initially hesitated to license the new electrical recording system during 1924 when they first evaluated the Western Electric system. This seems to have been primarily due to the cost of the system, and the timing, when in 1924, for the first time in the company's history, Victor failed to meet its sales plan. Victor's total profit that year was reduced to $25,000. Contrast this with the initial required payment to license the Westrex system of $50,000.
However, by early 1925, Victor was motivated to license the Westrex system, reportedly because they recognized the need for new technology to stimulate sales. Victor may also have become aware of rival Louis Sterling and Columbia Phonograph's decision to license the Westrex system. (This is also described in Columbia Licenses the Westrex Process . Consequently, Victor in early 1925 decided to enter into a license with Western Electric, the manufacturer and distributor of the Westrex system.
This new electrical system significantly extended the recorded frequency spectrum. The acoustic system had recorded very little sound above about 2,400 Hertz. This limited frequency response requiring the re-orchestration of the music to provide any musical content in the treble range (see Limitations to the Acoustic Recording Process ). The new Westrex electrical process expanded the recorded spectrum to a much more natural range which extended reproduction to about 6,000 Hertz, after which reproduction declined 3.
Frequency response of the electrical amplification and
condenser microphone of the Westrex system
The electrical system was also able to record instruments at the low end of the frequency spectrum, below 200 Hertz. This meant that instruments such as the double bass could now be recorded. Previously, with the acoustic process, string basses had to be augmented or replaced by a tuba or a bass clarinet, each having a larger bass output to reinforce the bass notes during acoustic recording.
The electrical system was also more robust than the acoustic process. The recording system could now survive the effects of percussion in recorded performances. With the acoustic recording process, sometimes called the "mechanical recording process", the high amplitude and rapid onset of percussion notes, particularly of lower frequencies, had caused recording difficulties in the mechanical acoustic process. The recording cutting stylus or the playback stylus could jump out of the record grove. The cutting stylus, driven by the uncontrolled acoustic energy of the percussion could leave the surface of the wax master, ruining the recording. It was for this reason that, in the acoustic process, timpani were replaced by bassoons and bass drums were replaced by tubas and contra-bassoons. The electrical and mechanical control of the cutting stylus of the electrical system were now able to cope with percussion, including bass drums and timpani.
During the latter half of 1924, Victor engineers had evaluated the new Western Electric recording process. In early 1925, Victor Talking Machine Company decided to license the system. Preliminary patent license agreements were concluded between Victor and Western Electric in February, 1925. As you may read in Victor Installation of the Westrex System, Westrex equipment was installed in Victor Building 15 in Camden on 3 and 4 February 1925. As was discovered by the fascinating research of Allen Sutton of the superb Mainspring Publishing 6, Victor's earliest electrical recording session with the Westrex system that resulted in a published record occurred on February 26, 1925 in Camden. This was of a vocal group which performed what was called "Miniature Concert". This recording was issued in July 1925 on Victor 35753, matrix CVE-31874-3 and CVE-31875-4. The matrix codes "CVE" (C for 12 inch and VE for Victor Electric) and "BVE" (B for 10 inch records) was the beginning of a wonderful new series of electrical matrix numbers produced by Victor between 1925 and the end of 1931. (In 1931 a further new matrix numbering system was introduced.)
Victor and Western Electric signed the definitive license agreement for the Westrex system on 18 March 1925. However, as late as 4 March 1925, acoustic records were still being recorded in the Camden Church Studio. In that month in March 1925, the Camden Church Studio was also wired for the Westrex electric recording system.
Victor apparently made acoustic recordings of non-Red Seal recordings in the New York studio as late as August 19258.
Western Electric engineer George Groves cutting an electrical master.
Groves was assigned to Vitaphone, and later relocated to Hollywood
where he became one of the great sound engineers, winning 2 Oscars 9
The Bell Telephone/Western Electric technology resulted in the first orchestral electrical recording in the United States. This was also the first electrical recording of an orchestra in the world, since no electrical recording system was yet in use outside the United States. This "first electrical recording of a symphony orchestra" was the 29 April 1925 recording by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra of Danse macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns. (This claim of "first" of course excludes the experimental electrical recordings of the New York Philharmonic made by Western Electric engineers from a direct feed from radio station WEAF done while developing the Westrex electrical recording system. It also excludes the 1920 electrical recording by Guest and Merriman at Westminster Abbey, where we cannot tell if there is an orchestra performing or not, given the primitive sound.)
The first few weeks of experimental electrical recording was described by the Victor recording engineer Harry Sooy:
"...February 10th, 1925: We had our first Electrically recorded date to-day. Talent: Miss Helen Clark with piano (J. Pasternack) and violin obbligato (A. Schmidt)...February 11th, 1925: Made a duet selection by Miss Olive Kline and Miss Elsie Baker (electrically). Messrs. [Joseph P.] Maxfield, [Stanley] Watkins and [Elmer A.] Raguse present...March 6th, 1925; We kept constantly on the go with this electrical recording from February 9th to March 6th...Vocal Solos, Instrumental Solos, Vocal Duets, Symphony Orchestras, Dance Orchestras and a Mixed Chorus of 36 voices, etc...March 11th, 1925...starting to make Electrically recorded records for our Catalog...This work started on permission from the Bell Company. Mme. [Olga] Samaroff being the first artist to make records for Domestic use..." 12
Further trial recordings with the new Western Electric system were done in the recording studio of Building number 15 on 11 March 1925. On 16 March 1925, "Joan of Arkansas," Victor disk 19626 was recorded. Then, on 18 and 19 March, Margarete Matzenauer, a leading Metropolitan contralto recorded French opera arias. On 21 March, Alfred Cortot recorded Chopin and Schubert. Then, on 13 and 14 April, Serge Rachmaninoff recorded Liszt and Beethoven 7.
On 29 April 1925, Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra made the world's first orchestral electrical recording.
In this first 1925 electrial recording session, Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre, opus 40, which became something of an early recording orchestral show-piece. Stokowski had attempted, unsuccessfully, an acoustic recording of Danse Macabre in 1924. Now, with the new electrical process, neither Stokowski, nor the engineers knew exactly how best to use the new system. Consequently, this first recording continued to use most of the musical techniques of the acoustic recording process. For example, the orchestra continued to be reduced to a number of about 40 musicians without percussion instruments, as during acoustic sessions. The timpani was replaced by a contrabassoon, or in the case of Danse Macabre, by a bass saxophone, and the bass strings were replaced by a tuba and bass winds. In this March, 1925 recording session, the orchestra string section was reduced to 7 first violins, 3 second violins, 3 violas, and 2 celli, similar to complement used during acoustic recording sessions.
Today, reproducing this early electrical recording on modern equipment, it is interesting (and amusing) now to clearly hear the contrabassoon (probably Ferdinand Del Negro, contrabassoon with the Philadelphia Orchestra for 40 years, from 1922-1962), croaking away during the first few minutes of the recording !
A contrabassoon in the 1939 Philadelphia Orchestra played by Ferdinand Del Negro
The contrabassoon and the bass saxophone also replaced the timpani, as can be heard in the following comparison. First is from this first Stokowski electrical recording of April 29, 1925, using a what sounds like either a contrabassoon or a bass sax in place of the timpani, followed by the same passage from the January 15, 1936 recording, using timpani.
One benefit from this March 1925 recording with this instrumental arrangement is that we can hear with the clarity of the electrical recording system what the changed orchestral arrangements of the acoustic era would have sounded like 'live' in the recording studio.
Another plus with the Danse Macabre recording is that we may hear in his prime, clearly, and without distortion Thaddeus Rich, the Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1906. Rich, still only 40 in 1925, had also played in 1901-1902 in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Artur Nikisch. Beginning in 1906, Rich was Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra for twenty seasons, serving under its first three permanent conductors. We hear his art in this recording just prior to his resignation in 1926, as a result of a falling out with Stokowski. Thaddeus Rich went on to head the Music Department at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Leopold Stokowski and Thaddeus Rich at the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia 1926
Danse macabre was released on a double faced Victor 12 inch (30 cm) Red Seal disk 6505, matrices CVE 27929-2 and CVE 27230-2 in July of 1925. This release initially did not highlight that it was from the new electrical recording process, although Victor dealers were encouraged to use the Danse macabre recording to demonstrate Victrola playing equipment. Victor apparently did not want to suggest that its impressive catalog of existing acoustic recordings was suddenly obsolete.
In fact companies other than Columbia, the Gramophone Company of Britain, and Victor waited further to adopt the electrical recording process. In the USA, the Edison company was still recording acoustically in 1927, such as their Carmen and Aida selections. The low-priced Columbia subsidiary, Harmony "...continued to be acoustically recorded for some three or four years..." after 1925, according to Brian Rust 5, likely for economy reasons to avoid paying the Western Electric royalty on electrical recordings.
So, the Danse macabre recording was quietly issued some months before Victor's big push of the new electrical recording process. This big push was the large Victor promotion kicked off on "Victor Day" on November 2, 1925, with the largest advertising and Victrola promotion yet made by the Victor Talking Machine Company. You can click here to read about Victor's "Victor Day" promotion of November 2, 1925.
As you can see below, the initial release of Danse Macabre in 1925, although an electrical recording, was issued on the famous 'bat wing' style label (called this from the pointed 'wings' on either side of Nipper), associated with labels of Victor acoustic recordings. This first electrical release by Stokowski - Philadelphia was Victor Red Seal double faced disc 6505.
Danse Macabre was first composed by Saint-Saëns in 1872 for violin and soprano. In 1874, Saint-Saëns reworked the composition for orchestra, with solo violin replacing the soprano. This revised version was first performed in Paris by Édouard Colonne with his orchestra on January 24,1875.
Danse macabre opens with the harp playing a single D twelve times to represent a clock striking midnight. According to the legend, at midnight every Halloween, Death may call the dead from their graves to dance to his violin. This is the violin solo played so beautifully in this April, 1925 recording by Thaddeus Rich.
In this recording with early electronic apparatus, there is surprisingly good sound captured in these 90 year-old grooves. One of the best recent restorations of this recording has been by Dr. Martin Adler, a scholar, audio expert, and music lover based in Bonn. Dr. Adler has shared with us two versions of his restoration. One is in excellent mono. In the other, Dr. Adler has added a discrete amount of spatial enhancement which adds "air" around the instrumental ensemble. Personally, I prefer the spatial enhancement, since the Victor engineers were still using an acoustically "dead" recording environment in the Camden recording locations. During the acoustic era, the recording engineers believed that an acoustically dead environment made for a superior acoustic reproduction. It was more than a year after this recording that Westrex electrical recording equipment was installed in the Academy of Music, providing for the first time a realistic acoustic environment for the orchestra's recordings.
Dr. Adler has been kind enough to provide both the mono and the spatially enhanced versions of his recordings. This is from a 30 cm disc HMV D 1121 issued by the Gramophone Company, Victor Talking Machine Company's partner outside the USA. Click below on the link of your choice. Thanks Dr. Adler !
However, even at this time, the Victor Talking Machine Company did not promote the new electrical process, as Victor and their dealers were seeking to sell off inventories of acoustic discs. Not only was the electrical recording process not publicized, but electrical recordings were not labeled as such. Notice that the label of this first Victor electrical recording gives no indication of being from a new electrical process. The classic Victor Red Seal "bat wing" label, used on the previous acoustic records, was also used with no special marking on the first electrical recordings. However, the small symbol 'V.E.' in an oval was engraved in the disc matrix between the run-out scroll grove and the label, as shown in the photograph below. As you may see, most people who bought these recordings would not have noticed this V.E. marking.
On October 1, 1926 13, a year and one half after the commercial launch of electrically recorded discs, Victor revised their record labels, and introduced the famous Victor Orthophonic trade name and scroll label with the "VE" logo at the top and bottom of the label. This indicated an electrical recording, and the famous label scroll work surrounding the label highlighted the change. This scroll label was used from October 1926 until October, 1937 14.
The VE logo and Orthophonic trade name
introduced in October 1926
As described in Licensing the Westrex Electrical Recording System to Victor and Columbia . Columbia also began making electrical recordings in early 1925, even before Victor. According to Brian Rust's excellent Columbia discography 2, US Columbia had already cut a series of from 25-27 February 1925 that were commercially issued later in 1925. This was of Art Gillham, the "Whispering Pianist", a pioneer radio performer, and experienced with the microphone, who recorded 5 sides in February 19254. So Columbia preceded Victor not only in entering into a definitive Westrex license before Victor, but Columbia also make the first electrical recording that was commercially released.
Columbia soon began to promote its electrical process recordings under the name "Viva-tonal", the Columbia counterpart of Victor's "Orthophonic" name. The name "Viva-tonal" and "Electrical Process" in lightening-bolt style font were added to early labels of Columbia discs recorded with the Westrex electrical system, as shown below.
The recording process used on many Victor and Columbia discs can be decoded by the symbol next to their matrix number. Victor discs using the Westrex process had a triangle or diamond shape next to the matrix number. Similarly, Columbia discs had a
(W inside a circle) next to the matrix number. This symbol on Columbia discs changed to a
(C inside a circle) beginning in 1932, when Columbia changed to the Blumlein recording process. HMV later placed a square shape next to the matrix number on its Blumlein recorded discs, after the EMI merger.
To explore further electrical recordings by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, please click on the appropriate link below:
If you have any comments or questions about this Leopold Stokowski site, please e-mail me (Larry Huffman) at e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Note on listening to the Stokowski recordings
The recordings in this site are files in mp3 format (128 mbps) encoded from my collection. Links to the mp3 files are located in two places:
First - in the page covering the year of the recording. For example, links to a 1926 recording are found in the page: 1926 - Stokowski - Philadelphia Orchestra Recordings
Second - in the Chronological Discography page. For example, links to a 1926 recording are also found in the electrical recordings chronological discography page: Chronological Discography of Electrical Recordings This page lists all the electrical recordings from 1925 to 1940 made by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski and issued by Victor, including of course the 1926 recordings.
The mp3 files in this site are (usually) encoded at 128 mbps. This means that the files are of different sizes, according to the length of the music. For example, the second electrical recording, the April 29, 1925 Borodin ‘Polovetzki Dances’ is small (3.6MB). In contrast, the 1929 Le Sacre du Printemps file is large. Le Sacre du Printemps part 1 is 14MB and Le Sacre du Printemps part 2 is 16MB.
This means that a large file will take a longer time to download, depending on your internet connection speed. Please keep this in mind when you click to listen to - download a particularly music file. You may click the link to the music file, but need to wait a number of seconds or even minutes to listen to the file.
3 Maxfield, Joseph P. and Henry C. Harrison. Methods of High Quality Recording and Reproducing of Music and Speech Based on Telephone Research. Bell System Technical Journal 5, July, 1926
2,4 Rust, Brian and Brooks, Tim. The Columbia Master Book Discography. (4 volumes) Greenwood Press. 1999. ISBN 0-313-21464-6
5 page 2. Rust, Brian and Brooks, Tim. The Columbia Master Book Discography. Volume II Greenwood Press. 1999. ISBN 0-313-30822-5
6 The fascinating research of Allen Sutton is documented in his web page http://www.mainspringpress.com/vic_minicon.html with the title: "A Miniature Concert" - The Earliest Issued Victor Electric.
7 pages 341, 346 Bolig, John R. The Victor Red Seal Discography Volume 2: Double-Sided Series to 1930. Mainspring Press. Denver, Colorado. 2006. ISBN 0-9772735-5-5
8 page xiii. Bolig, John R. The Victor Discography Green, Blue and Purple Labels (1910 - 1926). Mainspring Press. Denver, Colorado. 2006. ISBN 0-9772735-2-0
9 1972 Society of Motion Picture Television Engineers Samuel L Warner Memorial Award. Description of the career of George Groves.
10 page xiii. Bolig, John R. The Victor Black Label Discography 18000-19000 Series. Mainspring Press, LLC. Denver. 2008. ISBN 978-0-9772735-9-1.
11 Sooy, Raymond. Memoirs of my Recording and Traveling Experiences for the Victor Talking Machine Company . Manuscript, not dated, but ending with events of 1931. An important contribution to the history of recording, the David Sarnoff Library edited and reproduced these memoires on their website. http://www.davidsarnoff.org/soo-maintext.html
12 Sooy, Harry O. Memoir of my Career at Victor Talking Machine Company 1898-1925. Manuscript, not dated, but ending with events of 1925. Another important record of the history of recording, on the David Sarnoff Library website: http://www.davidsarnoff.org/sooyh-maintext1909.html
13 page 64. Sherman, Michael W. in collaboration with Moran, William R., Nauck, Kurt R. Collector's Guide to Victor Records Monarch Record Enterprises 1992 ISBN 0-9632903-0-4
14 page 75. Sherman, Michael W. op. cit.