The 1888 Crystal Palace recordings
Listening to the 1888 recordings
Although the evidence of the wooden box of cylinders on the table suggests that many more must have been recorded, only three cylinders remain from that performance on the afternoon of Friday 29th June 1888.
These are the oldest recordings made in Great Britain still in existence.
They were pioneering recordings when they were made - the first ever recordings made in a live concert environment. Acoustic recordings continued to be made until the full-scale introduction of electrical recording in 1925/26. Acoustic recordings of live concerts are extremely rare because the equipment was too insensitive to capture distant sounds.
When electrical recording arrived in 1925, recording live at concerts immediately became a novelty. The HMV company built itself a mobile recording van and used this to tour the UK. Sir Edward Elgar's live recordings at the Hereford Festival are one result, the Henry Wood recordings at the last ever Handel Festival are another. But those were four decades in the future.
What will I hear?
Initially you will hear a lot of crunching and scratching and some very dim sounds which you may not even identify as music. Gradually, as you listen, your brain will be begin to filter out the noise.
There are good sections, and bad sections in these recordings. Some are almost inaudible (such as the first track of Cylinder 2).
What about pitch?
In a note he sent to Edison from Little Menlo dated 14 July 1888, his technical assistant de Courcey Hamilton wrote:
I enclose your copy of phonogram, Col. Gouraud's voice, it was recorded while cylinder revolved at 112 per minute... We are watching with much anticipation the devices to arrive which by cable we learn you will express on Monday. I trust it is a perfected knife your one improvement, & perhaps different spectacle & even governor though the one here governs to a nicety but makes some noise.
The Perfected Phonograph was powered by an electric battery and had a governor which, as we have seen, was sufficiently accurate to ensure the cylinder rotated at exactly 112 revolutions per minute.
The recording speed used two weeks earlier at Crystal Palace was noted on the label of each cylinder. It was significantly higher than that used to record Gouraud's voice. You can see the speed of "150 Rev" in this modern photo:
Because the Crystal Palace organ was used in the choral numbers, it has also proved possible to confirm the playback speed based on the pitch of the organ. In a letter to The Times, in October 1884 a correspondent writes:
Some of the church organs, and nearly all of the concert-hall organs, are practically of the modern Philharmonic and military band pitch... Granting that wind instruments, orchestral and military, are too high, they are at least tolerably uniform, conforming to the Kneller Hall standard, and to reduce all these to the pitch of the Salisbury, or that of any other church organ, would only add to the existing confusion, for we should then have no instruments capable of being used with the great concert organs, such as those in the Crystal Palace, Albert Hall, etc.... the choice of a standard lies between the French diapason normal of about 435 vibrations for A and the British Army pitch of about 452 vibrations for the same note.
This provides strong evidence that the Crystal Palace cylinders should be played at a speed which gives the note A 452 cycles per second.
Furthermore, in another letter to The Times, written after the opening concert of the Handel Festival in June 1885 at the Crystal Palace, a correspondent wrote:
At the beginning of the Handel Festival yesterday , the temperature in the dome was 82deg Fahr. The A of the organ and orchestra gave 446 double vibrations per second. When the second part began, the temperature had sunk to 81deg., but the organ and band had risen to an A. of 455 vibrations. The heat in the interior of the organ must have risen considerably, probably from friction and other mechanical causes. It is to be noted, however, that the windchests had been surrounded for two hours by several tons of human flesh at an average heat of 97deg. Fahr.
Final confirmation that 'high pitch' was used at the Crystal Palace during this period comes from a letter to The Times in May 1912:
But at the Crystal Palace, where the Handel Festival organ remained at the high pitch, and in the provinces...musicians are handicapped at every turn.
It was not until 1920 that an item in The Times on the Handel Festival that year could say:
The organ has been entirely rebuilt and the pitch lowered. It had formerly a high pitch, which was very tiring for both the soloists and the choir.
In the event, it seems has if the cylinder was rotating very close to 150 revolutions per minute.
"Lumbering, stodgy, musical jumboism"
The Crystal Palace was a huge building, almost certainly bigger than any performance space available in the present day in Great Britain. Despite early attempts at reducing the echo in the building, there would have been very significant acoustic delays to the sound, and conducting a choir of over 3,000 voices would have been extremely difficult.
These factors determined the measured tempi that August Manns consciously adopted, notwithstanding his sense that they were, generally speaking, too slow. As the Musical Times reported:
Mr Manns conducted the rehearsal [on 22nd] with great skill and detemination. There were moments when impulse seemed to carry him into quicker tempo than desirable, and once the Conductor checked himself in a very marked manner, but too much cannot be said for the admirable way in which he steered his great host through the shoals and dangerous places of the selected music.
The audience for Israel in Egypt, incidentally, numbered 23,722.
In 1926, the last Handel Festival took place at the Crystal Palace with Sir Henry Wood as conductor. The Musical Times correspondent made this telling comment about tempi in earlier festivals:
Under Sir Frederick Cowen the Festival showed hitherto unsuspected potentialities of a huge choral force in subtlety and range of nuance. The best performances given under his direction did much to answer the old stock objection that the choral side of the Festival was mere lumbering, stodgy, musical jumboism.
How should I listen?
Listening to them takes practice and more than the usual amount of concentration. It also requires you to be able to use your brain to block out as much as possible of the background noise.
I have provided detailed notes of exactly which bars of music are recorded on each track. You will understand the recordings much more easily if you can obtain a vocal score of "Israel in Egypt". It is highly probable that the one published by Novello was used at the performance, and copies of the same edition can still be found.
Listen to each individual track once following the score, and then repeat it twice. Then increase the bass level of your speakers - this will help you to hear the organ and bass instruments better. You can try to filter out some of the crackle using a treble control, but I haven't found it to be especially successful.
Then listen to each track at least ten times more, and gradually your brain will piece together the fragments you hear.
When you have listened to the individual tracks, try listening to Cylinders 2 and 3 complete.
What about copyright?
The original recordings have been out of copyright for many years. However, the transfers of these recordings are still in copyright. I am extremely grateful to the Edison National Historic Site, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, in New Jersey for sending me not only copies of the recordings, but also some research into them which had already been carried out. The copyright in the original transfers belongs to the Edison National Historic Site. I have carried out some limited audio processing on the original transfers to improve the audibility of the performance. The copyright in this audio processing belongs to the owner of this website.
And if you have any insights into the music or recordings, please let me know.
Click on each cylinder below to find out more about it:
� Chris Goddard, 03 April, 2008