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Back to Chapter 13



Illusion and Reality

Recordings – from wax cylinders to the most recent innovations. Early recordings – folk music, Caruso, Chaliapin, Joachim. 78s, LPs, tape, stereo. The dominance of the producer and engineer – the manipulation of performances. Most music now heard on recordings.

We are now so used to our senses being manipulated that we are no longer aware that so much of what we see, hear and taste is not actually the ‘real thing’. Photographs are ‘doctored’, sometimes to flatter, or to distort a scene for political reasons, or to create a vision of something not possible in nature. From the beginning film has used illusion as a major technique for creating excitement and amazement by cutting and mixing so that we see events juxtaposed in a way quite impossible in reality. So much of what we eat and drink is now adulterated to induce us to eat and drink more – even its aroma is increased to stimulate our desire – to the advantage of the manufacturers rather than ourselves. Can we any longer be sure when listening to music whether what we are hearing is what the artists actually played or if their performance has been manipulated or ‘enhanced’?

In the last chapter I wrote about a time when most music was still being played in the presence of those listening to it. From about 1900 onwards everything began to change. First to arrive were gramophone recordings, though to begin with they were not yet generally of a quality to replace the real thing. Then, with the invention of electric recording and better play-back equipment, the quality of what could be listened to on a wind-up gramophone improved considerably. In 1927 the BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation) was established (though from 1922 the British Broadcasting Company had been broadcasting a limited amount of music). At about the same time, with the coming of the talkies it became impossible to tell if the music one was hearing was actually being played by the musicians one saw on the screen or if the music had been recorded by other musicians and those you saw had only taken part in what used to be called ‘dummy sessions’ (this work was mainly undertaken by those musicians who had become redundant because of the demise of the silent films).

In the 1890s recordings had already become available – there is now a digitally restored wax cylinder recording of Brahms playing his Hungarian Dance No. 1, made in 1889. It is only a faint reproduction of that performance, but it does allow us to make contact with the great man across the years. If one had a phonograph it was as easy to make one’s own recordings as many years later everyone was able to do on their cassette recorders. A good many private recordings from that time still exist including recordings of Florence Nightingale, Gladstone, Bismarck and, much more widely known since they have now been issued commercially, the recordings Lionel Mapleson made clandestinely on wax cylinders at the New York Metropolitan Opera House in the first years of the 20th century. We can hear Nellie Melba, Jean de Reszke and Emma Calve and other legendary artists actually singing to an audience at that time.

Though the sound quality is not up to present day standards we can listen and enjoy these artists un-edited or interfered with by a record producer or engineer. No recording, however accurate, coming out of one or many loudspeakers, however refined they or the play-back equipment may be, can reproduce what is heard in the presence of the artists as they perform. We are frequently told that the recording and the equipment it is played on is so true that ‘it is like being in the concert hall or opera house’. This disregards an integral element of a performance: the actual presence of the performer. All of us know how very different it is being with the person you are conversing with rather than speaking to that person on the telephone. But, if we cannot be together, hearing our friend’s voice on the telephone is very much better than not hearing them at all. This is the wonderful benefit that recordings and broadcasts now provide. And not only can we listen to those who are still alive: we can listen to artists sadly no longer with us.

Thanks to Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner, it was possible for Béla Bartók, Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams and many others to record folk music, sung and played by those still part of an aural tradition that was about to die out. Without recording we would not be able to listen to Enrico Caruso, Fyodor Shalyapin (Chaliapin), Adelina Patti, or Joseph Joachim, Pablo Sarasate, Eugene Ysaye and many other artists who recorded during the first decade of the 20th century. They were all playing and singing the music of their own time, often having studied with or been directed by the composers themselves - Verdi, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Brahms.

It is difficult now, a century later, when far more music is listened to by radio, the Internet and recordings, to understand the extent of the opposition to recordings from composers, critics and ‘serious music lovers’ that continued to some extent until World War II. The belief that it is only when the performers and audience are in each others presence that real communication and artistic pleasure can take place and that recordings and broadcasts can never achieve this was still the view of the eminent critic Frank Howes in the 1920s.

But this was not the main objection that those imbued with the tradition that had developed during the 19th century when composers and their audiences, especially in Germany and those countries most influenced by its culture, put their art on a pedestal of idealism. Composers were then addressing a small, leisured, educated middle and upper-middle class European audience and it was this tradition that it was felt would be destroyed by radio and recordings making music too easily available. They had forgotten that the truly classical composers such as Mozart had no problem in composing serenades, dances and marches as well as symphonies and masses; nor had Schubert and many others.

I think they would be surprised to find that in 2006, a generation that were down-loading pop music from the Internet, those they might well have thought of as shallow, apathetic listeners, the opposite of the ‘serious music lover’, were still flocking to concerts given by the group Arctic Monkeys, though this group’s success – they had the fastest-selling debut album ever – was to a large extent the result of it being first available by downloading from the Internet

From 1900 until 1923 all recordings were made acoustically. This involved the artists playing into a large horn whereby the sounds they made were recorded straight onto a wax disc. This worked very well for singers and fairly well for instrumental soloists but was far less good when it came to recording orchestras. The first problem when recording an orchestra was that only a limited number of players could get near enough to the recording ‘horn’ to make any impression. The acoustic method was unable to capture very high or low notes and made little difference between loud and soft sounds. In fact often in the early days woodwind and brass instruments had to be used to replace the strings. The double basses in particular were so unsatisfactory that they were frequently replaced by a tuba. Each side of a record only played for about four to four and a half minutes. For longer compositions suitable breaks had to be found to allow the record to be turned over so that the music could continue.

Recording standards gradually improved until in 1923, following the use of microphones in broadcasting, microphones began to be used in the recording industry. After 1925 it became the accepted method. This was a great improvement and enabled the successful recording of orchestral and choral works, though each side of a gramophone record still remained about four minutes. When making recordings, whether acoustically or electronically, each four-minute ‘take’ was a ‘one-off’. There was no editing possible as the wax still used for recording would be destroyed in the process. If there was any fault the whole side had to be recorded again. In fact, playing for every ‘take’ was just like playing at a concert, with the added strain that you were aware that if you made a mistake of any kind you would ruin whatever had been played up to that point and that it would all have to be done again.

In 1945, when I was in the LPO and first took part in some recording sessions with Sir Thomas Beecham, we recorded the Royal Hunt and Storm from The Trojans by Berlioz. Sir Thomas and the orchestra tried to recapture the sound of the performance we would give at a concert when an audience was present. Whether it was a distinguished conductor such as Beecham, Bruno Walter, de Sabata, Munch or any other conductor, they would make all the decisions regarding balance and the overall style of the recording by going into the recording suite to listen to each test recording. Their intention was to hear on the recording a reproduction of the performance they were obtaining in the studio. If they thought the balance they heard in the recording suite did not accurately reproduce what they heard in the studio they would have the position of the microphones (at that time there would be only a few) adjusted until they achieved the balance they required.. This is how we recorded Petrushka with Ansermet, about which I wrote in Chapter 10.

For many years there had been experiments in an attempt to use tape in place of wax so that more than four minutes music could be recorded in a single ‘take’. In 1936 when the London Philharmonic Orchestra was on tour in Germany they did a concert in Ludwigshafen. Unknown to the orchestra, BASF recorded the concert as an experiment in the use of tape. It was not known to more than a very few people until many years later, when in 1979 Shirley, Lady Beecham agreed that two of the items from that concert could be issued, Mozart’s Symphony 39 and the Suite from Le Coq D’Or by Rimsky- Korsakov.

Though EMI were using tape to record the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1948 their records were still being sold in the 78rpm format with four minutes music on each side. Fifine at the Fair, by Granville Bantock, which the RPO recorded with Beecham on tape in 1949, was first issued in the old 78rpm format and only became available on LP a few years later. In Fifine there is a very long and demanding cadenza for the clarinet, which my colleague Jack Brymer played brilliantly. For some reason it was decided to re-record this section at a separate session without the rest of the orchestra present and then edit it in. Listening to the finished recording I cannot tell whether what I am hearing is the occasion Jack played this demanding cadenza when I was sitting next to him, or when he recorded it on his own.

In the previous chapter, in the section Music for Dancing, I referred to the effect that the first ragtime recordings had on dancers from around 1912. Recordings of many forms of popular music had been made since the beginning of the century, many more than of ‘serious’ music. Light music, often played by brass bands or military bands, music hall songs, and, in America in particular, banjo solos with early examples of ragtime were all very popular. Soon military bands playing arrangements of ragtime were being recorded. From 1917 onwards more and more recordings of jazz became available and from the 1920s were selling in very large numbers. When recording jazz, the time limitation of only being able to record for four minutes imposed by the 78rpm format does not seem to have been a problem. Nor, when recording Jazz and Dance bands, largely made up of wind instruments, were there the dynamic problems that arose when recording orchestral music, with dynamics ranging from a mere whisper to the loudest fortissimo.

When in the 1930s I first started to listen to music what I most enjoyed were the dance bands broadcast by the BBC, such as Henry Hall and
Click for larger picture
Jack Payne, and the broadcasts from Radio Luxembourg that we used to listen to at breakfast time. While I was at school, though I had started learning the clarinet and had begun listening to orchestral and chamber music, it was the recordings of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and especially the two wonderful clarinettists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw that excited me most. It was these recordings and the recordings made by Fritz Kreisler, playing his own compositions, Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra and the London Philharmonic conducted by Beecham, and finally the experience of hearing Menuhin playing the Elgar Violin Concerto, that convinced me that I had to try to become a musician. Now, 60 years later, I am still inspired by these marvellous performances captured on record.

In Britain, from about 1918, when 78rpm started to become the standard format, until 1950, whether recorded acoustically or electrically, on wax or tape, all commercial records were issued on 78s. Once recording on tape became possible the record industry abandoned 78s and we were into the era of 33 and 45 rpm records. This changed everything for everyone who had been involved in making recordings, especially those of us in the symphony orchestras. The whole way we approached the performance of music in the recording studio changed. No longer did we make short, one-off four minute performances, with all the nervous tension that involved. No performer, whether a conductor, solo artist or orchestral musician any longer had the freedom to be spontaneous in the same way as at a concert. Now we were making a ‘take’, then listening to the playback, doing short sections to edit anything the producer thought should be done again, not usually in regard to the interpretation of the music, but because he didn’t like the balance or the tuning, the ensemble or some other technical fault he had noticed. As a result performers also became increasingly concerned about these aspects of their performance.

When making the edits it was essential that everyone played as nearly as possible as they had done before (without the faults), but now no longer in the one-off performance style that had been possible previously. We became increasingly ‘note-getters’, and more self-conscious. After a while I felt that perhaps if we each came in and played some scales and arpeggios the producer could put a record together without us (some years later ‘sampling’ was used to create some records in just this way). One also lost the sense of being in charge of one’s own performance because one had no idea which bits the producer had chosen to use in the compilation of everything that had been recorded and then included on the final record. In fact, no one, conductor, soloist or anyone taking part could be absolutely certain how the final performance had been achieved. Only the producer and the engineers could be certain. Performers were no longer in control of the finished product.

Indeed the producer now took on a responsibility and a role that previously had been enjoyed by conductors and soloists. In Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’’s compilation of the writings of Walter Legge and conversations with him On and Off the Record she quotes him as writing I was the first of what are called ‘Producers’ of records. Before I established myself and my ideas, the attitude of recording managers of all companies was ‘we are here in the studio to record as well as we can on wax what the artists habitually do in the opera house or on the concert platform’. My predecessor, Fred Gaisberg, told me, ‘We are out to make sound photographs of as many sides as we can get during each session’. My ideas were different. It was my aim to make records that would set the standards by which public performances and the artist of the future would be judged – to leave behind a large series of examples of the best performances of my epoch. In fact he wanted to assume responsibility for every aspect of the recording.

The producer and engineers became more and more in control of the performance that music lovers could purchase. Equally important, music lovers themselves were now in charge of when and where they wished to listen to their chosen music. It was no longer necessary to make the commitment of being where, when and at what time the artists were performing; they also had the power to change the dynamic, making the loudest fortissimo as soft as a whisper and the quietest murmur loud enough to bring the house down.

Later, with the arrival of the inexpensive tape player and then the tape recorder, the listener’s control was extended. Having selected the music they wanted to record, either off-air or from a commercial recording, it became easy to cut out any sections found tedious or less enjoyable, just by fast forwarding or editing out. On the other hand, if a particularly lovely few bars found favour they could be replayed as often as was desired. With the tape recorder it became possible for anyone to compile their own selection of music by re-recording just those passages they wished to hear. The commercial broadcasting and recording companies then decided to save each listener from having to do this themselves by producing compilations that did it far better than any individual could. Now, over 50 years after the introduction of tape, everyone can make their own CDs and DVDs of music of their choice from any source – radio, TV, the Internet, commercial CDs or any other format.

However, all that still lay in the future. To return to the 1950s, the era of Walter Legge at EMI and John Culshaw at Decca, when the ability to edit soon led to this facility being used to remedy the shortcomings in a performer’s ability or flaws in a performance. The recording was no longer a memento of a concert. It had established an independent life of its own. When I was first involved in playing for recording, from 1944, we tried to recreate in the studio as nearly as possible what took place at a concert performance. As record sales increased it was not long before the concert performance began to try to recreate what could be heard on recordings. A far more powerful tyrant than any conductor had now arisen – the record producer and his accomplices the engineers.

In 1952, only a couple of years after the introduction of recording on tape, Kirsten Flagstad was taking part in a recording of Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner, with the Philharmonia conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. The ageing Flagstad was having difficulty with a couple of top Cs. It was agreed, with Flagstad’s consent, that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, then a young woman, should sing these two high notes and that they be edited into the master tape. Later, knowledge of this device leaked out. Naturally Flagstad was furious, and though the recording was very successful she refused to record again for that company.

There have been a good many occasions when for various reasons similar editing devices have been used. I have taken part in a number of recordings where a singer or instrumentalist has been ‘helped out’ with the use of editing. When the great Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova was dancing in Giselle at the Royal Opera House with the Bolshoi Company the performance was filmed. At one place in the film the camera moves in to a close up of Ulanova and as it does it was felt that the clarinet solo at that point, as played in the orchestra pit, sounded too distant. There was no fault in the way the ROH orchestra clarinettist had played, but it was decided to re-record about eight or twelve bars in the studio. I went into the studio with a few string players and played the solo. It was then edited onto the sound track and a patina of sound, similar to that on the rest of the performance was added to disguise the clinical studio sound. This was not the only time I took part in additions of this kind.

Recordings of public performances of concerts and opera have routinely been the product of what was decided were the ‘best’ parts of the several performances by the same artists, and on occasion short sections have been added later in the studio when it has not been possible to find a patch from any of the ‘live’ performances. While the performance is being recorded ‘on-site’, during the concert, the producer is able to manipulate the microphones so as to achieve the instrumental balance he thinks best. What those listening at home on their record players will hear may be different to what the audience at the concert heard.

There have been occasions when snippets from another recording of the same work, recorded by other artists, have been inserted in an effort to achieve the ‘perfect’ recording. A known occasion was when this was done to a recording Sergiu Celibidache had made. It was only after the recording had been issued that his keen ear detected something not quite as he had heard it at the time he had made the recording. There have been other occasions, known only to a few insiders.

With the coming of the long playing record music lovers at last had the great advantage of being able to listen to a whole concerto or symphony without having to get up every four minutes to turn the record over or put another one on. I have quite recently tried to listen to some old 78s that I have of Casals playing the Bach unaccompanied cello sonatas. I found it impossible to tolerate the constant interruptions to the music and having to change the record so often. It was difficult to understand how we had found this perfectly acceptable years ago.

As time went by increasingly sophisticated techniques were employed. Multi-tracking allowed the use of separate microphones for each section of the orchestra and even for each instrument. One might have played one’s part forte and yet find on playback, because another part of the score has been made more audible, one might as well have not played at all. Multi-tracking enabled us to record an opera at a time when because of other engagements one of the singers was not available. We would complete the recording with that part missing. At a later date the missing artist would record the part on their own and it would be edited in. On occasion this might even be done in another country.

Performances could now be enhanced by the use of echo chambers and added ambience. As the engineers and producers gained more and more control acoustic screens were placed between sections of the orchestra thereby enabling the balance between them to be ‘managed’, not in the studio but in the control room. With smaller groups of musicians, especially when providing backing to pop groups and individual artists, the musicians would often be so separated that they were unable to hear each other except by using headphones.

The next development was the introduction of stereo recordings in 1958. We had been recording in stereo from 1954 though the recordings had still been issued in mono. Later they were re-issued in stereo. In fact Alan Blumlein, a remarkable British inventor, also responsible for developing radar, had already demonstrated the possibilities of stereo many years previously. In 1935, as a test, Sir Thomas Beecham was recorded in stereo rehearsing Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. It was not until years later with the advent of tape recording that the use of stereo became practical.

The coming of stereo was good news for musicians as it meant the repertoire had to be recorded again in this new format creating a great deal more employment. After a time quadraphonic and then ‘all-round’ sound was introduced. The record companies and the manufacturers of play-back equipment have constantly made attempts to convince us that listening in the comfort of our own home to recordings can be ‘as if you are in the concert hall’. These devices and the Compact Disc, which arrived in the 1990s, are really only the sonic equivalents of The Emperor’s New Clothes. A visit to any concert hall immediately makes it clear that however improved the sound coming out of one or many loudspeakers may be, it can never be ‘the real thing’.

However, this is how most music is now heard. A very large number of music lovers do not live near enough to a concert hall and for a great many more the cost for a husband and wife to attend a public performance is too costly. A survey, in which I was involved some years ago, showed that even those fortunate enough to be able to afford frequent visits to the Royal Opera House were still listening to far more music on recordings and broadcasts than in the opera house or concert hall.

From 1930 onwards the broadcasting of music by the BBC – not just symphony orchestras, but opera, chamber music, solo instrumental and vocal music and a great deal of so-called light music – brought music into the lives of far more people than ever before. The broadcasts by the BBC’s own orchestras as well as relays from public concerts, opera performances and studio broadcasts by the London and Regional Orchestras, the LPO, LSO, the Hallé and other orchestras and groups from around the country had created a large audience for this music. Commercial recordings made by artists and orchestras from all over the world were also broadcast. I believe it was this new audience, created by broadcasting, that during and after WW2 filled so many concert halls to capacity.

My family only had a handful of records which we played very occasionally – we still had to re-wind the gramophone after each record was played. Listening to the radio, the ‘wireless’ as we called it then, to the studio broadcasts from the BBC and the commercial records they and Radio Luxembourg broadcast was how I heard most music when I was still at school and music college.

It was not only in the commercial recording studios that it became necessary for musicians to adapt to new technologies. From 1927, when my father broadcast regularly in the famous BBC Military Band, now completely forgotten, and for all the years he was in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, taking part in studio performances that were to be broadcast was similar to playing at a performance in a concert hall, what is now usually called a ‘live’ performance. When in 1943 I began playing for broadcast performances, whether in the BBC studios at Maida Vale, or when public concerts I was taking part in were transmitted as relays, nothing had changed. Whenever and whatever you played, when the red light was on in the studio, was broadcast, faults and all. It was impossible to stop, replay, or edit anything.

There was one occasion when the BBC were attempting to broadcast a simulation of a Victorian soirée, with a tenor singing some ballads and a small section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra impersonating a Salon Orchestra accompanying him. At the rehearsal the orchestra was asked by the producer to applaud discreetly after each item. Unfortunately, my father, though an outstanding player and a charming and amusing man, was not always as attentive as might be desired. He had not heard this request from the producer during the rehearsal so that when he heard the applause at the broadcast he responded, without thinking, by making one of those exceedingly loud ‘wolf-whistles’ made by putting two fingers in one’s mouth and blowing very hard. Being a ‘live’ broadcast it just went out over the air, no doubt giving a number of middle class music lovers something of a surprise. It was still possible in the 1930s, when very good players were much thinner on the ground than they are now, for him to get away with it. A musician today would not risk anything like that. There are far too many very good players waiting to take his or her place.

On another broadcast, a piece was being played that starts with the main tune played by an unaccompanied clarinet. This piece had been written for the A clarinet. Unfortunately the clarinettist on this occasion played it on his Bb clarinet. When the rest of the orchestra came in it was quite impossible to continue. The conductor had to stop the orchestra, the embarrassed clarinettist had to quickly change to his A clarinet and start again. Ever since it became possible to record everything before it is broadcast, musicians and listeners have been spared these catastrophes.

Until the ability to record on tape arrived, relays of public concerts had to be broadcast as they occurred. There were no deferred relays nor was it possible to replay broadcasts weeks, months or even, as frequently occurs now, years later. In the case of performances that are thought to have been particularly fine or of historical interest, the BBC can, and now does, issue them as recordings on CD.

We had been recording on tape since 1948, though we, the musicians in the recording studio were not aware of this until the recordings made at that time were re-issued on Long-play, 33rpm records after 1950. However, we were not the first. In 1947 in America, Bing Crosby had already started to record his popular programmes on tape.

Since the 1950s the BBC has routinely pre-recorded broadcasts of music so that for many years it has only been occasionally that studio broadcasts of music have not been pre-recorded. To begin with it was agreed that each piece would be played without a break and, if possible, the whole programme would be recorded in this way, unless there was a technical failure in the recording equipment or events such as I have written about above were to occur. Then, wanting to broadcast the best performance, items were more and more being recorded again and again until the producer felt he had a performance that satisfied him. By about 1958 playing for broadcasting had become increasingly like doing a commercial recording session. The major drawback, as far as musicians were concerned, was that the fee for a broadcast was considerably less than for a recording session. The musicians involved in broadcasting became increasingly unhappy and insisted that the Musicians’ Union inform the BBC that a larger fee was required. After protracted negotiations it was agreed that there should be what were called ‘rehearse/record sessions with an increased fee.

The next request from the BBC was that they should be allowed to put together a few items from a number of programmes, recorded for broadcasting by several different bands and orchestras, and thereby create a single composite much more varied programme. Items recorded by the BBC Concert Orchestra might be interspersed with items recorded by some of the many small orchestras then broadcasting regularly: Sid Bowman and the Promenade Players, Philip Green and his Concert Orchestra, Monia Liter and the 20th Century Serenaders, The Studio Players, Troise and his Continental Orchestra, The Bob Farnon Orchestra, Louis Voss and the Kursall Orchestra. Three or four of these groups would be selected, or one of the many other groups broadcasting at that time, and they would be made up into a half-hour programme. Each of these groups would have recorded a half-hour programme so that the BBC would be able to mix and match them into a great many programmes.

Programmes that had previously been recorded by individual groups were now being made into something much more like the programmes of commercial recordings that had become popular. It was natural that the BBC should then want to include commercial recordings in with all the orchestras the BBC had recorded themselves. Unfortunately, the commercial recording had been recorded with superior equipment and only 15 or 20 minutes music will have been recorded in a three hour session, whilst the BBC will have recorded double that amount of music in the same length of time. The difference in quality showed rather too clearly and it was not too long before the pattern of broadcast music changed. Strange as it may seem now, listeners had in the past made a point of listening to their chosen light orchestras. Now all these groups had become much more anonymous. What had been, even though only at a distance, an audience listening to an identifiable group of performers had turned into muzak.

Now the majority of music of every kind is heard either on recordings, broadcasts, the Internet or some other format. In whatever format illusion often replaces reality.

Chapter 15

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