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Back to Chapter 23



Preserving Music Performances

Music Preserved – a new archive. Performance Practice and Audience Expectations – have they changed? Archive-videos. The Oral History of Musicians in Britain.

Once it became possible to record in their own homes some music lovers began making off-air recordings of broadcasts of studio performances and relays of public concerts. The first recordings were made on acetate discs, on which the recordings sound quality was rather poor and only about four minutes music could be recorded. From the early 1950s open reel tape machines were used until the cassette tape recording machine arrived around 1965 which made it easy to make recordings lasting 30 or 45 minutes with a very acceptable standard of reproduction. From then on home off-air recording really took off and a great many tape recordings were made of every kind of music. It is fortunate that though until 1988 it was illegal to record off-air at all it does not seem to have acted as a deterrent. Had it done so a great many jazz and serious music performances that remain available for study and enjoyment would have been lost for ever. Being illegal these recordings remained hidden in people’s homes, as have those made since 1988 when the law was changed to allow home off-air recording for one’s own private use. In spite of it being illegal to make off-air recordings, through one of those strange loopholes in the law it was perfectly legal to sell equipment that combined a radio and two tape decks. This not only provided the facility for recording off-air but also for copying from one cassette tape to another making it simple for tape collectors to make copies and exchange tapes with each other.

I had never had any interest in collecting recordings of any kind so I was unaware of this until 1980, when a few months after I had been appointed Director of the NCOS I received a letter from a member of the Royal Opera House Orchestra. Jon Tolansky had been making and collecting tapes since he was a boy and had over 7000 acetate disks, open-reel and analogue tapes of public performances dating back to 1933. His house had recently been struck by lightning and though only a small number of his recordings had been damaged he was frightened by this event and was looking for somewhere safer to store his collection. He was enquiring whether the NCOS might have room.. In fact the NCOS did not have any suitable accommodation for his collection, but none-the-less I was intrigued by his request and arranged to meet him.

When we met Tolansky brought some of his treasured recordings with him. They were all recordings of public performances, some of which he knew I had taken part in: Mahler’s Symphony No.1 with the LPO conducted by Bruno Walter in 1947; a performance of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, also in 1947; Otto Klemperer conducting Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel, both by Richard Strauss, with the Philharmonia at a concert in the Royal Festival Hall in 1958. He also brought the recording of the wonderful concert in 1965 when Stravinsky conducted the Philharmonia in a performance of his own suite (the 1945 version)from Firebird; and a recording of the occasion when in 1948 Kathleen Ferrier joined Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony.

It seemed to me that here were outstanding performances, with all the immediacy and interpretative improvisationary elements heard at a ‘live’ performance. They should not only be saved to preserve our cultural and music heritage for future generations, but be available in an archive where the public, students and researchers could listen to them. If this was to become possible it would first be necessary to convince the Musicians’ Union of their value and that they would not become a threat to their members.

The MU had never been really happy about recordings from the start. Recordings were always seen as a potential threat and though they represented a new and lucrative avenue of employment for a small number of its members, it feared that records could be used to replace many more. They were particularly opposed to any attempt to make on-site or off-air recordings unless their members received an additional payment for this service. With the advent of tape recordings and long-playing records that allowed long stretches of music to be recorded their fears were realised: over the years recorded music did substantially reduce the employment available to musicians in broadcasting – all commercial broadcasting stations rely virtually entirely on commercial recordings – and also for those who played for dancing.

Music Preserved

When Jon Tolansky and I met the executive committee of the MU we were able to persuade them of the extent and value of his collection, and eventually they agreed to allow him to retain it even though it was six years before the law was to be amended. The MU agreed to co-operate in seeking a way by which on-site recordings of concerts and opera could be made for an archive. They succeeded in convincing the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS), representing the interests of composers and publishers, as well as Equity the actors union, to which many singers were members, to join in this project. It took another five years of negotiations with performers, composers and their representatives, the broadcasters, performance venues and the recording industry before the Music Performance Research Centre (MPRC) was established as a company limited by guarantee with charitable status in June 1987. The MPRC was renamed Music Preserved in 2001.

The BBC very generously allowed the MPRC to use their control rooms and tie lines at the Royal Festival Hall and Royal Opera House so that with their own recording equipment and microphones, donated to them by Sony, they were ready to start making recordings. A few months later in October the MPRC made its first on-site archive-recording. It was of a rather unusual concert at the Royal Festival Hall, given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Victor Borge, the unique Danish humorist and entertainer who was also a fine pianist and conductor. Sir Georg Solti joined him, but only to make a short speech. A week later the Centre made their first archive-recording at the Royal Opera House, a performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro conducted by Bernard Haitink.

Over the following years the MPRC continued to make on-site recordings of concerts and operas. During 1988 their recordings at the Royal Festival Hal included a Wagner programme conducted by Klaus Tennstedt, and a concert performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio conducted by Kurt Masur, both with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and some concerts with the Philharmonia, among them a programme with Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting Mahler’s Symphony No.1, the Maxwell Davies Trumpet Concerto, with John Wallace as soloist, and Elgar’s In the South, and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Lontanoi by György Ligeti and Carl Nielsen’s 5th Symphony. At the Royal Opera House as well as several other operas they recorded Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, Janácek’s Jenufa, and Don Giovanni by Mozart,

A notice always has to be put up back-stage a week or so in advance so that any member of the orchestra or chorus not wishing the recording to be made can post their objection. It required only one person to object and the recording could not take place. The same applies as far as conductors and soloists are concerned. Unfortunately, at the Coliseum some members of the English National Opera Orchestra did refuse permission and since then no recordings have been made there. A great pity, as most of the excellent productions of unusual operas, all in English, have not been recorded commercially. It would also have provided an opportunity to chart the rise of a number of very good British singers.

When in 1988 the change in the law regarding off-air recording changed the Department of Trade and Industry recognised the MPRC as a Designated Archive. This made it possible for them to realise their original intention and receive donations of previously unauthorised off-air recordings and also to start making off-air recordings themselves. For the first couple of years the only place the MPRC could find to house their recordings safely was in the basement of the MU offices – not a very satisfactory arrangement. Then, in 1989 the Corporation of London agreed to allow the MPRC to create a Listening Studio in the Barbican Library, within the Barbican Arts Centre in the City of London. This was an excellent venue where the recordings could be stored in ideal conditions and where the public could listen to them. Another generous donation from Sony provided all the play-back and listening equipment required for the two listening booths. An additional bonus was the willingness of the Barbican library staff to deal with those wishing to listen to any of the recordings.

Since then many thousands of recordings dating from 1933 have been donated to the archive. The donations have been in various formats: acetate discs, open reel tapes and analogue cassette tapes. Their condition has varied considerably: a good many have been in excellent sound in relation to the recording techniques available at the time they were made and have been carefully preserved, but some of them have had faults of one kind or another. A great deal of technical work has been undertaken to repair and restore damaged recordings. Surface noise has been reduced as far as possible; drop outs made more acceptable by fading in and out before and after the gap and if there is print through - when a faint ‘echo’ of a passage can be heard before or after the actual music - whenever possible it has been removed. But the integrity of the original was and continues to be paramount. Changes to render a recording more acceptable to those who have become accustomed to the clinical standard of CDs and other forms of transmission have been resisted. The recordings were then transferred to DAT and later to CD, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It soon became necessary to decide which recordings should go into the archive. A list of criteria was drawn up to guide those having to make the difficult decision as to what should be accepted. If a recording was to be kept in the archive it should be of an event of historic interest, an outstanding performance by an artist(s) or orchestra (necessarily a subjective judgement), performances by distinguished artists of music they had not previously recorded, or a public performance that differed to a marked extent from their commercial recording of the same music.

The legal agreements that now continue to protect Music Preserved’s archive of recordings of public performances from exploitation and that have made it possible for them to create an archive where the public can listen, free of charge, do not allow anyone other than Music Preserved itself to copy its recordings under any circumstances. However, some years later it was agreed that in safe protected conditions, under the control of a member of the Music Preserved staff, extracts, and sometimes whole works, could be played at public and private events outside the Barbican.

Once it was free to take items from its collection outside the Listening Studio, Music Preserved initiated a National Access and Education Programme. Presentations of its holdings have been given all over the country sometimes at music societies, such as those in Torbay and Esher; at music colleges – Trinity College of Music, Birmingham Conservatoire – and most notably at the 1997 Edinburgh International Festival. The Festival was celebrating its 50th anniversary and invited Music Preserved to give a presentation every day throughout the three weeks of the Festival of some of its historic archive-recordings made at the Festival during the previous 49 years. Jon Tolansky introduced the recordings, which included some wonderful performances: the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello played by Joseph Szigeti and Pierre Fournier, Beecham conducting Sibelius 1 with the RPO, Guido Cantelli conducting La Meri and Two Nocturnes both by Debussy and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto played by Rostropovich with Rozhdestvensky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic and the Stockholm Opera’s performance of Janácek’s opera Jenufa in 1974.

But it was the 1957 archive-recording of the complete opera La sonnambula by Bellini, with Maria Callas and Fiorenzai Cossotto, when the entire La Scala company had come to Edinburgh from Milan, that created the most excitement. Immediately after the end of the Festival they had made a commercial recording of the opera. Tolansky told me that an audience of over a thousand in the Edinburgh Queen’s Hall had sat spell-bound throughout the performance of Music Preserved’s recording of the opera with nothing to look at but the two loud speakers on the stage. When the performance was over several members of the audience who had been at the actual performances forty years previously came to speak to him. They had bought the long-playing record issued shortly after the Edinburgh production, but they said that listening to the archive-recording was different – it was like being back again in the King’s Theatre all those years ago.

Performance Practice and Audience Expectations 1900 - 2000

Since the 1970s an increasing interest and concern for ‘authenticity’ in performance had led to attempts to identify how the great masterpieces of the past had been performed, using contemporary reports and internal evidence from the music itself, but of course, a great deal still remained speculative. Now in the 1980s when the Music Performance Research Centre (MPRC) was being set up musicians and music-lovers were listening to recordings made by orchestras from around the world and an increasing number were lamenting the decline in the individuality and spontaneity of orchestral performances – on record and in the concert hall – and the loss of clearly audible national characteristics of instrumental tone and musical style that had in the past distinguished one orchestra and performance from another.

Had performing in studios, rather than to an audience, and the advances in recording techniques that had and were continuing to take place had any effect on those frequently involved in studio broadcasting and recording? Did concert audiences have expectations derived from listening to many more commercial recordings than concert performances, since even the most ardent concert-goers spent far more time listening to broadcast and recorded music than attending ‘live’ music events?

The MPRC felt that the archive of historical and contemporary recordings of live performances it had created and the extensive collection of recorded interviews it possessed provided a research

tool that could enquire into whether there was evidence that recording and broadcasting had influenced performances in the way that was being suggested. As Chairman of what was then still the Music Performance Research Centre, I applied to the Leverhume Trust for a Research Grant that would fund research into a number of questions regarding changes in performance practice.

The Trust responded favourably to this application for a grant and agreed to fund a two-year research programme. This enabled the MPRC to engage a part-time researcher. Leverhulme approved my directing the project, but as a member of the Council of a Company Limited by Guarantee I was not allowed to be paid for undertaking any work for it. They also approved Jon Tolansky as the part-time researcher.

The research programme included an examination of the differences between studio and public performances and a comparison of five orchestras between 1951 and 1975 and then in 1992. There was a questionnaire for audiences and questionnaires and recorded interviews with conductors, soloists, singers, recording engineers and orchestral musicians. Some of the performers had recorded on both 78rpm and tape and others only on tape. The written accounts by artists about their relationship and attitudes to recording were collected.

The MPRC sought answers to these questions:
Is there evidence that there has been a loss of individuality and spontaneity?
Have national and
local traditions of performance been affected, or lost, as a result of the world-wide distribution of  recordings and been replaces by a musical Esperanto?
Has the intervention of the recording
producers and engineers, the artificial balances created in the studio and editing had an effect onthe artists involved?
Do they perform differently in the studio than when in the concert hall or
opera house? Is there evidence that audience expectations have been changed by listening to studio recordings on which the performers have concentrated on accuracy of instrumental  technique, ensemble and intonation?
Do public performances attempt to emulate the
Is there any evidence that listeners are now more concerned with ‘sounds’ than

The MPRC started by comparing studio recordings and archive-recordings of public performances of five orchestras. The comparison were always of the same music, played by the same orchestra and conductor within quite a short time of each other. On some occasions the two recordings had been made within a few weeks of each other.

Amongst the works selected were The Walk to the Paradise Garden, from A Village Romeo and Juliet by Delius, played by the RPO conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, Francesca da Rimini by Tchaikovsky played by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, the Overture Consecration of the House by Beethoven, played by the Philharmonia and conducted by Otto Klemperer, Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz played by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel and Moonlight, one of the Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten played by the Royal Opera House Orchestra conducted by the composer.

When the pairs of recordings were being analysed there was no difficulty in recognising which were the studio and which the public performances: there was a marked difference between them. On all the recordings that were compared there was far more rubato in the public performances and not only considerable differences of tempo – in general andante and adagio passages were taken more slowly and faster tempo markings played faster at concerts than in the studio – but variation within a given tempo were also quite frequent. It was much more difficult to be sure about differences of dynamics. Though there did appear to be a wider range of dynamics on the archive-recordings than those recorded in a studio, it was not possible to know whether this was inherent in the actual performance in the studio, or if they had been ironed out by the producer and his recording engineers in the course of editing. However, from the work that was undertaken on performances from the period 1975 to 1992, there is some evidence that the studio and concert performances were becoming more alike. The concert performances seem by the mid-eighties to have become much less distinguishable from studio performances than had been the case previously..

Compilations were made of extracts from recordings made by orchestras in France, Germany, Russia, America and Britain between 1930 and 1992 and of ten orchestras from nine countries playing in the Royal Albert Hall within a period of six weeks during the 1992 Promenade concert series. The intention was to learn whether the distinct national characteristics of tone and the traditional elements in their performances in the 1930s had been retained. Another taped compilation of performances, this time of Ravel’s Bolero made during the same period, show a quite remarkable change in the way the balance between the solo instruments and their accompaniment was considered appropriate. There is a marked increase in the prominence of the soloists in relation to their accompaniment from the 1970s onwards. This is particularly noticeable in the first very quiet solos for the flute and clarinet.

As well as this work a Questionnaire addressed to members of the audiences were left on the seats in the hall for concerts given at the Birmingham Symphony Hall, the Barbican Hall, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Festival Hall during 1993. It consisted of a single sheet of paper with a letter on one side, explaining the reason for the questionnaire and on the other side the questionnaire itself. The letter explained that the MPRC was engaged in an enquiry into listeners expectations when listening to ‘live’ and ‘recorded’ music, and the effect that performing at concerts and in the recording studio has on the artists themselves and that they were comparing recordings made in a studio with those made at concert performances. As well as the nearly 250 detailed replies to the questionnaire that were returned there were meetings with members of record societies when these questions were discussed.

The questions, which was quite far ranging were:

Do you listen to music on the radio and on which stations? To your own records and CDs? About how long do you listen to specific programmes or recordings each week and for how long when it is just background to some other activity? How often do you attend a concert or opera performance? What decides you to go – is it the music to be performed, the artists taking part or because you own or have heard a recording of the music or artist? What makes you buy a particular recording – the music, the artist or a critical review? Are you ever disappointed at a concert or at the opera after you have become familiar with the music from a recording? Are you disturbed by any blemishes or distractions that may occur at a concert or opera? Are you ever disappointed when listening to a recording after you have heard the music at a concert or opera? Is the sound quality of a recording of great importance to you? If the tone quality is thin or scratchy, as it can be on older recordings, does this make it unacceptable? Do you use the controls on your equipment to increase/decrease the volume, or to only listen to sections of the music you particularly enjoy?

There were also questionnaires and recorded interviews with conductors, soloists, singers, recording engineers and orchestral musicians. Some of the performers had recorded on both 78rpm and tape and others only on tape. The written accounts by artists about their relationship and attitudes to recording were collected.

Sadly it has not been possible for the extensive research that was undertaken to be completed as the necessary funding has not been available. The only part of the research to have been published so far is the comparison of the five orchestras. The chosen orchestras were the Cleveland Orchestra (US), the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (formerly the Leningrad Philharmonic), the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Holland), the Vienna Philharmonic (Austria) and the London Symphony Orchestra (UK). They were chosen because each orchestra had a strong tradition of performance, observable national characteristics and they had all taken part in the 1992 BBC Promenade season in the Royal Albert Hall. The archive-recordings of these performances in the Archive are not off-air recordings, but direct off-line checks provided to the Archive by the BBC. The result of this research was published by Harwood Academic Publishers in the 1997 edition of Musical Performance (Vol. 1, part 4). Copies of this publication and recordings of the extracts used to make the comparisons can be seen and heard at the Music Preserved Listening booths.

From its inception Music Preserved’s intention was to chronicle the changes in performance style that had already taken place and would continue to do so in future. Equally, if not more important, is their aim to preserve performances of new music, very frequently not recorded commercially. It would be wonderful if in the future instead of having to rely on the often dubious written accounts, as we are obliged to do now when considering how the compositions of Mozart, Beethoven and many others were performed, we could actually hear how their music was played when they were alive.


BBC Libraries and Archives Division in1994 donated a number of videos to Music Preserved. The videos made it possible for them to add another facility at its Listening Studio at the Barbican. These videos could no longer be broadcast by BBC, because of contractual agreements with the artists involved, nor could they be issued commercially at that time. Music Preserved has added to them by making a number of off-air television relays themselves including part of the BBC Fairest Isle Festival and have accepted donations of privately made off-air video performances.

Oral Histories

Music Preserved, not satisfied with only recording music performances decided to start recording interviews with musicians. Their intention was to trace how working conditions and standards had changed for musicians during the 20th century. Musicians from as many areas of the profession as possible were interviewed, including part-time musicians. In the series of interviews titled The Oral History of Musicians in Britain, musicians in their own words provide information about where they had been educated, where employed, what music they had played and with whom, and how they had been affected by the musical, technological and social changes that had occurred while they were in the profession.

In the relaxed environment, usually in their own homes where the interviews were recorded, it was possible for the interviews to be more like ‘conversations’. The interviewees whether celebrated conductors, singers, soloists or members of orchestras and bands felt able to express their views and comments more freely than is often the case. In fact, on several occasions I had to ask whether they were sure they wanted what they had said to remain on a recording that would be in an archive where anyone who wished to could listen to them..

Two of those interviewed were over a hundred years old when I recorded them. Bill Waller, who was a hundred, had been a horn player in Liverpool. He had known some of the great players who had played under Hans Richter in the Hallé at the end of the 19th century and himself played as an extra in the Hallé under Sir Hamilton Harty as well as for some of the successful musical comedies in the early 1920s. Sidonie Goossens, a member of the famous Goossens family, was the principal harpist in BBC Symphony Orchestra when I first met her in 1932. My father had taken my mother and myself – I was then seven – to see the newly built Broadcasting House and attend one of the Orchestra’s rehearsals. When I went to interview her 68 years later in 2000 she was 101. Her memory was still very sharp and she was able to recall her first professional engagements, chamber music and playing in theatres from 1916, during the first world war. Her orchestral debut was on June 7 1921, in the orchestra which her brother Eugene had formed when he conducted the first British concert performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. She remained the principal harpist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1930 for over fifty years and was a favourite of composers from Stravinsky to Boulez and renowned for her ability to learn and play contemporary music right up to when she retired.

As well as interviews with distinguished orchestral musicians, including many of those I have already written about and some less celebrated, there are interviews with jazz and dance band musicians, some of whom were band leaders and others who were only part-time musicians; there are also interviews with those who played in theatres, night clubs, on ships and band-stands. In fact anywhere that musicians are employed. In addition to the recordings that Music Preserved itself has made, there are sets of valuable interviews that have been donated to the archive. Particularly important are the 50 that were made at the Royal Opera House as part of the Verdi Centenary with conductors, singers and members of the chorus and orchestra..

At a series of celebrity interviews, Profile of the Artist, mounted by Music Preserved and funded by Guardian Royal Exchange in a small hall within the Barbican Centre, the celebrated tenor Jon Vickers, the conductor Sir Edward Downes, Gary Brooker, from the group Procul Harum, and others, recalled their careers and listened with the audience to extracts from their own public performances preserved in the Archive. All the interviews can be listened to in the Music Preserved listening booths.

Perhaps these interviews – there are now nearly 200 – may prove to be as valuable for future generations in providing a picture of musical life in Britain in the 20th century as the recordings of the performances.

Chapter 25

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