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Russian Recordings 1899 1914


Alan Kelly has provided a detailed account of the initial recording operations of the Gramophone Company in Russia. When the formation of the Gramophone Company was being discussed in 1897, Emile Berliner agreed in exchange for a fee and a good-sized shareholding in the new company to sell his rights to the recording process in all parts of the world except for North and South America (Japan later became part of the American sphere of influence.) He also agreed that Fred Gaisberg should come to Europe and be the Company's first (and at that time only) recording "expert."

Beginning with William Sinkler Darby's secret recording tour in 1899, the Russian output of the Gramophone Company was to become a major portion of its activities. Berliner engaged Darby, who was equally capable and well-versed in all the processes required to make records, provided another recording machine and sent him to Hanover. There Joseph Berliner arranged for him to visit St. Petersburg and make recordings of the artists at the Imperial Opera, or of anyone else he could find. Darby was provided with the services of an assistant in the person of Kurtz Heineke and, since it is obvious that there was a recording machine already in Hanover, Heineke may have been the unofficial expert who made the first German recordings in Berlin. Joseph set aside a small building and some steam presses where Darby's efforts could be turned into saleable records.

Darby's first task was to check the recording machine already in Hanover, perform necessary repairs and purchase the materials he would need in St. Petersburg. Castings for "the large machine" were expected on March 27 and he comments in his diary that the Gramophone Company's representative,

Hawd had been sent over to London the day before [March 22nd] and
they do not know in London that I am here but they have found out
through Mr. Royal I suppose that I was coming.

A further interesting remark, made in Russia on April 17th was that"

I heard today that Child is coming over to Russia with a Johnson
Recording machine and will be here in about two weeks.

Darby reached St. Petersburg from Berlin on March 30th 1899 and negotiated sales terms and a contract between Joseph Berliner and certain dealers, apparently on behalf of Hanover and with no mention at all of London. In Darby's diary the dates are given "New Style" (as in the rest of Europe) whereas when the actual records are examined, the dates are plainly "Old Style" and therefore it is necessary to add fifteen days to convert them to modern usage. In London the details of each record were entered in a ledger and in those days good business practice dictated that at the beginning of each day (not the end) the clerk drew a line under the previous day's work and below that entered the new date before making any additions to the contents. Since there were no matrix numbers, recordings could only be traced or kept track of by reference to the ledger and it was therefore essential that the record itself showed the date of the ledger page on which it was entered. Although the dates were not always dates of recording they could be close enough, since zinc matrices had to be etched as soon as possible, preferably the same day because of their fragility, but a delay of a day or two was perfectly permissible, particularly if the young expert had been invited out to dinner, which seems to have been a frequent occurrence!

There is a gap for 21st April to 15th May so that the bulk of the session remains unclear. On 10th April (New Style), Darby made his first experimental recording which was not successful, as were several more the next day. Things thereafter improved although he had trouble with his materials and difficulties in getting singers willing to make records. However, by the time the session ended on May 10th (April 25th OS) he had succeeded in producing some 243 successful discs in four weeks.

Meanwhile the Gramophone Company's representative at Hanover, Jack Watson, had arrived back from London and in May was writing to report that something odd was going on. He was not permitted to visit certain parts of Joseph Berliner's factory and he suspected that records were being pressed there!

The Gramophone Company's regular issues were numbered from 1 to 9999 and the few Arabic and Chinese items which had appeared were numbered from 10000 upwards. Hanover's use of 20000 and up would be a remarkable coincidence - if that is what it was. One suspects that the Gramophone Company insisted on its rights and acquired the plates (and their maker) almost as soon as they reached Hanover and that the catalogue numbers were added on instructions from London. The latest date to appear on published records is 25th April (OS) which is equivalent to May 10th. Since there are thirty-seven records with this date, Darby probably finished recording in St. Petersburg before May 10th and the waxed zinc plates would be "written up' and processed later, but on May 15th he reports his departure from London with Fred Gaisberg and Theodore Birnbaum bound for Leipzig and the famous "six cities" tour of Europe.

Darby's records were different in appearance - the details written in the center of the disc did not include the recording angel trademark and were inscribed inside a square box. There are no matrix numbers, only a series of catalogue numbers beginning at 20000 and there is no possibility of confusing them with regular issues.

Darby recorded the Berliner disc on the left below in November or December 1901 in St. Petersburg, although the label reads Moskau, which was the location of the artist Peter Nevsky. The matrix number 1696B can be seen to the right of the spindle hole. The disc on the right was recorded in Tiflis by Oskar Kamionsky shortly afterwards. The engraved matrix number reads 2088B-N-2z. The remaining entries are embossed. The suffixes must have been added by a technician at the processing plant in Hanover. The lower halves of both discs are embossed in Cyrillic characters.

Berliner 20089
April 30, 1899 (NS)

Berliner 29132, embossed in Russian
St. Petersburg, late 1901

Such was the birth of the Gramophone record in Russia. Darby was sent back to St. Petersburg in the following April, 1900, this time officially accredited as a Gramophone Company expert and continued his career. He was accompanied once again by Fred Gaisberg who described the making of Catalogue Number 21009 by Alexander Taneiev on April 9th [Alan Kelly revised this date to March 29, 1900] in his book Music on Record, page 33. Fred Gaisberg was back again in March 1901, when he introduced to Russia the new Johnson all-wax process with its greatly improved sound quality and was back in London on 8th April to make the first ten-inch recordings. He was followed in the same year again by Darby, whose third visit extended into 1902, and then by Franz Hampe in mid-1902. By this time recording sessions were not confined to St. Petersburg, but included Moscow and Warsaw as well and business was booming so much that over half the total profits of the Company came from the Russian area. Recordings at such exotic places as Samarkand, Tashkent and Merv were intended for their own localities and were listed in the Orient Catalogue. Apart from recordings made in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw where most of the bulk originated, other centres include Kazan, Baku (on the Caspian), Tiflis (in Georgia), Lwow, Cracow and Poznan in Poland, Kiev, Poltava, Kharkov and Odessa in the Ukraine with Drohobycz in Galicia, Wilna in Lithuania, Riga in Latvia, Reval and Tartu in Estonia, Armavir in Circassia, Nizhny-Novgorod (now Gorki) and Yasnaya-Polyana (home of Count Leo Tolstoy).

The number of zincs and waxes cut was enormous and their range incredibly wide. The number of copies pressed must have been equally staggering and one rapidly gains the impression that the streets of Russian cities must have been paved with old records. (Although one wonders where they all are today! For the above, I am grateful to Alan Kelly.)

At the beginning of the twentieth century the gramophone industry of Russia consisted mainly of small factories. The two largest of these were located in Moscow -─ПИШУЩИЙ АМУРЪ (in Western transliteration Pishuschiy Amur, "The Recording Amour" or Cupid) and "Pathé Bros; one in the suburb near the Aprelevka railway station - "Metropol Records" - and one more in St. Petersburg (the factory of the Russian-American corporation "Gramophone") with a subsidiary in Riga, Latvia. There were also Russian branches of foreign gramophone concerns, including Zonophone Records, Bermener Records, and Beka. A substantial quantity of disks produced by leading companies was imported (including records of Russian performers).

(The above is from the website

St. Petersburg, December 1901
Moscow, January 1902

The first 10-inch labels show the raised The variant. The labels on the right above and below are from Chaliapin's first recording session.

Label in English, 1902
Label in Russian, January 1902

When the Gramophone Company began to press Victor recordings imported from the United States, as early as 1904, most of these were pressed not only at the Hanover plant in Germany with English labels, but also at the Riga plant with Russian labels and after 1907 at the Ivry plant outside of Paris with French labels. The pressing on the left above bears the imprint REPRODUCED IN HANOVER on the reverse, while that on the right reads REPRODUCED IN RUSSIA.

7-inch, St. Petersburg 1902
10-inch, St. Petersburg, 1901

The label on the left above is from a stamper III pressing and is only 85 mm in overall diameter. The flush label within a raised ring shows the matrix number 293x-d-z, and was probably issued after November 1902. The disc on the right was recorded by Nicolai Figner in St. Petersburg in December 1901, during William Darby's second visit to Russia. It was the first of a series of ten recordings by Figner known to have been accorded a Red Celebrity label. These were followed closely by the first recordings of Chaliapin, probably in January 1902, Sobinov, and other great singers from Russia and elsewhere. The first stamper issues were processed at the Hanover plant. By 1903 the Riga plant was pressing third stamper copies of this recording, with labels in Russian.

The label below is from a recording made in Moscow in March-April 1905 by Varya V. Panina. Robert Kensch, whose name appears in Cyrillic below the label, was a major dealer in gramophones and records in Moscow prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The horseshoe was his monogram. Let us hope that he had better luck than this indicates, since all the luck would have run out!

After the pressing plant in Riga was completed in 1902, all recordings made in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other recording locations within the Russian empire were processed there. They were marked on the reverse with the Recording Angel trademark as well as the phrase REPRODUCED IN RUSSIA. The Russian language was used for all parts of the lower half of the design except the catalog number. English was retained for the record label in an arc across the top and for the language and the instrument or voice across the center of the label.

Riga overprint 1902
Russian overprint, recorded Nov 7, 1909 Caruso recording of Dec 27, 1910 with Russian designation

Darby supervised the first 12-inch recording in Russia in early 1903. The disc, GM 022000 shown below, was Nikolai Fignerís first and only 12-inch recording. The matrix number 1y can be seen at the lower edge of the runoff area. The content of matrix numbers 2y through 8y is unknown, and may have been further but unsatisfactory recordings by Figner. It was not accorded Red Label status; of the ninety-one 12-inch G&T issues, that courtesy was accorded only to Andre Labinsky. The CO. marking confirms Kellyís statement that the disc was issued in June 1903.


Fignerís only 12-inch recording

The Russian branch of the Gramophone Company used a large degree of latitude regarding various policies and changes ordered by the Head Office in London. The figures below show that as late as December 1910 the manufacturing plant in Riga was still using the original G&T label design that had been abandoned by the remaining branches some two years previously. Note that the company designation in the central figure above indicates that the disc was manufactured in Riga, as were most of the others.

Russian pre-DOG Concert label
Moscow, Jan 27, 1910
All Russian fonts
Moscow, Feb 6, 1910

Because of the semi-autonomous actions of the pressing plant at Riga, we cannot determine with any certainty when the various changes in Russian labels occurred. They appear to fall into categories paralleling those of the other Gramophone Company labels. Thus, those with Russian language printing or overprints issued before the completion of the Riga processing plant in 1902 equate to the original Gramophone & Typewriter, i.e., G&T labels, and have more or less the same general design, aside from the language used, sometimes simply for the title of the selection, but occasionally also for the name(s) of the artist(s).

Russian pre-DOG Monarch
St. Petersburg, 1908
Moscow, Jan 28, 1910

It is difficult to determine when the Riga plant began to use labels with the colored Cupid. For reasons outlined below, it was probably after February 1909, when G&T had introduced the "His Masterís Voice" trademark on its labels. The two figures above show typical Gramophone Company pre-DOG labels as late as September 1911, more than two years after the HMV trademark was ordered to be placed on all subsequent Gramophone Company issues.

The 7-inch disc on the left below was recorded by Franz Hampe. Note that the catalog number was used twice more for 10-inch recordings in 1913 and 1914 by Fred Gaisberg! The ten-inch record on the right was recorded by Franz Hampe in Lwow, Poland. Ruthenian was a historic East Slavic language, spoken in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later in the East Slavic territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

St. Petersburg, December 1906
Lwow, November 19, 1909

Moscow, Feb 6, 1910


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