More on Historical Recordings

If there is one thing that has helped me to understand the principles and procedures of the old Italian school of singing, it is the historical record of sound recordings left to us at the end of the 19th-century and beginning of the 20th.

Many singers, voice teachers, and musicologists will complain about the quality of these recordings because they do not match our current levels of technological sophistication. However, I believe that if one listens with an open mind, and functional ears, much can be learned from these wonderful recordings. They feature singers that followed Nature in their training, sought out ease in their singing for its own sake, and sang for much longer than many of today’s leading singers. Their voices were dramatic, yet flexible, strong, yet supple.

It is truly amazing how many teachers and singers overlook or bypass this amazing TREASURY of sound recordings, left to us by the great singers of the past. Many singers and teachers only go back to sound recordings left to us in the 1950s, when the advances in equipment lent a more pleasing and cleaner listening experience.

Curious is our neglect of the great vocal records of the past, although the decline in singing, already perceptible in the early days of the gramophone, is by now so clear as to be capable of demonstration in terms of measurable fact…Surely, as Reynaldo Hahn argued persuasively in one of the essays in his Thèmes Variés, aspiring singers ought to study with the most assiduity these surviving specimens of the grand manner. It is a typical paradox of our age that we should possess an aid to style which know previous generation is possessed, and should make so little use of it…

Bloom, Eric, ed. Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. MacMillan & Company, 1954.


While musicologists and some performers seek desperately to discover and revive the performance practices of the Renaissance and Baroque era, no similar enthusiasm has yet been manifested for a similar investigation of the performance practices of the bel canto and romantic era…[This is] not only paradoxical but almost farcical…[because] our legacy of recorded evidence of performance practice in the 19th-century handed down by singers and instrumentalists who were, in many cases, the composers’ contemporaries and more or less intimate colleagues and friends, is rich.

Pleasants, Henry. Opera in crisis: tradition, present, future. Thames and Hudson, 1989.

If you think that these old recordings are unlistenable because of their primitive, scratchy, and noisy sounds, commentators remarked that they early acoustic recordings were in fact better than the electrical recordings that came later on in the century:

In speaking of these early records, far too much stress is often late on their technical defects, which actually show any accompaniments rather than in the voices; without the possibility of flattering electrical amplification, extremely realistic results were often achieved. Mme Emma Eames once listen, in my presence, tool large number of recordings made by her former operetta colleagues; and though she had previously admitted to feeling a prejudice against the gramophone, a few notes for always enough for her to identify the unnamed singer with absolute certainty; of Plançon’s Sonnambula aria in particular (which was made in 1903) she remarked “it is exactly like him; he might be in the room.”

Shawe-Taylor, Desmond. Covent Garden. Vol. 4. Max Parrish & Company Limited, 1948.

In a succeeding blog, I will go over a helpful list of singers to listen to with remarks on these singers’ voices from musical criticism of the time. My hope is to give you an idea of the particular qualities that these singers captured on their recordings.

Stay tuned!

3 thoughts on “More on Historical Recordings

  1. Excellent post. Early recordings really do give the listener a unique experience when heard on a gramophone, the presence of the voice is the room being quite striking. One only hears this when original equipment is used.

    1. Thanks, Daniel. One of the most wonderful classes I ever took in graduate school was called “The Voice on Record.” James E. Seaver, who hosted the Public Radio Program “Opera is My Hobby” on Kansas Public Radio, came to present some of his collection’s early cylinder recordings which he played on the original equipment. We heard a selection from a Wagner opera with a baritone whose name I’ve forgotten. What I haven’t forgotten was the spectral, chilling sound of that singer’s voice in the room. It was as though we were hearing the voice of a ghost. Albeit a beautiful ghost! In that moment I realized that this singer, who was one of the earliest recorded examples of singing had probably known Wagner himself, and here we were listening to voice coming to us through a hand-cranked record player through time and space. I will never forget that moment, and I was unable to control my emotions and began to cry in the class! I’m sure everyone thought I was nutty – but the experience of hearing that voice is one I will never forget. It was then that the spark of love for these recordings was kindled.

      More on Jim Seaver here:

  2. Dear, mr Petersen, i suggest Florencio Constantino. Just recently i discovered his name. Although i am listening to historical recordings since my singing lessons with Daniëla Bloem.
    Nice blog! Keep it up.

    Robert van Leeuwen

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