April 2008


(click on image to enlarge)

Title: Traumerei by Schumann "Reverie"
Genre: Violin Solo
Performer: Mr. Fred W. Hager
Company: Globe Record Company
Label: Climax Record
Catalog Number: 63 (10")

The First Prize-Winning Record (Sort Of)

In the closing years of the nineteenth century, the Phonoscope was the recording industry's leading trade journal, and in its August 1898 issue it announced that it would award a gold medal "to the musician making the best violin record," having apppointed the Stieren Home and Commercial Phonograph Company of Pittsburgh to manage the contest.  (You can see a photograph of this company's storefront from a few years later online courtesy of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.)

"This is the first prize ever offered to the phonographic world," the announcement continued, "and the enterprising managers of THE PHONOSCOPE grasped this opportunity to settle an argument brought about by the various companies, all confessing to make the best violin record."  The announcement didn't name names, but Reed & Dawson of Newark had been promoting themselves as "the only successful Violin record makers," with Thomas Herbert Reed, one of the partners in the firm, as violinist; and a competing firm, Harms, Kaiser, and Hagen of New York, had started claiming big sales for the work of its own violinist, Frederick W. Hager.  The stage was set for a showdown.  (Reed & Dawson and Harms, Kaiser, and Hagen both specialized in "original" records, cut onto cylinders direct from live performances, as opposed to the dubbed "duplicates" offered by Columbia and other larger concerns.)

The September 1898 issue of the Phonoscope announced that the gold medal had gone to Hager for his rendition of "Traumerie" (plainly a misspelling of "Tr´┐Żumerei").  Harms, Kaiser, and Hagen duly took out an advertisement in the same issue, boasting of their triumph, but the award itself had technically gone to Hager himself as the performer.  Second place went to a Philadelphia amateur named Douglass Bingham, and Reed & Dawson struck out entirely.

Actual Harms, Kaiser, and Hagen cylinders are rare and difficult to identify, but Hager continued to make violin records for a few more years -- and here you have a chance to listen to him playing his award-winning selection on a ten-inch Climax Record which I tentatively date to late 1901.  Whatever tricks Hager had learned by 1898 for making a good violin record, we're probably hearing them here as well.  Note that Hager would have been using a standard violin for these recording sessions; the specially adapted Stroh violin did not begin to replace the traditional sort in recording studios until 1904.


There are probably as many different opinions as to the best equalization curve for acoustic phonograms as there are listeners.  I've applied what I feel is a pretty conservative reduction of frequencies above 3500 Hz only, to eliminate the most ear-splitting hiss from an otherwise flat transfer, aggressively filtered for impulse noises.  I encourage you to play around with the settings on your player of choice until you find something you like.

For example, you might try the above setting if straightforward playback grates on your ears.