Phonozoic Text Archive, Document 128

Philip G. Hubert, Jr.
What the Phonograph will do for Music and Music-Lovers

Scribner's Monthly 46 (1893:May/Oct.), pp. 152-4.  "Open Letters" section.

LOOKING at the phonograph from the point of view of a person professionally interested in music, I cannot see room for doubting the tremendous rôle which this extraordinary invention is to play in the future of music and musicians.  Few people seem to realize that the phonograph, even in its present stage,--which is admitted to be one of imperfection as compared with what may be expected before many years have passed,--has really title to be called a musical instrument.  My own skill with the phonograph is certainly not that of an expert, and yet I get no little enjoyment from the dance-music and the operatic fantasias which it reels off in the evening for the amusement of the family, while people less pampered than I am in the matter of music are filled with enthusiasm over its performances.  It is really music, and not a mere suggestion of music.  The different instruments employed are perfectly distinct, while the time is of course perfect.  Taking, for instance, a chord of the piano, not only are the notes of the chord heard, but the after-vibrations, lasting for several seconds.  When a small funnel is used to magnify the sound, every person in a large room can hear distinctly, and the music is almost loud enough to be used for dancing.  In one of the phonograms, as the wax cylinders are called, the rounds of applause, the hand-clapping, the pounding of canes upon the floor, which followed the spirited performance of a popular melody at Mr. Edison's Orange laboratory, have been allowed to appear, making most people start with amazement as, after the last chords have died away, come these sharp cries of "Bravo!" and the confused rattle of applause from the audience.

Such being the case,--and every musician familiar with the musical doings of the phonograph will admit that the foregoing is a moderate statement,--what may the phonograph, as a music-maker and -teacher, not do [153] for the world?  Bear in mind that these phonograms do not deteriorate by constant use, the same music coming out the hundredth time as perfectly as the first; also that, by the duplication through a special electrotyping process, facsimiles of a good phonogram can be made in large numbers at almost nominal cost.  If each phonogram turned out required the actual performance of music for its production, the output would be restricted and costly; it would be like setting anew the type for every copy of a book.  Again, if the phonogram could be used only a few times, as was the case with the zinc-foil sheets used in the crude form of the instrument, the apparatus would remain a toy for the rich.  Conceding its power of musical reproduction by means of wax cylinders, which are both cheap and lasting, the imagination may run riot without exhausting the field opened before one.  Besides giving musical pleasure past present computation to the million, it will do wonders for the musician.  First, it will offer the composer a means of indicating his wishes concerning time and expression compared with which the metronome and all printed directions and expression-marks of the present are but the clumsiest of makeshifts.  Secondly, it will become a great teacher of music, as even the phonographic echo of the piano, of singing, or of orchestral work, will be sufficient to furnish pupils with precise models.  In the third place, it offers a means for solving tone problems too delicate for the powers of the human ear, and heretofore beyond solution.

At Herr von Bülow's farewell concert in this country, two years ago, a phonograph was employed to make a record of the whole concert, and particular care was taken with Beethoven's symphony, the "Eroica."  The learned conductor left the country before the phonograms, the results of the evening's work, could be prepared for his hearing, but these results surprised and delighted a host of musical experts.  Musicians of repute have confessed to me that, whereas they had looked upon the stories concerning the phonograph's musical achievements with incredulity, what they heard far surpassed the promises made by the advocates of the invention, and showed possibilities for the device as a help to the musician of the future which would set every musician a-dreaming.  It may be granted without discussion that the phonographic record of our music will give for all future time the exact wishes of our composers and performers with regard to tempi, shades of expression, phrasing, dynamic gradations, and all the niceties of interpretation which no written marks, however minute, can begin to convey.  The metronome has until now been the only means of marking the time or pace at which a composition is intended to be played by the composer.  As contrasted with the phonographic guide to correct time, it is crude enough.  The worst phonograph will at least give a faithful record of the exact time of a piece, and for every bar--in fact, the exact length of every note in the score.  The experiments made with the records of piano-playing show that, so far as accuracy is concerned, no limit can be placed upon its possibilities as an echo.  Every minute change of time, every shade of expression, is heard in the echo as plainly as in the original.  It is no exaggeration to say that an expert can distinguish between the playing of two pianists as reproduced in the phonograph.

There are certain things about piano-playing--indeed, about all musical performances--that cannot be taught.  Pianists, violinists, and singers are apt to surpass themselves under certain conditions, due perhaps to the applause of a great audience, perhaps to peculiar personal conditions favorable to artistic expression.  Effects are produced which escape analysis, and cannot be reproduced at will or for the benefit of pupils.  The artist may not ever be able to do again what has been done once, and the exact elements or constituents of an effect are lost.  The niceties of phrasing cannot be indicated by written marks; they must be left to the musical instinct or intelligence of the singer or player: yet expressive phrasing constitutes an important element of all fine musical work.  The half-dozen notes of a bar may each one have a different length and different power, and yet be all alike on paper.  If we can obtain at trifling cost a perfect echo of any musical performance, it is highly probable that, when the phonograph is found in every house, a phonographic version of every piece of music will accompany the printed sheet.  The latter will give the actual notes, while the phonogram will give the reading of some great player.  Or, perhaps, inasmuch as the phonograms can be reproduced for almost nothing, the readings of half a dozen artists will follow the printed page.  For instance, the music-shops might sell with Beethoven's pianoforte concertos the phonographic readings of the same concertos by Rubinstein, Bülow, and Saint-Saëns.  The whole need not cost more than a few cents, so far as the phonograms are concerned.

Some persons have expressed a fear lest the wide distribution of an apparatus capable of echoing all sorts of music, in a more perfect fashion than any music-box, might lead to the gradual extinction of piano-playing or violin-playing except for purposes of public exhibition, the phonographic echo of some great performer's work being so much superior to what most people could hope to accomplish.  It seems to me that the contrary would be the result.  Cheap phonographs, giving more or less perfect echoes of music, might make superfluous the painful attempts--painful to others as well as to herself--of the unmusical young woman to master impossibilities.  To the person of real musical instinct and capacity, the wealth of good music would certainly prove an incentive.  When the phonograph goes everywhere, and phonographic music is cheap, the housewife can listen to Rubinstein as she darns the stockings in the evening, and get superb lessons at the great fountains of musical art, if she has any taste that way.  There is no reason to suppose that it will be any more difficult to record a performance of "Die Meistersinger" than a recitation by Coquelin, or a Beethoven symphony under Bülow's baton.  There is a good time coming for the poor man of good taste.

An interesting question, perhaps to be solved by means of the phonograph, concerns the differences between a good and a bad performance, whether of a piano piece or of an opera.  It has often been remarked that a particular performance "would not go."  In the case of a soloist's work, failure to produce the desired effect might be attributed to the shortcomings of the soloist.  But operas and plays sometimes fail signally when, according to all rules, they ought to succeed.  Every music-lover will remember certain performances which ought to have been superb, but were nothing of the kind.  Opera-goers of the city of New York will be pretty sure to cite the memorable performance of "Faust" which [154] opened the Metropolitan Opera-House in the autumn of 1883--memorable because of its bitter disappointments.  A faithful phonographic record of that performance contrasted with a record of some of the succeeding successful performances of "Faust" by the same artists might disclose interesting features.  It might show that success, or artistic effect, lay in taking one part of this chorus a trifle slower and another part a trifle faster, in emphasizing the bass part here or the soprano part there.

A few years ago there was a performance of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" that was also curiously ineffective.  The opera had already been given half a dozen times that season with remarkable success; it was the musical achievement of the winter.  A repetition was announced for the last night of the year, and the house was well filled.  The singers were those who had already made so great a success in Wagner's masterpiece--Fräuleins Lehmann and Brandt, Herren Niemann, Fischer, and Robinson.  The conductor was Herr Seidl.  Yet long before the evening was over people wondered what the matter was.  It may be suspected that the audience as tired out with Christmas shopping, and that the singers, finding no response to their efforts, grew discouraged and careless; the anti-Wagnerite may hint that after six performances of "Tristan," the long-suffering public turned upon its persecutors.  But every one cannot have been tired out that New Year's eve.  Every one's dinner cannot have gone wrong.  Whatever the cause, whether the trouble was in the auditors or the performance, Herr Seidl was thoroughly discontented with the results, and one devoted Wagnerite, who had been known to rave over "Tristan" by the hour, said to me as we passed out of the Opera-House, "I feel as if I do not care to hear 'Tristan' again for the next ten years."  A fortnight later there was another performance of "Tristan," which was as conspicuous for success as the one just mentioned had been for failure.  A careful comparison of the phonographic records of these two performances might have shown wherein the fault lay.  As the sublime is very near the ridiculous, so the impressive performance may be very near the dismal failure--only the phonograph, with its minute and faithful record, faithful beyond the power of human perceptions, can tell us how near.

The phonograph as a musical educator offers encouragement to the composer.  His work, if it has value, will be known to millions where now it is known to thousands, and it will not take a generation for its worth to be recognized.  It was not until twenty years after the production of "Tristan" that we New-Yorkers were enabled to hear its wondrous beauties; and the masterwork of the high priest of musical art, Wagner's "Nibelung" trilogy, was not heard here until more than ten years after all musical Europe had been ringing with it.  In a very few years I fully expect to receive from Europe not only written accounts of the new operas of Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, but phonograms enabling me to hear them from end to end.  As the wide distribution of literature which followed the cheap books of modern times has helped the author to a living income, so this wide distribution of music through the phonograph will probably do the same thing for the composer of good music.  Then the future Wagner may perhaps receive as much for the composition of a music-drama as the author of another "Silver Threads Among the Gold" gets for his gibberish--which has not been the way in our day.