I love opera, but it wasn’t always so. For me, opera was an acquired taste. Fortunately, I had a mountain of recorded works to draw upon, but it wasn’t always that way.
“Why has this great interest and enthusiasm for Opera so suddenly developed?” asked one journalist in 1917 in National Music Monthly. “Almost every layman will answer with the two words, ‘the phonograph.’”
Of course, the phonograph changed everything. Before Edison’s talking machine, live was about all there was. If you, like me, wanted to experience a new form of music, you’d have to traipse off to the concert hall and hope you liked what you heard. The gramophone changed all that, as well as a lot more.
Because the early recorded discs didn’t use microphones to record sound, capturing music was a completely mechanical process: Musicians played into a huge horn, with the sound waves driving a needle that etched the audio into the wax. The frequency extremes were completely cut off, causing violins to turn into pathetic squeals and high female voices sounding awful. So producers had to alter the instrumentation to fit the medium. Jazz bands replaced their drums with cowbells and woodblocks, and the double bass with a tuba. Klezmer bands completely dropped the tsimbl, a dulcimer-like instrument whose gentle tones couldn’t move the needle. (Opera singer Caruso’s enormous success was partly due to the quirks of the medium: The male tenor was one of the few sounds that wax cylinders reproduced fairly well.)
As the industry moved from Edison’s wax cylinders to Emile Berliner’s shellac discs, which could hold only two to three minutes of audio, music itself fundamentally changed to accommodate the new medium. Performers and composers ruthlessly edited their work down to size. When Stravinsky wrote his Serenade in A in 1925, he created each movement to fit a three-minute side of a disc; two discs, four movements. The works of violinist Fritz Kreisler were “put together with a watch in the hand,” as his friend Carl Flesch joked. Blues and country songs chopped their tunes to perhaps one verse and two choruses.
The dance between music and technology has been going on for quite some time.