Alnwick, Music Society

Birth of music giant

Chairman Martin Gillham took members of Alnwick Recorded Music Society back to the earliest days of sound recording when he gave the first part of his presentation on the story of EMI.

With EMI recently sold to Warner, this seemed a good time to look back at its long and distinguished history.

Martin outlined the earliest history of sound recording, covering the pioneering work of Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner, and leading up to the foundation of The Gramophone Company by William Owen in 1897.

The first records made by the company were produced by Fred Gaisberg, who had brought recording equipment over from the USA in 1898.

Initially the gramophone was considered to be little more than a toy, but soon recordings by famous musicians were being made. Martin played a 1904 recording of Enrico Caruso performing Mattinata, exclusively composed by Leoncavallo for the gramophone.

In 1900 the company adopted the famous His Masters Voice logo of the dog, Nipper, listening to a horn gramophone.

As early as 1913, the first complete symphony was recorded. This was Beethoven’s fifth symphony, played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Arthur Nikisch. Martin played a brief extract, explaining that early recording equipment could only cope with a reduced orchestra.

During the First World War, production was largely limited to patriotic music and as an example we heard a 1915 recording of Clara Butt singing Land of Hope and Glory.

By 1918 record sales had increased dramatically, but still used the old acoustic recording system.

In 1925 electrical recording took over, providing greatly improved sound. Martin played an excerpt from Respighi’s La Boutique Fantasque in both acoustic and electrical recordings to demonstrate the difference.

With the increased quality of sound, more great singers and instrumentalists were attracted to recording. We heard part of the scherzo from Schubert’s Piano Trio no.1 played by the legendary trio of Alfred Cortot, Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals.

The electrical process also made the recording of large groups possible, as demonstrated by Manchester’s 250 voice children’s choir and the Halle Orchestra performing Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away in 1929.

In 1931 HMV and rival company Columbia united to become Electrical and Musical Industries Ltd, and so EMI was born.

Martin’s final record was from a live recording of Bruno Walter conducting Mahler’s ninth symphony in Vienna in 1938, shortly before the Anschluss was declared in Austria.

The beginning of the Second World War marked a new era in recording, which will be covered in part two of Martin’s history of EMI, which we hope to hear in the near future.