One afternoon in 1920, a young pianist sat down in a shuttered room in the capital of defeated Germany and played a Bagatelle by Beethoven. At the return of the main theme, one of his fingers fractionally strayed, touching two keys instead of one. 'Donnerwetter!' (dammit!), cried Wilhelm Kempff. He looked around and saw crestfallen faces. 'That was very beautiful,' said the machine operator, 'but the recording is now ruined.'
This lapse, recalled by Kemp years later, amounts to a defining moment in the annals of performance - the moment a musician realized that recording required a different discipline and temperament from public concerts. Kempff, had his finger slipped on stage, would have played on regardless, knowing that few would detect the fiaw, or remember it afterwards. On record, though, the imperfection was engraved for all time, growing larger and uglier with each replay. There was no hiding place, no camoufiage available on disc for inferior technique or inchoate interpretation. The artist stood exposed to eternal scrutiny, stripped of illusory diversion.
Sound recording had begun in 1877 with the inventor Thomas Alva Edison shouting 'Mary had a little lamb' into a phonograph and acquired a mass market in 1902 with the first brass-horn arias of the Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso. But the birth of recording as a musical act, separate and distinct from live performance, came in 1920 with the undeletable exclamation of a German artist in the aftermath of the First World War. Kempff, a protege of Brahms' friend Joseph Joachim, was rooted in gaslight romanticism but suffciently aware of swirling currents to realize that recording presented more than just an opportunity to earn a fee. What it offered, once an artist had overcome the fear of error, was the chance to achieve a perfect score. For the first time in cultural history, accuracy and speed transcended inspiration as the object of performance, and there was no shortage of young men like Kempff who wanted, quite literally, to set a record with their playing.
Wiser heads demurred. The professional pianist Artur Schnabel, a man of lofty mind and caustic wit, argued that recording went 'against the very nature of performance' by eliminating contact between player and listener, dehumanizing the art. Music, he said, was a one-time thing, once played never to sound the same again. Schnabel turned his back monumentally on mechanical impertinences. Kempff, meanwhile, faced fresh dilemmas, moral and aesthetic. Recording, he discovered, was innately competitive. Where, before the war, no one could have asserted empirically that Ferrucio Busoni was a better pianist than Ignacy Jan Paderewski, now it was possible to measure Kempff against Wilhelm Backhaus and, music in lap and stopwatch in hand, checking every note in the Moonlight Sonata and timing each movement against Beethoven's metronome mark, prove that Kempff was materially superior. Strife ensued. Artists became bitter enemies and listeners were confused. Soon, it was not enough to have one Moonlight in the living-room cabinet; two or three sets displayed intellectual breadth and civilized tolerance. Where emperors in Vienna once staged live contests between Mozart and Clementi, the suburban homeowner in Peck-ham or Pittsburgh now played Rachmaninov against Vladimir Horowitz for a satisfyingly close shave. An element of sporting competition entered the musical game.
Kempff, who lived to the great age of ninety-five, was a studio master. His articulation was explicit, the notes separated as if bejewelled, his interpretations eschewing an excess of individuality. He recorded the popular classics twice, bought a castle near Bayreuth and was exclusive to Deutsche Grammophon from 1935 to his death in 1991. Yet, while his records entered thousands of homes, Kempff was never a household name. Lacking stage magnetism, he did not visit London or New York until 1951 and many who queued for hours to hear Kempff repeat his estimable studio interpretations came away feeling defrauded. Where was the raptness, the subtle variants of colour, when this nondescript little fellow sat upon an empty platform? Kempff, they complained, was a synthetic invention - a soloist who could never have flourished before the anonymity of recording. His fame came from work done in the dark, away from social and political realities. In his memoirs Kempff is untouched by the century's traumas, by Hitler or mass hysteria, unaware that, when he played in occupied Krakow, he was less than an hour's drive away from Auschwitz.
Schnabel, by contrast, was acutely attuned to public mood and eventually dropped his resistance to recording on an assurance that his work would be sold only in Europe and the British Empire until American audiences had a chance to compare his living presence with the shellac substitute. The principle of eye contact remained uppermost in his mind. Gregarious and polyglot, a commanding presence at the keyboard, Schnabel created a new edition of the thirty-two Beethoven sonatas and played them serially, start to finish, in seven Berlin recitals for the 1927 centenary of the composer's death. He repeated the cycle twice in London while recording for His Master's Voice. The last box in the 100-disc series, sold by advance subscription, appeared in 1939. Schnabel, in this set, introduced a twin-edged concept of integrity: the complete works, performed by the supreme authority. But the idea of the complete cycle had another advantage in that it sold people things they never wanted or knew existed. Subscribers who signed up for the Moonlight, the Hammerklavier and the imposing opus 111 received, together with these summits, discs of less interesting sonatas. Schnabel's Beethoven showed that great composers could be marketed to the self-improving middle classes as a mantelpiece essential, like Encyclopaedia Britannica, the plays of Shakespeare and a potted aspidistra.
Schnabel did not take easily to recording and the producer had to bring in his pretty niece to turn pages to give him an illusion of audience. 'I suffered agonies and was in a state of despair,' he reported. 'Everything was artificial - the light, the air, the sound- and it took me quite a long time to get the company to adjust some of their equipment to music.' The recordings, however, are the antithesis of synthetic. They ripple with spontaneity and are riddled with wrong notes, scintillating in their contempt for precision and their search for inner meaning. Schnabel, said the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau on his death in 1951, was the first 'to illustrate the concept of the interpreter as the servant of music rather than the exploiter of it'.
His record allies had no qualms about exploitation. They took Schnabel's notion of integrity and sold it as doorstoppers to a world that furnished its homes with big boxes. If Kempff 's expletive defined music ex machina, Schnabel's blessing put the whole of Beethoven within mundane domestic reach.
Sounds that were collected before these events are chiefiy of archaeological interest. To listen through aural debris to Francesco Tamagno (1850-1905), Verdi's original Otello, or to Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), the last castrato, is a fascinating experience but one that cannot be endured for much longer than holding one's head down a wishing well. The pitch is wobbly, the static obtrusive and any impression of the singer's musicality requires an imaginative leap on the listener's part. Mighty Melba comes forth enfeebled, Tetrazzini underpowered, Galli-Curci unbeautiful. Mint copies of these objects fetch thousands of dollars (a prolific collector was the oil billionaire, John Paul Getty), but artistic satisfaction is hard to come by on these hand-cranked receptacles.
The first recordings to overcome extraneous noise were ten arias taken by a young American, Fred Gaisberg, from a bumptious Neapolitan, Enrico Caruso, in a Milan hotel one floor above the suite where Verdi, the year before, had died. Gaisberg, as a kid in Washington DC, had hung around after school with men who tinkered in sheds. A useful pianist, winner of a city scholarship, he accompanied singers and whistlers on Edison cylinders, fretting at their inadequacy. In 1893 he met Emil Berliner, a German-Jewish immigrant who had invented a flat disc and was, besides, 'the only one of the many people I knew connected with the gramophone who was genuinely musical and possessed a cultured taste'. Gaisberg, aged nineteen, offered himself to Berliner as an all-purpose factotum, playing the piano when required, raising cash, demonstrating the disc to Bell Laboratories, finding artists. He was the first professional producer of records and, a hundred years later, many still considered him the greatest. In the trinity of recording fathers, Edison engraved sound on surface, Berliner invented the gramophone and Gaisberg created the music industry.
Berliner joined up with Eldridge Johnson, a motor mechanic of Camden, New Jersey, to manufacture gramophones as the Victor Talking Machine Company. Gaisberg set up his first recording studio in 12th Street, Philadelphia, across the river from Camden. In 1898 Berliner sent him permanently to the London branch of his Gramophone and Typewriter Company, soon to be renamed His Master's Voice after an emblematic painting of dog and horn was bought from a passing artist, Francis Barraud. A Berliner nephew who sailed with Gaisberg went on to Hanover, to found the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft. Twenty-five years old and full of vim, Gaisberg roamed with his brother Will as far out as the Russian Caucasus and down into India, capturing remote sounds of throat singers and wedding bands for late-imperial customers. The arch-producer never married; the gramophone was the love of his life.
At La Scala, Milan, in March 1902, he liked the leading tenor in Alberto Franchetti's ephemeral opera, Germania. Gaisberg approached Enrico Caruso the morning after through a pianist, Salvatore Cottone, and asked if he would like to make records. The singer, alert to imminent debuts at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, demanded 100 for ten arias. Gaisberg requested authority from London and was curtly refused: 'Fee exorbitant, absolutely forbid you to record.' He went ahead regardless. Short, fat and ugly, Caruso was an unlikely star but the public was swayed in those days by what it heard, not by what it saw on stage and in dim press photographs. On record, Caruso sang with enviable ease, his baritonal quality stabilizing the recorded image and overcoming pop and crackle. The result was an instant bestseller, the first gramophone hit. By the end of the year he was world famous and fabulously rich. Within two decades - he died of pleurisy in August 1921, aged forty-eight, while mastering Eleazar in Halefivy's La Juive - he earned $2 million. Thirty years later Mario Lanza's movie of his life took in $19 million. It was a voice that never stopped selling.
Caruso's Red Labels convinced the rest of his profession that recording was more than just a gimmick. The first ten tracks offer an object lesson in good breathing and authentic verismo style. Caruso, said Luciano Pavarotti, who recorded a pop elegy to his memory, 'is the tenor against whom all the rest of us are measured . . . With his incredible phrasing and musical instincts he came closer than any of us to the truth of the music he sang.' After Caruso, singers recorded routinely. The last Golden Ager to hold out was the thunderous Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, whose resistance melted on witnessing the triple benefits: prosperity, publicity and a ticket to posterity. The retired Adelina Patti, living in a castle in Wales, summoned Gaisberg to perpetuate her formidable voice. 'Maintenant,' she exclaimed on hearing his playback, 'maintenant je sais pourqois je suis Patti' (now I know why I am Patti).
Other instruments were less convincing. Orchestras, shrunken and warped, sounded as if locked in a bathroom and heard through a rush of water. Fiddlers squeaked, pianists tinkled. To musical ears and an idealistic mind, the results were odious and the outcome obvious. Gaisberg, writing from Milan in April 1909, told his kid brother to cash in and get out:
Say, Will, I have been doing a good deal of thinking of late and have come to the conclusion that the Gramo business is finished. The novelty is gone and days of big profits are over. Gramophone (shares) will never see 40/-again and the Co will settle down to a basis of eight to 10% dividends . . . It will be better for them to liquidate right away than to drag on indefinitely . . . I feel very discouraged generally about the outlook of things and only warn you that this is your last chance to save money.
Few in the business believed that recording would last any longer than such parallel gimmicks as the stereoscope and the hot-air balloon. Already there were other mechanical means of receiving music at home. Marcel Proust, repined in his Paris bed, would listen to Pelleas et Melisande from the Opera night after night down the tinny telephone. The First World War, with its portable gramophones and fevered demand for dance music, staved off the inevitable, but radio followed soon after with the first public broadcasts from Philadelphia in 1920 and live music from the British Broadcasting Company in London two years later. The Columbia label, founded in 1889 as Victor's chief competitor, went into liquidation. The remaining labels wrote off their patents and stock and signed up in 1925 with Bell, which had developed an electrical method of making recordings, based on telephone and microphone advances. The future, as Lenin was telling the Soviet Union, lay in electrification.
Electrical recording allowed artists to stand away from the microphone and orchestras to achieve verisimilitude. 'A whisper fifty feet away, reflected sound, and even the atmosphere of a concert hall could be recorded - things hitherto unbelievable,' marvelled Gaisberg. The electrical players were flatbed instruments with frontal speakers - an ignoble replacement for the magnificent horn, but the public response was enormous. In one week in 1926, Victor sold $20 million worth of Victrola players; its entire profit the year before had been just $122,998. It was as if Caruso had been born all over again. In the sleepy Austrian town of Salzburg, a teenaged inventor, Wolfgang von Karajan, rigged up a player of his own making on the town bridge and turned up the volume. Within minutes the centre of the town was thick with crowds and he was ordered by the police to take the contraption down. 'Those people were dumbfounded,' noted his brother, the conductor Herbert von Karajan. 'The sound of music actually emerging from a box like that created a sensation.'
It was the dawning of the age of mass entertainment and shared experience. Commentary to a world heavyweight fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, relayed on radio, was released on five discs. The aviator Charles Lindbergh was recorded on landing after the maiden transatlantic flight. Fifteen glee clubs sang Adeste Fideles at the Met, a swelling of 4,850 voices. Church bells were recorded in English hamlets, birds singing in the Auvergne. The composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninov, refugees from the Russian revolution, found a new home on records. Bela Bartok, who had roamed Balkan villages with a recording machine, worked the folklore he had collected into his string quartets - the first masterpieces to owe their existence to the act of recording.
Excerpted from The Life and Death of Classical Music by Norman Lebrecht. Copyright © 2007 by Norman Lebrecht. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.