We live in revolutionary times of rapid technological change, and yes, it is a little disconcerting when the rules morph and the practices mutate.  But I did predict years ago that vinyl would be back, and so it is.  This year’s junque is next year’s antique.  And I remember back even to Before Vinyl.

A life-changing opportunity came my way 57 years ago, when a music-loving professor gave certain 78 rpm shellac albums to my mother: He was going with the market to full LPs in his little office and needed the space.  The next thing the kid that I was knew, I was stacking 78’s on the spindle to drop in sequence, just to see what was on the records.  I had no idea what I was doing, but no difficulty in appreciating that it was something big.  The quality of the pianism I heard has stayed with me for a lifetime: Sergei Rachmaninoff and his two biggest concerti; Alfred Cortot and the Chopin F minor, the second concerto; Egon Petri and the Liszt A major, another second concerto; and others such as Wilhelm Backhaus and Walter Gieseking.  But as it was, I learned some basic repertory without any admonitions whatsoever, and Golden Age pianism as well.  And such an awareness has never left me one whit.  There are other beauties, of course, but the appeal of masterly pianism for me has never dimmed.

From such beginnings, webs of connections spread out.  I met a former pupil of Busoni, one less distinguished perhaps than Egon Petri, but a noble gentleman who was a professor of music at Barnard—one who was later murdered on the street in New York City for his meager lunch money, as he had walked out to play the organ for a church service on a Sunday morning.  Two other New Yorkers told me that their favorite pianist was Gieseking, one of them being Ross Parmenter, who had been the music critic for the New York Times.  I later made it a point to find out everything about Alfred Cortot, including reading Bernard Gavoty’s biography of him in French—which I also attempted to have translated by an expert as an American publication.  I acquired all of Rachmaninoff’s recordings of every kind and, more than half a century later, found out that, more than once, Sergei had played especially for friends only a few yards from where I worked for most of those years.  In a private garden there is a plaque, not visible from the street, to memorialize those recitals.  And so on and on.  Sometimes, the best education is the one that is not organized or preformulated, but is rather a compound of happenstance, serendipity, and luck that is both good and not so good.

I don’t know why I held on to those 78’s for so long—I think I had them for 35 years.  I didn’t play them for decades; they had been replaced, their contents duplicated, but I kept them anyway, preserving them as collector’s pieces, as talismans.  Finally, I had to leave them behind in tough circumstances, and they were spitefully discarded.  That was too bad—I remember that a particular one of them was autographed by the composer, Darius Milhaud.  But the unpleasantness was not altogether unexpected.  People do resent the love of fine things—there is always a pretext for resentment, jealousy, and destruction.  The old saying “Thy love afar is spite at home” retains its bitter validity.  And yes, even music is an object of resentment—a point to which we shall return.

But remembering collecting days and introductions to memorable performances also reminds me of the stark contrast between then and now.  I can remember vividly when acquisition was difficult and expensive; I can even remember one instance of the private printing of cult recordings that’s quite a tale.  But now?

And as for the market—well, what is the market if so much is available for free on the Internet?  Collectors’ items that were precious, pricey, and rare are now there for the asking on YouTube.  All you have to do is click, and there is Enrico Caruso in 1902.  So much for the hundreds of dollars I put into old recordings, and I was hardly alone in doing so.  What has happened to the music market defies description, and a lot of people are trying to figure it all out.  And I don’t mean just fans: I mean the stars of the musical firmament and the big orchestras and opera houses.  There is a crisis not only in the musical world but generationally, as the music business tries to adjust to the digitalization of music itself.  Some big players in the pop world, such as Taylor Swift, have tried to address the matter very specifically.  The Metropolitan Opera has promoted new policies, and so have major orchestras.  The one thing I have to say about the avalanche, tsunami, or earthquake, is that music lovers should be prepared to support musical performance in their community as best they can, if there is to be music as we have known it in the future.  A contribution to musical life should be budgeted as a cultural priority, if that is what you consider it to be—as well you should.

But returning to the virtues of old recordings, we must understand of course that the privileges of YouTube require that perspective is necessary for appreciation—you have to bring it with you.  The overwrought and illiterate responses to recordings a century and more old are more than insufficient.  Some old acoustic recordings of Maud Powell are as exciting as the naive listeners claim, but there is little discrimination in their enthused reactions.  What Maud Powell represents, we would have to work out by ourselves, but not without the fortification of scholarship and an historical sense.  Above all, we would have to understand that such recordings are better as markers of cultural perspective than they are as excellent performances of this piece or that.  And I intend to address the subject of Maud Powell in cultural perspective soon.

But before we get down to specifics, it’s not at all unproductive to think about the old acoustic recordings made before the electric microphone was used in 1925.  We have to imagine back to the time when the vibration of the needle was what reproduced the sound that was recorded. When I first heard 78’s, I didn’t know that they were “modern”—and though the term is misleading, the 78’s I did hear were recorded between the late 1920’s and the late 1940’s, and the sound had a bigger dynamic range and a more faithful presentation than the old acoustics.  Even so, there is something about the old acoustics that gets under your skin.

I can tell you from experience that acoustic recordings were very limited as far as big sounds were concerned.  Orchestral sound was bad, and on some discs, the bass line was amplified by tubas!  So big pieces were not favored—the market was filled with little pieces, a song on either side of a disc, for instance, or an analogous piano or violin piece.  And sometimes all three were the same pieces!  When Kreisler made his first recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto in 1926, it was the first recording of that piece altogether, and with the new technology, it sounded good.

The first big star of recordings was, I suppose, Caruso; and we do him no disrespect to say not only that his voice was a great one shrewdly deployed, but that it was an exceptionally phonogenic voice.  That could not be said of all singers, even other commanding ones.  Men sounded better than women because of the nature of acoustic recording: Tenors and baritones were flattered; sopranos, even the best ones, were not.  But this does not mean that a great deal cannot be gleaned from acoustic recordings of the ladies.

There was a limitation of what sold—a limitation by the capacities of the recording system, by the Victorian-salon tastes of the day, by the producers’ fear of failure.  There was a lot of duplication, particularly of short pieces that could be exploited in sentimental ways.  I think that Chopin’s reputation as a composer was actually damaged by the use his music was put to, back in the day.  What was the difference between his lesser effusions and Drdla’s “Serenade,” after all, particularly if they were all crooned in the same sentimental style?

So what with one thing and another, there was a lot of Chopin’s shorter works, but not so much of anything longer or more challenging.  There were quite a few recordings of Drdla’s “Serenade” and other such works, for piano, violin, and voice.  It was a world of elevated sentiments, a world of song, and if the artist was a violinist or pianist, he or she was expected to project in the lyric-dramatic way that was not only songful but stagey in the best sense.

When the old acoustics were at their best, they were great—hair-raising as musical experiences, and most instructive as reflectors going backward, opening the door to the 19th century and the heroic world of Romanticism that would die in the trenches of the Great War.  Such overtones we will explore, then, as cultural markers that are an education in themselves, and also as two-way streets—ones that, in one direction, powerfully suggest what we lack in our musical world today.