Columbia Repertoire History: Classical Recordings

Columbia Master Book, Volume I, Tim Brooks, ed.

After the 1903 Grand Opera debacle, Columbia looked overseas for classical vocal recordings. The April 1904 Columbia Record reported that engineer Frank Capps was in Italy securing discs and cylinders from a mix of Neapolitan artists and La Scala stars including Mieli, De Negre, Galli, Cecarcelli, Fornari, Vaili, Feberici, Parvis, Sambo, Migliardo, Olietti, Alasia, and Cantallamessa. By 1906 Columbia was recording some lesser known artists in the U.S. A March 1906 supplement in the author’s collection is accompanied by a small slip headed “Columbia Operatic Records,” which contains cylinders and discs by Arcangelo Rossi, Francisco Nuibo, Gina Ciaparelli and Taurino Parvis of the Met, A. Moser and Karl Meisler of the Vienna Royal Opera, U. Pini-Corsi of La Scala, and Spanish baritone Alberto Seresca Caceres. All were issued in regular domestic or imported series, and sold at normal prices. Joining Columbia’s roster somewhat later were Anton Van Rooy, Vittorio Arimondi, Lillian Blauvelt, Mme. José Grayville, Eduardo Castellano, Ruth Vincent, and David Bispham.

Although Columbia did not attempt to compete with Victor’s highly promoted Red Seal series, it gave its own higher-class products some distinctiveness in 1906 via a new “Symphony Series.” These were 10” and 12” issues numbered in the regular series, but sporting a special multi-colored banner label. Most early 12” discs bear this label. Initially the repertoire was mixed (including a vaudeville routine by Ada Jones and Len Spencer), but by 1907 the Symphony Series was reserved for higher-class talent including Vincent and Bispham.

In late 1906 Columbia announced the’ signing of British critic Hermann Klein as its“musical advisor.”83 Shortly thereafter it signed Lillian Nordica of the San Carlo Opera Co., and began importing the Fonotipia recordings of tenor Alessandro Bonci, a rival to Caruso. In mid-1907 Paul Cromelin traveled to Europe to strike deals with Fonotipia and the International Talking Machine Company (Odeon) to distribute their operatic recordings in the U.S. The rich trove included Sammarco, De Luca, Stracciari, Didur, Barrientos, Kubelik, Destinn, Lehmann and Hempel.84 The Europeans seemed to think that they were doing the Americans a great favor. Emil Rink, General Manager of Fonotipia, was quoted as saying that: “One thing we do not have to contend with… is the amazing quantity of rubbish the American trade handles in the line of so-called popular music. Our music, no matter of what kind, is sung by our regular staff of artists. Your talent here have what may be called talking machine voices, but such records would not be accepted by the European trade or the public.”85

Take that, Collins and Harlan!

Columbia seemed particularly intrigued by the idea of recording larger ensembles. Although recording technology at the time could barely capture an eight or ten-piece brass band adequately, the company in early 1903 recorded several sides by rising young symphony conductor Walter Damrosch and his orchestra. Evidently they didn't tum out very well as only one was released (mx. 1208). In September 1910 a recording engineer named Hausmann was dispatched to Salt Lake City, Utah, to attempt to record the 300-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir and its soloists. Talking Machine World dryly observed that “much difficulty was encountered,”86 and out of approximately 20 masters attempted (mxs. 4878-4898) only half seem to have been issued, and only three of those were by the full choir.

Columbia became a little more willing to compete with Victor for celebrity artists during the palmy days of the 1910s. One of its first steps was to engage Henry Russell, Director of the Boston Opera Company, as its “Consulting Director of Opera” in October 1910. Russell’s first project was to organize a Columbia Light Opera company to compete with Victor’s wildly successful Victor Light Opera Company (formed in 1909).

Among the notable artists joining Columbia in the years that followed were Alice Nielsen (1910, from Victor), Mary Garden (1911), pianist Josef Hofmann (1911), Giovanni Zenatello (1912, from Fonotipia), Emmy Destinn and Leo Slezak (both 1912, from Victor), violinist Eugene Ysaye (1913), Maggie Teyte (1914), Margarete Matzenauer (1915, from Victor), cellist Pablo Casals (1915), Louis Graveure (1916), Hipolito Lazaro (1916, from Victor), Maria Barrientos (1917), Riccardo Stracciari (1917), violinist Toscha Seidel (1919), Rosa and Carmela Ponselle (1919), Charles Hackett (1919) and a smoulderingly handsome young violinist named Duci de Kerekjarto (1921).

Imports from its European affiliates remained a staple of Columbia’s classical strategy during the teens. The March 1915 supplement announced 21 discs of “Grand Opera from Milan,” by a wide range of singers who were largely unknown in the U.S. The recordings were made in Columbia’s Milan studio, “under the shadow of the famous La Scala.” The following month brought an even more striking announcement: the entire opera Aïda, by Milan artists, on 17 10” E-series discs. Unfortunately the recordings were not made at the same time and different artists sang the same role on different discs; playing them sequentially the listener would hear three Radames, three Amnerises, and four Aïdas! (L. Remondini was the most common Aïda, and G. Tommasini her most likely Radames.)

Experiments with large orchestras continued. In 1913 Henry Russell recruited the eminent composer/conductor Felix Weingartner to lead the newly organized Columbia Symphony Orchestra in a series of excerpts from opera and the symphonic repertoire. A latter day critic called them “but faint harbingers of the huge quantity of excellent recordings Weingartner was to make for Columbia beginning a decade later.”87 Weingartner remained for only about a year, producing six issued sides. Later the Columbia Symphony was led by Charles A. Prince, and still later, in the 1920s, by staff conductor Robert Hood Bowers.

An even more ambitious, and historic, undertaking occurred in 1916. For about a year Prince’s studio orchestra had been tackling symphonic overtures by Beethoven, Schubert and others. In October 1916 Columbia announced the release of the first-ever recording by a world-class orchestra, the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock. Among the tidbits offered by this august ensemble were Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” the Prelude to Lohengrin, “The Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre, and the inevitable “Poet and Peasant Overture.”

The Chicago Symphony recordings were just the beginning. During the next few years Columbia staked its claim to the instrumental repertoire with the Musical Arts Society Choir conducted by Frank Damrosch (1916), the Cincinnati Symphony (1917), the New York Philharmonic under Josef Stransky (1917), the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (1918) and the Paris Conservatory Symphony Orchestra (1919). Victor responded with the Boston and Philadelphia symphony orchestras. Maestro Walter Damrosch returned to Columbia conducting the New York Symphony in 1924, more than 20 years after his first, abortive recordings for the label. Even though the sonic range was still limited, these recordings by “real” symphony orchestras represented a striking improvement over those by the studio ensembles.

Columbia burnished its upscale image by sponsoring and advertising the book The Lure of Music by critic Olin Downes. In October 1924 the first eight Masterworks album sets were released, including full symphonies by leading European orchestras on three to five discs per set. Set number one was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, by Felix Weingartner and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Classical repertoire benefited even more than popular music with the advent of electrical recording. Orchestras such as the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, directed by Wilhelm Mengelberg (1927), the London Symphony under Sir Thomas Beecham (1927), and the Halle Orchestra led by Sir Hamilton Harty (1927) could now be heard to maximum advantage. There was increasing emphasis on multi-disc sets in the Masterworks series. In 1927 the Beethoven Centennial was celebrated with a long list of album sets, including Symphonies one through eight. The following year brought a Wagner Beyreuth Festival set, recorded on location with conductor Karl Muck and soloist Alexander Kipnis; and sets memorializing the 1928 Schubert Centennial, which was “organized by the Columbia Phonograph Co.” An imported Operatic Series was inaugurated in 1929 with complete symphonies and operas including Carmen as performed by the Paris Opera, and La Traviata, Aïda, Madam Butterfly and La Boheme, all by La Scala Chorus with the Milan Symphony. These performances required as many as 18 12” discs each, but at least the same cast members were heard throughout a single opera.

Other additions to Columbia’s classical roster included Richard Tauber, Efrem Zimbalist (both in 1928) and Lily Pons (1931).

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The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 Volumes, Complied by Brian Rust and Tim Brooks. Reprinted by permission.