“Classical” Music on Edison Records

The role of “classical” music in the Edison Diamond Disc catalog was conditioned both by the desires and expectation of American consumers and by the business priorities and personal tastes of Thomas Edison, a man much more interested in the technical aspects of sound reproduction than in music or musicians. The idea of “classical” music as a distinct category that encompassed opera, instrumental music, and song was still developing in early 20th-century America, and record companies played a vital role in that process. The Edison Diamond Discs reflect the rich and complicated musical scene of the time, but Thomas Edison notably declined to participate in the marketing of “classical” music as an elite, highbrow product or in the merchandising of artistic celebrity, both of which were successfully pursued by his business competitors.  

Thomas Edison’s business decisions stand in stark contrast to the practices of Victor Records. Already in 1903, Victor had established a separate line of records for its celebrity artists. The Victor “Red Seal” records were visually distinct and expensive. The well-publicized high fees paid to internationally renowned artists signed to exclusive Victor contracts reinforced the idea that classical music was a desirable luxury item. The expense of the records, and, later, the expense of high-end Victrolas on which to play them, was justified both by the prestige of the music itself and by the fame of such artists as the tenor Enrico Caruso, pianists Ignace Paderewski and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and violinist Fritz Kreisler.

Edison, meanwhile, declared that he would “depend on the quality of the records and not on the reputation of the singers.”[1] When Edison did engage well-known artists, he preferred to have them make a small number of records for a set price. He could then advertise the presence of that artist in the Edison catalog without incurring the expense of an exclusive contract for a large number of discs. When Edison competed for the star singer tenor Giovanni Martinelli, he was explicitly interested in him “for advertising purposes only.”[2] Martinelli set down eleven sides for Edison in 1912, of which only seven were issued, and he did not record for Edison again until 1929. In the intervening years, the tenor recorded more than a hundred sides for Victor.

Instead of seeking to record already famous musicians in the repertoire for which they were known, Edison chose performers and pieces for their suitability for the phonograph. He believed that a singer who was good on the stage was not necessarily good on record, and he dismissed a Victor disc by Caruso with the declaration “THE PHONOGRAPH IS NOT AN OPERA HOUSE.”[3] The artists and repertoire that appeared on the Edison Diamond Discs very much reflect Edison’s own idiosyncratic tastes and priorities. He felt very strongly about the relationship between performance techniques and recording technology. 

In particular, Edison detested vibrato, whether from the fingers of violinists or the voices of opera singers. Although vibrato was an absolutely standard technique for string players and singers by this time, both for expressive effect and carrying power, Edison preferred a straight sound without oscillations in pitch. Edison, whose hearing was deteriorating during the time of the Diamond Discs, even examined the grooves of discs with a magnifying glass to look for tell-tale wiggles. For Edison, a pronounced vibrato was enough to disqualify even the most famous and popular singers of the day, from Caruso to Geraldine Farrar and John McCormack, as Edison artists. Instead, Edison preferred less well-known local artists like the New Jersey singer Anna Case, a relatively straight-toned soprano who performed at the Metropolitan Opera before recording extensively for Edison and appearing as a mainstay of his traveling “tone tests.”  Edison also worried about dynamic ranges that would exceed the capabilities of mechanical preservation and reproduction, rejecting Sergei Rachmaninoff as a “pounder” after hearing him play the thunderous opening bars of his wildly popular Prelude in C sharp minor (“The Bells of Moscow”).[4]  Similarly, he fretted about extraneous noises, such as page turns or mechanical sounds produced by keys on pianos and wind instruments. In addition to requesting that the violinist Samuel Gardner play without vibrato, Edison asked if he could invent a rosin for violin bows that didn’t “have all the scratch in it.”[5]

According to the pianist Ernest L. Stevens, who was Edison’s house pianist from 1922 to 1924, Edison’s musical taste was “between the medium classics and the medium popular…not the low type blues or rags, and not the very high type of classical music. It was in between—middle brow.”[6] Edison preferred sentimental “heart songs” to opera arias, and specifically disliked Mozart’s compositions, a prejudice for which he was soundly scolded by John Philip Sousa. The lack of interest in promoting classical music as a highbrow luxury item evident in Edison’s business practices is also reflected in the repertoire that he recorded, which again was markedly different than that highlighted by Victor and Columbia.

The Edison catalog displays a marked absence of complete classical compositions preserved on multiple discs. There are no complete operas, although Victor had been producing (more or less) complete opera sets since 1906.  European companies were far faster to record complete instrumental works than were American firms, but both Victor and Columbia started lines of multi-disc albums of instrumental works in 1924. Edison also sat out the 1927 centennial of Beethoven’s death, an event celebrated by Columbia with a flood of special releases. The owner of an Edison phonograph, however, would have to settle for a single movement each from Beethoven’s “Moonlight” or “Pathétique” sonatas, played in transcriptions for winds by the Bellini Unique Ensemble. There are Edison recordings of three Beethoven overtures, recorded by bands and reduced orchestras, but no symphonies or string quartets.

The classical music found on the Edison Diamond Discs is a mixture of arias, popular songs sung by opera singers, transcriptions, instrumental showpieces, and salon music. This mélange also formed the core of the Victor and Columbia catalogs. Victor and Columbia, however, both largely sequestered this middlebrow repertoire on lower-priced labels, to set it aside from the highbrow “masterworks” absent from the Edison catalog. The middlebrow space where these catalogs overlap is entirely typical of American taste at the time, and in this way Thomas Edison was an excellent guide to the tastes of his era, even if he failed to realize the commercial potential of classical music.

-Dr. Derek Katz, University of California, Santa Barbara


[1] Letter to Thomas Graf, managing director of the Edison phonograph division, November 20, 1991. Quoted in Harvith & Harvith (1987), 4.

[2] Handwritten addendum to letter from Paul Cromelin, Edison foreign studio manager, August 3, 1912. Quoted in Sutton (2010), 139.

[3] Edison notebook from 1912. Quoted in Harvith and Harvith (1987), 13.

[4] Interview with the pianist Ernest L. Stevens, August 14, 1974. Harvith and Harvith (1987), 25-26.

[5] Interview with the violinist Samuel Gardner, December 7, 1974. Harvith and Harvith (1987), 49.

[6] Interview with the pianist Ernest L. Stevens, August 14, 1974. Harvith and Harvith (1987), 34.