The Mapleson Cylinders - Program Notes
|The Mapleson Cylinders -- An Historical Introduction|
by David Hall
Tuesday, March 20, 1900--Today, my long cherished desire is satisfied. I purchased an Edison "Home" Phonograph for $30. In the evening, I took it up chez Helen. People there all spent a merry evening with the beautiful instrument.
Wednesday, March 21--Dear old Leo Stern invited me to see his phonograph. His Valse, sung by his wife, Miss Susanne [sic] Adams--perfect. He kindly presented me with a Bettini recorder and reproducer--delightful, valuable gift.
Thursday, March 22--For the present, I neither work properly nor eat nor sleep. I'm a phonograph maniac!! Always making or buying records. The Bettini apparatus is simply perfect.
April 28--Sailed for Europe by SS Statendam, Holland-America Line....Managed to get the phonograph outfit and nearly a hundred wax cylinders safely on board together with our numerous belongings.
March 25, 1901--During this season, have made a fine collection of phonograph cylinders. Melba and Jean de Reszke's voices.
It was early in the brand new twentieth century that Lionel S. Mapleson (1865-1937), Librarian of New York's Metropolitan Opera Company, acquired a new toy that would provide him with yet another hobby besides his already cherished one of photography. The diary excerpts quoted above convey vividly the extent of his fascination with the Edison "Home" Model which he purchased, and the direction in which his new hobby led him. (Leo Stern, who gave Mapleson the Bettini recorder and reproducer for his "Home" Model A, had been soloist for the world premiere, in London on March 16, 1896, of Dvo[rcaron]ák's Cello Concerto, under the composer's direction.)
A ledger entry in Mapleson's diary indicates the actual purchase date as March 17: "Bought phonograph $25. Records $12." This directly contradicts the earlier stories that Thomas Edison presented Mapleson with the phonograph used for his Metropolitan Opera cylinder recordings. The machine shown in the photographs of Mapleson with its outsized recording horn is clearly the "Home" Model A "suitcase" type, while the machine acquired from Edison was the much larger "Triumph" Model A, which may still be seen at the Mapleson Music Library in Lindenhurst, Long Island. (At the moment, details are lacking as to how the "Triumph" Model A came to be used. The "Home" Model A seems to have disappeared, possibly left at the Mapleson family home in London.) It should be remembered that Mapleson's machine, which recorded on two-minute wax cylinders, was, like today's tape recorders, relatively portable, powered by a compact clockwork spring motor. Also like the tape recorder, its recordings could be erased, by means of a simple shaving device mounted on the machine, allowing repeated use of the waxes--a property obviously exploited by Mapleson, quite a few of whose cylinders are very thin, having been shaved down numerous times (and not always cleanly, giving rise to "double exposure" effects).
In his position as Librarian at the opera, the thirty-five-year-old London-born Mapleson was on easy terms with the Metropolitan's illustrious stars. One weekend at the end of March 1900, he persuaded Marcella Sembrich, sans accompaniment, to try in front of the recording horn the final cadenza of Johann Strauss's Voices of Spring waltz, duly documenting the occasion at the close of the cylinder with a recorded announcement of his own. By the beginning of the next year, with a new opera season well under way, Mapleson decided to try his machine under front-line conditions, crowding himself and his machine (with its horn) into the prompter's box at the opera house. The first of his surviving operatic recordings captures the voice of Nellie Melba in the "Alleluia" from the Act II fiesta scene of Massenet's Le Cid; the date was January 16. Following the initial try, Mapleson glued an opera program "snake" around the cylinder container, listing title, date, and cast. (Mapleson annotated his cylinders variously--sometimes directly on the container or its glued-on "snake," sometimes with a loose slip of paper placed inside. Almost all of the cylinder containers with opera snakes bear a large-type stencil with the legend "L. S. MAPLESON RECORD MET OPERA NEW YORK.")
Three days later, at a matinee performance of Le Cid, he was back in the prompter's box, this time after the voice of the great Jean De Reszke as Rodrigue. Part of the aria "O noble lame étincelante" from Act I, with its spectacular pageantry of trumpets and chorus, was captured. Melba in Lucia, Faust, Roméo et Juliette, and Traviata, Jean De Reszke with Lillian Nordica in Huguenots, with Milka Ternina in Tristan, and with Lucienne Bréval in L'Africaine, as well as Jean solo in Siegfried and in his final Metropolitan appearance as Lohengrin, were among the moments captured on wax that first season, from which, all told, more than two dozen cylinders survive. It was not realized at that time, of course, that those cylinders with De Reszke and Ternina would stand as sole audio documentation of these remarkable artists, for neither was to be represented subsequently on commercially-issued recordings.
The 1901-02 season saw an apparent curtailment in Mapleson's amateur recording activity. Very likely he realized that the sonic results he was getting from the prompter's box with a modest-sized horn were something less than an unqualified success, and the chances of achieving satisfactory results from the flies, to which he eventually was banished, were extremely poor. The eventual solution was construction of an enormous recording horn, almost as big as Mapleson himself, with which he would eventually carry out his recording from a catwalk, some forty feet above the stage. A distinct improvement in sonic intelligibility is noticeable in the best of the items from the 1901-02 season, caught at the end of January and in February, including the vivid vocal personality of Emma Calvé in her renowned Carmen, Marguerite in Faust, and Santuzza in Cavalleria, as well as a striking take of Albert Alvarez in "O noble lame" from Le Cid.
With the 1902-03 season, Mapleson seems to have gained a measure of genuine mastery in the operation of his apparatus. More than sixty waxes survive from that season--some, in sheer scope, verging on the spectacular. Here are Nordica in a substantial part of the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung, the festive closing pages from Meistersinger, a striking series from Tosca with Emma Eames and Emilio De Marchi, the creator of the role of Cavaradossi. Then there are no less than ten takes from the February 7 performance of Lohengrin with Johanna Gadski as Elsa. There are spectacular things from Walküre with Nordica in full cry as Brünnhilde, a fine glimpse of Gadski as Sieglinde, and topnotch Wagnerian conducting by Alfred Hertz.
But suddenly, following the March 1903 revival of Ero e Leandro by Met conductor and composer Luigi Mancinelli, from which Mapleson recorded three fragments, there appears to have been an abrupt cessation of his performance recording. A number of reasons have been suggested for this, including the hypothesis that things dropping from the catwalk, whether cylinders or bits of apparatus, were menacing the lives and limbs of the expensive talent below. In March 1903, the commercial disc recording industry, as represented by Columbia, announced its Grand Opera recording series with major Metropolitan Opera stars (the Victor Talking Machine Company would soon follow and achieve dominance, thanks to the success of Enrico Caruso), and this may have suggested to Mapleson--or encouraged the opera management to suggest to him--that his amateur activities could become problematic. Alternatively,
Aural evidence from half-a-dozen of the surviving cylinders shows vividly how Mapleson used his recording machine in a family way--and well after 1903. At the end of a Jean De Reszke-Lucienne Bréval cylinder of the Act IV duet from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine recorded on March 15, 1901, we suddenly find ourselves in the Metropolitan Opera Library, with Mapleson and his young boys, Alfred and Louis, telling us, "We are in the library and have just come home from a windy walk on Brooklyn Bridge--Goodbye!," and we learn among other things that the year is 1909! Here were great singers, caught in full flight outside an inhibiting recording-studio environment. What on earth possessed a person of Mapleson's knowledge and taste to treat these unique documents as mere throwaways?
Combining evidence from Mapleson's diaries and from family vignettes heard on some of the cylinders enables this conjectural reconstruction of Mapleson's phonographic activity: 1900-01: experimental recordings, chiefly under private circumstances. Cylinders and machine taken to England during summer visit to sister Violet (a journey undertaken every year save the summer immediately preceding Mapleson's death). 1901-04: all major Metropolitan Opera stage performance cylinders made during this period. (It was apparently Mapleson's habit to wait until the new opera season got comfortably underway before starting to record.) Cessation of opera recording at the end of 1902-03 season; a few Sunday-evening-concert orchestral recordings made in early 1904, then evidently a loss of interest. 1909: under stimulus of two growing sons, Louis A., aged 5, and Alfred John, aged 3, the phonograph is brought into play as an entertainment vehicle for father and children: "History repeats itself, we have the phonograph working again" (diary entry for Feburary 6, 1909). We do not know whether it was the "Triumph" or the "Home" Model A, but all of the family sound-vignettes with the children seem to date from 1909 and after.
A measure of insight is offered by Rose Heylbut and Aimé Gerber (the latter associated with the Met as paymaster since the turn of the century) in their book,
Mapleson would take his machine down to the prompter's box during a performance, insert a blank cylinder, and "take" the different arias and often entire scenes, at the moment they were being sung in the House. No one thought of objecting; no one had the faintest notion that Mapleson's hobby might contain the germ of an important commercial enterprise, involving permissions, restrictions, rights and fees. It was considered to be simply a wonderful lark, and the next morning would see the artists who had been "taken," and many of their colleagues, hurrying at an early hour to Mapleson's office to hear the results. There would be comments, then, on the wonders of an age that could make such things possible. That was all, and it was quite sufficient for all concerned. These voices of Ternina, Nordica, and many others who made no (or few) public recordings were faithfully caught by Mapleson's wax cylinders. These cylinders are still in existence, though frequent use and the wearing down of the soft wax have made them less than worthy replicas of the glories they once held. [My italics.]
The earliest published report I have found concerning the Mapleson cylinders, appearing as part of the New Yorker magazine's "Talk of the Town" (December 18, 1935, p. 12) under the heading "Librarian," offers yet another view. Mapleson is described here as "...seventy-one, a pink-cheeked old party with a testy disposition and starchy cuffs." After recounting Mapleson's career and antecedents (he came of a long line of British music librarians and was a nephew of the celebrated impresario Colonel James H. Mapleson), the writer takes note of the 1901-03 recording activity, then tells us: "Now, he locks his door and plays the records on his phonograph once in a while, but he has consistently refused all sorts of fat offers from phonograph companies for the privilege of re-recording the old cylinders. 'They're much too personal.'"
And so matters stood until 1937, at which point William H. Seltsam (1897-1968) of Bridgeport, Connecticut, enters upon the scene. Since late 1931, he had been developing his International Record Collectors' Club (IRCC) as the foremost enterprise devoted to the preservation--and dissemination to a devoted clientele--of the great vocal recordings of the pre-electrical era, including great actors as well as singers. Originally a modern dance enthusiast with great interest in contemporary music (he had planned a Henry Cowell issue for IRCC that never was realized), Seltsam turned to historical recordings when his hearing deteriorated after a bout of scarlet fever. Under the title of Secretary, he ran the IRCC from 318 Reservoir Avenue in Bridgeport while also holding down a full-time office job, continuing well into the LP era, with only his death on December 27, 1968, marking finis to IRCC as an active operation.
The year 1937 marked a major milestone for the IRCC, for in September it was able to announce "the first successful re-recording of cylinders to disc" (other than what had been done in the past by Pathé in France from their giant master cylinders). Among the retired divas who had taken an interest in Seltsam's enterprise were Olive Fremstad and Geraldine Farrar. It was Fremstad who made Seltsam aware of the existence of the Mapleson cylinders, and Farrar who provided the entrée to the Mapleson lair. In December 1936, she wrote to Seltsam: "You could write to him at the Met about December 15th (the opera opens the 21st) and here's a card that might help. I hope you obtain results--for recordings of the Golden Era indeed!"
William H. Seltsam
Acting on Farrar's advice, Seltsam wrote to Lionel Mapleson on Monday, January 18, 1937, for an appointment the following Saturday (January 23), which was granted. Accompanied by his attorney and friend, William D. Whalen, Seltsam apparently came away with two cylinders for experimental purposes; one an excerpt from a 1903 "Ride of the Valkyries," the other an unidentified cylinder of the spectacular cabaletta from the Queen's aria in Act II of Les Huguenots. Farrar wrote to Seltsam in early 1937: "I am glad you saw Mr. Mapleson who is a very delightful gentleman, with a wonderful experience in matters musical. I am sure the cylinder records will add great interest to collecting." And on February 1 Whalen sent a letter of thanks to Mapleson, giving his reaction to a first hearing of the cylinders: "What a sensational thrill we received upon playing the other cylinder. It was the great Melba!" (See Program Notes, Side 2 Band 1, for the further history of that cylinder.)
Before Seltsam's work could get seriously underway, Mapleson died on December 21, 1937 (he had suffered a stroke the previous June); but Seltsam managed to acquire on loan from the Mapleson estate the cylinders still in the old man's possession at the time of his death (120 in all, plus the two experimental items). These remained in Whalen's custody at his New York office at least through the fall of 1939, and Hobbies magazine carried in its April 1938 issue an article by Whalen reporting the acquisition of the collection and the hope for IRCC disc transfers. The first of these was the Huguenots cylinder attributed to Melba, and as of September 8, 1939, Seltsam reported to Alfred Mapleson that a hundred copies had been sold.
In an article in The Gramophone (November 1938, pp. 263-64), Ira Glackens, the collector and author of the definitive biography of Lillian Nordica, described the first sampling of the cylinders, at the Glackens home at 10 West 9th Street in Manhattan: The cylinders are the early two-minute variety of wax varying from pale honey-colour to dark brown. Brittle from age and a number of them cracked or chipped at the edges, the feat of removing them from their containers or from the wooden spools fixed in rows to the bottom of boxes, inserting them on to the mandrel of the tiny machine, letting the reproducer gently down and then with ears glued to the end of the little tin horn--waiting to hear what, if any, sounds might emerge--was accomplished without damaging a single record. Alternate emotions of excitement and, it must be confessed, disappointment, left the writer and his collaborator at the work, George Bishop, exhausted from the strain.
Nevertheless, Seltsam and his associates (among them Bishop, Glendon R. Good, George Laviolette, and from 1942 the audio engineer John Raynor) labored valiantly from 1938 to 1966 to elicit at least minimally intelligible representation in disc format of Mapleson's sonic documentation--initially on 78 rpm shellac discs, after 1956 on LP. All told, sixty-four cylinders were transferred and issued by the IRCC (including, as we shall see, eight items produced in
The New York Public Library's involvement with the Mapleson cylinders began in late October 1939, when it acquired a batch of a dozen of them, not known about previously, from Herbert B. Bretnall, a collector active during the middle 1930s. The late G. Lauder Greenway (1904-1981), long a friend and staunch supporter of the Library's efforts to build what later became the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound (and also at one time Chairman of the Board of the Metropolitan Opera Association), arranged for their purchase by the Music Division, whose Chief was Carleton Sprague Smith, with Philip L. Miller (subsequently Smith's successor) as Assistant Chief in charge of all matters pertaining to sound recordings. The outbreak of World War II and consequent shortages of materials prevented the Library from marketing its own discs from this new group of Maplesons, but in February 1941 the twelve cylinders were transferred to master lacquers at the Music Division of the Library of Congress, whose recording engineer at the time was Jerome B. Wiesner, subsequently a world-renowned figure in electronics and radiation sciences. (The war also put a stop to Seltsam's IRCC publications, and during the interim he undertook compilation of what became the massive reference work Metropolitan Opera Annals. ) While Seltsam initially made no secret of his chagrin over not having acquired all of the known Mapleson cylinders, a working relationship did develop and six items from the library's cylinders were issued by the IRCC in 78 rpm format in 1948; in 1959, in LP format, the representation was enlarged to eight.
Yet another group of Mapleson cylinders surfaced in the middle 1950s, acquired by Aďda Favia-Artsay of Valhalla, New York, a distinguished collector of historical recordings and for many years a lively and informative columnist on this subject for Hobbies magazine. These too came from Bretnall, who, according to Mrs. Favia-Artsay, had himself discovered them in a junk shop on Court Street in Brooklyn. In 1959, on a privately-issued LP entitled Met Stars, 1901-03, Henry Herrold, a Long Island collector, included items transferred from nine of the ten Favia-Artsay Maplesons (the tenth contained non-vocal material).
Meanwhile, the indefatigable Lauder Greenway had in mind to bring together in one place all the extant Mapleson cylinders. The Favia-Artsay set was acquired for the Library in early 1960, while April of 1962 saw delivery to the Library of the cylinders in Seltsam's possession; this was with the understanding that the IRCC would retain publication rights during Seltsam's lifetime. Seltsam had negotiated with Alfred Mapleson the formal purchase and acquisition of title to these cylinders a month before.
As already indicated, inexperienced handling of the fragile wax cylinders, together with the already damaged condition of a substantial number, exacted a toll between the time they left the hands of Mapleson and his heirs and the time they became in toto holdings of The New York Public Library. Until 1967, when they were transferred to tape at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives, the content of three of the twelve cylinders from the 1939 Library group existed only in the form of master lacquer copies made at the Library of Congress in 1941. These included one of Melba in the Valse from Roméo et Juliette, a Faust trio that includes part of an encore, and the opening part of the Nordica-Georg Anthes duet from Tristan. While a few playable bits survived on the first two, the Tristan cylinder, already cracked from end to end, was hopelessly shattered in the course of the Library of Congress transfer operation, according to Philip Miller, who was present at that particular catastrophe.
According to George Laviolette, whose association with Seltsam and the IRCC enterprise began at the tender age of seventeen, similar misfortunes beset their work with the Maplesons, some of them literally exploding on the mandrel. Among the items noted by Ira Glackens in his 1938 Gramophone article that subsequently became casualties was at least one of the three Sembrich cylinders from Act I of Traviata. Of the 122 Mapleson cylinders received by Seltsam, ninety-eight reached the Library in 1962; a further sixteen appeared to have been lost until their rediscovery at the Mapleson Music Library on Long Island in 1981 (they had apparently been sent back to the family, possibly in connection with an exhibit of Mapleson memorabilia that took place at the Museum of the City of New York around 1940)--leaving eight presumed casualties.
The reader may wonder how so explicit an accounting of the cylinders of the Seltsam batch has been possible. It was the result of a stroke of extraordinary good fortune: in the course of a visit from this writer in late July 1981, George Laviolette generously
Given the thoroughness with which Glackens and Bishop examined the collection, both visually and aurally, it can remain only a matter of the greatest surprise and disappointment that the IRCC not only failed to retain the Glackens/Bishop catalogue numbers for its own purposes, but also evidently lost or misplaced a considerable number of the identifying slips and containers. For the fact is that the Glackens/Bishop inventory provides a veritable Rosetta Stone for the identification of nearly half of the cylinders originally delivered to Seltsam (and for establishing that the cylinders discovered at the Mapleson Music Library must once have been in Seltsam's hands). From examination of specific instances, it seems most unlikely that the detailed identification and dating provided by Glackens and Bishop came out of thin air. (Yet another source of puzzlement is why Seltsam decided to return to Alfred Mapleson certain of the cylinder containers annotated in Lionel Mapleson's hand. This came to light in part of The New York Public Library correspondence between Seltsam and Philip L. Miller of the Library's Music Division in December 1940.)
From 1962 until 1981, the Mapleson cylinders at the Library remained virtually untouched, save for a detailed visual inspection undertaken in February 1967 by the present writer--then newly in charge of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound--and John Stratton. The latter's writings on the Mapleson cylinders for The Record Collector (July/August 1961) and Recorded Sound (July 1967, July 1968) are among the most authoritative on the subject. At this point, intensive investigation was undertaken, continuing over a ten-year period, into ways and means whereby the Library's Mapleson cylinders might be transferred afresh to magnetic tape with minimal wear and tear on the cylinders and with the assurance of getting from them the maximum remaining intelligible information, with minimal adulteration from excessive equalization and attempts to filter out surface noise.
A first tentative step along this road took place in early 1969, when one of the Nordica Götterdämmerung cylinders was given a trial run at 200 rpm on a newly-built playback apparatus at the Library of Congress developed by its Chief Engineer, Robert Carneal. The results of three takes, done with varying degrees of equalization, were listened to by this writer and John Stratton in early March: while a compromise take with moderate equalization was deemed acceptable relative to what had been issued by the IRCC, we were not sufficiently firm in our conviction that the time was yet at hand to tackle the entire collection.
The next break came in 1978, following the annual conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, held that year at the Library of Congress. Wilfried Zahn of the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv in Frankfurtam-Main had given a most impressive demonstration of his restoration work with early cylinder recordings. Before his return to Frankfurt, discussion with this writer and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives audio engineer at the time, Sam Sanders,
With the arrival in early 1979 of a new audio engineer, Tom Owen, at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives, the decision was made to redesign what had been a state-of-the-art sound restoration laboratory in 1968 to fully updated specification, and to undertake a thorough restudy of the Mapleson cylinder transfer problem, starting from the point reached by Zahn. Mr. Owen's article below describes that process and the subsequent transfers. Following their completion, much work remained to be done in clarifying the provenance and attribution of unidentified cylinders, as well as filling in details in the whole story. Seltsam's legatees, Glendon R. Good and George Laviolette, were generous in their assistance, and visits to the Mapleson Music Library yielded much information--not to mention the aforementioned sixteen cylinders, which were taken on loan back to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives, and the usable items added in 1982 to both the master and research tapes.
Beyond the achievement of a complete new transfer of the recordings, the Mapleson Cylinder Project has also been able to clarify much that until now has remained ambiguous or erroneous concerning details of program content, dating, etc. Because our interest in the Mapleson cylinders was not narrowly restricted to the aspect of operatic documentation, we were able to gain interesting insights into Mapleson himself. We concluded a wide range of collateral investigation that went beyond the published literature and extended to personal interviews and correspondence with those who worked on the cylinders with William Seltsam. In December 1981 the present writer paid a full day's visit to the Mapleson Music Library at Lindenhurst, Long Island, where Alfred J. Mapleson and his son Peter graciously allowed access to Lionel Mapleson's diaries and photograph albums, which yielded three additional photographs of the Mapleson recording apparatus, two with Lionel, the third with his wife Helen.
Helen White Mapleson
We should like to discover much more about Mapleson and the cylinders--for example, about those cylinders that eluded Seltsam: how many were there and where are they now? According to Alfred Mapleson, many of the choicest items went with Lionel to London on his spring voyages to the family homestead at 65 Bartholomew Road. Highgate, London, and what has survived in the United States is to an extent "the bottom of the barrel." If any of those taken to England did survive attic storage and two world wars, they all disappeared after March 1, 1953, upon the death of Lionel's sister Violet, the lone Mapleson survivor at Bartholomew Road. Other rumors tell of a batch of more than a hundred cylinders sold by Alfred Mapleson at a dollar apiece to a Brooklyn collector. Whether any of these mysteries will--or can--be solved remains conjectural, but if these rumors contain even an element of truth, we may not have heard the last of the Mapleson cylinder saga