Cutting a Demo for Thomas Edison

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Thomas Alva Edison may have invented the phonograph, but he’ll never be remembered as one of the great record executives. In the decades after he made his first wax cylinder (reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into a primitive “talking machine” in 1877), Edison watched as upstart companies such as Victor and then Columbia eclipsed his own label in sales, prestige and artistic merit.

In part, this was due to Edison’s continuing belief in the wax cylinder--which resembled an empty toilet paper roll and could originally only contain about two minutes’ worth of music. The other companies had already moved to the flat disc that was the precursor of the modern record, which not only was a more convenient format but also could hold four minutes or more on a side.

By 1912, Victor had signed such stars as tenors Enrico Caruso and John McCormack, pianists Ignace Paderewski and Sergei Rachmaninoff and violinist Fritz Kreisler, while Columbia had the great American soprano Lillian Nordica, among others. Frustrated, Thomas Edison launched an unprecedented talent search throughout Europe. More than 300 singers answered a call to make two-minute cylinders to give him some idea of their voices.


The results may be heard in “The Edison Trials” (Marston Records), a fascinating collection, haunting and absolutely one of a kind, that allows us palpable and unprecedented contact with the European opera world of 90 years ago. In hotel rooms, apartments, rehearsal studios or wherever else they could set up their equipment, Edison’s scouts recorded not only the unaffiliated headliners of the time but also the eager and well-trained lesser singers heard in theaters throughout the continent in the years before World War I.

Back in America, Edison listened to all the cylinders, keeping track of his impressions (“Terrible rapid tremolo, not wanted” was one of his more peremptory dismissals). He must have decided that the experiment was a grand and costly mistake, for he rejected all but one of the singers--and the sole artist he found deserving, a baritone known only as Signor Pignalosa, died in Milan only a few weeks after his test.

Thereafter, Edison sealed all the cylinders in a vault inside what’s now the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, N.J. When, in the late 1990s, producer Lawrence Holdridge and audio conservationist and record company executive Ward Marston came to copy the archive, they were the first people to hear these performances after Edison himself.

Seventy-nine of the recordings--roughly a quarter of them--are included in the set (two CDs, $36), along with capsule biographies and, whenever possible, photographs. The singers range from the deeply obscure (the otherwise unrecorded Guillaume Ibos, who sang the title role in the world premiere performance of Massenet’s “Werther”) to the completely forgotten (a soprano billed as Mlle. Romanitza; Marston and Holdridge ruefully admit that “no information was found on this stylish singer”). A singer named Olga Alessandrovna Olghina offers a Russian song that has yet to be identified, while Felisa Ordugna (born about 1876 and “apparently from Spain”) delivers a few scales and arpeggios.

While it’s safe to say that there wasn’t a Caruso in the lot, the singers were generally adept and sensitive, and many of them never recorded elsewhere. So “The Edison Trials” is an eerie experience, as the voices of lost artists flicker tantalizingly before us. The occasional anxiety of the singers (imagine how odd the whole concept of recordings must have seemed to a provincial young musician in 1912!) only adds to the poignancy of the undertaking. Here indeed are voices from the grave.

Marston declares himself “amazed” with the quality of the sound. “When recordings were made in those days, the original master was cut in wax, whether it was going to be turned into a disc or a cylinder. But if you wanted to press copies, you had to make a metal stamper out of it and you lost some of the high frequency. Since no records were made out of these performances, they were never electroplated and so you are hearing the original masters, the original wax. If we had the original masters of, say, Caruso’s recordings, they’d be incredibly more vibrant than the ones we have.”


“The cylinders were remarkably well-preserved, having been housed in metal canisters with the tops sealed and cushioned with protective padding,” Holdridge recalled. “These trial recording sessions must have been similar to what might be called the cattle call audition--a bit of a song, a ‘thank you’ and then ‘next.’ Still, they give us an ear to a long-gone era.”

“The Edison Trials” is available from Marston Records, 412 N. Chester Road, Swarthmore, PA 19081;