Gramophone magazine: a history – the 1920s

James Jolly
Friday, January 5, 2024

In 1923 Compton Mackenzie responded to music-lovers’ pleas for a new magazine about records and launched The Gramophone

Compton Mackenzie

Compton Mackenzie at the offices of The Gramophone in Soho Square, London, in 1936

It all started with a misunderstanding. In 1922 Compton Mackenzie, then aged 39, and already a novelist admired by the likes of Henry James and Scott Fitzgerald, had taken the crown lease on two Channel Islands, Herm and Jethou. A prolific writer – a facility he’d retain all his life – Mackenzie preferred to work late into the night, usually with music playing in the background. Often, his secretary would play the piano, but such a task would stretch many an employee’s job description, and an alternative was needed, so Mackenzie acquired – on credit – an Aeolian organ (basically a pianola with stops). When the organ arrived on Herm, Mackenzie discovered that far from supplying him with classical music for his late-night listening, it only offered light and dance music. He contacted the Aeolian company to have it returned, but his credit agreement prevented any kind of refund, so he was persuaded to take a gramophone player instead, a Hepplewhite model Vocalion. Very quickly, and from a position of self-confessed ignorance, Mackenzie acquired virtually the entire catalogues of HMV, Columbia and Vocalion, amassing a library of about 1200 discs at the considerable cost of £400 (just under £40,000 in today’s money).

The 1920s were, perhaps, the final decade of the gramophone’s infancy. Still very much restricted by the capacity of a 78rpm disc, the recorded offering was, of necessity, largely of shorter works. The HMV catalogue alone contained a single symphony: Arthur Nikisch and the Berlin Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Fifth. The catalogue of course had its stars – Wilhelm Backhaus, Feodor Chaliapin, Enrico Caruso, Amelita Galli-Curci, Fritz Kreisler, John McCormack and Nellie Melba – and they were well represented and sold very well. But if you were interested in a broader repertoire, the pickings were slim.

Mackenzie was friends with Robin Legge, music critic of The Daily Telegraph, and at his invitation, he wrote an article on the state of recorded classical music which appeared in September 1922. Such was the response that Mackenzie was encouraged to launch a new magazine. Funds were raised, including from his brother-in-law Christopher Stone – initially sceptical about recorded music – who would go on to be a major force in radio broadcasting in the UK, and was the first person to host a show using records, the first disc jockey, a term he loathed. The Gramophone’s mission was not just to inform its readers but also provide a forum of opinion to encourage the industry to be courageous in what nowadays would be called A&R. Mackenzie sought support from The Gramophone Company (HMV) and its head of the Education Department, Walter Yeomans, and its Managing Director, Alfred Clark. They committed to three pages of advertising each issue at seven guineas (£7.35) each. Similar commitments were secured from the Columbia Graphophone Company and Vocalion Records.

A constant refrain in Mackenzie’s editorials of the period was the need to expand the recorded repertoire

With the financial sting slightly lessened, Mackenzie, based on the tiny island of Herm, set to work on the first issue of The Gramophone (the definite article would be dropped in 1967). Aided by a flute-playing Subaltern from Mackenzie’s time in the Aegean Intelligence Service, Philip Hope-Johnstone, and by Mackenzie’s wife Faith, the first issue of 28 pages would start to be assembled. It was written by a small team: Mackenzie wrote 11 of the 21 editorial pages under both his initials CM and Z (his code name during his period as a spy). Faith, as F sharp, wrote on ‘Good Singing’. Hope-Johnstone (as James Caskett) wrote, the eminent pianist Mark Hambourg contributed his thoughts on piano recordings and Walter Yeomans (as Warren Monk) wrote a piece about a royal record. Six thousand copies were printed by Hudson & Kearns (who also provided a London office in Hatfield Street, SE1). Only half the print run sold, so for the second issue 3000 copies were printed. They sold out, making this one of the rarest issues of The Gramophone.

Mackenzie was an inspired, and inspiring, public face for classical music on record. An amateur in the true meaning of the word, he would use his status within London society and its intelligentsia to turn the spotlight on The Gramophone whenever he could, and one of his earliest initiatives was to organise a series of presentations to test gramophones for the public and encourage people to embrace domestic music listening. Early gatherings took place at Steinway Hall and Central Hall, Westminster, in London. Needless to say, he was sought after on the radio and following a broadcast in June 1924, the first to play gramophone records on air, he passed the baton to Christopher Stone who would broadcast – unscripted and in an engagingly relaxed way (despite wearing a dinner jacket behind the microphone) – for the next 25 years both on the BBC and various continental commercial stations which were receivable in the UK.

By the autumn of 1923, it was clear that the magazine had a future – at least editorially, with circulation and advertising doing well, but the company’s overheads were clearly cause for concern. The cover price was raised from sixpence (2p) to one shilling (5p) and the advertising rates were also increased. However, the report submitted by the company’s auditors, Kemp, Chatteris, Nicholl, Sendall & Co in January 1925 was far from rosy, especially when it emerged that the Company Secretary had committed ‘serious defalcations’. At this point, against a pessimistic outlook, the company acquired a champion who would, quite literally, turn things around.

Compton Mackenzie would recall many years later this milestone in the magazine’s history. ‘A young accountant from our firm of auditors gave a rather disturbing picture of the financial side of The Gramophone. To our gratified surprise he said he would leave his own job and work for the paper in whose future he had confidence. In 1926 Cecil Pollard became business manager, and the position The Gramophone holds today is due to his enthusiasm, integrity and skill.’ Three generations of Pollards – Cecil, Anthony and Christopher – would guide the magazine’s journey for the next 73 years, creating one of the UK’s leading publications, one whose international reputation remains a source of pride to this day.

Key to the magazine’s reputation is its reviewing panel and the 1920s saw the arrival of a number of critics who would be central for decades to come, among them Alec Robertson, WR Anderson, WA Chislett and Roger Wimbush. But a real feather in Mackenzie’s cap was to secure the services of Herman Klein (1856-1934). Klein was one of the most sought-after singing teachers of his day: a pupil of Manuel García (whose sisters were Pauline Viardot and Maria Malibran), he had attended many of the premieres of the great late-19th-century operas, had conversed with both Wagner and Verdi. But what made him a valuable contributor was that he had (as John Steane would do half a century later) a remarkable memory – and ability – for describing voices years after hearing them. Though he didn’t review recordings, he contributed a monthly column on singing until his death. And alongside professional critics, a number of eminent musicians also contributed – artists including Josef Lhévinne, Gracie Fields, Joseph Szigeti, John Barbirolli and Malcolm Sargent. And in 1928, Walter Legge, before he became known as one of the UK’s leading record producers, wrote about one of his musical heroes, the tenor Tita Ruffo.

One of the major developments in this decade was introduced quietly – electrical recording. In October 1925, The Gramophone Company recorded Henry V’s Prayer at Hayes, the following March American Victor recorded Alfred Cortot playing Chopin’s Second Impromptu, Op 36, at its studios in Camden, New Jersey and in December 1925, HMV released the first electrically recorded symphony – Tchaikovsky’s Fourth with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra conducted by Sir Landon Ronald. It was to be a watershed in the history of recorded sound – capturing more detail, a greater sense of depth and also no longer needing ensembles to sit in artificially organised groupings, but, for an orchestra, in its concert-hall layout – and with it the ambitions of the industry could be unleashed.

A constant refrain in Mackenzie’s editorials of the period was the need to expand the recorded repertoire (rather than duplicate it) and he put his money where his mouth was and launched the National Gramophonic Society, in essence The Gramophone’s own record label. Mackenzie established the venture by subscription, with a fee of five shillings, requiring 500 subscribers. With guidance from an advisory panel that included, alongside Mackenzie, WR Anderson, Spenser Dyke, Alec Robertson and Peter Latham, the NGS started its eight-year initiative and would include the first-ever recording of the Debussy String Quartet (Spenser Dyke Quartet), the original string sextet version of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, the Brahms Clarinet Quintet (with Frederick Thurston), the Elgar Piano Quintet, Mozart Oboe Quartet (with Léon Goossens), the first recordings made by the 28-year-old John Barbirolli as a conductor – music by Delius, Debussy and Warlock – and as its last recording, made in March 1931, Warlock’s The Curlew with John Armstrong and Constant Lambert conducting. A late entry into electrical recording and a subscriber base that only just passed 300 made the venture untenable – so, widely praised for showing what could, and should, be done by the recording industry, the NGS was wound up. But its impact paved the way for a similar subscription venture, one that HMV would take up in the next few years.

Gramophone in the 1920s: Timeline

June 1923 First recording of a complete string quartet – Brahms’s Op 51 No 1 by the Catterall Qt (HMV)

September 1923 The Radio Times first published following the launch of regular broadcasting from 2LO, London Station of the BBC in November 1922

November 1923 Gustav Holst completes the recording of his Planets with the LSO for Columbia

December 1923 Alec Robertson contributes to The Gramophone for the first time

April 1924 First recording of a British symphony, by Vocalion: Sir John McEwen’s Solway with the Aeolian Orchestra conducted by Cuthbert Whitemore

July 1924 First recording of an opera in English made by HMV – Puccini’s Madam Butterfly with Rosina Buchman in the title-role and Tudor Davies as Lieutenant Pinkerton.

October 1924 First Electrical Process record made by The Gramophone Company at Hayes – King Henry V’s Prayer, read by Mr Pack, using BEG Mittell’s system

March 1925 The American Victor company electrically records Alfred Cortot playing Chopin at its Camden Studios

May 1925 WR Anderson’s first contribution to The Gramophone

June 1925 First Western Electric process recording made by HMV in the UK: Ah! Ha! by Jack Hylton and his Band

July 1925 The Gramophone organises a Congress at Central Hall, Westminster (forerunner of today’s audio exhibitions)

December 1925 Electrical recording comes into general use. First release of an electrically recorded symphony, made by HMV: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra and Landon Ronald

March 1926 Cecil Pollard joins The Gramophone as Business Manager

May 1926 The first live recording of an opera by HMV: Boito’s Mefistofele with Feodor Chaliapin in the title-role. Recorded at Covent Garden

June 1926 HMV records Dame Nellie Melba’s farewell appearance at Covent Garden

August 1926 Brunswick introduces the Panatrope, the first all-electric gramophone

March 1927 Walter Legge joins The Gramophone Company

March 1927 To mark the centenary of Beethoven’s death, Columbia releases the first set of the complete symphonies

May 1927 Columbia makes its first recording of a complete opera in English: Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci with the British National Opera Company

July 1927 Christopher Stone begins broadcasting for the BBC

July/August 1927 Columbia makes the first recordings from Bayreuth: excerpts from The Ring and Parsifal

September 1927 HMV records at live performances at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford Cathedral

October 1927 Edison introduces 40-minute long-playing discs in the USA

October 1927 The Jazz Singer released, the first successful talking picture

August 1928 Atterberg’s Symphony No 6 wins the Schubert Memorial Prize, Columbia records the work under Thomas Beecham. Recording issued before the work’s public premiere, a first

January 1929 RCA acquires the Victor Talking Machine Company

July 1929 The first releases from The Decca Record Company: Delius’s Sea Drift with Roy Henderson, Grainger’s Jutish Melody and the Overture to Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld

September 1929 The Gramophone moves its offices to Soho Square

November 1929 The Edison Company ceases issuing cylinder and diamond discs

November 1929 Gilbert Wilson appointed Technical Editor

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