Gramophone magazine: a history – the 1930s

James Jolly
Tuesday, January 9, 2024

The decade the record industry came of age, a period of great creativity and ambition

Cecil Pollard, the young accountant who saved The Gramophone in 1926, and stayed for the rest of his life

Cecil Pollard, the young accountant who saved The Gramophone in 1926, and stayed for the rest of his life

If the 1920s brought to an end the industry’s infancy, the 1930s were perhaps its teenage years – a period of colossal creative energy, boundless enthusiasm and the establishment of a way of working that remains much the same today. And all this against a background of tough economic conditions. It also gave us quite a few of the first classics of the gramophone, recordings – often first recordings – that have stood the test of time: Pablo Casals playing Bach’s cello suites, Artur Schnabel in the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, some of the earliest recordings of Sibelius symphonies and Hugo Wolf Lieder sung by Elena Gerhardt, all issued by HMV – and masterminded by the young Walter Legge – as Society Editions, and limited to 500 subscribers who paid upfront. (Many years later a reader questioned why no LP reissues of the Schnabel Beethovens had appeared: an obstacle created by the initial subscription concept. Alec Robertson suggested in the magazine’s pages that older subscribers would waive any rights and allow this classic cycle to appear on LP. And this did indeed happen in November 1961. They have not left the catalogue since.)

Gaisberg and Schnabel

Fred Gaisberg pours the coffee for Artur Schnabel at the Abbey Road Studios Green Room in the early 1930s (photo: Warner Classics)

In 1932, Christopher Stone stepped up from being London Editor, taking his place as Co-editor of The Gramophone with Mackenzie (Mackenzie’s wife Faith would take on the role of London Editor – their marriage seemed to work best when they weren’t actually living under the same roof!). Another important figure appeared in the magazine’s pages: Edgar Jackson, who tried – unsuccessfully – to modernise the appearance of the magazine, but also took on the coverage of jazz and light music in our pages, a role he held for 28 years. Jackson had been the founding editor of Melody Maker, and he and his American colleague Leonard Feather established their invaluable ‘personnels’ (ie artist listings) that gave The Gramophone’s reviews particular cachet. Jackson also brought onboard the American writer and later record producer John Hammond, who discovered artists like Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Bob Dylan and Benny Goodman (who would later become his brother-in-law).

The 1930s was a tough decade financially, and Cecil Pollard fought had to keep costs down – the launch and then closure of Vox, a broadcast review edited by Christopher Grieve (aka the poet Hugh McDiarmid) left a nasty dent in the company’s finances. A change of printer helped and in 1938 The Gramophone moved to Gibbs & Bamforth, a company (and its successors) that retained the contract for the next 42 years.

Mackenzie would leave The Channel Islands in 1930, taking many of his books and records with him, but the pre-electrical recordings were given a kind of Viking funeral – as Faith Mackenzie recalled, ‘What more dignified end could be devised for them than to be warmed gently on the stove and fluted to fantastic shapes and launched on to a milky sea carrying paper sails on a perfect evening in June.’ (With Mackenzie’s departure from his island, the original company registered in The Channel Islands was liquidated and a new company was floated on the mainland, General Gramophone Publications Limited, the ‘General’ was needed to distinguish it from Hayes-based, The Gramophone Company, home of HMV.)

The 1930s also saw a new arrival on the classical record scene that very quickly would establish itself as one of the major players, Decca Records. Despite tough economic conditions, the record industry was performing well: the Columbia Graphophone Company’s shares had risen from 11 shillings (55p) in 1923 to nearly £20 in 1929. A young stockbroker, Edward Lewis, was tasked with the flotation of the Barnett Samuel Company, manufacturers of the Decca Dulcephone, the patent for which had been filed in 1914. (The word Decca came about merging the word Mecca with the initial D of Dulcephone – it has the great advantage that it is easy to pronounce in most languages.) Lewis quickly realised that actually making discs to be played on the gramophones they produced would make perfect sense, and in 1929 he bought the Duophone Company in south-west London. The resulting new company was named The Decca Gramophone Company. Another major feather in the young record company’s hat was when Walter Yeomans jumped ship from The Gramophone Company to Decca, bringing considerable expertise of the nascent record business with him. The first recording was of Frederick Delius’s Sea Drift with the baritone Roy Henderson (Henderson’s pupil Kathleen Ferrier would later join the Decca roster and was a hugely important figure as the company moved from 78 to LP in the early 1950s).

Right at the start of the decade (April 1931), the Columbia and Gramophone companies merged to form Electric and Musical Industries Ltd (which later would become known simply as EMI).

As the decade drew to a close, and with war on the horizon, the gramophone captured a musical event that had far more than just cultural importance. It was the classic recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, recorded live by the Vienna Philharmonic and Bruno Walter (who had conducted the work’s premiere) on January 16, 1938 – almost exactly two months before Hitler annexed Austria, the so-called Anschluss (‘Union’) – and overseen by Fred Gaisberg, one of the great record producers of the pre-Second World War period. (It would come out on 20 78rpm discs, and in the January 1939 issue of The Gramophone, Gaisberg wrote about Dr Bruno Walter with affection and admiration: ‘He has said that he always tries to approach even the oldest and most hackneyed work as though it was a new composition which he was playing for the first time.’)

Gramophone in the 1930s: Timeline

May 1930 First release in Columbia’s ‘History of Music’ series, eventually comprising five sets containing 40 10-inch 78rpm discs

October 1930 BBC SO formed, first permanent London orchestra since the LSO (1904). The new orchestra makes its debut in Queen’s Hall

December 1930 Compton Mackenzie leaves Jethou

April 1931 The Gramophone Company and the Columbia Graphophone Company merge to form Electric and Musical Industries Ltd (EMI)

September/October 1931 RCA launches a short-lived series of 10- and 12-inch 33⅓rpm discs, including Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in Beethoven’s Fifth (the first symphony specially recorded for this new format)

November 1931 EMI opens its Abbey Road Studios with Sir Edward Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra

December 1931 Alan Blumlein (EMI) takes out a patent embracing all aspects of two-channel stereo recording

February 1932 Christopher Stone appointed Co-editor of The Gramophone

April 1932 BASF and AEG, in collaboration with Fritz Pfleumer, produce magnetic tape in Germany

October 1932 First concert of the newly formed London Philharmonic Orchestra under Beecham in Queen’s Hall

February 1933 First American symphony recorded by American Columbia – Roy Harris’s First Symphony by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky

January 1934 The London Philharmonic Orchestra under Beecham make experimental stereo recording for EMI of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony using Blumlein’s system

March 1934 Herman Klein dies, aged 78

June 1934 HMV make first recordings in the new Glyndebourne Opera House with concerted items from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro under Fritz Busch

August 1934 Decca Records Inc, a subsidiary of The Decca Record Company, founded in New York

October 1934 RCA introduces the first record club in the USA

October 1935 Decca records its first complete opera, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, with 20-year-old Nancy Evans as Dido.

July 1936 National Federation of Gramophone Societies (later Federation of Recorded Music Societies) formed by WW Johnson and FE Young

November 1936 BASF records the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Beecham in concert at Ludwigshafen on magnetic tape.

November 1936 The BBC opens world’s first regular television service from Alexandra Palace.

March 1937 Decca purchases the Crystalate Company, and with it its studios in West Hampstead, together with two engineers, Arthur Haddy and Kenneth Wilkinson

January 1938 HMV records Mahler’s Symphony No 9 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Bruno Walter live in concert

December 1938 Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) acquires the American Recording Corporation

1939 Goddard Lieberson joins CBS Masterworks assistant to the Director

October 1939 The Gramophone’s offices move to Kenton, in north London, where it will remain for 60 years

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