Shelving the shellac

Jeremy Nicholas: 78s span 7 decades of recorded history…and a lot of storageJeremy Nicholas: 78s span seven decades of recorded history…and a lot of storage space

In the early 1960s when I was about 13, an optician friend of my parents named Peter Leach gave me his entire collection of 78rpm discs. It was a whole library of great and not-so-great classical works in recordings that reflected the listening tastes of a connoisseur. He must, I am sure, have subscribed to The Gramophone. I still have the list I made of his generous gift - a lot of HMV red label artists (Toscanini, Koussevitzky, Boult, Kreisler, Heifetz, Rachmaninov, Cortot) as well as Moiseiwitsch, the Busch Brandenburgs, Gabrilowitsch in the Schumann Piano Quintet and a host of oddities like the single-sided G&T of McCormack singing The Snowy Breasted Pearl, and John Barbirolli conducting Yvonne Arnaud in Raff’s La fileuse. It moved my musical education up a few gears – and kick-started my record-buying habit.

Why Mr Leach parted with his valuable collection I am not sure. I suspect he may have been doing what many others did a couple of generations later when the compact disc arrived: he simply changed format, just as many people today are transferring their CD collections from discs to digital files.

Fifty years later, I have reached the same stage as Mr Leach. I am pondering the fate of my remaining 78s, and rather more extensive collections of LPs and CDs. But I am in a quandary. You see, for me and many of my generation a collection of digital files isn’t the same thing as a collection of discs. The advantages of files are obvious – the space saving, the convenience, the aural fidelity, the indestructibility – but whether you classify yourself as a collector or a hoarder, it is the artefact that counts. It is the holding of the disc in your hand, the reading of the printed booklet – or the extensive and sometimes beautifully illustrated sleevenotes that came with LPs. Transferring a disc (78, 33⅓, or 45) into a digital file doesn’t devalue the content but it does diminish it in some way. As a friend of mine said, ‘If you have a Penny Black you can take as many photographs of it as you want, but it’s not the original.’ It’s the difference between reading a book on a Kindle and reading it in a first edition.

Years ago, when I was allowed to broadcast on the wireless, I went to interview the conductor Norman del Mar. It was for a series I presented called Personal Records (for BBC Radio 4) in which I visited the homes of the great and the good to rummage through their record collection and, thereby, find out about their musical taste and what informed it. This would sometimes reveal a hidden side to the interviewee. There were some surprising discoveries over the years. My victims were never allowed to rehearse or prepare. Whatever I happened to alight upon in their record collection would prompt, we hoped (and usually fruitfully), unexpected stories and revelations. I remember pulling out, by chance, an LP of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 from the enormous collection accrued by the much-loved DJ John Peel. This was the music, it turned out, which he associated with the events leading up to the birth of his daughter, Florence. Tears were shed. Then there was the rather smaller collection of LPs belonging to the conductor Jane Glover. Hidden behind a potted plant on the bottom shelf were several Shirley Bassey LPs, a guilty pleasure of one of our leading Mozart conductors.

Anyway, del Mar, whose music room was lined with floor-level shelves crammed with 78s, pulled out a set of Wagner that he wanted to share. I forget which one. 'This is how I got to know my Wagner', he said, 'In 4½ minute chunks. I thought that was how the music was written. I had no idea that it was composed in an uninterrupted flow until I was much older. I thought that Wagner had written it like that.'

He had never got rid of these discs. How could he? They were his lifelong companions, friends with whom he had grown up, irreplaceable, part of his warp and weft.

On a recent visit to interview Malcolm Binns (great British pianist, 75 this year), he showed me a few treasures from his legendary collection. This occupies an entire wall-and-a-bit-more of his dining room, an area that very much takes second place to his beloved EMG record player and its enormous horn. A complete run of Chaminade’s and Cortot’s recordings as well as most of Alfred Grunfeld’s are on the shelves, as well as some Art Tatum pressings which, when played on the EMG, sound richer, cleaner and clearer than any transfer I’ve heard on LP or CD. (It’s a phenomenon I am not alone in noticing – the warmer, more comfortable sound you often, but not always, get from a 78 or analogue mono recording compared with the clinical sterility of many modern recordings.)

Binns still collects 78s as he has done all his life, the latest acquisition being a rare one-sided G&T for which he had searched for years. It was of Lady Speyer playing a Brahms-Joachim Hungarian Dance, one of two single sides she made for HMV in about 1909. Lady Speyer, an American (née Leonora von Stosch), played the solo part of the Elgar Concerto to the composer while he was writing it. She was married to the chap who ran the Queen’s Hall syndicate, Sir Edgar Speyer, who was largely responsible for funding the Promenade Concerts between 1902 and 1914. And there in Binns’s hands was the brittle disc representing a small part of musical history. Not the same thing at all when just another track on a CD of historical violin recordings.

Another series I presented, this one for BBC Radio 3, was called The Shellac Show. We played nothing but requests for 78 rpm discs, concentrating on those which had never been transferred on to LP or, till then, CD. It became quite popular as we fished out discs that had not seen a turntable or fibre needle for decades: a pianist called Helen Guest playing D’Erlanger’s Toccata, for instance, Elisabeth Schumann singing Bohm’s Still wie die nacht, and a rousing choral disc of Parry’s anthem England. Try and get that programme on the radio now!

Vast quantities of shellac discs have made their way on to CD since then – nearly 20 years ago – and we are able, if we choose, to have access to a far greatest number and range of historic recordings than ever before. We now take for granted the act of listening to a complete opera, symphony or concerto at the single touch of a button. Those who made the discs could never have envisaged how effortless the whole listening process would be, that their work would be heard in this way. The John McCormacks and Amelita Galli-Curcis of the world would never have guessed that each side they recorded in the first decades of the 20th century would one day be heard as part of a continuous sequence of other sides they recorded, perhaps years apart, transferred on to a disc lasting nearly 80 minutes yet only one third the size of one of their 12 inch shellac discs. Recently I reviewed a set of 5 CDs of recordings by the Australian pianist Eileen Joyce. I calculated that had an assiduous collector managed to purchase all 87 titles, it would have taken up nearly three feet of shelving. Had that collector wanted to play every 78rpm side non-stop he or she would have had to get up from their armchair 94 times. APR’s box takes up just one inch on my shelves. I left my chair five times. It’s a kind of miracle – and yet…

Listening to these individual tracks on a compilation recording is ipso facto a completely different experience to listening to the original. It took effort and care to take the fragile 78rpm disc from its cardboard sleeve, to place it gently on the turntable, to start the mechanism, to lower the stylus on to the outer grooves of the disc. True, by the time I was a small boy there was the delight (and vagaries) of the auto-changer: load a pile of discs on to the central spindle and, as the end of one side finished playing, the next disc would automatically be released to fall with a satisfying flop on to the surface of the previous disc (most of the time – sometimes, two would be released at once and you could suddenly find yourself in the middle of the second movement).

The era of the commercial shellac disc lasted roughly from 1890 to 1960 (the last remaining 78s in EMI's British catalogues were finally withdrawn on March 31,1962). That’s 70 years, far longer than the LP or CD eras, let alone that of any of the new digital formats.

Seven decades of recorded music which broadcasters ignore almost entirely. Occasionally you might hear one used to illustrate a point, an old performance practice set beside a modern interpretation, but rarely played on its own merit. The reason is that broadcasters dare not play anything that might risk losing their audience, most of whom, it seems, cannot tolerate the hiss-and-crackle of a shellac surface. They cannot hear the musical performance, only intrusive surface noise. Their ears are so attuned to the pristine quality of state-of-the-art digital sound that anything other is quite unacceptable. Even the most expert audio restoration is not enough. For me, these music lovers are missing the point. Give me a crackly old disc with an exceptional performance any day above an aurally immaculate disc with a merely very good one. And so those who are now forming their musical tastes, adding to their knowledge of repertoire – those, in fact, to whom classical music will be an indispensable part of their lives – often have no knowledge of, and therefore no interest in, the myriad recordings and great artists of the first half of the 20th century. I remember not so long ago discussing the various versions of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with a gifted young pianist studying at one of the London music colleges. I described the way in which the composer played the opening bars of the Concerto. 'You mean', the young pianist questioned in amazement, 'there’s a recording of Rachmaninov playing his C minor Concerto?'

I have only a small part of The Leach Collection left. Some discs were traded for their more convenient LP or CD transfers, others were sold when I began to specialise. Buying early Godowsky Columbias and Brunswicks in the 1970s and '80s was an expensive business. Nowadays you can't give them away, and paradoxically, after all that time and effort tracking down individual discs and paying through the nose for them, I can now buy all of them for a few dollars and hear them to boot in Ward Marston's superb transfers in much more detail than my equipment could ever produce.

So what do I do? Keep those albums of shellac discs? Hang on to the LPs and 45s I inherited from my parents? I grew up with them, yes, and they have been part of my life for the past 50 and more years. Or do I sell them? Or give them away? They are stored in the garage. I rarely listen to them. Why do I keep them? Why can’t I get rid of them? They have got to go. But I don’t think I can do it. I want the Penny Black, not the photograph; the friend, not the faceless file.

Do you share Jeremy's dilemma? Or perhaps you more lean towards Jed Distler's advocacy of the digital age. Why not let us know in the Gramophone Forum.

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