The lover writes

There was a man, a German soldier. It was the First World War, and he had been captured by the army of Tsarist Russia. Then there was a revolution, and the Tsar was overthrown. Then there was a civil war. All the while the man remained a prisoner, in Siberia. But a Russian woman fell in love with this enemy alien, and the two married and, in 1920, they had a child. The father was able to take his new family back to Germany, and there the child, Rita Streich, was trained in music. She became a promising soprano.

rita

Image: Pinterest

The tide of history meant that Streich, born in the Soviet Union, made her professional debut in the Germany of the Third Reich, in 1943. The Nazi regime ceased to exist two years later, but Streich was still able to sing, and did so on both sides of what became the Iron Curtain.

She was most famous for her operatic roles, but Streich was also a master of the romantic lieder of the 19th century.

This is a recording of a song written by Franz Schubert, “Die Liebende Schreibt”, which roughly translates as “the lover writes”. I have mused elsewhere about the troubled, mixed up, messy life of Schubert. He, too, was a survivor of war and turmoil. This song was written in 1819, when Europe had been bled white by the wars of Napoleon.

Perhaps it is only fitting that Rita Streich, herself the product and survivor of war and turmoil … what is the right word? Lives. Inhabits. Just is. I don’t know, but there is a communion here. Two artistic souls who have known trouble come together in a short song which carries in it the beauty and the sadness of the world.

  • Artist: Rita Streich (soprano), Geoffrey Parsons (piano)
  • Album title: On Wings of Song
  • Track: A3 “Die Liebende Schreibt”
  • Composed By – Franz Schubert
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: OASD 7557
  • Year: Unknown (late 1960s?)

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Lie, cheat and hope for a miracle

It is a strange experience to revisit the Grimm’s Tales as an adult. When you hear them as a child, you just go with them. That’s the story: Red Riding Hood, Snow White, many others. The stories become so familiar that you don’t pull apart the elements. This is, perhaps, just as well. These stories are treasures of our shared culture, but don’t look to them for moral guidance.

Take the story of Rumpelstiltskin.

Here is what happens. A miller, hoping to win favour with the king, lies that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king is fooled, and imprisons her. He demands she produce the gold or be killed. A mysterious dwarf appears and does a deal with the young woman: he will make the gold and save her life, but only in return for the woman’s first child. The king, fooled again, decides not to kill the woman but marry her instead. The new queen has a baby, and the dwarf appears and demands payment. The queen stalls for time, eventually manages to cheat the dwarf, and saves her child.

Moral? Lie and cheat, and with amazing luck you will get away with it and become rich. The queen’s love for her baby – though she had previously sold it – is pretty much the only admirable thing in the entire story.

The Brothers Grimm collected their famous stories in the nineteenth century, but they are much, much older. The reflect the moral world of pre-Christian Europe. The Christian faith has copped a lot of criticism in recent times. Fair enough. We deserve it. But the Grimm stories, when you look more closely, show what came before: a pagan world view which is cruel, violent, and ruthless.

Great stories, mind!

Here is “Rumpelstiltskin”, as read by “Uncle Mac” (real name Derek McCulloch, a popular BBC Radio presenter). This shellac recording was obviously intended to be played as a bedtime story for children. Pleasant dreams!

  • Artist: Uncle Mac (Derek McCulloch)
  • Title: Uncle Mac’s Bedtime Story – “Rumplestiltskin”
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Made in: England
  • Catalogue: B.D. 1095
  • Year: 1944

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

A very merry Christmas and a whacko dinner

It is 1952, getting towards Christmas. You live on a homestead, in rural Australia, and one of your family is away. Young Pauline has followed in the path of many Australians and sailed for England. The tyranny of distance is alive and well in this period. Television broadcasting won’t begin for years yet. Long distance telephone calls – for those who have telephones and many don’t – are awful: the sound garbled and the cost, in three minute blocks, ridiculous. So you won’t be hearing Pauline’s voice this Christmas.

B 201701 labelBut wait! What is this in the mail? It’s a gramophone record, an acetate – it has the familiar HMV label, but there is a message from Pauline, hand-written. Quick, everyone! Gather round the gramophone. Pauline sent this – what on earth can it be?

I am indebted to Bart Ziino, a friend and fellow record tragic for sharing this disc. Bart is an historian, and observed:

That really is a document of its time.  I wonder how far in advance she prepared it?  Enough time to go by ship, or sent by air?  I wonder what she was doing in London? My mum used to say ‘whacko’ as a good thing too. I wonder who else thought gladioli were the best flowers …

There is a rich human story behind every minute of recorded sound.

  • Artist: Pauline [surname unknown]
  • A Side: “Merry Christmas, love Pauline, xxx”
  • Format: 8”, 78 rpm, acetate, mono
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Made in: England
  • Catalogue: Special recording
  • Year: 1952

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

Looking at a Foxconn factory

George Orwell was one of my first literary heroes. I got hooked by Nineteen Eighty-four, and went on to read everything he wrote. I don’t recommend this. His best work stands up: brave, clear sighted, a voice raised against tyranny. But don’t seek out the B-sides and rarities.

Having once been an uber-fan, though, I know his lesser works, and was reminded of one just now.

4019 AIn 1941, as the world careened into the darkest years in human history, His Master’s Voice released a recording of the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing Carl Maria von Weber’s delightful Invitation to The Dance (the record label calls it “Invitation to The Waltz” – it’s the same thing). The disc is a bit scratchy. That happens when a record gets played on a portable gramophone in an air raid shelter. But through the crackle we hear what must, in 1941, have seemed like paradise lost: the glittering ballrooms of privileged Europe, before the world knew of the machine gun.

4019 COnly months earlier, George Orwell wrote a poem about the factory where this disc was made. It channels the same tension. On a Ruined Farm Near the ‘His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory’ contrasts the rural idyll of pre-industrial England – which the writer yearns for but knows is lost to him – with the intimidating power of modern industry.

The factory is:

where steel and concrete soar
In dizzy, geometric towers —
There, where the tapering cranes sweep round,
And great wheels turn, and trains roar by
Like strong, low-headed brutes of steel

There was a time when making 78 rpm records out of cardboard and shellac was new, the cutting edge – terrifying even.

These same records now seem quaint, archaic, objects of nostalgia.

But imagine a young person in China, uneasy about the country’s breakneck modernisation and pursuit of wealth, looking at a Foxconn factory. Imagine the same young person writing a poem, while listening to lovely classical Chinese music on an iPhone. A lifetime ago, that was the experience of listening to this record, .

  • Artist: BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini
  • A side: Invitation to The Waltz, Op. 65 – Part 1 (Weber, Orchestration. Berlioz)
  • B side: Invitation to The Waltz, Op. 65 – Conclusion (Weber, Orchestration. Berlioz)
  • Format: 12”, 78 rpm, shellac
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Made in: England
  • Catalogue: DB 3542
  • Year: 1941

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

Liquorice stick

On Sunday, my wife and I saw a jazz band, Sandra Tulty’s Swing Quartet. Australians all, and all stellar musicians: one of those jaw-dropping jazz ensembles, which sing, play multiple instruments, and take on solos without so much as raising a sweat. I was particularly impressed by the clarinettist, Michael McQuaid. He moved in and out of the music, soloing with extraordinary power and dexterity.

It reminded me of the great Artie Shaw – one of those musicians I have discovered through Planet Vinyl. Shaw was a contemporary of Benny Goodman, and they were built up as rivals, though the two men liked and respected each other. They were both Jewish (Shaw was an anglicization of Arshawsky) and they both took the jazz clarinet, the “liquorice stick” as it was called, into aural spaces no one had ever even thought of.

IMG_2241This is Artie Shaw’s recording of “Begin the Beguine”, released in 1938. The record has been played so often that the label is hard to read, but it once belonged to someone called Dawson. Whoever that was, they took good care of their records – the shellac still plays well, letting the smooth, sinuous clarinet sound shine.

  • Artist: Artie Shaw And His Orchestra,
  • Track: “Beguine the Beguine”
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue: EA 2369
  • Year: 1938

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

After the movie finished

Australia and America have been close friends for a long time. It dates back to the Second World War, when Australia found itself facing a Japanese invasion. Traditionally, Australia had looked to Britain for protection. But Britain was in a desperate struggle for survival herself, and unable to help. So on 27 December 1941 the Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, made one of those this-changes-everything speeches:

Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.

One result was a huge influx of US servicemen. At the peak, some quarter-of-a-million Americans were based here.

IMG_2240 (002)This gramophone record is an artifact of this period. Specially made, it has the same track on both sides. It was not allowed to be broadcast, and was played many, many times – note the wear around the central hole. And the music? An unknown brass band plays the first few bars of God Save the King (which was then the Australian national anthem), segueing into John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever”.

I think that this strange record was played at cinemas inside American military bases. In those days, it was routine for the national anthem to be played after a film had finished. The first section is a polite nod to the host country, before they launch into America’s national march – which, it must be said, is far and away the better tune.

  • Artist: Unknown
  • Title: God Save the King followed by Stars and Stripes, march
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: Special Record No. 1
  • Year: Unknown (c. 1942?)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Jealous rage in musical form

Arthur Fiedler was one of the great popularisers. He hated the notion that classical and orchestral music were seen as the preserve of a moneyed, snobbish elite. He wanted the music he loved made available to everyone, and as director the Boston Pops Orchestra, that is exactly what he did. He took charge of the orchestra in 1930, as America slid into the Great Depression, and under his guidance the orchestra toured all over, giving low cost and free concerts, with a mix of lighter classics and orchestrations of popular tunes.

bpo-aPurists frowned, because that is what purists do to show their purity, but Fiedler’s program gave work for hundreds of musicians, and brought orchestral music to many thousands of people who would otherwise never have heard it. Actually, make that millions of people, because Fiedler also pioneered orchestral recording, making the first recordings of many light classical and orchestrated popular works.

Among them was this, the first ever recording of the tango “Jalousie”, made in 1935. Dramatic, powerful, explosive – a jealous rage in musical form – the disc sold more than one million copies. That is a lot of records, even now. Back then, for an orchestra, an astonishing feat.

In America, the Boston Pops recorded for RCA Victor. This is a British release, on His Master’s Voice, and the name used is Boston Promenade Orchestra. Perhaps “pops” was thought lacking in dignity for an HMV release? Whatever: this is a recording which is (rare mix) both  historic and sublime. Put on a red dress, clutch a rose between your teeth, and hit play.

  • Artist: Boston Promenade Orchestra [Boston Pops Orchestra], conducted by Arthur Fiedler
  • Title: Jealousy / Entry of The Boyards
  • Format: 12” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Catalogue: C. 2861
  • Manufactured in: Great Britain
  • Year: c. 1935

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs