But is it strong enough?

Ninety years ago, George Dorrington Cunningham, one of the most popular recital organists of his time, made a recording at Kingsway Hall, London. It was released as a 12-inch 78 rpm shellac record by His Master’s Voice. One copy, manufactured here in Australia, turned up in an op-shop in Geelong in 2016. I bought it, cleaned it up, and put it up for sale on Discogs. A man in Saint George, Utah bought it from me, with the following request:

Please package in a box with sufficient padding and protection so as to ensure no breakage occurs in transit. Thank you.

4030-cropped-and-invertedShellac discs are heavy and fragile, but I know what to do, and carefully packed it in a strong box. “But is it strong enough?” I wondered. What happened next is described in my message to the buyer.

I am really sorry – I was packaging your order, and gently testing the packaging to make sure it was sufficiently robust, when I heard a little click …. man, these things are so fragile. I will refund you immediately. I’m a bit upset – not with you, its just I love these old discs, and they will never be made again. Annoyed with myself 😦

The buyer was understanding, and on reflection, perhaps it was a good thing this happened. The disc broke like a potato crisp under the slightest pressure, so it must have been extremely fragile. I doubt it would have survived the journey to Utah. Better it happened at my end!

So, I now have a sad, broken shellac disc which will never play again.

I did record the disc before it broke, so at least we can still listen. This is the first movement of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, which one of those classics you know, if only from a movie scene in which a detective investigating a crime walks into an empty cathedral.

He confronts me: “Sir, I need to talk to you about the destruction of a ninety-year-old record …”

  • Artist: G.D. Cunningham, playing on the Organ of the Kingsway Hall, London
  • Title: Toccata And Fugue In D Minor  (J.S. Bach)
  • Format: 12” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Catalogue: C. 1291
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1926

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

Bach Unplugged

I had vaguely heard of Albert Schweitzer, without knowing too much about him. A peace activist and humanitarian, a theologian, a man of good works. Built some sort of hospital in Africa? That, and a mental picture of a guy with a big white moustache was about it.


Not just a generous moustache

He was all of those things – and the mo was certainly impressive – but Dr Albert Schweitzer was also an important musician. He was an organist, one of great talent and also a keen thinker about music. He loved the works of J.S. Bach and he wanted to rescue his hero from the excesses of the 19th century Romantic style. Bach should be played, Schweitzer, argued, in the simpler, stripped down style of Bach’s own time. In modern terms, he wanted unplugged rather than prog-rock.

In 1934, while spending some time in England, he was recorded playing the organ at Queen’s Hall in London, and one of the pieces, “When In Deepest Need” is on this disc. This gentle, reflective piece was written by Bach literally on his death bed. It is at nearly five minutes, a rather long piece to fit onto a 12-inch shellac record, playing at 78 rpm, manufactured in 1934. His Master’s Voice managed to do this by the simple expedient of making the label for this side of the disc unusually small. The picture below shows the labels on the two sides of the disc, next to the same blue-framed sticker.

The record has been played a great many times – there is no escaping the crackle of hundreds of hollow steel styli which have scraped away at the shellac. Even so, the playing is beautiful, restrained. The organ can be a Donald Trump of an instrument – all blare and bombast – but Albert Schweitzer had a different vision, a subtle expression of a dying man’s love and faith.

  • Artist: Dr Albert Schweitzer
  • Title: J.S. Bach: When in Deepest Need / My Heart is Longing
  • Track: A side, “When in Deepest Need”
  • Format: 12” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: His Master’s Voice C.1543
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1934

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