Sound of Song on BBC4

Sound of Song

For UK readers, BBC4 are now re-showing the 2015 series Sound of Song. If you are interested in the history of sound recording and the ways in which changes in technology led to vast changes in popular music in the 20th century (and, as you are reading this, I’m guessing you are interested) then it’s as good a place as any to start. The first episode even features the recording of a new wax cylinder, and a demonstration of the effects of microphones on singing technique. My only criticism is that too much was cut out, but the 100-hour documentary series I would like to see is probably not realistic on current BBC budgets.

Episode 1 can be seen here – – for the next 28 days. Further episodes will go up in the next few weeks.

Georges Mendel’s ‘La Marseillaise’

La Marseillaise 1907 Mendel

Not even close to being the first sound film, and not particularly advanced technologically (being simply a mime to a pre-recorded disc), it’s still something of a marvel to see this performance 20 years before ‘The Jazz Singer’ and a few years before even silent shorts started coming out of Hollywood. Three minutes of your time, please, for a marvel of early cinema – a man dressed as Napoleon (?) miming to the French national anthem.

Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” – The first album?


I’ve always used the terms “album” and “LP” interchangeably, so it came as a surprise to find out that the former predates the latter quite considerably. We started talking about albums in the sense of ‘photo album’ or ‘stamp album’ as early as the 1850s, and the first ‘music albums’ were along these lines – large books for collecting sheet music. Then at another stretch (and another few decades) we have collections of 78rpm discs bound together as a book. And why would you want to do such a thing? To record an entire opera, of course.

It is unclear who it was that originally had this idea, but the oldest album to have survived appears to be this 1907 recording of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera “I Pagliacci,” starring Puerto Rican tenor Antonio Paoli, and supervised in its production by the composer himself. In its latest (2017) reissue it sounds simply stunning – a testament to both the careful production given to it at the time and the painstaking restoration work done last year. A treatment I wish a lot of other early recordings could receive.

A 1902 recording session in Tbilisi


From Excavated Shellac, the story of one of the first adventures to record the music of the rest of the world.


Likely the music was baffling to these engineers from America. Up to that time, the normal recording repertoire for the Gramophone Company was what one might expect. It primarily consisted of Western classical vocalists and instrumentalists, comic singers, military bands, and other entertainers. A substantial amount of European folk music had certainly been recorded by that time – in Spain, for example – but Asia was a different story. In 1902, even Cairo had not yet been visited and captured on disc. This was an industry in transition in more ways than one; improving rapidly in terms of technology, yet still in its earliest stages, recording anything, expanding markets.


Excavated Shellac – Tbilisi, 1902

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