G&S Discography: The Acoustical Era

In 1888, Thomas Edison sent representatives with copies of his newfangled recording machine to Europe to record a number of famous voices, including that of Sir Arthur Sullivan, who professed himself “astonished at the wonderful form you have developed, and terrified that so much hideous and bad music will be put on record forever.”

Edison's earliest prototypes were not really suitable for mass distribution. It took about another ten years for the technology to reach sufficient maturity for widespread public consumption. Once it did, new recording companies formed quickly and started putting great voices on disc in short order. Scott Russell, Rutland Barrington, Richard Temple, Walter Passmore, Henry Lytton and Isabel Jay were among the Savoyards who dabbled in recording during those early years.

The earliest discs were made with a technology called acoustical recording. It relied on a direct transfer of vibrations from a singer's voice to a needle that cut a rotating master disc. For the technique to work at all, the performer had to stand extremely close to the recording horn. Even then, many subtleties of instrumental or vocal performance were simply impossible to capture. As a practical matter, it also limited the number of artists who could be recorded at one time, and it resulted in performances that would seem strained and unnatural by modern standards.

Nevertheless, many of the acoustical recordings capture voices that would otherwise be lost to us, and so they are treasured by conoisseurs who accept their sonic limitations. A few of the more important ones have been re-issued on LP and CD. While none of them is likely to be a listener's first choice, a few are sufficiently interesting to belong in any G&S lover's record library.

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