The Making of the Columbia Abridged Sets

The Story of Sound Recording
By Joseph Batten, 1956 (pp. 72-73)

It is, I think, an interesting story, which I now tell for the first time, of how Columbia was able to produce more or less complete versions of the most popular of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

At the time of which I am writing, the Gramophone Company held the exclusive recording rights of the original scores, and any other company could only use such parts of the works as had been published. For instance, if we were recording Parry Jones in "Take a Pair of Sparking Eyes," or Dora Labbette in "Poor Wandering One," only those parts which had been published in selections from the operas were permissible. This made it impossible for us to issue any of the numbers not falling under this category.

As an admirer, almost devout, of Gilbert and Sullivan, this had long rankled with me, and culminated in my announcement to my chief, Sir Louis Sterling, that I proposed issuing the operas in album form. The law of copyright held that no permission to record could be withheld if any one company had issued a work. H.M.V.'s arrangement with D'Oyly Carte as to the use of the unpublished scores was my stumbling-block. But we issued The Mikado, The Gondoliers and The Yeomen of The Guard in abridged form despite this.

How I did it was to assemble an orchestra of thirty-two, each man chosen for his knowledge of the works, and on their desks were placed, not orchestral parts, but vocal piano scores. On opening them they found, cued in red ink, the notes they were required to play, and if, as in many cases, the part was not there, I told them their notes by word of mouth.

Before this recording call I had hidden myself away in an hotel at Margate and for a fortnight was busy with piano copies and red ink. I had already told the late Richard Collette, then manager of the D'Oyly Carte Company, of my intentions, and he did not see any reason to object to something which was legally right and which, moreover, would substantially add to his company's income. It was an arduous job, although only a musician can imagine the work involved.

Editor's Note:
Joe Batten, a producer for Columbia records, led four G&S recordings for Columbia—the three referred to above, and Iolanthe. Despite the claims of these recordings being "more or less complete", each set consisted of just six ten inch 78 rpm records. Thanks to Chris Webster for researching and transcribing the above.