They Shall Have Music: Collector's Item


JOHN M. CONLY is a former New York and Washington newspaperman, now on the staff of High Fidelity Magazine. “ They Shall Have Music" is a quarterly feature in the Atlantic.

MUSIC by Franz Josef Haydn occupies more than 160 long-playing records. Last September and October, Cornelius G. Burke listened to all of these — some of them several times.

Music by Ludwig van Beethoven occupies more than 360 long-playing records. In December and January, Burke listened to all of these, repeating many.

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart occupies nearly 500 long-playing records. Early in February, Cornelius Burke began listening to all of these. At the time of this writing, he had not yet re-established contact with the outside world, so it is impossible to report how he fared. However, there is a more than even chance that he enjoyed it thoroughly. C. G. Burke is, and has been for more than thirty years, a record-collector.

It is a dauntless, hardy breed. It has to be. Record-collectors, for their devotion, have suffered dreadful hardships. They have gone lunchless, friendless, wifeless. They have been ceremonially cursed by postal authorities. They have been quelled by the constabulary and serenaded with brickbats. They have been ostracized and turned homeless away from the humblest slum apartments.

It is heartening to note that none of these things has happened to Burke, or at least not very often. He has a wife - and a very charming one — who can by now differentiate between even the obscurer works of Handel and Bach. He has three Great Danes, of awesome aspect but sloppily affectionate disposition. He has a gracefully sprawling house, old enough to be called historic. It is deep in Columbia County, New York State, on the edge of the Hudson valley, and is not easily found without a map. It could be said to be out of earshot of the nearest neighbors, except that earshot is a word not lightly used where Burke is concerned.

His 40-by-25-foot living and listening room contains, in opposite corners, a $750 four-unit. Electro-Voice Patrician loud-speaker, taller than he is, and a $700 Klipsehorn. In a joining room is a Voight-Lowther horn reproducer, almost as massive. The whole array is driven by about $600 worth of audio-amplifiers and recordplaying gear.

Burke likes, he says, to be in a sea of sound. And a great deal of the time he most undoubtedly is. However, there is no factual basis for the story that, the evening after he received and played Westminster’s famous record of Haydn’s Military Symphony, he was awakened from his bed by the echo returning from the Catskills, 30 miles away. Actually, Burke says with all solemnity, he has never received an echo from anything more distant than the Berkshires, and they are only 12 miles away.

Burke avers that he has no idea how he became a record-collector — or why anyone else should — but he explains it, just the same, with considerable conviction. He loves music but hates crowds. He likes to smoke or drink while he listens. He doesn’t like what most concert halls do to the sound of most orchestras and almost all smaller ensembles. (The Salle Pleyel, in Paris, is an exception.) “The sound is lost,” he says; “the works weren’t played that way originally. s’m convinced that records can improve the sound, if they’re made cleverly.” Nevertheless, during at least five or six years of his recordcollecting, he was also an inveterate concertgoer; he was in Carnegie or Aeolian Hall, or the Metropolitan Opera House, almost every night. He thinks nearly all music should be listened to in the dark.

“There’s the matter of choice, too,” he points out. “Sometimes I have an urge for Rossini overtures. And I’ve had long, long periods of Schubert songs. Play fifty or sixty of them, over a day or two. Can’t do that except through the phonograph. Unless you have court singers. And they probably wouldn’t be as good.” In the matter of choice, as he terms it, Burke is probably as well prepared as anyone need be. He has approximately 13,000 records in the house. Of these, 1800 are LPs. About 2000 of the older 78s are in the attic. He has thought of transferring some to tape, but doubts that he’ll ever get around to it.

“Anyway,”he says, “I’m optimistic. I think there are more good performances, already, on LP than there were on 78. The instrument is taken more seriously. The fact that an exact sound is being recorded makes the people more careful about what they put on it. Not many were, in times past, though Weingartner saw the possibilities, and Beecham has definitely tried to immortalize himself through recording.”

Burke, who is now in the upper forties, was taught piano as a child, but didn’t learn much. He asserts with mingled pride and disgust that he was a typical red-blooded American boy, without whatever it takes to practice. His mother regularly took him and his sister to the opera, but he can’t recall being much impressed. The favorite record of his childhood was something called Over the Waves, “a sort of Spanish waltz.”

The first classical disk he remembers having listened to was a singlesided 10-incher of the allegretto of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony, a Vicfor which may have been recorded by Stokowski, if he was in action that early, before World War I. But it was after the war when a record came along which smote Burke beyond resistance and changed his whole life.

This was the first recording by Willem Mengelberg of the Beethoven Coriolanus Overture. Burke had something of a taste for the classic symphonists already, but this Coriolanus, on two Victor 12-inch sides, issued two months apart ("still the best recorded performance I’ve ever heard”), turned bis interest passionately toward records. Within a year he had all the Beethoven records available in the United States.

There weren’t a great many. The nine symphonies, for instance, were represented on disks as follows:—

The First: one 12-inch side, by Toscanini and the orchestra of La Scala. The Second: nothing. The Third: nothing (although shortly there appeared, on a label called Opera-Disk, a “complete" version which took exactly 12 minutes, conducted by either Leo Blech or Fritz Busch, Burke isn’t sure which). The Fourth: one 12-inch side, half the adagio, by Vessella’s Italian Band. The Fifth: a wealth of variety — the first movement conducted by Toscanini for Brunswick and by Mengelberg for Victor; the “whole" work, on Victor Black Label, played by Josef Pasternak and the Victor Concert Orchestra (”Unspeakably bad,”says Burke). The Sixth: one 12-inch side, the “Scene by the Brook,” by the Victor Concert Orchestra. The Seventh: the whole symphony, cut by about one third and performed by Albert Coates and a “symphony orchestra ” — without percussion! The Eighth: the second movement, by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Of the Ninth there was not a trace.

There were no complete Mozart symphonies at all, though there did exist a four-side version of the Haydn Surprise. There were no complete quartets, although the Flonzaley Quartet had made a half-dozen side’s of Beethoven “excerpts.” There was a performance of one movement of the Emperor Concerto by Frank La Forgo with the Victor Concert Orchestra, which in this disk, Burke thinks, consisted of a string quartet plus an oboe.

At this point, Burke discovered Europe. More specifically, he came across a catalogue of HMV, the British recording company. In it was listed a version of Meistersinger which ran to fourteen disks —nearly two hours’ listening. Ecstatic and astounded, Burke sent for every European catalogue he could learn about. And in the English Columbia listings he came upon new treasure: the complete Seventh and Eighth Symphonies of Beethoven. Too impatient for pen and paper, Burke traveled in from New Jersey, where he lived, and presented himself at the Columbus Circle offices of Columbia Records, where he demanded the two symphonies.

At first he was told they didn’t exist. Then the sales manager, amused by the intensity of the youthful connoisseur, initiated a search and found them in the English catalogue listing. He ordered the records for Burke. But his interest went beyond this.

American Columbia had just been bought out by its British affiliate, though its personnel and catalogue were retained. The latter consisted mostly of what today would be called blues-and-rhythm repertory, plus a line of salacious songs of the burlesque-show variety. The market for these was saturated, and dealers had become resistant to Columbia sales talk. The British management was at a loss as to how their market might be revived. The American chief now wondered, daringly, if the classical line might not help. He offered Burke a job.

Burke was seventeen, a mercurial and very articulate boy, with startling blue eyes which had the look of distance in them. He was destined for Princeton and then Harvard Law School, but he had a legacy to help support him. In that instant, he changed his whole aim in life unhesitatingly. He became, while hardly out of knee pants, the first classical promotion man (or one of the first) in the American record industry.

He carried his crusade from city to city throughout the eastern half of the nation, assembling the dealers in each city — Boston, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago — and giving them demonstration-lectures on the salability of Beethoven and Verdi. Mostly the sales staffs were utterly ignorant of serious music, convulsed by the immaturity of their instructor, and highly skeptical to boot. But Burke remembers one listener who absorbed everything with unwavering attention, and asked for more. This was the stock boy in Columbia’s Chicago office. Burke asked him his name. “ kapp,” said the youth, “Jack Kapp.”

“I don’t know,” says Burke, with triumphant blandness, “whether I had anything to do with it or not, but the next time I heard of him, he was president of Decca.”

Burke’s cross-country crusade lasted about a year. He met with some success, but he kept hearing of wonderful things happening abroad, and he wanted to investigate. And something else happened: the issuance of a disk called Let It Rain; Let It Pour. It was a pop tune, and Burke cannot even recall what band recorded it. But when he heard it he knew his campaign selling acoustically recorded classics was as good as over. Let It Rain, had been electrically recorded, and an era had ended. With the excuse that he wanted to attend the University of Paris, Burke went abroad, ending his only official connection with the record industry.

The next years were lively ones for record fanciers; only the development of microgroove recording has caused comparable excitement and expansion. When Burke went abroad in 1924, electrical recording had just begun. By 1925, acoustic recording had stopped. By 1926, an acoustic record could not be sold, except along Sixth Avenue, in New York, where stacks of them were dispensed, by label and diameter, at a dollar or two dollars a dozen. Among things sold this way were many rarities never reprinted, particularly vocals. Burke made few forays after these, disliking Sixth Avenue and not being much interested in vocal virtuosity per so. He picked up some recordings of Maria Barrientos, a Spanish soprano noted for her Susanna in Marriage of Figaro. He also acquired some McCormack, though most of the McCormack he liked best never came out in America — arias and songs of Mozart, Handel, and Brahms.

“McCormack used to take part in an annual Prague Festival,” Burke explains, “donating his services, I believe. It was a kind of penance he practiced, for using that weapon of his, over here, on Mother Machree, to fill the Hippodrome. his good records were made in Prague or in London.”

The early years of electrical recording produced some wonders, some war horses, and some weird items. Stokowski’s famous transcription and playing of the Bach Toccata and Fague in D Minor followed Burke all over Europe; it was a phenomenon. Ravel made his own recording of the Bolero. Richard Strauss conducted Ein Heldenleben for Deutsche Grammophon, also the last three Mozart symphonies and the Beethoven Fifth and Seventh.

All of these recordings were extraordinary. Especially was this true of the Mozarts — partly because Strauss played them almost like Beethoven, partly because of a technical oddity. In acoustical days, tubas always had to be used in support of the bass fiddles. Strauss retained them for these recordings, and the electric microphones brought them out with grotesque clarity, batting away in the background. It took the indefatigable Burke some time to research this problem and discover what the odd noises were, but he did.

In 1927 something revolutionary happened, through the insistence of a very astute promoter. English Columbia decided to commemorate the centennial of Beethoven’s death by issuing all his symphonies.

Burke had a hand in this, being a friend of the promoter as well as the prototype of the Beethoven discophile. Conductors for the series were chosen with great care, suiting the man to the job. Sir George Henschel was to conduct the First; Sir Thomas Beecham the Second; Sir Henry Wood the Third; Sir Hamilton Harty (“ He wasn’t a ‘Sis’ then,” says Burke) the Fourth; a young conductor named Bruno Walter the Fifth; Felix Weingartner all the rest.

There was a tragedy: the Fifth by Walter was rejected, on insistence by English Columbia’s musical advisers, because it had so many curious whims in it. “I remember hearing those test records in London,”Burke says, “and it was a very odd job.”So the Centennial set came out minus a Fifth, though Weingartner supplied one early the next year.

Europe was more ambitious than America. HMV began a Wagnerian series of extended excerpts from Siegfried,Götterämmerung,Parsifal, Tristan, with big-name singers. Columbia (British) countered by contracting to record the Bayreuth Festival performances in 1928, 1929, 1930. Their Tristan flopped, though the orchestra was beautifully recorded and one record-side had an explanatory commentary by critic Ernest Newman. The Ring operas did better. Tannhäuser (1929), nearly complete, stood up best. “I still listen to parts of it,” Burke relates. “Erna Berger was the Shepherd.”

Leading artists began to make concerti, too. kreisler and Leo Blech made the Beethoven concerto in 1927, the Brahms a year later. Cortot made a Schumann A Minor and a Chopin F Minor. Jacques Thibaud made a Mozart Sixth which, for some odd reason, was distributed only in Switzerland and Czechoslovakia (Burke got one, though).

In quality of recorded sound also, Burke thinks, Europe outpaced America from 1927 until the advent of LP. Stokowski and the Boston Pops, almost alone, offered competition. But almost always at least one foreign company was out front. For a time it was HMV. Then it was Pathé. Then it was Ultraphone, and then Telefunken, which got ahead of everyone in the latter 1930s and stayed there until the war’s end. Burke, although a gourmet rather than a glutton, still sampled generously from this output, accumulating more than 2000 records during seven years in France.

In 1932 he moved back to the United States. His records, scrupulously packed, followed him, but when they arrived, several hundred were missing. All these were Deutsche Grammophon, HMV, and Pathé. Upon inquiry, he found the U.S. Customs had confiscated them. The HMV and DG disks had borne labels picturing the famous listening dog, Nipper, and Victor had secured an injunction against its use here (although Nipper had been an HMV, not a Victor, property originally). And Columbia had an exclusive-importation agreement with Pathé.

Burke’s wrath rose high. Among the purloined records was a ten-disk set of Rheingold, nearest to a complete recording ever made. He could do nothing, so he took it philosophically. However, it would be very unwise of any legal official of Columbia or Victor, circa 1932, to call upon Burke in the wilds of Columbia County. The Great Danes are almost always hungry, and one of them weighs 185 pounds.

Burke is an ardent advocate of LP, with its expanded and recondite repertory and its enormous spawn of small companies. His month-long immersions in the complete works of various composers on LP are testimony to this. He writes critiques later, comparing performances and marveling at their abundance. Most have appeared as magazine articles. (He has also collaborated on a book, his portion dealing with record-playing equipment.) “From Vanguard and Westminster and Haydn Society,” he says, “were going to discover a lot of musicians and hear a lot of performances we wouldn’t have dreamed of.”But he won’t deny that 78 rpm days produced some performances which will never be duplicated.

There was the most lyrical performance of Schubert’s Unfinished by Eduard Mörike; the Coriolanus of Mengelberg (aforementioned); the Beethoven Fifth by Nikisch (of historical value only); the Mozart Thirtyninth Symphony by Richard Strauss (“astounding—tubas and all”) on irreplaceable Polydors; the Prague National Theater version of Smetana’s Rartered Bride (HMV-Victor) conducted by Ostrěil; Emmi Leisner’s almost incredible contralto rendition of the Handel aria usually known as the Largo. Included might be Mengelberg’s performance of Ein Heldenleben, which he recorded twice without perceptible change, indicating that he had finalized his interpretation — but Capitol, blessings on them, has transferred this to LP. There was the Beecham Beethoven Second; the Furtwängler Tchaikovsky Pathétique (“one of the damnedest things you ever heard”), and the Toscanini overture to Italiana in Algeri (“not even Toscanini will ever do it again just that way”).

To play his disks, over the years, Burke has had an interminable succession of phonographs. First he had a table Victrola, then a cabinet model. Next he enjoyed an exquisite and expensive device of the day, a Cheney, which had a diamond stylus (!) suspended on a hairspring to play either laterally or vertically cut records. Then he had two Victor Orthophonics, one big, one little. Next he invested in a Victor electric (“a hell of a looking thing, in a Florentine cabinet”), then in a Columbia-Kolster, a player he liked very much, which he got secondhand, during the depression, at the Gramophone Shop, in New York. After that he bought one more set, an early Magnavox, which he promptly took apart and revised, a procedure which led him naturally, if prematurely, into what is now called high fidelity — the assembly of an eclectic phonograph (his term) from custom components. By turns, his styli have been steel, cactus thorn, bamboo, wood (tempered in fire and acid by C. G. Burke), sapphire, and diamond. From destructive ordeal by these needles, his disks have been saved by their very number. None got played too often. Some, in fact, are almost virgin. And likely to remain so.

“I suppose,” says Burke, sadly surveying the racks in his living room, “there are at least 5000 here s’ll never hear again. Seems a pity, doesn’t it ?

Enthusiasts were experimenting before World War II with the assembly at home of high-fidelity sets, but it was not until 1946 that one of them began to write about it for laymen. The one who did, then, was Edward Tatnall Canby, an intrepid young musician who had ventured in among the ohms and impedances to discover the how and why of good sound reproduction. Later he collaborated on a book (with Burke and critic Irving Kolodin) and now he has written one of his own. It is called Home Music Systems: How to Build and Enjoy Them (Harper, $3.95) and the title describes the contents.

This is not a book for the advanced audio hobbyist, but for the neophyte — who won’t be a neophyte any longer when he finishes it. Canby eschews technical patter; all the reader needs is a command of English and an earnest interest in filling his living room with good music, Canby also covers, usefully, some unconventional territory for instance, how to convert your old Supercroon Console radio-phono, step by step, to high fidelity. And the uses of reflected sound (very valuable). And some hazards - indeed, his last page, on internal short circuits and their terrifying symptoms, is positively hair-raising.

Record Reviews

Beethoven: Concerto No. 5 in E Flat Major, “Emperor” (Walter Gieseking, piano; Herbert Von Karajan conducting Philharmonia Orchestra; Columbia: 12" LP). This probably takes position as the best Emperor on microgroove, barely edging out the Horowitz-Reiner RCA version, unjustly neglected earlier in this column. Both are good, but the RCA Victor orchestra is too remote.

Beethoven: Overtures Leonore No. 1, Leonore No. 2, Leonore No. 3, Fidelio (Hermann Scherchen conducting Vienna State Opera Orchestra; Westminster: 12" LP). A very good idea, putting all the overtures to the opera Fidelio on one disk. Scherchen keeps them dramatic. Fine fidelity.

Beethoven: Nine Symphonies (Arturo Toscanini conducting NBC Symphony; RCA Victor: seven 12" LPs, in album with essay or singly). Only Nos. 1, 3, and 9 have been issued before. All others are new recordings. The Seventh is absolutely beyond compare. The Second and Eighth are tenser, more spectacular than the Monteux versions. Only possible rival to the sweetly metrical Toscanini Fourth is Soltis, on London. The Fifth and Sixth probably outpoint Klemperer’s older Vox versions, if not by much. The whole issue, of course, is historic, and all good Beethovenians will buy it, disregarding duplications.

Brahms: Concerto No. 2 in B Flat (Artur Rubinstein, piano; Charles Munch conducting Boston Symphony; RCA Victor: 12" LP). Pianistic but still poetic, probably the best on LP, all things considered.

Dvorak: Slavonic Dances, Op. 46; Op. 72 (Vaclav Talich conducting Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Urania: two separate 12" LPs). People who have treasured the old Victor performances by Talich will realize what this means; we had almost stopped hoping. Would-be converts should listen to No. 7 of Op. 46.

Elizabethan Love Songs (Hugues Cuenod, tenor; Claude Jean Chiasson. harpsichord; Lyrichord: 12" LP). Many a French gallant at Elizabeth’s court must have sung Drink to Me Only in just these intimate, piquant accents. Very realistic recording.

Elgar: Enigma Variations, with Brahms: Variations on a Theme of Haydn (Arturo Toscanini conducting NBC Symphony; RCA Victor: 12" LP). Both long-awaited, both delightfully what they should be. Genial and transparent beauty.

First Chair (First-desk players of the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Eugene Ormandy conducting the orchestra, in works by Purcell, Chabrier, Beethoven, Weber, and others; Columbia: 12" LP). A wonderful bouquet of virtuosity, variety, and honest musicianship, gorgeously recorded. Prize pieces: William Kincaid in Griffes’ Poem for Flute and Orchestra; Marcel Tabuteau in Handel’s Oboe Concerto No. 3.

French Art Songs (Jacques Jansen, baritone, with flute, cello, and piano; London: 12" LP). The songs are by Debussy (including the Villon ballads), Chabrier, and Ravel, whose Chansons Madécasses get especially exciting treatmen.

French Orchestral Music (Ernest Ansermet conducting Orehestre de la Suisse Romande; London: 12" LP). Selections include Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, Chabriers España, Ravel’s Pavane; the verve is infectious and the recording perfection.

Glière: Symphony No. 3, “Ilya Mourometz”; “Red Poppy" Ballet Suite (Hermann Scherchen conducting Vienna State Opera Orchestra; Westminster: two 12" LPs in album). This shares hi-fi honors with the Mercury Gould-Barber set (below) but my, how long it goes on!

Glinka:A Life for the Czar (Alexander Melik-Pashaiev conducting Bolshoi Opera soloists and orchestra; Vanguard; three 12" LPs with libretto). Bouncy musical melodrama by a fine tunesmith, some hearty singing, and good recording.

Goldmark: “Rustic Wedding” Symphony (Sir Thomas Beecham conducting Royal Philharmonic; Columbia: 12" LP). Beecham patronizes this naïvely irresistible music; the version to buy is the rough, rollicking Concert Hall disk of Swoboda.

Gould: Latin-American Symphonette, with Barber: Overture toSchool for Scandal,Adagio for Strings, Essay for Orchestra (Howard Hanson conducting EastmanRochester Orchestra; Mercury: 12" LP), The recorded fidelity of this verges on the fantastic; it’s probably the best there is. And the Barber is also very good music indeed.

Granados : Three Spanish Dances, with Turina: Danzas Fantasticas (Wilhelm Schuechter conducting Philharmonia Orchestra; MGM: 12" LP). Lovely, graceful, beautifully performed and recorded but for slight surface noise.

Haydn: Symphonies No. 88 and 93 (Hermann Scherchen conducting Vienna State Opera Orchestra: Westminster; 12" LP). Apart from the Toscanini Beethoven, and perhaps the Talich Dvorak, this is the only really important release reviewed this issue; tremendous performances and recordings of these magnificent, endlessly listenable symphonies. Hear them.

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 (Eric Tuxen conducting Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra; London: 12" LP). Last word of a great composer before the Politburo converted him to a musical billboard painter. Fine recording.

Ellington Uptown (Duke Ellington and his orchestra; Columbia: 12" LP). Louis Bellson’s hypnotic drum solo in Skin Deep should sell this, but the whole album is an adventure in fascinating sounds, recorded vividly — with a solid beat.