A Glimpse Into 'Dawn' Of Recorded Music John Maltese and his father spent years tracking down the wax cylinders recorded in the 1890s by businessman Julius Block. Maltese finally found them in St. Petersburg, Russia, and traveled there with record producer Ward Marston. The fruit of the long, careful process of restoring the recordings, The Dawn of Recording, is available this week.
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A Glimpse Into 'Dawn' Of Recorded Music

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A Glimpse Into 'Dawn' Of Recorded Music

A Glimpse Into 'Dawn' Of Recorded Music

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I am Robert Siegel. And this story is about the legacy of a man named Julius Block. He was businessman who was born in 1858 in what is now South Africa. He was raised in St. Petersburg, Russia. He studied piano. He traveled widely. He met many of the best classical musicians of his day, and most important for our purposes, he recorded them.

(Soundbite of song "Sleeping Beauty")

SIEGEL: This is the pianist Paul Pabst playing Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty." Pabst studied at one point with Franz Liszt. He performed Rachmaninoff's "Suite for Two Pianos" with the young Rachmaninoff. This recording was made on a wax cylinder in Moscow in 1895.

(Soundbite of song "Sleeping Beauty")

SIEGEL: I confess that I had never heard of Paul Pabst. And that's what so remarkable about the new three-CD box set this is from. It's called "The Dawn of Recording: The Julius Block Cylinders." Until recorded sound, we had only the adjectives of others to tell us what the musician sounded like. The recordings that Julius Block made starting in 1889 push back our ability to hear and appreciate reproductions of older performances, albeit in low fidelity by today's standards. In this track is one of the clearer of the older recordings.

(Soundbite of song "Sleeping Beauty")

SIEGEL: People knew that Julius Block had made the cylinder recordings, but they were given up for lost. They were discovered, thanks to John Anthony Maltese, who joins us now, and we should say, Professor Maltese, that your day job is as a government professor at the University of Georgia, but this project has nothing to do with that.

Dr. JOHN MALTESE (Political, University of Georgia): That's correct. This is what I do on my off time.

SIEGEL: You go sleuthing for missing, 100-year-old recordings.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MALTESE: That's right.

SIEGEL: Tell us the story of how you found these and why you were looking for them.

Dr. MALTESE: Well, this was basically a 30-year quest that my father and I were on. We met one of the violinists that recorded on these cylinders in 1971, great American violinist named Eddie Brown. He was a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in the class of the great violinist Leopold Auer. And one of the fellow students there was Jascha Heifetz. And he told us this fascinating story of making homemade recordings at a man's home in Berlin around 1914. And he told us at the time that Jascha Heifetz has also made recordings in 1912 just after his sensational debut with the Berlin Philharmonic and Arthur Nickisch. And so we were absolutely taken with the story and searched for them for, as I say, about 30 years.

SIEGEL: Ultimately what you found, well, it included this bit of the 11-year-old Jascha Heifetz, who went on to be, I suppose, the pre-eminent violinist of the 20th century. This is Heifetz at 11 in 1912 being recorded just outside Berlin in Rosholt, Germany.

(Soundbite of violin by Jascha Heifetz)

SIEGEL: We should say that unlike many of the other people recorded on these, Heifetz's survived to be recorded on LPs and even better than that.

Dr. MALTESE: That's correct.

SIEGEL: Where were they? Where were all these all this time?

Dr. MALTESE: These cylinders were in a little archive in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the Institute of Russian Literature, which is better known as the Pushkin House, and it's this amazing lost-and-found story. Julius Block, who recorded these cylinders, wanted to preserve them, and he went to great efforts to make sure that his collection was divided between a museum in Berlin and another museum in Warsaw, and his personal papers went to Switzerland. And during the Second World War, everyone thought that these cylinders in Berlin were destroyed. But it turns out that they had been evacuated to Silesia in 1944, and then after the war, they had been taken by the Russians to St. Petersburg. And people forgot about these cylinders and just assumed that they had been lost during the war.

SIEGEL: But your inquiry actually turned them up.

Dr. MALTESE: That's correct. It was, you know, one of a whole series of serendipitous encounters. There was this first encounter in 1971 with Eddie Brown. And then in 2001, on the 100th anniversary of Jascha Heifetz's birth, we were put in touch with a woman in St. Petersburg who was writing a book about Heifetz's boyhood years. And we began an email correspondence with her. And in one of our email exchanges, I happened to mention the story that Eddie Brown had told us about Heifetz making these recordings, and I said, unfortunately, they no longer exist. And she emailed back and she said, well, I think they exist in an archive down the street from me. And it was just miraculous. Now, usually, searches for holy grails, you don't discover it. This time we did.

SIEGEL: Now, I want to ask you about these recordings, as we listen to, what I know is one of your favorites, this is from the trio written and in this case, performed by the pianist Anton Arensky. This is a recording from 1894 and this is the second movement.

(Soundbite of music by Anton Arensky)

SIEGEL: Now, it's a wax cylinder that's been put on CD. Is the quality of this recording, is the fidelity of this recording high enough for people to be able to hear and learn things about the way that Arensky played piano?

Dr. MALTESE: Absolutely. You know, it takes some practice. The average person who is used to stereophonic recordings will find this pretty primitive. But you have an awful lot here. You learn about the performance practice in the late 1800s. You hear some remarkable playing, not only by Arensky, but by the cellist Anatoly Brandukov and Jan Hrimaly, who was the violinist. And these were the only known recordings of Arensky performing his own trio in the year of its composition. It's really almost over the top performance. It's just amazing. Anyone interested in performing this trio should hear how the composer himself played it.

(Soundbite of music by Anton Arensky)

SIEGEL: Do we assume that when Block first made these recordings that they sounded much like this, or have they lost a lot of fidelity with each playing?

Dr. MALTESE: They didn't sound much better but it's remarkable that this man who was basically a Russian importer. He imported - introduced the escalator and the elevator and the cotton gin to Russia, had the foresight to make these recordings. He had read about the phonograph, was determined to go and meet Thomas Edison. So, he went and visited Edison in 1889 and came back with the machine. And with the flair for publicity, he got an audience with Czar Alexander III and demonstrated it to him, demonstrated it to Tolstoy, who speaks on these cylinders, Tchaikovsky who speaks on these cylinders. And he had public demonstrations of this. It must have been just an amazing thing to hear this device for the first time.

SIEGEL: Well, John Anthony Maltese, thank you very much for talking with us about the Julius Block cylinders which are the basis of the three-CD box set "The Dawn of Recording."

Dr. MALTESE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And we go out on a recording from 1914, violinist Eddie Brown accompanied on piano by Julius Block.

(Soundbite of music by Eddie Brown and Julius Block)

SIEGEL: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

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