By Professor Jeffrey Johnson, University of Bridgeport, 2018
Bridgeport was quick to recognize the commercial potential of recorded music, and it became an early center for the production of phonographic machines and recordings. Perhaps the energy of that enterprise made its residents particularly aware of recordings and recording technology.
A lifelong Bridgeport resident named William H. Seltsam, who never worked for the local recording industry nevertheless created his own record label in 1932. He forged new ways for collectors to interact with one another and with recordings of the past. Occasionally he issued recordings with which he was directly involved, but more often he searched out forgotten or unpublished masters and re-issued them for a direct-mail market that he also created.
By 1932 the phonographic cylinder, one of the early forms of distributing and playing pre-recorded music, was already obsolete. Seltsam sought them out. There were two types of cylinder recordings—those intended for commercial distribution, and original cylinders recorded by individual users. Beginning in 1887 pre-recorded commercial cylinders were sold for home machines, but soon these phonograph machines could be modified by adding special devices that allowed individual home recordings to be cut into blank wax cylinders. There was no practical way to make copies of these personal recordings, but many families enjoyed recording the voices of loved ones and creating brief statements with this new technology.
In a unique blending of personal and public contexts, an Englishman living in New York made recordings for fun and entertainment while at work. Years later he was contacted by Seltsam when the recordings that Englishman had made at work had become an urban legend. This happened because the gentleman worked at the Metropolitan Opera. The story went that he had somehow used the primitive equipment of the time to record segments from live performances at the Met in the early 1900s. This was an era of legendary voices, many of whom never made commercial recordings. Live operatic performances have a special fire and intensity that make live recordings particularly valued among collectors. But the wide extremes of dynamic volume within this repertoire and the physical movement of singers onstage make live opera a challenge to record. If live opera had indeed been recorded at the turn of the century it would have been a unique occurrence. The next time live opera recording was even attempted was more than twenty years later during the age of microphones.
But was it true? Did any of these early recordings still exist? Could these voices be heard again?
Lionel Mapleson (1865-1937) was an English-born musician who immigrated to the United States in 1889. He joined the orchestra of the Met Opera and soon became the orchestral librarian, a significant position he maintained for forty-eight years. His work allowed him access to the space. He knew everybody: management, musicians and singers, and yet as librarian he was no longer playing in the orchestra. He would have been one of a very few with the access and opportunity to make these experimental recordings.
On March 20, 1900 he purchased an Edison Home Phonograph player, and the next day a friend (who was also an audiophile) presented him with a Bettini recorder and reproducer designed for use with the Edison Home Phonograph. It allowed the machine to record sound as well as to play it back.
The “Bettini Phonograph Laboratory” had an office at 110 Fifth Avenue and produced a catalog of equipment and recordings that could be purchased. “A machine with a soul,” they advertised in their June 1898 catalog, “able to awake and perpetuate all the pleasantest and strongest emotions of life, will revive the past and bring back the absent.”
“I neither work properly nor eat nor sleep,” wrote Mapleson in his diary, “I’m a phonograph maniac!!” The next weekend he was able to convince the legendary Marcella Sembrich to sing an unaccompanied cadenza from the Voices of Spring by Johann Strauss Jr directly into his recording horn. He was transfixed. The sound was captured onto wax. During the next three seasons, Mapleson recorded bits and pieces of various live performances at the Met. The cylinder medium significantly limited the duration of recordings. The longest continuous recording Mapleson ever made was a few seconds over three minutes.
During the fall of the 1900-1901 season he squeezed his machine into the prompter’s box onstage. The location was close to the action but the results were not what he had hoped. A new strategy involved the construction of a massive horn that focused sound from a catwalk about forty feet in the air. “There, in brown suit and wing collar,” wrote Time Magazine in 1957, “crouched a spidery little man over an Edison cylinder gramophone with a horn almost as big as he was.” Strange as it seems the recorded sound from this distant location was good, and better than from the prompter’s box. The 1902-1903 season produced impressive results but in March 1903 the activity suddenly stopped. No one knows why. Mapleson packed his gear and kept his box of the wax cylinders around. He saw no reason to think much about them again.
The advent of electric recording and the introduction of the microphone in 1926 created a new age in the history of recording. These recordings were quieter, more accurate, and more dimensional than acoustic recordings. Commerce followed them. Most people completely forgot about old cylinders and had little patience for acoustic recordings.
William Seltsam (1897-1968) considered these old recordings to be important artifacts of an age that was already disappearing in the mass production machinery of the 20th century. In 1932, through significant effort and while still holding down a full-time job in the Acme Shears Company, he began to cultivate a large, worldwide network of devoted listeners. They wrote to him at his home in Bridgeport to purchase commercial recordings in bimonthly auctions, but also wrote to purchase and request newly minted 78-rpm recordings of material unearthed by Seltsam, produced in small batches for his own record label (International Record Collectors’ Club, often abbreviated as the IRCC) by major recording manufacturers, and sold from the Seltsam house on 318 Reservoir Avenue. (The house is no longer standing. The property was claimed by the city during the construction of the Exit 5 southbound ramps on Route 8/25).
On January 30, 1937 Seltsam arranged a visit with Mapleson. Seltsam told him of the IRCC and of his desires to cultivate an awareness of, and love for, voices of the past. Mapleson let Seltsam bring two cylinders to Bridgeport. The promise was that if these two recordings could be transferred to a medium that allowed them to be properly shared with the public that Seltsam could borrow the entire lot.
There was no good way to re-record music originally recorded on cylinder so that it could be distributed on 78-RPM records without additional sonic loss. Since the recordings were noisy to begin with this was a formidable barrier. There was a significant amount of repertoire on cylinders, and now that it was known that the Mapleson cylinders existed, a solution needed to be discovered. On July 5, Seltsam and a team of sound engineers in NYC sought a way to re-record cylinder recordings. “We worked all day,” reported Seltsam to the Bridgeport Post on August 8, 1937. “At first we were very discouraged because the results were very poor. Each new master got a little better, however, and by the next day we had adjusted the apparatus so that they sounded really top-notch.”
Two cylinder recordings by Blanche Arral were the first commercial (non-Mapleson) cylinders to be released by the IRCC late that year. In the meantime, Lionel Mapleson died on December 21, 1937. Seltsam acquired 120 additional cylinders from the estate with the hope of re-recording and distributing the best of them. In January 1940, Seltsam marketed the first release of material from the Mapleson Cylinder Collection. “At last we may obtain a very good idea of the De Reszke voice,” wrote Seltsam to his club members, “a dream of collectors for many years and now a concrete actuality, thanks to new apparatus perfected recently.” Jean de Reszke (1850-1925) was a versatile Polish tenor of legendary renown. He retired in 1904 and to this day the Mapleson releases are the only recordings of his voice that are known.
Seltsam named this release, and all subsequent Mapleson releases “Echoes of the Golden Age of Opera.” In all, sixty-four Mapleson cylinders were published on the IRCC label. Seltsam made every effort to inform buyers that they were not high quality recordings, but he must have been continually dogged by people who were unhappily surprised by the effort required to assimilate them. His final release of material from this collection was a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the IRCC discovery of the collection. It became available in January 1967 on an LP named “The Best of Mapleson.” Within a rectangular frame at the top of the advertising bulletin, and on the LP cover itself was a phrase that warned: “This record is neither high fidelity nor stereo!!!!”
But it was in 1955 that the IRCC issued its first ten-inch recording of Mapleson Cylinders on the LP format. It was numbered L-7006. The presentation of these recordings in a group, made possible by LP format, helped listeners to assimilate them. The club was later able to announce that it “was perhaps the most widely acclaimed historical record ever issued.” Phillip Miller, writing in High Fidelity Magazine, concurred that it was “one of the most remarkable disks ever presented to avid operaphiles.” The club followed with an additional twelve-inch release numbered L-7004.
Public response gathered steam. Time Magazine wrote an article about these releases called “Voices from the Past,” in its February 11, 1957 issue. “The Mapleson recordings are not for the casual listener or for the audiophile,” wrote the anonymous writer. But, “every so often, the patient listener is suddenly rewarded by hearing the great voices shine through the surface fog […] with a beauty and authority that no failings of Mapleson’s recording technique can mask.”
In 1962 the cylinder collection left Bridgeport. Seltsam returned them to Phillip L. Miller at the New York Public Library’s Music division, where they remain to this day. The Rogers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound produced a wonderful six LP collection of the complete contents of the Mapleson cylinders in 1985 with a comprehensive 74-page booklet.
They say you can hear the sea if you hold a shell to your ear. The same is true of the Mapleson recordings. As the sound collides with your ear the noisy surfaces seem like the sound of the sea. But each cylinder contains only a few minutes of sound—you won’t get wet.
The recordings challenge. It is as if Ford’s assembly line and Niagara had somehow got inside the Metropolitan Opera House,” wrote Michael Scott.
But when the ears have grown accustomed to the racket, it is possible […] to make out echoes of the voices of Melba, Sembrich, Eames, Calvé, Nordica and Scotti caught literally in the act, and, more important—for they never made commercial recordings—Lucienne Bréval, Milka Ternina, Jean de Reszke, and Emilio de Marchi. […] For all their primitive sound quality, these cylinders preserve the only record of the great singers […] away from the cramped and inhibiting conditions of the early recording studio—in real life, as it were. They suggest not only the fine vocalists that gramophone records led us to expect, but artists equally certain in their ability to communicate the drama.
One has to be ready and open minded. And amid the bumps, thuds, noises and distortion, spirits occasionally emerge from the grooves. These recordings are audio séances; they can summon ghosts. The demands required to embrace this collection have always scared, and continue to scare away, all but the most dedicated listeners. It is as it should be.
“Far away as the singers seem,” wrote Miller in 1956, “something of the electrifying atmosphere of the live performances takes over.” But beyond these appealing glimpses of golden voices we can also hear and admire the creativity, imagination and crazy passions that caused an English musician to record them and caused a Bridgeporter to bring them back to light once again.
- “Best of Mapleson (The); Cylinders recorded during Met performances, 1901-1903.” Selected by William Seltsam. IRCC L7032. January 1967. The notes that accompany this recording give the date January 30 as the date in which Seltsam first met Mapleson (not January 23 as in some sources).
- “Bettini Micro-Phonograph and ‘Records.’” Catalog June, 1898. The Bettini Phonograph Laboratory 110 Fifth Avenue, New York. 19 Pages. PDF available at ampexguy.com/records/bettini/bettini.catalog.no-1.pdf
- Booklet from “The Mapleson Cylinders; 1900-1904 Complete Edition.” Rogers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound, Performing Arts Research Center, The New York Public Library at Lincoln Center. Six-LP vinyl record Box Set . This is the most comprehensive source of information on Mapleson and the cylinder project. Diary entries from Mapleson and details of his working process came from the introductory essay written by David Hall.
- “Building your Record Library; Phillip L. Miller picks Ten Disks of Golden Age Vocal Reprints.” High Fidelity Magazine. May 1956, Page 63.
- “Echoes of the Golden Age of Opera.” Two separate recordings: a ten inch pressing IRCC L-7006 (originally priced at $3.98) and a twelve inch pressing L-7004 (originally priced at $5.95).
- “L’Africaine-O Paradis (fragment)” by Meyerbeer sung by Jean de Reszke (Metropolitan Opera Orch dir. Philippe Flon), Siegfried-Forge Scene (fragment) by Wagner sung by Andreas Dippel (originally listed as Jean de Reszke). IRCC recording No. 110. This was the first Mapleson Releases on the IRCC Label.
- The Record of Singing; To 1914 (Volume 1) by Michael Scott. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1977 (Page 2). Scott continues with a discussion of the Eames, de Marchi, and Antonio Scotti fragment from Act 2 of Tosca, recorded “within a couple of years of its first performance.”
- “!!! Jean DeReszke Sings Again!!!” Bulletin from William H. Seltsam to IRCC members. December 11, 1939. Letter contained in The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound of The New York Public Library.
- “July 6, 1937.” This date appears on a test pressing of IRCC 100 with a white label in Seltsam’s handwriting. A photograph of this label is in the collection of the author.
- “La Véritable Manola” by Émile Bourgeois, and “Au Cours-la-Reine” from Manon by Massenet. IRCC recording No. 100. Re-recorded from 4-minute Edison cylinders originally recorded by Blanche Arral (1864-1945) in 1909.
- “Voices from the Past,” Time Magazine, Vol. LXIX No. 6, February 11, 1957. Within the clippings folder marked “Seltsam” in the Bridgeport History Center on the third floor of the Bridgeport Public Library.
- “Yesteryear Divas Rejuvenated on New Seltsam Discs.” Bridgeport Post, August 7, 1937. Within the clippings folder marked “Seltsam” in the Bridgeport History Center on the third floor of the Bridgeport Public Library.