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88s on 78s: pianists on record from 1903 to 1925.

As a piano teacher who also is a record collector, I am amazed at how few modern-day musicians listen to, or are aware of, the existence of recordings made by the pianistic giants who were active at the turn of the nineteenth century. Many legendary pianists, and even composers, are well documented in disc gramophone records. These discs give us an idea of late nineteenth-century performance practice, during a time when the personality of the performer often overshadowed the intentions of the composer.

Early Recording Sessions

These early recordings give us a reasonably accurate picture of many facets of a pianist's interpretation. All records prior to 1925 were recorded with what is called the "acoustic" process. An upright piano, with all possible covering removed, was backed up to a horn, and the sound was literally "funneled" to a diaphragm attached to a needle apparatus, which "etched" the sound waves onto a rotating wax disc or cylinder. Due to the lack of microphones or any electrical amplification, the pianist in the early days was instructed to play as loudly as possible, with little or no shading, and to restrict the use of the pedal when the hands were close together. Upper and lower frequencies of the sound spectrum were practically nonexistent.

In these early days, the gramophone was considered to be little more than a toy, and the "great artists" of the time did not want to condescend to its perceived level to make recordings. Not until Caruso, Tamagno, Melba and Patti released discs and extolled its virtues did the gramophone become attractive to musicians of the first rank. The singing voice, especially the tenor voice, recorded remarkably well with this primitive process. The earliest piano recordings, prior to 1910, were not very successful; most discs from this time employ the piano as an accompaniment to a vocalist. The pianist usually sight read the accompaniments in the early sessions, often with ludicrous results! By the second decade of the century, many of these problems were ironed out, and today's listener can find much to enjoy in these discs.

Drawbacks of Early Recordings

It should be said to the neophyte listener from the start that editing did not exist in those days. Tape splicing was many years in the future. Minor finger slips, as well as some major ones, were left in, and listeners accustomed to modern-day edited perfection often receive a jolt at first. But those who attend many live recitals quickly adjust to the relatively low number of missed notes by the "name" artists on these discs. Another drawback is the short playing time. A teninch disc had a playing time of 3 1/2 minutes at the most, a twelve-inch disc around 4 1/2. Longer works were spread over the necessary number of sides, and it took a certain amount of patience to get out of one's chair after a cadence point in a Chopin Ballade to turn the record over. This was also a contributing factor to the large number of short "encore" pieces that were recorded, as they usually fit on one side without interruption.

The Earliest "Greats"

So what is the payoff? Have you ever heard Rachmaninoff play his Prelude in C-sharp Minor? Paderewski his Minuet in G? Grieg in his own Lyric Pieces? Cecile Chaminade in her own salon miniatures? Even Claude Debussy made a few discs in 1904, but not as a soloist. He accompanied Mary Garden in three songs and a scene from Pelleas et Melisande. But we can hear his sound, often described as a "piano without hammers." The adventurous pianist can learn much from hearing these rare recordings.

Johannes Brahms actually made a private recording as a gift to Thomas Edison, a performance of the solo piano version of the first Hungarian Dance. But, unfortunately, the single precious cylinder is worn and mildewed, and only a phrase or two can be heard among the surface noise. For the truly curious, International Piano Archives has issued a transfer.


The pianistic titan of the time was certainly Sergei Rachmaninoff. He was active as a performer even until his death in 1943 and is considered the first composer-performer to leave a sizeable number of his compositions on record. He recorded all four of his concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and even conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in his Third Symphony and Isle of the Dead. These were all done after the adoption of electrical recording. Prior to 1925, however, Rachmaninoff had waxed a great deal of his works, as well as those of other composers. During this time he recorded the last two movements of his second Piano Concerto, before the later electric version. It is interesting to see how much of his "bell-like" tone comes through in his performance of the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, a sound that is emulated by all too few pianists today. He voices the top notes of the chords, playing the other notes noticeably quieter. In the shorter pieces, his repertoire ranged from Daquin (Le Coucou) to Debussy (some of Children's Corner) and Dohnanyi (Capriccio in F Minor). And, of course, he recorded many of his own works--a handful of the Preludes, many of the pieces from Op. 3 and Op. 10, and some of his transcriptions. His peerless rhythmic control and accuracy are evident in all these discs. Rachmaninoff's first few recordings were made in 1919 for Edison, using the vertical-cut "hill and dale" grooves, and this format is incompatible with standard players. In 1920, he signed with Victor and stayed with them until his death.


If Rachmaninoff was the musician's favorite, the public unquestionably idolized Ignace Jan Paderewski. Today's musicians remember him for his often-slipshod performances and his tangential connection with the Polish Institute edition of Chopin's works. Recollections of his playing tend to be based on his later electrical recordings, by which time he was in his seventies. He had been a survivor of World War I, served a term as Prime Minister of Poland and lived into the first part of World War II. His health was poor, and his reflexes were gone. A modern-day pianist playing in this manner would likely not receive a passing grade at any conservatory. So why the fuss over Paderewski? There is much evidence of his greatness in the early acoustic discs. He did, however, have an annoying habit of overdoing the effect of playing the left hand before the right, as many pianists did during this time. According to pianist and author Malwine Bree, Paderewski's teacher Theodor Leschetizky taught in this manner. But in the early discs, one can hear a certain "majesty" (Chopin Polonaise in A Major), and yes, even accuracy and technical security (La Campanella). His textual changes are often surprising, for example, the strange lower octaves in the Chopin Funeral March, and his rubato is quite indulgent. But it is easy to see why the public admired him. To this listener, the best of his early discs is Liszt's La leggierezza. Pure poetry. And, of course, he was matchless in his own works, especially when one looks past the once-hackneyed Minuet in G and explores the Cracovienne fantastique or the Nocturne in B-flat.

Other Piano Greats

Josef Hofmann and Leopold Godowsky both left a generous legacy of recorded art. In fact, it is known that Hofmann was the first pianist to record--legend has it that he sat on Edison's lap while making a few private cylinder recordings in the Menlo Park studio, although this is pure fallacy. Gregor Benko states that Hofmann, then age 10, and Edison met after the records were made. Although both Hofmann's and Godowsky's styles were more appropriate for large works not in favor with record companies, they managed to leave many charming short works, some surprising. Has anyone since Hofmann played the Valse Gracile by Horatio Parker, or the Etude in C Minor by Constantin von Sternberg? And who since Godowsky has played Henselt's Cradle Song?

Shura Cherkassky's recording career started at the ripe old age of 11. He made four acoustic sides for Victor around 1923, including an original composition. He is the only pianist to my knowledge whose recording career spanned the time of acoustic recordings to present-day digitally recorded CDs.

Wilhelm Backhaus did not have as great a following in the United States as he had in Europe, but he is respected for his performances of Beethoven and Brahms. He was the first "name" pianist to record a sizeable quantity of discs, starting in 1909, and the first to record a portion of a concerto--Grieg's first movement, cut down to fit on two single-faced twelve-inch discs. His recorded repertoire is rather broad in stylistic variety, ranging from Bach's C-sharp Major Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier I to Grieg's Norwegian Bridal Procession and Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp Minor. Grieg had been dead less than five years, and Rachmaninoff lived on for twenty-five or so more when these were laid to wax.

Alfred Cortot is admired to this day for his performances of Chopin, which are available in excellent transfers in an EMI "complete" edition. His acoustic discography shows a concentration on the romantic and late-romantic works, spanning from Weber's Invitation to the Dance to Ravel and Scriabin's Etude in D-sharp Minor from Op. 8. In the later electric era, he recorded much Debussy, including the first book of Preludes and Children's Corner. Guiomar Novaes, the Brazilian pianist who so charmed Debussy, Faure and Moszkowski in her Paris Conservatoire audition, left a handful of Victor discs from her early years. She recorded into the early stereo era, and many of her Chopin recordings for Vox are still treasured. Percy Grainger left a surprisingly large number of recordings, displaying his uninhibited performance style. In the electric era, he recorded a masterful Chopin Sonata in B Minor. Olga Samaroff, master teacher of William Kapell among others, made a precious few Victor discs before she focused her Career on teaching. Elly Ney, Benno Moiseiwitsch and Mischa Levitzki left a few acoustic discs, but their careers advanced into the electric era. Levitzki died young, but Moiseiwitsch recorded into the stereo era. Xaver Scharwenka, whose Polish Dance was once played by every aspiring pianist, included this work among the six sides he recorded for Columbia.

"Personalities" on Record

Often forgotten today is Vladimir de Pachmann, the earliest-born pianist to leave a sizeable legacy of readily available discs. Unfortunately, his artistry must take a back seat to his eccentric stage antics. Onstage, he would stop playing, babble to the audience about his pedaling or his fingering, or even criticize himself saying that now he would play as only Pachmann could. Some of his records for English Columbia are, as stated on the label, "Prefaced with remarks by the Artiste." But his Chopin and Schumann, especially, are beautiful, and he treats such a trifle as Raft's La fileuse, in the Henselt version, with delicacy and refinement. Pachmann also found his own way around the time restraints of the early discs. When recording the Liszt Polonaise, Rigoletto Paraphrase and the Chopin Ballade in A-flat, he just started recording from a point somewhere in the middle of the piece.

Franz Liszt lived nine years after Edison's invention, but although rumors abound, no cylinder of Liszt's playing has surfaced. Many of his students made recordings though, including Arthur Friedheim, Frederic Lamond, Emil von Sauer and Jose Vianna da Motta. Most of these were made in Europe and are hard to find stateside, but American Columbia preserved Friedheim's erratic genius on a few discs, one of which is two thirds of Chopin's Funeral March. Running out of time, he merely stopped at the end of the trio!

Works Chosen for Recording

Looking over the catalogues and listings of the period, it is amusing to see what was popular then as opposed to what is popular now. Topping the list is Liszt's "Liebestraum" (No. 3, of course; the other two were scarcely played then) and Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu. Three of the four Chopin Impromptus were recorded rather frequently, with the G-flat being left out. (All those double notes without the safety net of editing, perhaps?) Seen less often are such later favorites as the Chopin Polonaise in A-flat and Clair de lune ... and not one recording of "Moonlight Sonata" or Fur Elise. Very few sonata movements are represented, the few being familiar stand-alone pieces such as the Weber Mow Perpetuo and the Chopin Funeral March. There is a virtual absence of Bach, Mozart and Haydn, although these received a little more exposure during the post-1925 electric period.

Many of these performances are available in modern-day CD transfers from such retailers as Tower Records, and Berkshire Record Outlet. Many also are included in the Philips monumental "Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century" series. The Arbiter Recordings and APR labels are devoted to transfers of historic piano recordings. Hard-core enthusiasts who must have originals can turn to such sources as eBay and vintage-record dealers to procure discs. Many artists also made piano rolls, but those are beyond the scope of this article. Played on a well-adjusted piano, they can give a reasonably accurate picture of a pianist's performance. But there are too many variables such as speed and pedaling that are not accurately duplicated.

There is much to enjoy in these recordings. Occasionally, the modern-day musician will stop and think, "How could they get away with that?" but we must remember performance styles were different then. After enjoying the sterile perfection of a modern-day Pollini or Kissin, it's just a guilty pleasure at times to hear Moiseiwitsch's tinkering with the text of a Chopin waltz, Pachmann's feeble attempt at the Godowsky transcription of Chopin's Revolutionary Etude for the left hand alone, or Cortot's Jeux d'eau--recorded when the piece was just five or so years old! And what student today would not be motivated by hearing a piece he or she is studying--in a performance by the composer?

Bibliography and Related Reading

Bauer, Roberto. Catalogue of Historical Records, 1898-1908/9. London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd., 1947.

Dubal, David. The Art of the Piano: Its Performers, Literature, and Recordings. New York: Summit Books, 1989.

Gelatt, Roland. The Fabulous Phonograph, 1877-1977. London: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1977.

Moses, Julian Morton. American Celebrity Recordings, 1900-1925. Dallas: Monarch Record Enterprises, 1993.

Schonberg, Harold C. The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Bonus Bytes

To view a selected discography, go to the MTNA website at and click on American Music Teacher, then click on "Tell me more about Bonus Bytes," or contact the author directly at

Rick Robertson, a graduate of Jacksonville State University in Alabama, teaches piano privately at The School of Music at First Baptist Church on the Square in LaGrange, Georgia. An avid record collector since his preschool days, he maintains a collection of piano and vocal recordings that numbers in the thousands.
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Author:Robertson, Rick
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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