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The first sound transmission of a Czech opera.

Two years ago Czech Radio celebrated its eightieth birthday (it started transmitting in May 1923), no later than anywhere else. The new invention had spread like an avalanche and the Czechoslovak Republic had been among the first countries to introduce it. Indeed its concessionary network relative to the overall population was soon such as to put it right at the top of the European ladder. From the beginning music had a place on the radio. Even though both with telephones and on the radio the principle is the same--the transmission of sound--today we regard them as two different things. Thirty years before the launch of Czech Radio the inventions of Bell (the telephone) and Marconi (the radio) had been very close. In fact the first "radio" transmission of music took place by telephone.

The telephone was born in 1861, when the German physicist Johann Philipp Ries succeeded in transmitting sound electromagnetically. Alexander Graham Bell improved his invention and in 1876 "developed" the first telephone network. When twenty years later in 1896 Guglielmi Marconi achieved wireless transmission of sound, the two inventions started to go their separate ways. By the 1920s nobody thought of music transmitted by telephone, but around 1891 this had still seemed to be the best possibility.

As early as 1873 we are learning "something about telephony": "What is telephony? By analogy with her sister telegraphics or writing at a distance, we could sum it up as sound at a distance," we read in Hudebni listy [Music News] in 1873. The author of one of the first reports on the new invention immediately starts thinking through the "benefits": "What if I find that a concert programme or individual numbers in it don't appeal to my aesthetic taste, what then? I can easily get rid of the pieces that I don't like by unhooking the wire so the inflow remains halted until the next number."


It was, however, to be another almost twenty years before technical progress reached a stage at which it was really possible to consider something like the transmission of musical experiences over long distances. In 1890 the idea started to be taken seriously. One of the first lines on which musical transmission was tested was the Prague--Vienna line. From the beginning Czechs had shown an interest in the invention, both technicians and musicians: "An interesting experiment with a new telephone without earpieces was made on the Prague--Vienna telephone line on the 18th day of this month. The aim was to telephone a whole musical production from Prague to Vienna, and it was highly successful. All the details of the music and singing were properly audible throughout a hall in Vienna. Actively taking part in this experiment was one member of the Pivoda opera school and one member of the National Theatre orchestra. Experiments made with this telephone to date have been very successful. Conversations clearly audible in the whole hall right up to the gallery could be heard very well."

The new possibility was attracting attention elsewhere in Europe as well. In January 1890 a charity concert held in the Exchange Palace in Brussels was telephonically transmitted to Paris to the offices of the Figaro newspaper, where the assembled journalists could hear "the separate elements in this concert, musical and vocal and declamatory, and likewise the applause of the audience, in fact everything down to the smallest noise". While several months earlier people had considered 300 kilometres to be the limit for this kind of transmission of sound, it was announced with pride that the distance between Brussels and Paris was a hundred kilometres more. Soon Berlin joined in, and the report from the German capital is worth citing for its journalistic style as well. The first experiments involved telephone transmission of the opera Carmen from the royal court opera to the "Urania" Berlin exhibition park. "When we visited the Urania at 8 o'clock" writes the correspondent, "we were taken into a small rotunda where there was already a large number of listeners. On the walls and in the window niches there were small sets, devices like gallows, which each had two telephone earpieces. The director of the Urania brought us theatre notices and the libretto of the opera Carmen. We sat down on chairs between the receivers. The second act of the opera began. Tak - tak - tak--the curtain went up. Miss Rothauser sang Carmen. We heard her song in honour of the gypsies and bright tralala well. The arrival of the gypsy sisters Frasquita and Merceda was also very audible. Then the choir came in welcoming Escamillo and finally there was his famous aria, O, Trocadero! [!] The individual voices were fully audible, in harmonisation as well. The orchestra seconded them unobtrusively. If you shut your eyes and added the picturesque Spanish costumes in your imagination, you were sitting in the court opera, the sound was so good. But often a "phutputcput" interrupted us, the well known crackle of the telephone."


The proposed name of the machine, the "Theatrophone" testifies to the fact that during these experiments the main idea was the possibility of transmitting opera productions. "Theatrophone. It is under this name that recently the public has been presented in Paris with a telephone apparatus that is linked up to all the opera and concert halls in the whole city. This is an apparatus which has previously allowed visitors at various electrical exhibitions to hear fragments of operas and concerts. But the new advance in Paris consists in the fact that telephone apparatuses of this kind have been distributed to hotels, restaurants and cafes, and will also be installed for public use in other public rooms and it will be possible to install them in private apartments. The first theatrophones have been installed for public use in the vestibule of the "Nouveautes" Theatre. For a charge of 50 centimes you can listen for five minutes to an opera aria or concert production, and all that is necessary is to choose the theatre or concert hall with which you want to be connected", we read in a report in the magazine Dalibor in 1890.

Prague kept apace with the new inventions thanks to Frantisek Krizik, who was entrusted by the land commission with a license to set up a telephone connection for "the transmission of music and singing from the Czech National Theatre to the exhibition centre in Stromovka". The Jubilee Land Exhibition in 1891 was thus to be enriched by a pioneering musical transmission.

The year 1891 saw new telephone connections, for example between London and the Paris Opera, so that in London they could hear Massenet's opera Le Mage from the Grand Opera in the French capital. In the same year an international exhibition of electrical engineering was held in Frankfurt am Main and the exhibition programme included an experimental opera transmission, this time from the Court Theatre in Munich.

The following report shows that Bohemia and Czech music was keeping up with the trend from the beginning. Here is the Vienna paper Fremden-Blatt on the 8th of June 1892:

International Music and Theatre Exhibition, Smetana by Telephone.

While a large public listened to the prelude to the first act of Smetana's opera Dalibor in the exhibition theatre, around twenty people could enjoy the same experience in the setting of "Old Vienna" without even having to cross the threshold of the international temple to the muses. In a small room, its walls papered with thick material in order to isolate it from outside sound, invited gentlemen assembled for a dress-rehearsal experiment in telephone transmission. Standing in the room are four tables, on which their are twenty devices with earphones, on the wall there is a large starting switch that connects the devices with the Vienna Court Opera, the exhibition theatre, the music hall and the Trpaslici Theatre. The signal sounds. For the first few moments little can be heard. Some gentlemen had pressed the earpiece to close to their ears, while others hold it too far away, but soon people find the right distance and as if by a wave of a magic wand we are transported into the theatre. After the first tones of the overture the choir comes in powerfully only to be interrupted by the clear soprano of Jitka (Miss Vesela). After a while we hear the baritone king (Mr. Viktorin) and trumpets, although the pizzicato of the violins is audible "only a little or not at all". High and sharp tones can be heard very well on the telephone, but the deeper tones do not come across clearly, the tympani and drums are just a kind of noise but the brass can be made out in the distance. The remarkable thing is that the very slightest errors in singing and music--and the Czech opera makes only the slightest of errors--are more audible heard from a distance than in the theatre auditorium. The telephone is a strict judge, and prevents your attention being distracted by the beautiful appearance of the actors, the decor and so on.

In fact, tomorrow everybody will have the chance to judge the merits of telephone music transmission for himself, because the hall will be opened to the public.

Around noon His Imperial and Royal Highness the Archduke Ludwig Victor put in an appearance at the exhibition in order to get a better view of the sections he had seen only fleetingly before. The noble guest first looked at the superb exhibits of the Court Theatre in Vienna, which he found very interesting. The Archduke then turned his attention to the Czech, English and French sections. At 8 o'clock in the evening His Highness was present at a performance by the Trpaslici Theatre.

Her Imperial and Royal Highness the Dowager Crown Princess Stephanie yesterday attended a performance of Smetana's opera Dalibor. The President of the Theatre Committee Baron Bourgoing welcomed the exalted lady and introduced her to the director Subert. Her Imperial and Royal Highness said that she enjoyed listening to the opera, that its great success was known to her and that during the performance of the Czech National Theatre she recalled the beautiful days that she had spent in Prague.

The history of the successes of the Czech National Theatre at the International Musical and Theatrical Exhibition in Vienna in 1892 is well known. In one week from the 1st to the 8th of June the Opera of the National Theatre presented Smetana's Dalibor and The Bartered Bride, Dvorak's Dimitri, and Fibich's The Courtships of Pelopos. The immense success of The Bartered Bride meant that Sebor's The Hussite Bride and Bendl's Lejla were squeezed out of the programme; the theatre management decided to exploit the success of The Bartered Bride and sacrifice the two other Czech operas, and as history has shown, they did the right thing. On exactly the same day that the little report on the direct transmission of Dalibor was published in the Fremden-Blatt, The Bartered Bride was performed for the fourth time. The youngest of the emperor's brothers, Ludwig Victor, did not have the best reputation, and the Habsburg court was always having to smooth over his homosexual scandals, but his interest in art was undeniable. His visit to the exhibition was, of course, a matter of protocol and if the correspondent of the Fremden-Blatt reported that he looked at the Czech exhibition before the English and French it does not necessarily mean that he was expressing any particular favour for Czechs. The inclusion of the Czech section in the visit and the report was given merely by the fact that Bohemia was part of the monarchy. Nonetheless, Ludwig Victor's interest in the Czech exhibition may have been genuine. A year later he attended a staging of The Bartered Bride in the Theatre Na Vidence in which the Czech soprano Anna Vesela was playing as a replacement. The visit of the Princess Stephanie, widow of the Crown Prince Rudolf whom some Czechs would have greatly welcomed as successor to the throne was also probably more than a merely marginal affair. In the 1890s Czechs were becoming a strong element in the monarchy, and one that had to be taken into account. Their music helped in this respect, because a nation with such a talent was contributing to the "image" of the state.

Bedrich Smetana therefore presided not just at the birth of modern Czech music, Czech national opera and much else with which we associate him, but also at the birth of the first experiments in distance transmission of music. We may therefore identify the first specific Czech singers whose voices floated though the ether as Anna Vesela, who sang Jitka (she also sang Marenka in the exhibition Bartered Bride and became the darling of the Viennese public), Vladislav Florjansky as Dalibor, Olga Par_ova-Zike_ova as Milada, Vaclav Viktorin as King Vladislav, Frantisek Hynek as the prisoner Benes, Karel Vesely as Vitek and Jan Skramlik as Budivoj.


The firm that carried out this historic experiment in Austria was the Austro-Hungarian company Deckert & Homolka, founded in 1872 with offices in Vienna and Budapest. Few would guess that we still encounter this firm today. In 1908 it merged with the Swedish firm Ericsson, founded in 1876. From 1911 it then existed as Ericsson Oesterreichische Elektrizitats AG and underwent further changes in output and organisation, but all still in the filed of "telephony" and radiophonics. In 1919 the building councillor Eduard Schrack entered the game. He began to manufacture radio receivers, gained a license for the whole country and is considered the founder of the Austrian radio industry. In 1939 he purchased all the Ericsson shares and acquired authorisation to introduce a telephone networks well. Schrak's son Harald followed in his father's footsteps and in the sixties one of his achievements was to install fully electronic systems in hotels and hospitals. Co-operation with the mother firm Ericsson had various ups and downs, but has lasted to this day, since 2002 as Ericsson Austria GmbH. One of the most recent feats in the more than century-long life of the firm is the creation of the Mobilkom Austria network, one of the first to connect up three countries--Austria, Germany and Switzerland. And somewhere at the very beginning of this process of connection people heard in the ear pieces the opening chorus of Smetana's Dalibor "Today the judgment will be pronounced ..."

Expanded German version printed as part of the study "Miscellanea Smetaniana" in: Miscellanea theatralia. Sbornik stati Adolfu Scherlovi k osmdesatinam [A Collection of Essays Presented to Adolf Scherl for his Eightieth Birthday], Divadelni ustav Praha [Theatre Institute Prague] 2005.
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Title Annotation:history
Author:Reittererova, Vlasta
Publication:Czech Music
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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