For what do we listen?

Some of us collect scalps, ticking off the once-famous singers (or just rare recordings) we own – if only on CD. Others take an aesthetic pleasure in the sound of old recordings, like consumers of orange juice who preferred the metallic taste of tinned orange juice when frozen juice was introduced.

Published in The Record Collector (, March 2007 (Vol.52, No.1), p.58-60.
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By Nils-Göran Olve

But for most of us there has to be other reasons for spending time on old recordings when there are so many new ones. It is dangerous to claim that some are more worth our attention than others. Confronted with the flood of new releases, and writing the occasional record review for the Record Collector, it becomes necessary. So what is it we are listening for?

Through long experience it is possible to forget the limitations of old recording technology, at least part of the time and if the reissue is a good one. Compared to modern recordings, they may even have some advantages: we persuade ourselves that a singer’s faults are due to them, and imagine the sound we wish for behind the hiss. Even the lack of a full orchestra serves to focus on the performer, heard at close range.

Once the performance has thus been restored in our mind’s ear to something like its original state, why do we prefer it to modern ones?

This is where it becomes interesting. Were singers a hundred years ago better – or, put more carefully, more to the taste of the Record Collector’s readers? My own response would be that some were, but very few among the many we listen to. Limiting myself to tenors, I enjoy Caruso, Melchior, Tauber or Björling for their combination of voice and interpretation, and find it hard to think of successors who are “as good”. But for each of these pinnacles there are a hundred inferior singers whom I also wish to spend time on, and who may even get an article in our journal. Why?

One reason may of course be that their personality interests us. We may have read a biography, and through records get nearer the person. Some interesting people made dismal records, for instance due to old age, and yet adding sound to other knowledge makes it interesting.

A more common reason probably is to get a glimpse of performance practices. Claims that creators’ records tell us the correct style are dubious, and rhythm, vibrato and portamento[1] change decade by decade (and vary between performers of the same generation). Yet there are lessons to be learnt even from minor singers for whom Wagner or Puccini were contemporary composers – perhaps particularly from them, as their performances can be expected to be more mainstream for their day than those of artists with bigger careers.

Our interest is not limited to performances of music that was new and may tell us something about “correct” style (and we soon find that they don’t agree on that either). We listen to them also in old music, Mozart for instance – and not only because stylistic traits may have been preserved from his own days. We now can survey the changes back and forth in Mozart performances during the 20th century, and although one might have expected broadcasts and recordings to have anchored practices around an established consensus they have in fact varied immensely, and continue to do so. It seems likely that the range of options in the previous century was at least as large. Learning about “authentic” style is not a good reason to take an interest.

So in listening to early recordings, there must be additional reasons. Some seem to listen to old singers because they are in sympathy with the styles they practice. If you want your star tenor or soprano to milk phrases for sentiment or hold on to top notes forever, it may be easier to find examples from a hundred years ago than in recent recordings (although I’m not quite sure about this!). If you love drawing-room ballads or Neapolitan songs, there may be a broader range available, at least from singers with important voices, on old records.

The main reason, however, for many of us, I believe is that we find the range of practices interesting as such. A growing awareness of the variability of possible treatments of rhythm, vibrato and portamento – and that none may be a permanent truth – makes it important to listen to singers who exemplify that range of possibilities. By being of their time and place, they are more likely to have produced consistent and coherent choices than a modern singer, who today may be quite likely to experiment with agogic freedoms, frequent portamentos and a more varied use of vibrato. For this, the old singer does not need to be a particularly good or famous one.

Becoming more aware of such possibilities enriches our knowledge of the music, and expressive singing in general. It sometimes means that we find modern performances unimaginative, but it may also make us more ready to appreciate daring choices from modern artists.

Our different aims in listening to old singers are reflected in CD reissues and what gets written about in the Record Collector. I suspect it is rarely the same person who wants to have on his shelf yet another collection of singer who sang at provincial Italian theatres in the 1900s, the latest reissued complete French opera made by Pathé in 1912, and yet one more unknown ballad recording of John McCormack. And it is not likely that either will listen to his latest acquisition for the pleasure of the performance as such. Rather, the different motives I have conjectured will be operating.

This produces a difficulty in writing about recordings. Even more than for new ones, we need to address the question for what and whom a recording may be of value. As I have tried to imply, already in a specialist medium like the Record Collector there is likely to be many different uses for an old recording. In recommending historic recordings to the broader audience that now has access to them, this becomes even more of a sensitive question. What happens when an unsuspecting shopper picks up a Naxos disc of Melba’s 1904 recordings in the supermarket? How should such a product be introduced? Does it need a manual?

This note was triggered by reviewing Marston’s Florence Easton issue for the Record Collector, and hypothesizing that one reason for her relative neglect among collectors is that she was “too correct” in style. No, she could not be mistaken for one of our contemporary singers. But if she had taken more liberties, in the style of her day, her chances to attract our attention today might be better. I suspect some may find this a strange statement: that qualities we admire could detract from our interest, because they make her less different from so many others, including later and better-recorded singers. If what we look for is the range of possibilities it becomes less curious. In Easton’s case, the most interesting thing about her recordings may be that they provide an example of a very “modern” singer – she may have been different among her peers by being more like later-day singers!

Nils-Göran Olve

[1] These are the elements Robert Philip compared in his Early Recordings and Musical Style (Cambridge UP 1992; paperback 2004).