The Edison Trials: Voice Audition Cylinders of 1912-1913
In 1912 Thomas Edison, anxious to recruit operatic singers to record for his recording company, sent an agent by the name of Humbert Tosi and an engineer to Europe. There Tosi and the engineer recorded hundreds of vocalists performing arias, songs, and in a few cases, vocalise. The cylinder recordings were shipped to Edison for his review.
According to Lawrence F. Holdridge's liner notes, Thomas Edison had some rather curious notions regarding singing. For example, Edison detested what he referred to as "tremolo." Unfortunately Edison considered everything from an uncontrollable wobble to an evenly-produced vibrato to constitute a "tremolo." Edison also disliked operatic singers who recorded at full voice. He preferred them to vocalize in a more intimate fashion, or as he put it, "a rehearsal level of volume."
To make a long story short, Edison rejected all of the vocalists recorded on the hundreds of test cylinders, with the exception of a baritone by the name of Pignalosa. Unfortunately Pignalosa died before Edison could make any commercial recordings of his voice.
After Edison auditioned the cylinders during the 1912-1913 period, they remained unplayed for decades. Recently Holdridge and Ward Marston learned that many of the cylinders were stored at the Edison National Historic Site. Marston traveled to the Site and recorded all of the cylinders. The "more interesting" cylinders have now been issued on this two-CD set, "The Edison Trials: Voice Audition Cylinders of 1912-1913."
The Edison test cylinders had a time limit of approximately two and one-half minutes. As a result, the vocalists are rarely afforded the luxury of singing a complete aria or song. A typical test cylinder begins with the spoken introduction (by Humbert Tosi?) of the singer, followed by a truncated performance of a particular selection. Not infrequently, the cylinder runs out before the conclusion of the music, almost invariably, it seems, at the climactic point.
Despite such frustrations, there are two factors that make these test cylinders most compelling listening. First, these cylinders constitute the finest examples of the acoustic recording process that I have ever heard. Lawrence Holdridge notes that Edison's recording technology was far ahead of such contemporary rivals as Victor and Columbia. Additionally, while most companies then preferred to record with a "dead" acoustic, these Edison test cylinders were usually conducted in a more resonant hall. As a result, the voices emerge with remarkable clarity, presence, and warmth. If only Enrico Caruso had been afforded such technology!
The singers are of considerable interest as well. The "Edison Trials" includes 79 selections by 75 different vocalists. They are arranged in alphabetical order, from the Spanish tenor Fulgenzio Abela to the Italian mezzo-soprano Ida Zizolfi. The accompanying booklet provides brief biographical information about each of the singers. Many of the singers are of considerable prominence. For example, there is the Russian soprano Adelaide Andreyeva von Skilondz, the first Queen of Shemakha in the 1909 premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel. Her quite individual rendition of portions of Violetta's"Ah, fors' Ë lui” and "Sempre libera" may be her only recordings in Italian. Tenor Guillaume Ibos, the first Paris Werther, offers one verse of the Duke of Mantua's "“La donna Ë mobile."
Many of the lesser-known singers emerge with distinction as well. Just by way of example, baritone Amleto Barbieri delivers a sumptuous rendition (in Italian) of a portion of Wolfram's "“O du mein holder Abendstern." And what was Edison's reaction to this superb vocalism? "An agravating (sic) tremolo kills his voice. No."
The number of vocalists included in this set precludes a comprehensive review of each. Suffice it to say that most of the singers acquit themselves with distinction. Unfortunately, Thomas Edison did not share this opinion. Still, we may be grateful that his enterprise produced these recordings. For many of the singers, the Edison cylinders constitute the only recorded evidence of their voices. That factor alone makes "The Edison Trials a must for all vocal historians. But the superb recorded sound and fascinating performances will provide hours of pleasure to the more casual listener as well. "The Edison Trials" is certainly one of the most important historical releases of recent years. Bravo to Marston for making this treasure-trove available to the public.