Edison's first 37,000 recordings

A CD set offers snatches of lost music preserved by the famed inventor

Hidden treasures can come to light even in the most familiar places. Take, for instance, inventor Thomas Edison's first "records" housed at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, N.J., some of which have only recently been turned into a two-disc CD for the general marketplace by Marston records.

Anyone who has visited the Edison site, location of the great inventor's home and laboratory, is aware of the vast archives of his technical innovations stored there. The man who invented the phonograph in 1877 preserved some 37,000 historic discs and cylinders from his various - mostly frustrated - attempts to market his invention.

The historic landmark is closed until spring 2001 as part of a $5 million renovation project announced in 1998. Added to that is a comparatively modest $36,535 donated by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (that hands out Grammy awards) to transfer some of the rarest recordings to tape.

Independently, producer Lawrence Holdridge convinced Ward Marston, who owns Marston records - a CD company that produces historic recordings - to investigate a cache of Edison test recordings never before issued. These were fragile wax cylinders, hundreds of them, which had not been heard since Edison listened to them in 1913 and relegated them to a distant basement.

It turns out they were part of an Edison attempt to audition Europe's greatest singers who were not already under contract to other pioneering companies.

The results, brilliantly transferred and now finally published as the two-CD set ("The Edison Trials" on Marston), was well worth the wait.

The discs feature singing from 1912-13 by artists of great historical importance who otherwise recorded nothing.

The late Chilean tenor Pedro Navia was honored in 1997 with a postage stamp in his native land, even though no recordings were known to exist of this singer with a major career. Navia was comparable to Placido Domingo in his day. When we hear him in an aria from Puccini's "Tosca," we get a sense of a brilliant lyric voice being stretched into heroic mode.

Another voice rescued from history's oubliette is the fascinating Russian soprano Olga Olghina, who sang in the world premire of Borodin's opera "Prince Igor" in 1890, and in the Italian premire of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" at La Scala in 1894. Olghina's seductively soft tones would have been entirely lost to posterity were it not for this recording of an unidentified Russian song.

These singers and dozens more are recorded in good sound, for the time. Unlike his competitors, Edison recorded singers in large rooms instead of little, boxlike studios, giving a more natural resonance to the voices as they must have sounded in opera houses and concert halls.

These selections remind us of the vagaries of fame, and how artists - not just in the musical domain - may be forgotten despite real talent and achievements.

Marston is only interested in high culture, but the Edison archives house treasures from all genres, including popular songs, ragtime, and minstrel routines.

On the Edison Historic Site's Web site (www.nps.gov/edis/sounds.htm), excerpts may be heard of hit songs from circa 1901, such as "Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?" and "Which Switch is the Switch, Miss, for Ipswich?"

What is presumed to be the oldest surviving example of recorded music may also be heard at the Web site - part of Handel's oratorio "Israel in Egypt" recorded by a Col. George Gouraud in London's Crystal Palace in 1888. The astonishment of hearing a recording made in the late 1800s, like the discovery of brilliant and long-forgotten singers, suggests that Edison was a genius of many and permanent surprises.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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