Tuesday, October 11, 2005
The Good Doctor
"Any musical value heard [in the cylinder recording] can be charitably described as the product of a pathological imagination."
This is musicologist Gregor Benko's remark about the nearly impenetrable noise on a very famous recording of Johannes Brahms playing the piano in 1889 at the home of Dr. Richard Fellinger in Vienna. Thomas Edison was sending emissaries to record the voices of famous people for use as advertisements. This wax cylinder was made for Edison by Theo Wangemann. Scholars have strained to analyze the rhythmic nuances of the recording's too-few measures of the 1879 arrangement of the first Hungarian Dance, and part of a paraphrase of Strauss's "Libelle". And many a lover of Brahms has gleefully imitated the introduction at the start of the cylinder:
"I am Dr. Brahms ... Johannes Brahms."
What a surprise! A strangely startling voice from the great, autumnal philosopher himself ...
But, perhaps not.
"The spoken text at the start of the cylinder recording has been wrongly attributed as belonging to Brahms. Numerous writers, scholars and amateurs alike, have presumed that Brahms introduces himself with the words "I am Doctor Brahms, Johannes Brahms". However a number of factors raise serious doubts as to who is speaking. The only mention of the recording by someone who was present (in the published memoires of Fellinger's son) states that Brahms was introduced. Considering the time between the announcement and the start of the music it seems improbable that the same person could segue from speech to playing so quickly particularly given the technological limitations.
The denoised excerpts reveals enough of the speech to suggest that the speaker (probably Wangemann) introduces Brahms as follows:
"...Dezember Achtzehnhundertachtundneunzig. Haus von Herrn Doktor Fellinger, bei mir ist Doktor Brahms, Johannes Brahms".
("...December Eighteen Hundred Eighty Nine. House of Mr. Fellinger, with me is Doctor Brahms, Johannes Brahms.")
Read about the playing and the talking, and the man who has painstakingly denoised the cylinder here.