Go back to article: The Art and Science of Acoustic Recording: Re-enacting Arthur Nikisch and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s landmark 1913 recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Introduction

The 1913 recording of Arthur Nikisch and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s interpretation of Beethoven’s C minor Symphony (No. 5) holds a special place in the history of recorded music. Not because it was the first complete recording of a symphony, as that had already been achieved some three years earlier, but because it was the first recording of a complete orchestral work by a world-renowned conductor, now considered to be one of the greatest conductors of all time, together with a leading professional orchestra.[1] What is arguably of equal significance is that it was one of the very first attempts to capture the natural sound of a full orchestra in the studio, and without the substitution of harder-to-record instruments as was commonplace throughout the ‘acoustic’ period.[2]  The recordings are highly successful in this respect, and testimony to the skills of the studio engineers or ‘experts’ who were working at the very limits of what was feasible using the technology of the period. In acoustic sound recording, musicians play in front of a large tapered horn that channels the sound energy and causes a diaphragm, enclosed in a soundbox or recorder connected to the narrow end of the horn, to vibrate. These vibrations in turn modulate an attached cutting stylus, allowing it to etch an undulating spiral groove on to the surface of a warm wax disc or cylinder, corresponding to the diaphragm vibrations and thus recording the sound information in physical form. Given the challenges of recording in this way, it is not surprising that this version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony remains one of few recordings of the early acoustic era that employed such large orchestral forces and without substitution of the lower stringed instruments. In fact the practice of using pared-down ensembles with substituted instrumentation to represent orchestral music would continue until the mid-1920s when there was a wholesale change-over to electrical methods of sound recording.

Although highly lauded during their time and even decades later,[3]  acoustic recordings of orchestral music have been routinely dismissed by modern critics as having little or no musical value – as being a poor indication of how an orchestra from this era would have sounded in the concert hall or through being unfairly compared to later, electronically recorded versions.[4] The limitations of acoustic recording – the lack of low and high frequency bandwidth, narrow dynamic range, missing timbral detail and the accompanying surface noises – are today perceived as a barrier to the appreciation of these records. Yet historically they represent a transformation in the way we have come to listen to recorded music as well as being extraordinary achievements in the technical field of sound engineering.[5] By understanding how these recordings were made – the contemporary studio practices and musicians’ working environment – we can better appreciate the musicianship and artistry that went into their making. A practical re-enactment of an acoustic recording session would therefore yield valuable information and help promote such an understanding, with both technical and musical aspects and their interrelation being closely observed and documented. To this end, a re-enactment of the Nikisch and BPO’s recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was staged at the Royal College of Music, London, in November 2014, using a chamber orchestra of comparable size to that used by the BPO in 1913.[6]

The historical re-enactment is an important means through which we can engage with the past and investigate forgotten practices and skills. In this case, to borrow from Roger Kneebone’s advocacy of scientific re-enactment, it is used ‘to recapture the tacit dimensions of experimental practices’ (Kneebone and Woods, 2014, p 111). The ‘learning by doing’ aspect of a re-enactment has educational value too: the student musicians participating in the recordings at the RCM not only step into their predecessors’ shoes, but they are also educated in the practice, process and context of acoustic recording (Kneebone and Woods, 2014, p 111).

While re-enactments of acoustic recordings have taken place before, they have focused exclusively on small groups or soloists with accompaniment and have been recorded on to wax cylinders or occasionally on to modern, commercially manufactured lacquer discs.[7] The RCM re-enactment is the first time since 1925 that an orchestra has been recorded acoustically on to blank wax discs, originally used as masters for the production of gramophone records.

This article begins with an examination of the historical context and cultural significance of the original 1913 recordings. It goes on to describe the process and methodology of this re-enactment, including a detailed account of the technical aspects and the manufacture of the blank wax discs. A comparison of modern and acoustic recordings of the orchestra follows, including a discussion of the student musicians’ experiences, the challenges involved and the effect this method of sound recording had on the performers and their music-making. In conclusion, we reflect on the outcomes of the re-enactment and how our findings have deepened our understanding of the art and science of acoustic recording.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150302/002