April 10, 2009 is the 110 years anniversary of the beginning of the first recording session in Russia performed by William Sinkler Darby engaged by the gramophone inventor Emile Berliner. This date can be considered as the Birth Day of gramophone record in Russia. However, until recent time, many things related to those distant events remained unclear. For instance, why traditional Amour Trading Marks were missing on those discs recorded by Darby? Or why not yet discovered at least one copy of a catalogue with those records? The answer on these and many other questions can be found in the article of the world’s leading expert in Gramophone Company history, the compiler of the “Complete Numerical Catalogue of Russian Gramophone Recordings made from 1899 to 1929 in Russia and elsewhere by The Gramophone Company Ltd.” Alan Kelly. This publication is prepared by the editorial staff of www.russian-records.com website.
The story of the beginning of Gramophone Company in Russia.
(Extraction from the Introduction to Complete Numerical Catalogue of Russian Gramophone Recordings made from 1899 to 1929 in Russia and elsewhere by The Gramophone Company Ltd)
When the formation of The Gramophone Company was being discussed in 1897, Emil Berliner agreed in exchange for a fee and a good-sized shareholding in the new company to sell his rights to the recording process in all parts of the world except for North and South America (Japan later became part of the American sphere of influence). He also agreed that Fred Gaisberg should come to Europe and be the Company’s first (and at that time only) recording “expert”. Fred’s arrival and his subsequent activities have been well-documented both by Fred himself and by Peter Adamson and a glance at the list of his recordings shows that the new company was anything but parochial or inward looking. From the start it is obvious that Board and General Manager were well aware of the possibilities which the Gramophone offered – after all, it spoke French, German and Chinese every bit as well as it spoke English (without having to be taught!) and it could sing, whistle or imitate a military band or a trombone with equal facility.
Fred Gaisberg and W Sinkler Darby - "The 100 rouble fur coats", St Petersburg, March, 1900
Its popularity was universal, independent of race, colour or creed and it penetrated frontiers with relative ease, even reaching into Turkey. These wonderful properties were worth money, lots and lots of money, and this fact was not lost on Emil Berliner himself. Fred Gaisberg was not the only young man trained by Berliner – there was also William Sinkler Darby, equally capable of making records and well-versed in all the processes required. Berliner engaged him, provided another recording machine and packed him off to Hanover where Joseph Berliner arranged for him to visit St Petersburg and there make recordings of the artists at the Imperial Opera, or of anyone else he could find. Darby was provided with the services of an assistant in the person of Kurtz Heineke (Editor's comment: correct spelling Kurt Heinecke) and, since it is obvious that there was a recording machine already in Hanover, it seems that Heineke may have been the unofficial expert who made the first German recordings in Berlin. Of course, all this had to be done quietly and Joseph set aside a small building and some steam presses where Darby’s efforts could be turned into saleable records. Darby reached St Petersburg from Berlin on March 30th and negotiated sales terms and a contract between Joseph Berliner and certain dealers, apparently on behalf of Hanover and with no mention at all of London. One of the Russians involved was a “Mr La Bell”, described as a clerk to the merchant Mr Boyardt and who was presumably the Lebel of whom Fred Gaisberg had much to say at a later date. One other person involved in this was “Mr Rappo”, which looks as though it might refer to I. P. Raphof, also known from other sources and most likely the same person as Fred Gaisberg’s rascally Mr Rappaport.
From the perspective of a hundred years later, this does seem to have been rather a hare-brained scheme, though it was probably nothing of the kind, if all the details could be recovered. Not only would the Berliners have been breaking their own promises, since the Gramophone Company held all the legal rights, but how was such a secret to be kept? With a product as good as the Gramophone, it would have been rather naïve to imagine that records sold in St Petersburg would remain unknown to everyone outside Russia, even if the proper Gramophone had not yet reached St Petersburg. However, There was a recording machine already in Hanover and Darby’s first task was to check it and perform necessary repairs and to purchase the materials he would need in St Petersburg. Castings for “the large machine” were expected to arrive on March 27th and he comments in his diary that the Gramophone Company’s representative,
Hawd had been sent over to London the day before [March 22nd] and they
do not know in London that I am here but they have found out through
Mr Royal I suppose that I was coming.
A further interesting remark, made in Russia on April 17th was that:
I heard today that Child is coming over to Russia with a Johnson recording
machine and will be here in about two weeks.
It is immediately obvious that in Darby’s diary the dates are given “New Style” (as in the rest of Europe) whereas when the actual records are examined, the dates are plainly “Old Style” and therefore it is necessary to add fifteen days (twelve days for the dates before 1900, thirteen days for the dates after 1900 --Editorial comment) in order to convert them to modern usage. In the Catalogue which follows, the dates have been given exactly as they appear on the discs and have not been corrected. The question then arises as to what exactly the dates mean! We know that in London the details of each record were entered in a ledger and in those days good business practice dictated that at the beginning of each day (not the end) the clerk drew a line under the previous day’s work and below that entered the new date before making any additions to the contents. Since there were no matrix numbers, recordings could only be traced or kept track of by reference to the ledger and it was therefore essential that the record itself showed the date of the ledger page on which it was entered. Although the dates were not dates of recording they would be close enough, since zinc matrixes had to be etched as soon as possible, preferably the same day because of their fragility, but a delay of a day or two was perfectly permissible, particularly if the young expert had been invited out to dinner, which seems to have been a frequent occurrence!
Darby, like most young men, was more interested in such things as the Baked Alaska Parade on the ship and naturally, in girls, and his diary occasionally shows this, as when he talks interestedly about being stuck in a train in a snowdrift while on his way to make Chaliapin’s first records in Moscow – but recording the great man receives not a mention!
On 10th April (New Style), Darby made his first experimental recording which was not successful, as were several more the next day. Things thereafter improved although he had trouble with his materials and difficulties in getting singers willing to make records. However, by the time the session ended on May 10th (April 25th OS) he had succeeded in producing some 243 successful discs in four weeks.
Meanwhile the Gramophone Company’s representative at Hanover, Jack Watson Hawd, had arrived back from London and in May was writing to report that something odd was going on. He was not permitted to visit certain parts of Joseph Berliner’s factory and he suspected that records were being pressed there!
Example of the record that was made during first Russian session in April, 1899. From the Collection of Dmitry Golovko, City of Mezhdurechensk.
The revelation that there was a fox loose among the chickens must have caused considerable perturbation in London (if they did not already know about it) and the letters which must have passed between the two Berliners and the London Management would make fascinating reading, if one had the time to seek them out among the Company papers. Although the precise details of what happened have not been uncovered, the conclusion is not in any doubt. Darby’s records were different in appearance – the details written in the centre of the disc did not include the recording angel trademark and were inscribed inside a square box. There are no matrix numbers, only a series of catalogue numbers beginning at 20000 and hence there is no possibility of confusing them with regular issues.
This itself is curious. The Gramophone Company’s regular issues were numbered from 1 to 9999 and the few Arabic and Chinese items which had appeared were numbered from 10000 upwards. Hanover’s use of 20000 and up would be a remarkable coincidence – if that is what it was. One suspects that in fact, the Gramophone Company insisted on its rights and acquired the plates (and their maker) almost as soon as they reached Hanover and that the catalogue numbers were added on instructions from London. Be that as it may, the latest date to appear on published records is 25th April (OS) which is equivalent to May 10th. Since there are thirty seven records with this date, Darby probably finished recording in St Petersburg before May 10th and the waxed zinc plates would be “written up” and processed later, but on May 15th he reports his departure from London in company with Fred Gaisberg and Theodore Birnbaum bound for Leipzig and the famous “six cities” tour of Europe. The presence of a complete set of samples of the Russian discs at Hayes and the fact that Darby was immediately engaged by the Company in the capacity of expert shows how the affair ended. In those days, business moved fast and the settlement must have been an amicable one since Darby remained with the Company until 1920. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is no trace of the catalogue which described these records, probably no more than a single sheet of paper, and it is impossible to say for how long they may have remained available.
Such was the birth of the Gramophone record in Russia. In the following April, 1900, Darby was sent back to St Petersburg, this time officially accredited as a Gramophone Company expert and continued his career. He was accompanied once again by Fred Gaisberg who describes the making of Catalogue Number 21009 by Alexander Taneiev on April 9th in his book Music on Record, page 33. Fred Gaisberg was back again in March, 1901, when he introduced to Russia the new Johnson all-wax process with its greatly improved quality and again in June, 1901, this time introducing the ten-inch record. He was followed in the same year again by Darby whose visit extended into 1902 and then by Franz Hampe. By this time recording sessions were not confined to St Petersburg but included Moscow and Warsaw as well and business was booming so much that over half the total profits of the Company came from the Russian area. This prosperity was to continue for several years, although poor management of the Russian Branches and sheer corruption by officials and dealers were to have a seriously detrimental effect over which London seemed to exercise only a feeble control.
Gramophone Company catalogue.
The spread of the Gramophone across Russia is clearly illustrated by the Diary of Recording Sessions in Russia which forms a later part of this Introduction, although the Diary does not include recording locations at which no records were made for Russia. Recordings at such exotic places as Samarkand, Tashkent and Merv were intended for their own localities and were listed in the Orient Catalogue, which may one day make its appearance as a sourcebook of basic information. Even so, quite apart from recordings made in St Petersburg, Moscow, and Warsaw where most of the bulk originated, other centres include Kazan, Baku, (on the Caspian), Tiflis (in Georgia), Lwow, Cracow and Poznan in Poland, Kiev, Poltava, Kharkov and Odessa in the Ukraine with Drohobycz in Galicia, Wilna in Lithuania, Riga in Latvia, Revel (Tallinn) and Tartu in Estonia, Armavir in Circassia, Nizhny-Novgorod (now Gorki) and Yasnaya-Polyana (home of Count Leo Tolstoy).
The number of zincs and waxes cut is enormous and their range incredibly wide. The number of copies pressed must have been equally staggering and one rapidly gains the impression that the streets of Russian cities must have been paved with old records. There was also a thriving press which included a number of periodicals dealing with sound recording and recordings. The New York publisher Norman Ross Publishing Inc. had and possibly still has an incredible list of gramophonic material on microfilm and microfiche. This included a set of ten titles dated between 1902 and 1916 and comprised such things as the magazine Grammofon i fonograf, St Petersburg, 1902 to 1906 among others coming originally from the archives of the St Petersburg State Conservatory. At prices ranging from $25 for the cheapest to $550 for all ten, these deserve to be better known than they seem to be. Perhaps the Internet will help to bring them to the attention of collectors.
It is not proposed to deal exhaustively with the progess of the Gramophone over the fifteen years of its activity before being taken in charge by Communism. The Catalogue can speak for itself. However, one tale deserves telling. Fred Gaisberg describes how he was able to do a good deed for a fellow citizen and at the same time obtain the destruction of a pirate manufacturer, of whom it seems there were plenty about. The details are in Music on Record on page 32. He also tells of another good deed which is less well known. There was in Russia at the time an independent and legitimate company owned by a man called Rebikov. This company had quite an impressive roster of artists and had issued many records before it fell on hard times, somewhere about 1904, and finally collapsed. Fred persuaded the Russian Branch to buy up the stock of Rebikov masters and in 1906, one of the Monthly Supplements for Zonophone carried quite a number of issues from these masters but with standard Zonophone catalogue numbers and no indication of their origin. There must have been further issues since the EMI Music Archive has copies of other Zonophones from the same source, but not on that Supplement. Rebikov, naturally and while still in business, had made use of the trade magazines for advertising new issues and it has been possible to reconstruct much of his Catalogue from the magazine adverts and the surviving pressings. A copy of the reconstruction is appended at the end of this document.
In 1913, it was decided to re-issue the Gramophone Catalogue and to couple the already double-sided records with new numbers. The new numbers would apply to both sides of the record and would be used by customers when ordering. Three separate series were created, prefaced by the letters and the first issues were made in October, 1913:
P (the cyrillic letter for R)
10" blue label, starting at P1 and ending about P795. Priced at 65 kopeks in 1913 and 80 kopeks in 1915.
B (the cyrillic letter for V)
10" dark green label, starting at B2000 and ending about B2488. Priced at 1 rouble 25 kopeks in 1915.
H (the cyrillic letter for N)
12" dark green label, starting at H9000 and ending about H9051. Priced at two roubles in 1915
P, B and H are the cyrillic equivalents of the latin R, V and N but what the letters stand for is not known.
The series began in October, 1913 and by 1915 included almost 1400 double-sided issues, but by then there were problems. The experts in Russia could only continue with their work as far as the war permitted. They could travel from Russia to England via Finland and Sweden, though risking the dangers presented by the minefields and the German High Seas Fleet, and they could bring with them to London the triplicate books in which the lists of records made were noted. But it was another matter in the case of the packets containing the Catalogues and Supplements issued regularly until then. The EMI Catalogue Collection suddenly begins to show gaps. One can see what the gaps should contain – a Jewish Supplement here and a Tartar Supplement there, and elsewhere Supplements for the Baltic States. None of these reached London and the information they contained is now lost.
The cases containing copies of all the records made in the previous month suffered the same fate and the collection of pressings shows the same gaps, so that there is no possibility of cross-referencing and filling the gaps in that way. It is possible, using the extant list of waxes cut, to reconstruct the missing parts from a knowledge of how numbers were allocated and of how many records were available to fill the known gaps, and this has been done where it was feasible, in much the same fashion as repairs were carried out on the frayed ends of the Bayeux Tapestry! But nothing can take the place of the original documentation. Since this material was actually published, albeit in the dreadful circumstances in which Russia found herself in 1915/16, it is more than likely that rare copies may still exist in private hands, particularly in Russia itself. The value of such material – a two-page Jewish Supplement or a single copy of P648 for example – will not be immediately apparent, but the information contained is not available from any other source.
It is a curious fact that both the beginning and the end of the story of the Gramophone in Russia were shrouded in mystery but at last, after the passing of a whole century, events are becoming a little clearer. There is still no sign of a copy of the first Russian Zonophone Catalogue issued about September, 1903, and the final Gramophone Catalogue of 1916 is also lost – although there is a photograph of it in one of the St Petersburg magazines! Perhaps this new “volume” may lead to further discoveries. Again, I hope so!