Johannes Brahms 1889 wax cylinder recordings

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Johannes Brahms was a 19th century German composer, pianist, and conductor. Today he is best known for his German Requiem, his 4 symphonies, piano concerto, violin concerto, and many pieces for solo piano.

On December 2, 1889, Johannes Brahms was recorded playing two pieces on the piano at the home of Dr. Fellinger and his wife in Vienna, Austria by Theo Wangemann (a associate of Thomas Edison who was the world’s first recording engineer). Brahms played a segment of his Hungarian Dance No. 1 in g minor, and a paraphrase of a Josef Strauss Polka called die Libelle. The wax cylinder was made of soft wax and the earliest cylinders were damaged after each play rendering them unplayable after they had been used only a few times. The Fellinger family no doubt cherished this historic recording and played it many times. It became cracked and badly worn. The recording was played many years later on a radio station and somebody recorded the broadcast. The recording was later transferred onto a disc and many people tried to get rid of the surface noise to better expose the music hidden underneath. Musicologists and mathematicians are still working on it to try and de-noise the recording but it is proving to be very difficult. What they most likely will end up doing is using a clean modern recording of the music and figuring out approximately what is being played where and adjust the tempo and the note lengths. This recording is important because it is a time capsule into the past and can tell musicologists and performing musicians how people in the 19th century may have played the piano. They didn’t play the way pianists play now with a strict unbending tempo. There was a lot of tempo variation and the right and left hands didn’t always play strictly together. Enjoy this rare recording.

Handel’s “Moses and the Children of Israel” at the Crystal Palace, June 29, 1888

Here is a recording of the earliest surviving wax cylinder of Thomas Edison. This performance of G.F. Handel’s “Moses and the Children of Israel” was recorded on June 29, 1888 at the Crystal Palace in London, England. There were 500 musicians in the orchestra, around 4000 voices in the choir, and 23,722 people in the audience. You can just make out some of the choir singing. After the 1888 recording is played, you can hear a modern recording done in 2014 of the same chorus by G.F. Handel.

Unfortunately I don’t know the name of the choir and orchestra in the 1888 recording. I also don’t know who was performing in the 2014 recording. The amazing thing about the 1888 recording is that it exists. That was recorded at a time before airplanes and there were few cars at the time. Life was a lot more primitive then it is now. I hope that you enjoy this very old recording.

Johannes Brahms wax cylinder recording (1889)

Johannes Brahms wax cylinder recording (1889)

On December 2nd 1889, Theo Wangemann (who worked for Thomas Edison) recorded Johannes Brahms performing two segments at the piano in the home of Dr. Fellinger.  The works recorded were a paraphrase of Strauss’ Libelle and part of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no.1 in g minor.

For a time it was thought that the wax cylinder had been lost.  It was re-discovered in the 1980s.  Unfortunately the recording was almost entirely masked by noise.  Wax cylinders get more and more worn each time they are played.

In the 1990s, Jonathan Berger and Charles Nichols (two PHD students at Stanford University) were able to remove some of the noise masking the music in the recording.  Here is the wax cylinder recording that Brahms made in 1889.  You will need to turn up the volume on your speakers to hear what little  remains of the recorded music on the cylinder and use your imagination to fill in what is missing.  Enjoy!