Musical Notes - A Golden Age

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A Golden Age

I've begun to settle nicely into the music room here at our new H2G2 home. The guys down the corridor are a bit noisy at times, hammering and banging as they fix things – software bugs I believe they said – but we get along. Despite all our excitement over the past weeks about the move, there are still some inevitable pangs of nostalgia for Auntie's old place.

Perhaps it's nostalgia at work in this first Musical Notes from the new site. I think not but my topic for this issue is that I believe there was a Golden Age of Recording for classical music. It is in the nature of golden ages that we cannot or do not recognise them until they have passed, and as with ages of most types, it is difficult to be precise about exactly when they start and end.

Every new era needs its pioneering predecessors – Stephenson's 'Rocket' locomotive was a landmark but could hardly be said to be part of the golden age of the train. Of huge importance to the future golden age of recording was the research and development work carried out by the (future) husband and wife team of Bob Fine and Wilma Cozart with their 'Living Presence' label recordings at Mercury Records in the early 1950s and 60s. Their experiments with microphone set-ups and the use of the highest quality recording equipment (including 35mm film recorders) resulted in LPs of astonishing realism when played back on the finest hi-fi turntables, amplifiers and speakers of the day.

It was the advent of radio broadcasting of concerts into millions of homes that whet the appetite of a music-loving listening audience to collect a recorded library and be able to listen to whatever work, whenever they chose. It became the new home entertainment that soon replaced the self-generated music of playing and singing round the parlour piano – sales of upright pianos plummeted as a result.

I would define the Golden Age of Recording as beginning in the mid to late 1950s - coinciding with the start of widespread stereo recording1 - and finished at the end of the 1970s with the dawn of digital recording and CDs. That gives a period of about 20-25 years up to the end of the mainstream analogue, vinyl LP disc recording era. Not that this is an analogue versus digital technology debate; it is much more to do with the perceived role of classical music recording in the service of the Arts. It was a time when the record companies' policy in this field was influenced by a somewhat purer artistic agenda than by the hard commercial yardsticks of subsequent times. The people with the say-so at the major record labels such as Decca, Deutsche Grammophon (DG), EMI, Philips and RCA were willing (or persuaded) to allow the income from the mushrooming sales of popular music records to at least some (crucial) extent, subsidise classical music recording. They also gave an unprecedented freedom to their producers to lavish care and attention to detail in creating quality material. It was this combination, together with one more ingredient - come the hour, come the man – that paved the way for the Golden Age of Recording.

Into this new field of opportunity there emerged some truly great producers: men like John Culshaw at Decca, Erik Smith first at Decca then subsequently at Phillips, and Suvi Raj Grubb at EMI spring to mind immediately. These men (and others like them) created some epic, ground-breaking recordings, both single-discs and multi-disc sets. I make no attempt here to generate a list of all-time great recordings, but I don't believe that at any other time could John Culshaw have committed the time and resources to producing the first complete stereo recording of Wagner's epic cycle of music dramas Der Ring des Nibelungen with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti, together with a galaxy of the very best singers of the day. Recorded and released opera by opera between September 1958 and November 1965, this was a costly 19-disc set with a comparatively limited market. Culshaw's pioneering path meant that was having to make up the rules as he went along. One of his innovations was to have the studio sound-stage floor marked out as a lettered and numbered grid, rather like a draughts (US: checkers) board, and the singers had their movements between squares choreographed to match the image that Culshaw wanted to create in the listener's head. The following year, 1966, Culshaw went on to make the hugely successful - and for Decca very profitable - first recording of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.

Suvi Raj Grubb at EMI was not only a superb classical music producer but had a special ability to bring out the very best in performers. He was a personal friend to them and they repaid his care and friendship in kind. It was his special relationship with the cellist Jacqueline du Pré that has enabled us to hear today the intensity of her landmark recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, made in August 1965. It is a performance that today may raise a questioning eyebrow about its interpretation, but is undoubtedly an accurate record of the output of an astonishing musician.

With the coming of the digital recording era, and especially with the advent of Compact Discs, the record companies fell into a headlong rush to reissue their back catalogue in the new format – an eagerly embraced cash cow. Technically, the early all-digital recordings, despite their noise-free surfaces, were far from being superior sonically to their analogue predecessors. Eventually of course the technical issues have been resolved and we now have very high quality recordings, but of what? Most classical recordings issued today are edited together from multiple takes, even having single notes dropped in to replace imperfect ones. We may have note-perfect renditions of the score, but have we lost the heart and soul of a through-performance? In this respect, perhaps the live recordings such as those on the London Symphony Orchestra's own label CDs are to be preferred, warts and all2. While it is certainly true that analogue recordings were also edited together using a razor blade, splicing block and adhesive tape, the individual takes were often considerably longer and it was not impossible that a whole movement of a symphony or a concerto could be captured in one or two takes. Some faults remained uncorrected; well-known are the numerous recordings made at London's Kingsway Hall in which the deep rumblings of passing Underground trains can be detected by careful listening.

Today's recorded music business is of course a very different beast from that of the period I am claiming as the Golden Age of Recording. Like all modern businesses, it is driven by the bean-counters. Record shops are all but a thing of the past; online purchasing and digital downloads now account for the lion's share of sales. Despite the commercial pressures, some wonderful new recordings continue to pour out each month. Perhaps we are in the midst of a new Golden Age of Recording – we just don't know it yet.

Till next time, happy listening.

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1Not all record companies were totally committed. Decca continued to record and release mono-only recordings alongside their stereo output for quite a while after the others.2Even these may be assembled from concerts given on different nights.

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