The New Brahms LP/World’s Earliest Recording

In an alarmingly long bout of adulthood, I’ve been listening to a lot of 19th century classical on Grooveshark while I number-crunch at work. I find Beethoven and Brahms particularly groovy, and my perusal of the Wikipedia entry on the latter uncovered this fun little but of trivia:

In 1889, one Theo Wangemann, a representative of American inventor Thomas Edison, visited the composer in Vienna and invited him to make an experimental recording. Brahms played an abbreviated version of his first Hungarian dance on the piano. The recording was later issued on an LP of early piano performances (compiled by Gregor Benko). Although the spoken introduction to the short piece of music is quite clear, the piano playing is largely inaudible due to heavy surface noise. Nevertheless, this remains the earliest recording made by a major composer. Analysts and scholars remain divided, however, as to whether the voice that introduces the piece is that of Wangemann or of Brahms.[10] Several attempts have been made to improve the quality of this historic recording; a “denoised” version was produced at Stanford University which claims to solve the mystery.[11]

I initially misread that this was the world’s first audio recording, but in fact that honor goes to some French guy named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in 1860. The song, a 10-second diddy titled “Au Clair de la Lune” (“By the Light of the Moon”),  has surely been sampled on the solo side-project of some asshole hipster living in Silver Lake. It was recorded on Monsieur Scott’s own sound recording instrument, the phonautograph, which he patented in 1857, two decades prior to the debut of Edison’s superior phonograph. The essential difference between the two is that the phonautograph was incapable of reproducing audio– it could only record sound vibrations visually as waves on soot-covered paper. Notorious for his perfectionism, it may have been a good thing that Brahms never got to listen to his own recording. I know I hate listening to my recorded Jason Mraz covers.

Anyway, lucky for us, it was just four years ago that a team of clever engineers finally figured out how to transpose those scribbles into actual music. Listen here.

-Will Bigg

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