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Aural History
The past lives, unfiltered and unretouched, in the wax and vinyl rarities of Yale’s recordings collection.

View selections from Yale’s recordings collections.

My first Caruso recording came out of a shoebox from my then-boyfriend’s storage locker: a cheap cassette tape with the tracks marked on it in ballpoint pen. We stuck it in the stereo and pressed “play,” and there began a pebbly crackle of surface noise, a sound like loud rain outside. Then, through this haze, came a voice as full and rich and nearly perfect as anything I had ever heard: Caruso singing Bizet’s setting of “Agnus Dei.”

Recording engineers can wipe away all trace of human frailty.

We’re so overwhelmed with noise today that we take recorded sound for granted. It pollutes our elevators and shopping malls, chases loiterers from train stations, enfolds us with a sickly sound to match the canned smell when we step into airplanes. Meanwhile, our standards for sound reproduction in the digital age are approaching a kind of ideal that is also, alas, hard and sterile. Recording engineers can wipe away all trace of human frailty. Opera singers often go into a studio and sing 20 high notes, then pick their favorite to be spliced into the recording; and if they haven’t held it out long enough, the engineer can digitally extend it to fit the music.

So it may be necessary to untrain one’s ears to hear the kinds of treasures preserved in the Yale Collection of Historic Sound Recordings (HSR). Established in 1961 with a bequest from Laurence C. Witten II '51BMus and his wife, Cora Witten '54BMus, HSR is among the leading such archives in America, after the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts. It includes more than 200,000 recordings of everything from composers conducting or playing their own works (Edvard Grieg, Maurice Ravel) to historical figures (Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill) to, most particularly, an extraordinary collection of early vocal recording, a near-complete catalog of everything committed to wax or vinyl by the greatest singers of the past.

These aren’t the kinds of singers we’re used to today. The sounds of these voices are sometimes ragged, sometimes distorted by primitive mikes, sometimes veiled by surface noise—but always, undoubtedly, human. There are eight wax cylinders by the tenor Antonio Aramburo, made in Uruguay in 1901. No more than one copy of any of his cylinders is known, so each of these represents a live performance; eight cylinders means that he sang eight times. Singers can sound unpretty. They weren’t trying for pretty. Sound in those days was not meant to play in the background: these performances were the main event. Some of them may be over the top, but they demand, and capture, attention.

Sound in those days was not meant to play in the background.

From the beginning, the technology was seen as a way to preserve history: an aural time capsule. Leo Tolstoy spoke excerpts of “For Every Day” in four languages, to make sure his words reached the widest possible spectrum of people. The great soprano Adelina Patti, one of the biggest stars of the mid-nineteenth century, who commanded unheard-of nightly fees across America as she gave one farewell tour after another, was tracked down in retirement at her castle in Wales (divas were divas then) to be recorded. She was 62 at the time. “Ah,” she exclaimed, listening to the results with blissfully uncritical ears, “at last I understand why I am Patti! What a voice!” History was inadvertently captured, too. In one of his last recordings, “Rachel, quand du seigneur” from Halevy’s La Juive, Caruso sings with his rich virile sweetness; but at every inhalation you can hear the ghastly rale of the pleurisy which would, within months, kill him.

Today, a certain amount of this material is available on CD (though purists will tell you that digital sound lacks the warmth and bloom of the analog you hear on plain old vinyl). But the breadth of the Yale archive, coupled with untold rarities—unreleased tracks by the soprano Lilli Lehmann; a private disc by the tenor Francesco Tamagno, who created Verdi’s Otello—make it a rare and precious resource. The whole field of classical music is about preserving the past: but on these recordings, the past comes to life. Today, musicians in perfect recording conditions, with crystalline sound and not a trace of surface noise, create digital “pressings.” On these recordings, we hear the live flowers of which the pressings are nearly always but an echo.  the end


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