Endorsement of Thomas Edison’s "Phonograph"
The American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931), who embarked on his remarkable career when he was still a boy—publishing a weekly newspaper from the luggage van of a train at the age of fifteen—had by the end of his life some 2,500 patents to his name. Amongst them were some of the most important technological inventions of the modern age: an improved telegraph receiver (1870), the carbon microphone (1877–78), the incandescent lamp (1879—thanks to which he eventually succeeded, on 4 September 1882, to turn a whole district of New York into the first electrically lit area in the world!), and the kinetoscope (1891). The famous remark by Edison that "genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration", which he certainly lived up to in the way he never rested on his laurels but always sought out new challenges, is one that Tchaikovsky, with his professional attitude to work, would also have gladly underwritten.
The specific invention by Edison, however, which Tchaikovsky did actually endorse, was the phonograph, whose underlying principle the American had discovered quite literally by accident in the summer of 1877, when experimenting with a device that would record telegraph signals on a tinfoil and paper cylinder. Instead, he managed accidentally to record his own voice—the first time in history that the human voice had been captured for posterity! The machine which he subsequently developed became known as the phonograph and its 'magical' ability to record and reproduce sounds turned it into a world-wide sensation overnight after it was first exhibited publicly on 29 November 1877. Although Edison lost interest in the phonograph for a while (he was always looking for new problems to solve!) and simply adapted it into a penny-in-the-slot machine for fun arcades, other notable engineers—such as the Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922), the inventor of the first working telephone in 1875—took up Edison's original idea and designed an improved model, based on a wax-coated cardboard cylinder. This prompted Edison himself to return to his invention and develop, together with the mechanics working at his village of laboratories near New Jersey, a "perfected phonograph". In 1887, a rival to the Edison phonograph emerged in the form of the gramophone, devised by the German-born American inventor Emile Berliner (1851–1929). Instead of wax-coated cylinders, the gramophone recorded and replayed sound on flat discs that could be mass produced much more easily. It is thanks to the gramophone that many notable concert and opera performances from the first half of the twentieth century have been preserved for posterity—including performances of works by Tchaikovsky.
An even better endorsement, however, was actually to record Tchaikovsky's voice, if not his music, and Edison's trusty agent did not fail to seize on this opportunity. As Polina Vaidman has shown, at some point between 6/18 and 10/22 January 1890, Block demonstrated a wax cylinder phonograph to a gathering of some of Russia's most eminent musicians in Moscow and then persuaded them to say whatever occurred to them while he recorded their voices. The following were present: Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya, Vasily Safonov, and Aleksandra Hubert, and the recording session seems to have taken place at the house of Safonov, the director of the Moscow Conservatory. By way of an initial demonstration of the phonograph Block played a record of a cornet solo, which reportedly left Rubinstein almost "paralyzed" with astonishment. Rubinstein's friends then tried to persuade him to allow Block to record him while playing the piano, but the great musician refused to play a single note in front of the phonograph. He explained that "he did not want to perpetuate his mistakes"; however, he did allow Block to demonstrate the machine to students and staff at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at some later date in 1890 .
Block eventually left Russia during the First World War and took with him his invaluable collection of 359 wax cylinders. After his death in 1934, parts of this collection were bequeathed to museums in Warsaw, Berne, and Berlin. When Berlin was captured by the Red Army in 1945, the part of Block's collection which had been preserved there was taken back to Russia and eventually stored in the archives of Pushkin House in Leningrad.
Tchaikovsky scholars had for many years been aware of the 'legend' that the composer's voice was preserved for posterity on a phonograph cylinder somewhere (a legend that seemed all the more credible, given that Tchaikovsky had signed this enthusiastic endorsement for Block!), but it was not until 1997 that a team of scholars (including Polina Vaidman) were finally able to locate the relevant cylinder in the basement of Pushkin House, Saint Petersburg, and find the recording which included Tchaikovsky's voice. This recording was eventually issued on a German CD label in 1999, together with a transcript of the 'conversation' with each speaker tentatively identified.
This recording forms the basis of a very interesting Forum discussion, started by Graham Wright a few years ago. Some of the internet links to clips with this recording mentioned there are unfortunately no longer functioning, but a video clip shown on Russia's "Pervyi Kanal" which includes some parts of this historical recording can be accessed on the following Russian website:
"The Voice of Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky" (Голос Петра Ильича Чайковского):
(The video clip is near the bottom of the page and was first broadcast as a news item on "Pervyi Kanal" on 4 January 2009—it also deals with the digital remastering work being carried out on these Edison wax cylinders by Aleksandr Osipov).
This page was last updated on 12 February 2013