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An Orchestra In 1917

June 2024
1min read

The First Recordings of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

BSO Classics 171002 (one CD) .

On October 2, 1917, the one hundred members of the Boston Symphony crammed into two igloo-like structures built in an auditorium in Camden, New Jersey, and played the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.

They were making the earliest known recording of a full symphony orchestra in America. The orchestra’s librarian later recalled that “the first desk men sat outside the ball [igloo] on high stools and played directly into horns of their own, but others had to run out when they had a prominent part, blow it into a horn, and run back and join the orchestra. Dr. Muck, in full formal dress, stood outside, and the turntable making the master disc was behind him.” The odd arrangement was designed to compensate for the limited power of the recording horn. Over the next several days the orchestra waxed eight short pieces by five composers. The results sound like a pre-microphone orchestra in igloos, yet they reveal dazzlingly crisp playing and almost breathless conducting. Karl Muck, the conductor, was born in Germany in 1859, seventeen years before Brahms wrote his first symphony, and is still cited as the Boston Symphony’s greatest conductor ever. His career in America crashed down the same month these recordings were made, when the BSO gave a concert in Providence and failed to heed a request to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Muck, who hadn’t even heard of the request, made a point of playing the piece at subsequent concerts, but because of the antiGerman hysteria of the time he was nonetheless arrested as an enemy alien and interned until the finish of World War I. These recordings stand as a testament to his achievement and a rare document of a long-vanished era in music.

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