Born in Bergen, Norway in June 1843, Grieg studied in Leipzig and Italy, but found his individual Scandinavian voice early in his composing career and at the age of 23 decided to settle in Oslo. A master of small-scale piano works and a world-famous piano concerto, Grieg often toured Europe conducting and playing his compositions to an enthusiastic public, a public who clamored to hear the composer in his own popular works.
In May 1888 Grieg played his Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16 at one of the Philharmonic Concerts in London. Of the three composers on the program, Tchaikovsky was being heard for the first time and both he and Widor were far less familiar to the audience as composers than Grieg. It is apparent from reviews of Grieg’s own performances of his compositions that he was the perfect executant—something that is not always the case with composers. Two weeks later he gave a solo recital in St. James’s Hall, London, and although the works were familiar to the audience, “they had certainly never been heard in London in the manner in which they were rendered by their originator…The poetic and indefinable charm of his manner was again felt by the audience in such pieces as On the Mountains or the Norwegian Bridal Procession, which even those most familiar with them thought they had never heard before, so instinct with individual life was the reading here presented.”
By the beginning of the 20th century and seven years before his death, Grieg was one of the most popular composers in Europe and America and along with his Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16 and two suites of music from Peer Gynt, op. 46 and 53, there was barely a domestic piano that did not support a copy of some of the ten volumes of 66 Lyric Pieces. Two other important works for piano solo are the Ballade in G Minor, op. 24 and the Piano Sonata in E Minor, op. 7.
During 1902 and 1903 Grieg was on tour performing in Prague, Warsaw, and Paris.
At the age of 60, he was already in poor health from pulmonary disorders: a collapsed lung was the result of tuberculosis in 1860. Indeed, his weak constitution prevented him performing his Piano Concerto after 1889 and by 1905 he wrote that, “….it is becoming steadily clearer that I can no longer endure playing the piano. It isn’t that I only lack breath, but I just don’t have enough sheer physical strength when I come to a loud, fast-moving passage.” However, Grieg continued to perform as a conductor and it is fortunate that just before his powers failed, Grieg made a series of discs of piano solos for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in Paris in May 1903.
Grieg, who had strong humanitarian principles, had spoken out against the French justice system over the Dreyfus Case, which exploded in 1894 and was not completely resolved until 1906. When asked by conductor Eduard Colonne to appear at one of his orchestral concerts in 1899, Grieg was unsure whether he wanted to set foot in France and his written reply to Colonne explaining the situation as he saw it was published in a German newspaper. Hostile feelings towards Grieg and his music immediately arose in France and at a concert he gave in April 1903 he was hissed off the stage. A month later, on 2 May 1903, he recorded nine, ten-inch sides for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company, probably not because of the controversy surrounding Grieg and the Dreyfus case, but more because here was one of the most beloved of composers whose health was obviously failing. It should also be noted that the record industry has never been slow to cash in on current circumstances, and it is enlightening to know that in its infancy was making huge profits—in the 1902–1903 financial year the UK’s Gramophone and Typewriter Company had a net profit of £252,285 (equivalent to £16 million in 2001). Also, Grieg’s piano pieces were known to millions throughout Europe and although the discs were expensive at the time and there were few homes that possessed a phonograph, no doubt the Gramophone Company saw an opportunity for securing a series of prestigious and saleable recordings for their catalogue.
After leaving Paris, Grieg wrote to his friend Julius Röntgen from Leipzig on 13 May 1903, “I was glad to say farewell to France, and especially Paris. It is said that Paris is a city of phonies. Everything: social relations, art, politics—is phoney!”
Fortunately, Grieg’s recordings show no sign of frailty or weakness on the part of the performer (except a noticeable hesitation in the Finale of the Piano Sonata, op. 7). The frailty is in the recorded sound, which is very dim and unstable due to the fact that these discs were apparently made on a faulty turntable, which affected the pitch. Also, the discs are extremely rare, and finding perfect copies of all of them is not an easy task. The recordings display all the characteristics of performance that reviewers of the time heard in Grieg’s live performances—a rhythmic vitality, energy, suppleness, a tastefulness eschewing virtuosic vulgarity, and an absence of excessive rubato. Indeed, Grieg had strong feelings on this last topic, writing in April 1901 to his friend Julius Röntgen, “It is remarkable that the most talented performers of our age fall victim to the terrible ‘rubato influenza’. [Anton] Rubinstein never did anything like that. Nor did Liszt. ‘Sensation’ is a serpent that threatens to devour great, genuine, noble art! Everyone conspires together—violinists, pianists, singers, and especially conductors. That damned ‘Let’s improve what the composer has written.’” On the evidence of these records it has been suggested that Grieg possessed a faulty metronome as his tempos are much faster than those noted in the published scores. This only goes to prove how dangerous it is to adhere strictly to a composer’s printed metronome mark, and that an artistic and flexible performance is far more important in conveying the intentions of the composer than slavishly adhering to a printed metronome mark.
Just before arguably the greatest French composer and pianist Saint-Saëns made his first recordings on 26 June 1904, the faulty turntable at the Paris studio of the Gramophone and Typewriter Company was apparently either repaired or replaced resulting in recordings of a more stable sound. The five sides Saint-Saëns recorded were all of his own compositions and display some extremely impressive playing from a man approaching 70 years of age. His style is very similar to Pugno’s: a light, clear touch, amazing dexterity and lack of rubato—particularly noticeable in the Improvised cadenza on Africa, op. 89 and the opening of his famous Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, op. 22. For completeness, Saint-Saëns’s 1919 recordings have been included and a comparison of the 1904 and 1919 versions of his Valse Mignonne, op. 104 show no waning of his powers as pianist even though he was approaching 85 at the time of the latter recording. Also included are the sides he made on the same day in June 1904 with mezzo-soprano Meyriane Héglon. These sides were originally not approved for release by Héglon and though historically valuable as an example of Saint-Saëns as accompanist in his own compositions, the sound Héglon makes can only charitably be described as unpleasant.
A month before Grieg made his recordings, another famous pianist made some discs for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in Paris. Raoul Pugno was born at Montrouge near Paris in June 1852 and died in Moscow (whilst on tour) in 1914. During his career he was organist, pianist, composer, chorus master, and professor of harmony whilst his performing career as a pianist peaked in the early 1890s when he was regarded as the finest of French pianists. From 1896 to 1901 he was Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire and performed regularly with the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe.
Apparently, Pugno was not enthusiastic about the piano solos already on offer by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company, but they were obviously keen to secure the services of one of the greatest pianists of the time—indeed, along with Alfred Grünfeld, Pugno was one of the first pianists of international note to make recordings. He recorded four, ten-inch sides in April 1903; when he returned a few days later to hear the recordings, he was overwhelmed and immediately recorded five more sides.
These recordings include a spirited Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody and Pugno’s own composition, Sérénade à la lune.
Fortunately, Pugno returned to the recording studio in November 1903 and recorded nine more solo sides (and possibly a tenth). The recordings present a good cross section of Pugno’s repertoire including a sparkling Scarlatti sonata where the crossing of hands is expertly executed, some French salon music by Massenet and Chabrier, two of Pugno’s own compositions, and some substantial works of Chopin including the Impromptu in A-flat, op. 29; the Berceuse, op. 57; and the Funeral March from the Piano Sonata in B-flat Minor, op. 35. Most interestingly, the Nocturne in F-sharp, op. 15, no. 2 is played at a slow tempo insisted upon by one of Pugno’s teachers, Georges Mathias, himself a pupil of Chopin. Of this work Pugno wrote, ‘I repeat, and shall repeat again and again: Keep the two hands well together. To hear the C-sharps and F-sharps of each bar in the left hand preceding the note in the right is a thing to make the hair stand on end, and it is wholly anti-musical.’ Did Pugno’s hair stand on end when he heard his own recording?
Pugno’s style was best suited to small scale works rather than the grand rhetoric of late 19th century music. He championed the piano concertos of Mozart, which at the time were far less frequently heard than today. It was also more usual to have two or three piano concertos in one concert and in June of 1902 Pugno played a concerto by Mozart in E-flat, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, op. 37, and the Fourth Concerto by Saint-Saëns in C Minor, op. 44 at the Queen’s Hall in London with Edouard Colonne conducting. “His playing is pre-eminently French—clear, neat, and finished to the minutest detail. It is, perhaps, characterized by brilliancy rather than by warmth, but in its own way it is magnificent. No finer performance than that which he gave of Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat could be desired. Not a passage was blurred, not a point missed, and the consummate delicacy of his style could not have been better suited.” When he played the Mozart Concerto again in February of 1903 his playing was described thus: “so delicate and refined is his touch and so fluent and neat his technique.”
It would appear that French critic Louis Laloy visited the Gramophone Company headquarters in Paris at 118 Rue Réaumur in May 1903 where he heard many of the newly recorded discs. He wrote, “Finally, I am permitted to hear Grieg in his own works, and a fragment of a Rhapsodie by Liszt, played by M. Pugno just three days earlier: it is, in a crystalline sonority, a prodigious fountain of notes, a torrent of sound which rushes headlong with increasing force; the inspired artist gives his all. Reportedly, he was amazed by the precision and the richness of this musical portrait which allowed him for the first time to be his own listener. One can only echo such an expert endorsement: the Gramophone stands out from all sound recording apparatus by its power, which is twice that of any other and especially by the precision with which all the subtleties of the performance and all the distinctive qualities of the timbre are reproduced. Listening to it, at these auditions, one experiences the purest artistic delight and I believe that it is time to bring to the attention of musicians an invention which from now on will permit everyone to hear repeatedly the greatest works of the masters performed by other masters.”
Diémer entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten and three years later gained his premier prix in piano. His teacher for piano was Antoine-François Marmontel (1816–1898) whose other pupils included Albeniz, Debussy, d’Indy, Macdowell, Pierné, and Planté. From 1863 Diémer performed regularly, attended soirées given by Rossini, and gave concerts with violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. Diémer had several works dedicated to him including the Variations Symphoniques by César Franck, and piano concertos by Saint-Saëns (No. 5), Lalo, and Tchaikovsky (No. 3). Diémer also gave performances on the harpsichord and founded the Société des Instruments Anciens in the 1890s. In 1887 he took over his former piano teacher’s position at the Paris Conservatoire as Marmontel retired that year. Diémer’s most important pupils include Alfred Cortot, Eduard Risler, Yves Nat, Marcel Ciampi, Robert Lortat, and Robert Casadesus. He continued to perform and teach until his death at the age of 76.
Diémer made his first recordings in Paris in 1904. Of the six sides recorded five were issued, two of which were of compositions by Diémer himself. He returned to the studio in 1906 when he recorded his own same two compositions again and two other titles that were not issued, so there is a total of seven published sides, two of which are repeated repertoire. The main difference between the 1904 and 1906 recordings of his own works is that he was obviously asked not to use any pedal in the latter recordings. In 1906 Diémer included four bars of the introduction to Chant du Nautonier, and although his Grande Valse excludes the whole trio section in both recordings, he does play the original published coda to this work in the later recording.
Diémer was a great favorite with the public and one can imagine why when one hears his cascading runs and flourishes, his rippling French finger work, elegance, and charm; indeed, he was rather like a Parisian Gottschalk. The other three works recorded are a Valse Chromatique by the prolific Benjamin Godard, the “Spinning Song” from Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, and a Nocturne by Chopin. Although the Chopin recording may appear to be the most important of these, as Diémer was based in Paris during the 19th century and born during Chopin’s lifetime, it is abridged to fit the time constraints of a ten-inch side, and overall it sounds rushed and uncomfortable.
To get an as accurate idea of these recordings they must be replayed at the correct pitch. The discs were made before 78rpm became the standard for playback of coarse-groove discs and in fact there is no speed printed on the labels of these discs. So should the transfer engineer play back the discs so that A sounds at 440 double vibrations per second, today’s standard? No, because in 1903 A = 440 was not the standard. So what actually was it? More than likely, at the time these discs were made A equaled 435 and although this is a vast, complex, and confusing subject, there is some evidence for this.
As early as 1869 The Council of the Society of Arts in London decided to attempt to instigate a uniform pitch throughout “the Continental nations.” France was not approached as that country had recently introduced a standard throughout of A = 435. This became known as “French Pitch” and a number of other countries had already adopted it by 1869. However, there were extreme variations in the Continental cities (including those within Russia) as pitch was obtained generally either from an organ or a tuning fork.
Apparently, pitch has gradually risen over the centuries, but the reason for this is not easy to determine. Handel’s fork of 1751 was A = 422.5; Mozart’s of 1780 A = 421.6. Between 1813 and 1820 the pitch used by the London Philharmonic Society was A = 423.5. When Sir George Smart took over the orchestra in 1820 he had a tuning fork constructed at A = 433.2 and copies of that fork were sold in London music shops until 1845 when Sir Michael Costa took over the Philharmonic Orchestra. For some reason, he raised A to 454.7 and when Wagner visited London in 1877 to preside over a Festival of his music at the Albert Hall he found that it had risen even further, to A = 455.1, the highest recorded in London.
In the 1880s piano manufacturers had forks of varying pitches—Erard at 455.3, Chappell 455.9, whilst Steinway in New York used 457.2. Subsequently, it was in 1891 that a meeting of the Piano Manufacturers Association in New York was “called to consider the report of the Committee recommending A 435 as a standard international pitch for musical instruments.” A combination of this fact and the pitch already standardized in France of A = 435 leads one to believe that Grieg and Pugno’s recordings made in Paris in 1903 would have been at the same. It must be remembered that temperature can affect pitch and the person who tuned the piano at the Gramophone and Typewriter studio may not have had a fork at A=435, but all the evidence seems to point towards this.
Thanks to John Akbari for providing the article from La Revue Musicale and to Nick Morgan for translating it.
© 2007 Jonathan Summers
Very little is known about Gabriel Willaume. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire. He gave the world premiere of the Ravel piano trio at a recital of the Société Musicale Indépendante in Paris on 28 January 1915 with Alfredo Casella, piano, and Louis Feuillard, cello at the Salle Gaveau. In addition to the four sides Willaume recorded for the Gramophone Company Limited with Saint-Saëns, he also recorded a couple acoustic sides for Aerophone.
Héglon was a pupil of Rosine Laborde. She made her debut at the Paris Opéra in 1890 (as Maddalena in Rigoletto) and also appeared at La Monnaie, Covent Garden, and the Opéra-Comique. She was in several premieres, one by her husband, Xavier Leroux. Her repertoire included the major mezzo roles, such as Amneris and Dalila, Fricka and Fidès. While for some odd reason not given label credit, her accompanist on her very rare G&Ts (made 26 June 1904 in Paris) was composer Camille Saint-Saëns.
Leblanc made her debut as Françoise in the Opéra-Comique’s world premiere of Bruneau’s L’Attaque du Moulin, 1893. She created the role of Ariane in Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleu in 1907, also at the Opéra-Comique. Although an accomplished singer, Leblanc will be remembered as one of the most colorful personalities of her era. Her career included theater, opera, and film. She was a well-respected writer, was the sister of Maurice Leblanc, was rumored to be romantically linked with Margaret Anderson, founder and editor of the Little Review, and was the long-time mistress of author Maurice Maeterlinck. (While not married to, but living with Maeterlinck, Leblanc adopted his name when appearing in America for reasons of propriety and publicity.) In addition to the unpublished side with Massenet, her only issued records were four 1912 U.S. Columbia sides.
Gay was born Maria de Lourdes Lucia Antonia Pichot Gironés. She married Catalan composer Juan Gay Planella in 1897 and in 1902 “Maria Gay” debuted in the title role of Carmen, in Brussels. Her performance was dramatic, innovative, and mesmerizing and firmly established her career. In 1906 she met tenor Giovanni Zenatello at La Scala beginning a love affair that lasted the rest of their lives. Although there is no evidence of Gay and Zenatello ever marrying, Gay was sometimes referred to as Maria Gay Zenatello. Later in their careers, Gay and Zenatello worked to find, help train, and promote promising young singers, the most famous being Lily Pons. In addition to the exceedingly rare G&T sides that she made in 1903, Gay later recorded for Favorite, Columbia, and Victor including several duets with Zenatello.
Garden moved from her native Scotland to Chicago when she was nine years old and studied in Paris not too long after that. She made her public debut in April of 1900, in the title role of Gustave Charpentier’s Louise at the Opéra-Comique. Two years later, Claude Debussy selected her to play the female lead at the Opéra-Comique debut of his Pelléas et Mélisande and two years after that, Debussy accompanied Garden on a series of recordings for G&T. Mary Garden first performed in the U. S. at the Manhattan Opera House in 1907 in the title role in Thaïs. She starred at the Chicago Civic Opera from 1910 through 1931, the year in which she retired from the operatic stage. She stayed active giving recitals, lectures, and master classes for another two decades. Garden’s personal life was often the subject of more attention than her public performances, and her autobiography, notoriously inaccurate, does express disappoint in her recordings.
Legendary Piano Recordings
The Complete Grieg, Saint-Saëns, Pugno, and Diémer
In 1903, the Paris branch of the Gramophone and Typewriter Company made 27 incredibly important piano records. These documented the pianism of Edvard Grieg (1843–1907) and Raoul Pugno (1852–1914). The Grieg and Pugno recordings are some of the most rare and sought after discs and are unfortunately some of the most primitive and problematic. We are pleased to say that very recent technology has allowed us to greatly reduce these problems to produce these recordings in startlingly improved versions. This set also includes the equally rare 1904 G&T sides (five in total) of Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) playing various selections from his own works, the eight sides Saint-Saëns recorded for the Gramophone Company in 1919, and other important piano recordings made by G&T.