Recorded in Denmark between 1889 and 1897 on a wax cylinder is what is almost certainly the oldest existing Mozart recording in the world.
In a climate-controlled section in the basement of Statsbiblioteket, you can find a couple of old solid wooden boxes. These boxes used to contain some of the world’s oldest sound recordings on wax cylinders, called the “Ruben collection.” One of the cylinders contains what might be the oldest existing Mozart recording in the world: the famous Danish opera bass-bariton Peter Schram (1819-1895) sings Leporello’s arias from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni.
The wax cylinders are very fragile, their physical decay is obvious, and in 2007 the cylinders were digitised and subsequently transferred to special acid free boxes. Fortunately the digitisation team at Statsbiblioteket in collaboration with Franz Lechleitner from Phonogrammarchiv in Austria succeeded in digitising most of the cylinders despite the decay.
Gottfried Moses Ruben
But why do we call this fine collection of wax cylinders the “Ruben collection”? Well, the name is derived from Gottfried Moses Ruben, who was born in 1837. As a young man, he started working in his father’s men’s fashion wear shop, but that wasn’t just young Ruben dream job. He wanted to see the world. He went to Portugal and turned out to be a rather efficient businessman. Three years after his arrival in Portugal, he was appointed Consul General of Portugal in Copenhagen.
The Talking Machine
At the World Exhibition in Paris in 1889, Ruben met Thomas Edison, who just had invented the “talking machine,” a phonograph. Originally Edison’s idea behind the phonograph was to use it at the offices of the newspapers: News could be dictated to the machine and the typesetting process could thus be done by using dictation.
Ruben was impressed by the phonograph, a revolutionary invention for the preservation of sound. Thanks to Ruben, the phonograph came to Denmark in 1889 and its arrival is the reason why we today can enjoy the audio history of Copenhagen of the late nineteenth century. Ruben imported phonographs and sold them for 700 kroners apiece. However, he didn’t make much money on the phonograph since only very few people could afford to buy one. For example a maid only earned about 100-120 kroners a year at that time.
Ruben took other initiatives to make the phonograph popular: He invited famous men and women to come to his studio and talk, sing or play an instrument in front of the phonograph’s cone. He also invited the general public to attend his recording sessions and to see the phonograph. You even could borrow a phonograph and a technician to divert your guests at your private dinner parties–the jukebox of the late nineteenth century, so to speak. Last but not least, he also invited the Danish newspapers to his demonstrations of the phonograph.
Wax cylinders in danger of decay
Ruben is believed to have recorded about 500 wax cylinders between 1889 and 1897. Most of the cylinders got lost, probably because of physical decay due to poor storage conditions. In 1936, Ruben’s son gave three wooden boxes containing eighty-seven of the remaining wax cylinders to the Danish sound enthusiast Knud Hegermann-Lindencrone.
Hegermann-Lindencrone produced some very simple re-recordings of what he thought were the most interesting wax cylinders on shellac discs but he only made fifty copies of these. Thanks to Hegermann Lindencrone both the eighty-seven wax cylinders and one of the re-recordings came to Statsbiblioteket, who bought them from Hegermann-Lindencrone. Some wax cylinders bought from to other men are also part of the “Ruben collection.”
Digitizing the Ruben Collection
Obviously the digitization of the Ruben cylinders was a matter of urgency due to physical decay. However that wasn’t just something to experiment with. The wax cylinders are very very fragile and the digitization team at Statsbiblioteket knew that the cylinders should be played as little as possible. A very gentle digitization method had to be identified.
Help was found by making use of the great expertise of Franz Lechleitner from Phonogrammarchiv in Austria. He came to Aarhus and stayed for almost two weeks working with the library’s own digitization team. The result: 160 raw digital audio files.
Once the digitization process was finished it was clear, that work had to be done on the recordings. Any unprofessional ear only could hear cracking and sizzling noises when listening to many of the Ruben recordings. Audio restoration was necessary to improve the listening experience and, of course, identification work had to be done, as Ruben had not kept any registration of his recordings.
Once more, we got help from external experts. Audio engineer Claus Byrith did a very professional job enhancing the sound of the recordings. Steen Kaargaard Nielsen, associate professor in musicology at Aarhus University, worked with great enthusiasm on the identification of the content of the wax cylinders.
During these processes we realized, that there are real treasures to be found in the Ruben cylinder collection. With the utmost probability one of the treasures is the oldest existing Mozart recording–opera singer Peter Schram singing two fragments of Leporello’s arias from Don Giovanni.
This essay was originally published on europeanasounds.eu. Europeana Sounds is co-financed by the European Union. The objective of Europeana is to give broader access to European cultural heritage online. Commercial distribution of the essay is not allowed.
The image of Peter Schram is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.