Talking Machines, Part 2: Edison’s Phonograph

‘La noce d’un chef d’orchestre’ by Emile Spencer, published by Emile Benoit (Paris, 1887) and llustrated by Elzingre.

According to the singer Charlus (1860-1951) he recorded no less than 80.000 songs which earned him the nickname ‘slave of the phonograph’. Charlus (pronounced Charlusse) was a performer who’s versatility led him to succeed in Paris in many genres, largely between 1888 and 1914. Towards the end of his long career he was a director at Pathé in Paris, and later in Marseille, responsible for the recordings of the caf’ conc’ repertoire. Today, we get an impression of his artistic talent by this recording of the ditty ‘La noce d’un chef d’orchestre‘ (The wedding of a bandmaster).

Nosing about Charlus’ career, I learned a surprising —and hard to believe— fact about the first commercial recordings at the end of the 19th century. But first let me tell you a little about the early phonographs to better understand the challenges for recording artists.

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‘Phonograph’ by Charles D. Blake published by White-Smith Music Publishing Co (Boston, 1878). Source: Johns Hopkins

The first phonographs (1877), courtesy of Edison, recorded the sound on tinfoil wrapped around a hollow hand-cranked cylinder. Tinfoil, the predecessor of household aluminium foil, was soft enough for sound waves to be etched into its surface, yet hard enough to be traced over with a needle to play back the sounds. A cylinder could record sound for up to two minutes. But after a few playbacks the foil either had ripped or the sound quickly deteriorated. The cover above shows us the French operatic soprano Marie Roze singing Home Sweet Home into such a phonograph at Steinway Hall, New York in 1878. So for the first time, the famous soprano could sit in the audience and hear herself sing.

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‘The Song Of Mister Phonograph’ by H.A.H. von Ograff published by G. Schirmer (New-York, 1878). Source: Charles H. Templeton, Sr. sheet music collection. Special Collections, Mississippi State University Libraries.

People, eager to see and hear the magical talking machine, were flocking to public exhibitions held throughout America. These exhibitions got promoted with The Song Of Mister Phonograph: “It is just long enough to be sung into one sheet of tinfoil and is admirably reproduced”. In Paris the phonograph was introduced at the International Exposition in 1878.

It took Alexander Graham Bell and his colleagues seven years to improve the crude sound recording of Edison’s first phonograph. They introduced wax as the recording medium, and used engraving rather than indenting tinfoil. Edison then further refined the recording technique by replacing wax-coated cardboard tubes by all-wax cylinders. From 1889 on professionally made pre-recorded wax cylinders were commercialised. By stripping away the top layer of wax, cylinders could be reused and phonographs were even sold with an attachment that let customers record their own audio at home.

Now back to Charlus. He was one of the first artists in Paris to make recordings on cylinders from the mid-1890s on. What I didn’t know previously is that each cylinder had to be individually recorded, one by one! Moreover, the machines didn’t pick up sound very well so one had to shout into them. All in all an exhausting experience.

Le Muet mélomane‘ by Gerny, published by F. Petit (Paris, s.d.). source: bibliotheques-specialisees.paris.fr


Around 1900 in the studios of Pathé Frères, Charlus recorded Le Muet mélomane of which 500 cylinders were made. This meant for Charlus that he had to repeat the same song 500 times!
Charlus recorded an average of 80 songs a day, 40 in the morning, 40 in the afternoon. Some time later Pathé Frères used three cylinders at the same time. But as by then sales had increased, the artists had to work even harder. Thus Charlus had to interpret the song L’ Aventure espagnole more than 1.500 times in order to create 5.000 cylinders. No wonder his nickname was ‘slave of the phonograph’.

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Aventure Espagnole‘ by Léopold Gangloff, Delormel & Garnier. Published by F. Vargues (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Faria.

Charlus in ‘Lecture Pour Tous‘, January 1934: “I sang duets with Mrs. Rollini, who had an excellent voice. You would have laughed at our posture while recording these duets. In order to stay close to the horn which was hardly more than 25 centimetres in diameter, we had to hug each other; she held me by the neck and I held her by the waist! We couldn’t move. When there was a need to imitate the sound of a kiss, ouch! .. I stuck it on her cheek: it was a natural kiss.”

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As a tribute to the pioneering work of Charlus more than 120 years ago, we gladly bring here a performance by Van Morrison, the king of endless repetition.

Talking Machines, Part 1: Charles Cros

Sheet music cover of 'L'Orgue'
‘L’Orgue’ composed by Gabriel Fabre on a poem by Charles Cros. Published by Henri Lemoine (Paris, [1900]) and illustrated by Charles Léandre.

The cover of L’Orgue, magnificently illustrated by Charles Léandre, oozes end-of-the-century gloom, a typical form of expression of the Parisian Symbolist and Decadent artistic movement. The composer of the music for L’Orgue is Gabriel Fabre, now a forgotten symbolist, but in his time a well known artist, successful in all of the salons. For his short melodies and piano works he sought inspiration from texts by Verlaine, Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and Charles Cros. He —or his publisher— chose fine artists to illustrate the covers of his scores, such as Lepère, Signac, Le Sidaner or Léandre.

The poet who wrote the lyrics for L’Orgue is Charles Cros (1842-1888), one of the poètes maudits. Cros was friends with the notorious Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. This friendship halted in 1872 when Cros sided with the abandoned wife (and son) of Verlaine, who preferred to continue his stormy affair with Rimbaud in faraway London…

Cover of sheet music 'L'Archet'
‘L’Archet’ composed by Gabriel Fabre on a poem by Charles Cros. Published by Henri Lemoine (Paris, [1895]) and illustrated by Auguste Louis Lepère.

The unconventional Charles Cros was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He was largely self-taught and had a wide interest, amongst others in chemistry, physics, medicine and oriental languages. His scientific papers include theories on improved telegraph equipment, colour photography, and communication with the inhabitants of Mars or Venus by means of signals flashed by huge mirrors. Contemporary scientists considered his work as ludicrous.

Charles Cros by Atelier Nadar. Source: Wikipedia.

Charles Cros, who most of the time was penniless, lacked the flair for business. Often he was too late or without financial resources to create prototypes, or he forgot to patent his inventions. His biggest missed opportunity was the invention of the phonograph.

In April 30, 1877, he deposited a paper in a sealed envelope with the Parisian Académie des Sciences describing the principle of a sound reproduction device, which he called paléophone. He stated that sound vibrations can be engraved in metal using a pencil attached to a vibrating membrane. Subsequently, by sliding a stylus attached to another membrane over this engraving, one would be able to reproduce the original sound. Before Charles Cros had the opportunity to follow up on his idea, or even build a prototype, Thomas Edison in the US developed and patented his phonograph on January 15, 1878. When this news reached Paris, Cros asked the Academy to open his sealed envelope to prove that he had invented this technical concept first.

The bohemian lifestyle of Charles Cros and his addiction to absinthe contributed to his early death in 1888, aged 45. It is said Cros drank as many as 20 absinthes a day. Sadly, he is now remembered for almost having invented the phonograph.
And I, I almost cut my hair!

Hugo d’Alesi: Spiritist and Language Creator

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‘Au Revoir’ by R. Noghi, published by Cranz (Bruxelles, 1884) and illustrated by Hugo d’Alesi.

We focused previously on Hugo d’Alési as a painter, illustrator and inventor of the Maréorama. Besides, as a young man Hugo d’Alési was drawn to spiritualism or the belief that the dead can communicate with the living. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was not so exceptional for people to attend seances where a medium claimed to contact the dead. Victor Hugo, to name but one, was also known to dabble in this macabre divertissement.

The origins of modern spiritualism have been traced to the Fox family in Hydesville, New York. In 1848 the two youngest Fox daughters reported hearing a series of raps on their furniture and bedroom walls. They claimed that these rappings were communications from spirits. Although many years later they confessed to the hoax, their public demonstrations of rappings and the seances of hundreds of imitators gave rise to a widespread interest in spiritualism.

‘Spirit rappings’ by Rossington & Garrett, published by Oliver Ditson (Boston, 1853). Courtesy The Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

Marie, the first wife of Hugo d’Alési, passed away when he was only 32. In her lifetime she had posed as a medium who automatically wrote down poems dictated to her by spirits. And Hugo d’Alési himself was able, without looking at his paper, to make drawings of spirits, who he insisted were present during seances. The couple had been guided into spiritism (the French branch of spiritualism) by Rufina Noeggerath who was born in Brussels in 1821 but later lived in Paris. There she held a salon for artistic and philosophic followers of spiritism.

La Survie. Sa réalité. Sa manifestation. Sa philosophie. Echos de l’Au-delà.‘ by Rufina Noeggerath (Paris, 1929). Cover illustrated by Hugo d’Alési. (source: abebooks.com)

The song Au Revoir illustrated by d’Alési is dedicated to Karl, Jacques and Marie Noeggerath. The woman in the medallion is Rufina Noeggerath and she seems to be in mourning. The gothic image depicts three children in a flowered sailboat. It looks to me that Hugo d’Alési perfectly demonstrated the transition of three persons close to Rufina from this world to the next, with guardian angel, flower wreaths, black sail e tutti quanti. We have two more songs created by R. Noghi in our sheet music collection. All three covers share a gothic illustration of grieving about children lost. Though we still have to find proof, we can safely assume that R. Noghi is the pseudonym for Rufina Noeggerath.

Deux Mélodies‘ by R. Noghi published by Schott Frères (Bruxelles, s.d.) and illustrated by Hugo d’Alési.

Rufina Noeggerath not only held literary and spiritistic salons in Paris, she was a medium herself. Once she sat at a small round table together with Jacques Offenbach‘s nephew when all of a sudden Offenbach’s spirit started to talk to them. Well, kind of talking, the table leg tapped out the messages: one tap meant a, 26 taps meant z. After some chitchat Offenbach started to compose a melody called Air from beyond the grave.

Offenbach’s post-mortem composition, as published in L’Humanité Intégrale, Dir. J.-Camille Chaigneau, 1 january 1897.

Rufina then asked Offenbach what words should accompany the melody. “Choose the most suitable one in your bundle of mediumistic poems written by Marie d’Alési.” the table answered. Rufina did what was asked and the table approved. Rufina claimed that she was not allowed to disclose the identity of Offenbach’s nephew, so conveniently, the story could not be confirmed and maybe she wrote this little melody herself.

‘Le Dernier Sommeil’ by R. Noghi published by Schott Frères (Bruxelles, s.d.) and possibly illustrated by Hugo d’Alesi.

This 1906 British short film features a medium exposed as a fake during a seance. The mechanisms of the special effects are revealed when the light is switched on (at around 3:25).

Hugo d’Alési was not only an engineer, a gifted illustrator and a spiritist, in 1901 he also wrote a method for international correspondence by numerical language. His universal language used nothing but the ten numerical digits: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 and the letter x for indicating the plural. The language should enable everybody to exchange letters with the whole world without knowing any foreign language. All you needed was a french-numerical, english-numerical or japanese-numerical dictionary. The conjugation of verbs was also indicated by digits. Needless to say that his method never became successful nor popular, and I don’t think any numerical dictionary was ever printed. Surely his promotion of a numerical Esperanto made less waves than his Maréorama in the real world. But perhaps it became more accepted in the afterlife…

Méthode de correspondence internationale: la langue numérique par Hugo d’Alési. source: gallica.bnf.fr

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