Peter Tchaikovsky (and Friends) Messing Around With A Wax Cylinder Phonograph

In 1890, a group of eminent musicians (including Peter Tchaikovsky!) got together to screw around and experiment with what was then a wacky novelty. On this early Edison Phonograph recording, the group alternately showboats, teases each other and generally pokes the new technology with a stick. This is basically the audio equivalent of how you (meaning me) used to spend entirely too much time playing with the system preference settings on the school library computer back in 1993.

Recording quality (and the fact that everybody is speaking Russian) makes it difficult to understand what's going on. Luckily, there's a translation after the cut...

This Edison phonograph cylinder recording from 1890 was made by Julius Block, a Russian Businessman of German descent (The Old Man with the Umbrella in this video) who became fascinated with the phonograph (and even convinced Tchaikovsky to sign an endorsement). The recording was re-discovered in the Pushkin archive of St.Petersburg, Russia in 1997, and was labelled with the names of the participants: Anton Rubinstein (composer), Elizaveta Lavrovskaya (singer), Peter Tchaikovsky (composer), Vassily Safonov (pianist and conductor), Alexandra Hubert (pianist), Julius Block (the host himself). One can imagine the scene - a group of eminent musicians each standing around this new 'wonderful invention', being gently encouraged to say something. So there are a few words of banter, some musical scales, whistles, etc., much of which is only just audible.

Here is the translated contents of this recording:
A. Rubinstein: What a wonderful thing [the phonograph].

J. Block: Finally.

E. Lawrowskaja: A he dares slyly to name me.

W. Safonov : (Sings a scale incorrectly).

P. Tchaikovsky: This trill could be better.

E. Lawrowskaja: (sings).

P. Tchaikovsky: Block is good, but Edison is even better.

E. Lawrowskaja: (sings) A-o, a-o.

W. Safonow: (In German) Peter Jurgenson in Moskau.

P. Tchaikovsky: Who just spoke? It seems to have been Safonow. (Whistles)

From Transforming Art


  1. I always imagined Tchaikovsky to have the sort of calm and collected voice one would impose to a Russian master raised on the XIX century but he comes out as a cheerful bon-vivant. This is a bit of a shock, to be honest.

  2. When one is experimenting with a new technology, goofing around is frequently a useful tool!

    And Tchaikovsky wrote music for fairy tales — often very funny. Not all Russians are depressed and depressing.

  3. Edison gave a sketch of the cylinder recorder to one of his craftsmen to make. He was rather concerned when the first recording made on foil worked. Usually his inventions took much more experimentation. The recorder took the country by storm. It was such a hit in the New York patent office that they had to restrict the size of onlookers for fear the floor would collapse. It was next demonstrated at the White House and was taken around the country by showmen who charged audiences for a demonstration.

  4. I remember hearing a wax cylinder of Johannes Brahms (yep, him, the famous one) intoducaing a was piano cylinder owned by the BBC. The quality was pretty rubbish, but it was da maaan, and that’s what counts. I have since heard the BBC recordings of Poulenc conducting “Figure Humaine” in English (yuk! the French is so much better) just after WW2, and Stravinsky doing “Rite of Spring”. I remember another recording of Stravinsky (this time not the BBC, I think).

    You don’t have to be the composer, but if y’are are it counts double. Like the ‘Director’s cut’ of any film, eh?

    I have also heard a piano roll where one of the two pianists is Holst doing the “Planets Suite”. Have you heard the two pionos version of “The Planets”?. Only Jupiter (which is ENORMOUS) and Uranus (which has one bit which goes BANG!) is different. Saturn (which Holst thought was the best thing he ever wrote) is creepily similar,

    1. That is now my favourite definition of what was my favourite classical music record as a child. It does, indeed, have one bit that goes BANG!

    2. Where does one find this recording of Holst playing Holst? Can’t seem to find any mention of it on the Interwebs, although I did find one of these Japanese pianists on YouTube in recital, which was nice except for one blowing the end of the chorale in Jupiter. Sad.

  5. That was fun! I come from a musical family, and we used to play with tape recorders all the time, fooling with the speed settings, running stuff backward, etc. Sounds like we’re in good company!

    I’ve heard of the Brahms cylinder recording – most composers/musicians refrained from actually recording music on the earliest cylinders because of the terrible playback quality (the same reason Vaclav Nijinsky refused to allow anyone to film him dancing). The addition of a motorized crankshaft for steady recording & playback speed improved the sound a bit, but it was still poor and it was some time before a means of reproducing recordings was developed (prior to that, each recording was one-of-a-kind). As for Holst’s “Planets,” although I have a CD of David Nettle & Richard Markham playing the 2-piano version, I didn’t know that Holst & friend had made such a recording as well. I did hear a CD of an orchestral performance, though, with Holst conducting. It was from a set of wax records kept in an archive. As can be expected, the sound quality is not what we’re used to, but it’s great to hear nonetheless.

    As for Tchaikovsky’s temperament – he was one of the most depressed individuals ever, when he felt depressed. But he wasn’t like that all the time, or he’d never have gotten anything done. He had quite a few friends, and enjoyed games, jokes & bets. The pas de deux from Act 2 of “Nutcracker”? a friend bet that, although the scale is the basis of Western music, a melody could not be written that consisted of merely a scale. Tchaikovsky said, “Ascending or descending?” and soon won the bet with the pas de deux.

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