Wax Cylinders

Listen to historic recordings


In the August issue of BBC Music Magazine, Simon Heighes traces the beginnings of sound reproduction with the story of the wax cylinder. From Edison’s domestic phonographs in the mid-1890s to the hi-fi ‘Blue Amberol’ cylinder of the 1920s, some of the era’s biggest musical stars took advantage of this new technology.

To go with the magazine article, Simon has put together a selection of clips from his personal collection of wax cylinders – an eclectic mix of music and spoken word. Enjoy!

Wax cylinders




1. ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ (Handel, Messiah) arr. for the Edison Concert Band (1896), 2 minute cylinder
‘The Edison Grand Concert Band’s instrumental arrangement of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus from 1896 starts as expected with the first 21 bars, but then lurches forward 12 bars to ‘The kingdom of this world,’ arrives ten bars early for ‘King of Kings,’ and loses seven bars in the build-up to the final climax’ Simon Heighes



2. Dick Whittington – childrens’ story read by Percy Clifton (1907), 2 minute cylinder
‘Still entertains the children’ Simon Heighes



3. William Tell overture (Rossini) played by the Edison Concert Band (1908), 4 minute Wax Amberol
‘One of the most popular orchestral works on cylinder, Rossini’s William Tell overture helpfully breaks down into four sections. The third, a mellow oboe and flute duet, was popular with listeners because of its haunting tunefulness, and beloved of record companies because it fitted perfectly on a two-minute cylinder.’ Simon Heighes



4. Peer Gynt Suite Nos. 1 & 2 (Grieg) played by the Edison Concert Band (1909), 4 minute Wax Amberol
Something different from the more popular opera overtures and arrangements which proved popular on the cylinders.



5. ‘Hear ye winds’ (Handel, Scipio) sung by Frank Croxton (1912), 4 minute Wax Amberol
Handel’s Scipio was premiered in London in 1726 but the opera is now best known for the March which marks Scipione's arrival in new Carthage and a clutch of arias.



6. ‘Je suis Titania’ (Thomas, Mignon) sung by Blanche Arral (1912), 4 minute Blue Amberol
A recording by the Belgian coloratura soprano, Blanche Arral on the ‘hi-fi’ cylinders of the day, ‘Blue Amberol’. Made of strong blue celluloid, these cylinders survived until 1929 when disc records replaced them.



7. Magic Flute – ‘Bell Solo’ played by Charles Daab (1912), 4 minute, Blue Amberol
Daab signed up to be a xylophone and bells recording artist in 1910 – and on this recording he performs a ‘bell solo’ from the scene in which Papageno enchants Monostatos and his slaves.


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