Wax cylinders: what they are and how they revolutionised music in the late-19th and early-20th centuries

When sound reproduction was discovered, a record industry was quick to follow. Simon Heighes tells the story of how the wax cylinder started a worldwide musical revolution

Wax cylinders: what they are and how they revolutionised music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
Published: September 28, 2021 at 5:03 pm
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Who invented wax cylinders and when were they first used to record music?

The 1870s was a fertile decade for American inventors whose creations, great and small, have helped shaped the world we live in today. While Henry John Heinz was busy perfecting Tomato Ketchup and dreaming about canning the humble baked bean, Thomas Edison’s sights were set on higher things – the canning of sound itself. From his first experiments in 1877, etching sound waves onto a tinfoil-wrapped cylinder, our modern music industry was born.


Edison began marketing his first domestic phonographs in the mid-1890s, and by 1897 was supplying his customers with a wide range of pre-recorded music on cylinders. Conveniently sized, they needed delicate handling – US and European companies initially used a soft brown wax, but by 1903 a harder ‘Gold Moulded’ process brought greater durability and increased volume. Four inches long and two in diameter, cylinders began with a spoken introduction announcing the music, and lasted up to two-and-a-half minutes.

By 1908, competition from double-sided disc records prompted Edison to develop his ‘Amberol’ cylinder, with a playing time of up to four-and-three-quarter minutes. But with their finer tracks, Amberols wore out quickly and were superseded in 1912 by cylinders made of a stronger blue celluloid. The hi-fi cylinder of its day, the ‘Blue Amberol’ hung on until 1929 when disc records and the freely available music on radio finally stole its audience.

Until the mid-1920s all recordings were made acoustically, without microphones or electricity. Performers sang or played into the mouth of a large horn which focussed their sound waves onto a thin recording diaphragm connected to a stylus whose vibrations cut grooves into a master cylinder. Though apparently crude, the process could produce surprisingly loud and vivid results. No editing was possible and recording sessions continued until, in Edison’s case, there were at least three clean takes.

‘Good recordings of choruses are not easily made, as the greater the number of singers, the more complicated do the sound waves become’, wrote the master recording engineer at the English Edison-Bell company. ‘A single voice or instrument will produce every time the loudest record… but watch the high notes carefully, or the record will blast. Lower a silk handkerchief in front of the horn, or the singer should draw back the head, away from the horn, so as to equalize the vibrations. Avoid singing with too much expression. The voice that records best has an even quality.’ With its complex overtones, the piano often sounded disappointing as a solo instrument and its music was often arranged for other forces, as in Edison-Bell’s 1906 recording of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 performed by the Royal Military Band. The organ also played many such transcriptions though, curiously, almost never music intended for it.

When was classical music first available on wax cylinders?

But even a century ago, the recording industry was as ruthlessly commercial as it is today, and concentrated on the kind of popular music that would sell well. More serious classical music accounted for just five per cent of the British ‘Clarion’ cylinder catalogue (1904-1910) and six per cent of Edison’s standard Blue Amberol series (1912-1915). And even these few releases were often given a popular twist, like Edison’s 1915 version of Musetta’s ‘Waltz Song’ from La bohème which was nonchalantly delivered by Signor Guido Gialdini – a champion whistler. European tastes were more sophisticated: nearly a quarter of Edison’s German catalogue (1909-1913) was devoted to classical titles while in Italy and France opera arias and overtures dominated the output. Even Edison had to bow to the power of opera, launching a Grand Opera range of two-minute cylinders in 1906 and expanding it three years later with more ambitious four-minute recordings.

Edison himself never used the term ‘classical’ music. When in January 1912 he launched a line of recordings aimed at the more serious end of the market, he christened it the ‘Concert’ range; from 1917 the new premium cylinders announced their quality simply by their ‘Royal Purple’ colour. The works Edison selected for these top-drawer series suggests that his ‘concert’ music was broader-based than our classical music today: he was happy for opera and oratorio extracts and instrumental miniatures to rub shoulders with folk songs, sentimental ballads, traditional songs and operetta – often in colourful new arrangements. ‘My favourite violin solo,’ Edison wrote in 1917, ‘is the Gounod-Bach Ave Maria. Great names, big reputations, mean nothing. To me Mozart is one of the least melodic of composers – that is, he shows least invention – far less to my mind than Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi’.

Cylinder catalogues of a century ago were reticent about Baroque, Classical and early Romantic repertory apart from a fairly restricted group of pieces by Handel, Mozart and Schubert, and an even smaller pool of works by Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. The emphasis was first and foremost on 19th-century opera, especially Wagner, Gounod, Verdi and Puccini. The opera charts of 1912 would have included such hits as the ‘Toreador Song’ from Carmen, the ‘Anvil Chorus’ from Il Trovatore, and numerous extracts from Maritana (1845) a once popular opera by the Irish composer William Wallace. The most popular instrumental works were opera overtures and arrangements, with a smattering of more enterprising fare like the suite from Grieg’s Peer Gynt recorded by the Edison Concert Band in 1909.

Classical music, however, presented problems – it was harder to fit onto cylinders than popular songs and dances. Cylinder companies, though, were ever resourceful. Speeding up often did the trick, or for large-scale works, like Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen, a medley could cover a lot of ground. Usually, though, radical surgery was required. 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.

Rossini’s William Tell overture – one of the most popular orchestral works on cylinder – 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 recording companies because it fitted perfectly on a two-minute cylinder. The famous galloping finale was more of a squeeze, but could be reduced to its essential elements by stripping away all of Rossini’s repeats. Four-minute cylinders offered much greater scope, and in November 1908 Edison inaugurated his new format with the most complete-sounding version of Rossini’s overture yet, featuring three of the four sections. In 1925 all four sections of the overture finally appeared on a pair of Blue Amberols, though double sets like this were rare – the cylinder market was short-winded.

Acoustic recording also often required the rescoring of music and rebalancing of forces. Sometimes the results sound unexpectedly modern, as in one of Mozart’s jaunty Gloria from the Twelfth Mass (KV262) sung in 1910 by the Edison Mixed Quartet, or the 1915 recording of the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus by the eight voices of the Edison Mixed Chorus. In both cases, with only one or two voices per part, just like many modern historically informed performances, the ensemble was small enough to experiment with a lighter touch and nimbler speeds than were the norm. The 1915 ‘Hallelujah’ chorus clocks in at a thrilling 3'50'' – a whisker faster even than New College Choir’s nippy 2006 Naxos recording.

All very well, but not many performers – great or otherwise – felt comfortable with their heads halfway down a horn. Although the likes of Brahms and Tchaikovsky had enjoyed the thrill of making some of the first experimental recordings, commercial recordings were another matter. In the early days it still seemed like a passing novelty, beneath the dignity (and financial expectations) of star singers and instrumentalists. It wasn’t really until the young Italian tenor Enrico Caruso broke the ice in 1902 – recording ten arias in his Milan hotel room – that the potential of the new medium to enhance a career slowly began to tempt better performers to brave the indignities of the studio.

But not all companies wanted them. Although Edison’s scouts returned from Europe in 1913 with over 300 demo cylinders of the most exciting new singers, he rejected almost all because they sang too loudly and exhibited ‘the worst defect a voice can have… the tremolo’. If Edison loathed vibrato, he detested players who banged the piano even more. Rachmaninov was considered far too heavy-handed to make delicate cylinder recordings, though Edison signed him up to make his more robust Diamond Disc records instead. In the end it was left to Edison’s regional music directors like Johann Strauss III in Berlin to recruit from Europe’s opera houses: singers like Austrian-Czech tenor Leo Slezak (who performed with Mahler), Spanish soprano Lucrezia Bori, and the Italian tenor Francesco Daddi (who sang Beppe in the premiere of Pagliacci).

The advent of cylinders in the last years of the 19th century brought classical music to the masses. It was now possible to get a musical education without leaving the home and to hear some of the finest performers of the age without leaving the country. Error-free performances were available on demand, raising the expectations of concert-goers and providing performers with inspiring models. Music was now on tap – and its flow has proved unstoppable.

Words by: Simon Heighes


For more information on phonographs and cylinders, see the website of the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society at www.clpgs.org.uk


Simon HeighesJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

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