The Shellac Project I 

Deutsche Grammophon

Digitization of rare surviving metal masters

Sound Pioneers
Deutsche Grammophon has one of the oldest sound archives in the world, having taken care to store recorded material ever since its foundation. While its collection has suffered many losses over the years, with items destroyed in wartime or lost through mishandling, poor storage or physical deterioration, even some of the very earliest recordings have survived in good condition. Shellac discs (78s), which can still be played on old gramophones, could hold around four minutes of music on each side. They were the dominant recording format until around 1930, and continued to be used for some years after that. A number of historic recordings have now been digitised.  For this collaborative restoration project with Google Arts & Culture, the digitised recordings have been created not from the finished shellac discs, but from the original matrixes. The digitised recordings have then been remastered as necessary. This has enabled a significant improvement in sound quality, although given the age and condition of these recordings, not all surface noise can be removed.

The Shellac Project - Behind the Scenes

1927: Pietro Mascagni himself leads members of the Staatskapelle Berlin playing the famous Intermezzo from his Cavalleria rusticana, proving that he obviously was not only a great composer but also a great conductor.

Composer Pietro Mascagni conducts the Intermezzo from his rarely performed opera L'amico Fritz.

Composer Pietro Mascagni conducts the Hymn to the Sun from his rarely performed opera Iris.

Composer Pietro Mascagni proves himself as a very gifted conductor, here leading the Staatskapelle Berlin with the ballet music from Verdi's Aida, recorded in 1927.

This 1928 recording is an early testimonial of Erich Kleiber's superb conducting. Together with the Staatskapelle Berlin he performs a fresh and vivid "Moldau".

Today Raoul Koczalski is still considered one of the most outstanding Chopin performers of all time. The pianist and composer, offspring of a Polish noble family, was a child prodigy who in 1897, aged just 12 , gave his 1000th concert. He was one of the first big stars to record for Deutsche Grammophon before the Second World War - afterwards, as he was Polish, his recordings were banned and he was forced to stay in Berlin without permission to perform. After the war, he was soon rehabilitated in both Germany and Poland, but died in 1948.

An early example of great chamber music recordings: Violinist Mischa Elman performs a charming Hummel Waltz together with Percy Kahn, recorded in April 1913.

Violinist Váša Příhoda was born in what was then the Kingdom of Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic, and he became very famous during the 1920s. It is claimed that star conductor Arturo Toscanini said that even Paganini couldn't play his own music any better. Příhoda was for some years married to Gustav Mahler's niece Alma Rosé, but they were already divorced when he made this fine recording of Elgar's Salut d'amour in 1938 with pianist Otto Alfons Graef.

German violinist Georg Kulenkampff was very famous in Germany in the 1930s/40s but died at the age of only 50 in 1948. This charming arrangement of Richard Wagner's "Albumblatt" (Album Leaf) for violin and piano by August Wilhelmj was recorded in 1935 and features Kulenkampff together with pianist Franz Rupp, one of the best chamber musicians and Lieder accompanists of his time.

1907: Baritone Titta Ruffo, who was then considered one of the great “miracles” of opera, sings Valentin’s Prayer from Gounod's Faust - in his native Italian instead of the original French, as was the custom of the time. Although this recording is 111 years old it gives a vivid impression of the rich voice which was revered as a counterpart to tenor Enrico Caruso.

The Thomanerchor Leipzig, once led by Johann Sebastian Bach himself, has always belonged to the most important performers of the composer's work. Conducted by their cantor Karl Straube the choir recorded parts from Motets in 1928, thus testifying the art of performing Bach at that time.

Maria Müller was one of the most famous sopranos in the German repertoire, who made her stage debut in a leading Wagner role at the age of 21. When she recorded Agathe's scene from Weber's Freischütz in 1943 she was 45 years old, still singing effortlessly with a fresh and beautiful voice.

Baritone Titta Ruffo, revered as a counterpart to tenor Enrico Caruso, sings Figaro's famous aria from The Barber of Seville in this formidable recording from 1912.

This Bach Choral, recorded in 1927 with Thomanerchor Leipzig led by Karl Straube, is also notable for the opening passage performed by an organist who was then, back in the 1920, not credited on the printed artwork: a young musician named Helmut Walcha, later to become synonymous with the organ on Deutsche Grammophon!

German tenor Walther Ludwig was mainly known for his Mozart and Bach performances. But he also recorded operetta songs, such as the romantic Gondola Song from Johann Strauss's A Night in Venice.

The Volga Song ""Stenka Razin"" is based on the legend of a cossack leader who led an uprising in the 17th century. Being an anti-czarist song, it was popular and often performed during the Soviet era. In 1928 the Ural Cossacks Choir, founded only a few years earlier by Alexander Scholuch, recorded the Volga Song under Scholuch's direction.

Italian baritone Umberto Urbano was a star of the 1920s: not only because of his beautiful voice and superb technique, but also for his good looks … He was successful with both opera and popular songs, such as the Neapolitan song "O sole mio".

Soprano Erna Sack was famous for her extremely high top notes: In this song from the 1936 movie Blumen aus Nizza (Flowers from Nice) , for example, she reaches a range much higher than even Mozart's Queen of the Night …

Erna Berger is considered one of the most important and famous German sopranos of the 20th century, especially loved for her Mozart portraits. After having retired from stage at the age of 54 she still sang many Lied recitals, as Lied was very important to her. This song by Max Reger, an impression of St. Mary lulling her little Jesus boy, was recorded in 1938 at the height of her career.

Adele Kern was one of the famous German "light sopranos" of the 1920s/30s, much praised for her stupendous technique. Zerbinetta in trauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos" was one of her signature roles which she also sung under the composer's baton. Her big scene was recorded in 1933 with the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Alois Melichar.

Austrian tenor Julius Patzak was internationally acclaimed as a Mozart tenor in the 1920s/30s. Ottavio's beautifully performed aria from Don Giovanni , recorded in 1935, is sung in German.

French-German singer Sigrid Onégin had one of the most expressive alto voices of the early 20th century and was famous for her wide-ranging repertoire. The name ""Onégin"" was the pseudonym of her ""husband"" whom she married in 1913 - and who, in fact, was a woman.

Hungarian tenor Koloman von Pataky was one of the beloved stars of Vienna State Opera in the 1920s/30s and is considered one of the best Mozart tenors of the 20th century, as his recordings from 1927 prove.

The Postillon Song shows his excellent qualities also in the French repertoire - though sung in German.

Margarete Klose was one of the big stars of the Berlin Staatsoper in the 1930s/40s and was also a famous Brangäne in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at the Bayreuth Festival. This recording of Carmen's Seguidilla, sung in German, was made in 1941.

In his time, he was called "La gloria d'Italia": Baritone Mattia Battistini proves it in this glorious 1912 recording of Enrico's aria from Lucia di Lammermoor.

Italian baritone Umberto Urbano was a star of the 1920s: not only because of his beautiful voice and superb technique, but also for his good looks … He was successful with both opera and popular songs, such as the Creole serenata "Ay, ay, ay".

Bass Heinrich Schlusnus was one of the most famous German singers of early 20th century and one of the first stars at Deutsche Grammophon for whom he did nearly 500 recordings. This aria from Lortzing's Undine, then very popular, was one of his first recordings, dating from 1919.

Ludwig Wüllner, a celebrated German actor and singer of the early 20th century, recites one of Goethe's most famous poems: Ganymed. This recording from 1915 is a testimonial to the declamation style of that period.

Dutch born singer and actor Johannes Heesters was very popular in Germany from the 1930s up until his death in 2011, at the age of 108. He was then considered the oldest active performing artist worldwide, having appeared on stage for 90 years. This revue song, suggesting that a man should be able to play the piano so he might be lucky with the ladies, became a legend.

Otto Reutter was a Vaudeville star in the 1920s Berlin who wrote all his humorous couplets himself. In this song in the Berlin dialect, recorded in 1927, he makes fun of both his time and his contemporaries: "Nothing strikes me anymore".

German singer and actress Lale Andersen was known worldwide for her performance of "Lili Marleen", a song that became synonymous for the homesickness of soldiers during the Second World War and was then forbidden in Germany. But Lale also recorded it in English - as well as this bright song, originally referring to a popular figure from her native region Bremerhaven.

"Jaaa, nun ist er wieder da", a bright foxtrot performed both by the popular Schuricke-Terzett (Trio) and a Dance Orchestra, was recorded in 1941 and was supposed to bolster the population in the middle of the war. It's a jaunty song about three guys suddenly coming back home from, probably, the front.

One of the typical German couplets of the 1920s, performed by Otto Reutter, who was a Vaudeville star in the 1920s Berlin.  He wrote this humorous couplet himself, and sung with an enunciation so clear that even on this old recording from 1927 you get every word.

"Red Devil"by the Blue Rhythm Boys, also known as Mills' Blue Rhythm Band, was recorded in New York on April 28, 1931.

Louis Armstrong’s 1934 version of W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues: one of the early hits in American recorded music. As fresh as ever!

"On the Sunny Side of the Street" with Louis Armstrong was recorded in the same session as his famous "St. Louis Blues", in Paris on November 7, 1934. While the original source of the song’s second part seems to be lost, this first part's metal source could be newly mastered, with stunning clarity of sound.

Tilt brush performance to "Valentine’s Prayer" from Charles Gounod’s opera "Faust", sung by Titta Ruffo, recorded in 1907

Tilt brush by Atma in 2018

Tilt brush performance to “Dir Jehova will ich singen“ by Johann Sebastian Bach, sung by Thomaner Choir Leipzig, recorded in 1927

Tilt brush by Atma in 2018

Tilt brush performance to "Wie reizend sind die Frauen“ by Otto Reuter with his Orchestra, recorded in 1927.

Tilt brush by Atma in 2018

Tap dancing to Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra: “St. Louis Blues”, recorded 1934

Dance Performance: Andrew Nemr
Producers: Andrew Nemr, Michael Priddy
Director: Michael Priddy
Set design: Chad Kay
Editor: Stephen Caserta

Credits: Story

Text: Lieser Meike
Sound Tracks:
(P) 1934 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin,
(C) 2018 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin
Tap Dance Performance: Andrew Nemr (2018)
Producers: Andrew Nemr, Michael Priddy
Director: Michael Priddy
Set design: Chad Kay
Editor: Stephen Caserta

Tilt Brush Performance: Atma

Digitalized Tracks from Shellac Discs:
(P) 1934 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin,
(C) 2018 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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