Tuesday, January 07, 2020

"Recorded by one of the world's greatest orchestras and conductors"--Junk-label Classical, 1938

In this case, junk-label but not junk.  Great performance, but the label... hoo boy.

I heard the flute intro to this countless times as a kid--my mom played it a zillion times while practicing.  I finally heard the actual piece when I was... 18?  Someplace around then.  My mom was a child prodigy on the flute, though she never had a career.  She taught flute, however, so we had students coming to our house.  The flute section, by itself, sounded hopeless abstract, though I would now reduce it to a C# diminished triad moving to E Major.  Lo and behold, at Wikipedia that portion is notated in... E Major!  Hooray for my musical ears.

Discogs tells me this is Fritz Reiner conducting the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra in 1938.  The label is World's Greatest Music, about which Discogs tells us:

"This U.S. label was produced by an unknown manufacturer for Music Appreciation Products, Inc.  Several label varieties were produced, starting in 1941.  Masters were often of European origin, and all issues are anonymous.  These records were sold inexpensively in variety stores, grocery stores and various other outlets."

Ah, yes.  Trash label stuff!  My favorite.  In this case, the performer and orchestra have been identified as Fritz Reiner conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  The performance is marvelous, as is the music, but the mint-looking pressing, which I expected to sound at least passably decent, sound atrocious--you can't believe what I went through to get this to sound like music.  Epic rumble, tons of surface noise on the B side (none of it visible to the naked eye), and just a total pain.  I used a 1938 Columbia response curve, only modified for the high end.  I don't know if this was simply a bad pressing by the label's standards, or a typical one.  I killed what rumble I could, and I did a bunch of filtering on the B side.  If this was their normal pressing quality, hoo boy.  They had the later junk labels beat by many miles.

Debussy's prelude, one of THE major works in the history of Western art music, no longer sounds that revolutionary, though it broke all the alleged "rules" of the day (1894) and then some.  Dominant seventh (and, certainly, ninth) chords were supposed to happen on the dominant (hence the name), meaning the fifth of the scale.  Or they could function as secondary dominants, as in many traditional hymns, with the chord leading to another key for a temporary modulation.  Such as, a dominant seventh on E in the key of C Major.  Which, as music students know, would mean raising G a half step to G-sharp.  Stand-alone dominant sevenths were not good form, and ninth chords weren't even a thing in many traditional theory books, as they operated outside of the confines of the scale.  (A 9th can simply be considered a 2nd, only one octave higher.)  With Debussy and other 20th century "moderns," sevenths, ninths, elevenths, and whatevers could occur on any scale interval.

My mental analysis of the opening was spot on, as confirmed by Wikipedia's piece on this piece--the first two chords are exactly as a I heard them: a Bb half-diminished seventh (in an inversion) more or less resolving to a Bb dominant seventh.  I say "more or less," because ears of the time wouldn't have heard a resolution.  The ears of the day would have heard a suspended, go-nowhere dominant seventh (or, including one of the melody notes, a dominant ninth).  We have a sense of resolution (altered seventh/ninth to proper seventh/ninth) today because we're used to hearing sevenths--dominant, major, minor, +5, etc.--used as your basic chords.  Tritones are all over this piece, and I'm happy Wiki mentions them--it means I'm only half-nuts.  The opening run spans the length of a tritone (three whole steps, or an augmented fouth/diminished fifth), and if I'm correct in that the flute "run" resolves to E Major, then the descent from E to the Bb chords is the drop of... a tritone!  Have I mentioned tritones occurring in this wonderful work?

Whole tones dominate, too, in both whole-step progressions and altered seventh and ninths.   Per the latter, I refer to raising or lowering the fifth in a seventh or ninth chord.  Using the first instance (lowering the fifth a half step, or chromatically), you have a tritone between the root and the altered fifth.  This makes for an implied whole-tone scale.  For instance, F7-5 is F, A, Cb, Eb.  Furthermore, you can fill in each interval with whole steps (F-G-A-Cb-Db-Eb).  Raising the fifth does the same trick.  Our ears "hear" the whole-step scale.  It's why Ferde Grofe and Bill Challis endlessly used +5 and -5 in their dominant sevenths and ninths for Paul Whiteman.  Not only did extended and chromatically altered chords sound modern in 1920s pop, the altered sevenths and ninths suggested the whole-tone scale.  Grofe had a love affair with whole tones.  A lot of conventional music histories push the horse hockey that extended and altered harmonies were a later thing in popular music.  Just use your ears and listen to the cool stuff happening in 1920s pop.  I suspect that some cool stuff was happening in ragtime sheet music, too.

Nowadays, Prelude sounds like a super high-quality piece of exotica.  It doesn't work as Space Age Pop, because SAP has to be noisy, because Boomers can't survive without thumpity-dump in the background.  This is a dream put to music.  I love the way it drifts along, and it takes all of about nine minutes, so there's no time for boredom--just astonishment at the way Debussy takes us from one setting to the next, leaving us with no notion of how we got there.  Debussy, of course, didn't get where he got without help--he owed a major debt to risk-takers like Erik Satie and Chopin.

Oh, and the faun of this work is, of course, not a fawn, but one of these.

Anyway, marvelous performance, and I hope I succeeded in salvaging it.

DOWNLOAD: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Debussy)--Fritz Reiner, New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, 1938

World's Greatest Music SR-17 (1938) (12" 78 rpm disc)



Buster said...

Thanks, Lee. Transfers of these items are surprisingly hard to find.

Lee Hartsfeld said...

Do you know anything about this label? Discogs didn't give a lot of info.

Buster said...

There is a discography here:


Also, here is a much earlier discography with more background information:


Lee Hartsfeld said...

Wow! Thanks. Will study these at first opportunity. Any idea, off-hand, why the pressing quality is so unbelievably bad? The disc is in excellent shape--a solid VG+, at least. If the issue were wear, the wear would be very visible, and it isn't.....

Buster said...

Not really, although a guess would be recycled shellac to save money.

I've never picked up one of these because I can't ever remember who did what on these anonymous issues. You happened to hit upon one I wanted - and it's a good record, for sure.

Lee Hartsfeld said...

It's tremendous. The sound quality is extremely good for 1938, which makes the lousy pressing a real shame. It would be nice if the master somehow survived, or if there were vinyl pressings. I found a couple more or these today, including another Debussy. The Debussy was in an album, but that album must have been lost, tossed, or otherwise misplaced. There was a cracked 78, but not a Debussy, so I have two or three Debussys on this label.

Listening to this again, I was sort of astonished by how aggressively Debussy leans on the tritone. It's not easy for untrained ears to pick up, because, despite the initial key signature of E Major (according to Wikipedia), Debussy is shifting the tonal center around, and in each case, the augmented 4th/diminished 5th is happening in reference to the tonic of the moment. The function of the tritone, at the start, is to to undercut the dominant 7ths and 9ths and turn them into whole-tone chords, to use a phrase I made up. It's the reason Grofe and Challis did the same chromatic alteration--to suggest that tonic-less scale. I remember my jazz musician Dad listening to Whiteman arrangements and puzzling over the use of the altered 7th chords. My Dad, for all his IQ, never seemed able to place himself back in time, to imagine, for instance, what the harmonic innovations in Whiteman's music would have sounded like to the average listener. Namely, as very modern. Today, not nearly as much so. Grofe and Challis charts sound rather quaint. But that's because innovations become the norm. Dunno why that escaped someone as bright as my Dad.

Lee Hartsfeld said...

And, though this was apparently recorded in 1938, I don't know how to gauge pressing dates. If it was wartime (1942-), then recycled shellac, as you note, could easily account for a perfect-looking but noisy 78. And wartime was turn-in-your-78s time, as you know. I'm sure I have some sleeves urging folks to turn in their no-longer-desired 78s.

Buster said...

The subject of what sounds "modern" in different ages is a fascinating one. Changes in performance practice confound the issue.

It's also fascinating, isn't it, that Debussy's impressionism in music is strongly reminiscent of the painting of the time, although in a different medium using the technical devices you so carefully explain.

Lee Hartsfeld said...

I think the artists and musicians in France were pretty much in league--all of them friends, all of them working in what would later be called a multi-media environment. Satie, in particular, foresaw the modern mass media. Movies were coming in, recordings. We're seeing a joining of the arts, and many of the French geniuses knew what was coming. That's how outrageously bright they were. Scary smart folks. Weirdest thing, and I hope I'm not sued by the Jerry Goldsmith estate, but TCM showed "Poltergeist" tonight, that movie from the single-word movie title era, and with not a single thing to do with poltergeists. I've never had a clue as to why a movie with demon heads, corpses and coffins crashing up through the ground, anti-gravity zones, and portals between this world and the "go toward the light" zone would be called "Poltergeist." The filmmakers were smoking something. Anyway, I tuned in when the tiny psychic arrived and directed the parents as to how to literally pull their daughter from the other side--on a rope, and with the mother and daughter covered in afterbirth. Like I said, pretty heavy fumes around that set. Anyway, I swear to everything the music for that section was simply portions of "Faun" reordered. The resemblance was embarrassing, and Debussy could have sued, though of course by then his music was P.D. John Williams did what I consider a playful nod to "Faun" in the final scenes of "Close Encounters"--tribute moreso than theft, and of course Williams was instructed to sound like Holst for "Star Wars." But this was inexcusable lifting. I'm surprised I never noticed it before.

Buster said...

I've never seen Poltergeist (I hate such films), but spotting influences in film music is an entertaining pastime!

David Federman said...

May I join the dialogue to thank you for this wonderful performance of this masterpiece. I like my Debussy a bit on the languid side and Reiner obviously did, too. speaking of Claude, I've been listening to the the two-piano version of "Le Sacre du Printemps," which Stravinsky played in public with Claude Debussy. On piano, it is in many ways even more radical than in its orchestral incarnation--and one can easily see why Debussy was spellbound by this work. Certainly, lovers of the tone cluster like Henry Cowell would have gone happily mad hearing this performance. At the same time, I downloaded a Paul Whiteman off-shoot band (called The Virginians) Grofe-arranged 1922 recording of Gershwin's "The Yankee Doodle Blues" and couldn't help but think of Charles Ives, especially at the end. Grofe is on piano, too, and gets his chance to juice up the background. The copy I downloaded isn't as clean as you could make it if you would be so inclined. You have been right to champion Grofe all these years. And I love it whenever your stream of consciousness meanders to mention of him. Thanks, again, for fawning over this recording of 'Faun'. Amazing fidelity for the time, by the way. To my ears (and mind), you have performed a great cultural service with this restoration.

Larry said...

Thank you very much!