The Infamous "Brahms Cylinders" of 1889: Research and Restoration
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The Infamous "Brahms Cylinders" of 1889: Research and Restoration

An interpretation of the "Brahms Cylinders" of 1889, restored by Jonathan Berger. Advanced technology, but was it the real thing in the first place?

In the mid 1990’s, Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics released some groundbreaking information to the public about a genuine recording of Johannes Brahms playing his own works on a wax cylinder from 1889.

Or, was it?

Jonathan Berger began work on his Brahms project at Yale, where he was a founding director of the Center for Studies in Music Technology.  Before coming to Stanford, Archivist Richard Warner had set him on a quest to unearth the music in an acetate LP transferred from a wax cylinder recording. One musicologist described it as so noisy that “any musical value heard can be charitably described as the product of a pathological imagination.” Most listeners could not tell that a piano was playing. Various attempts to filter and enhance the recording had yielded nothing of musicological significance. Berger’s challenge was to separate out the noise, then digitally represent the music, staying true to the original.

For Berger, the results of his analysis were surprising. While not perfect or musically pleasing—the fidelity was low and the sound gritty—the excavated performance revealed some surprises about how Brahms interpreted his own music. He improvised.

The reception to the original cylinder and the selected restored version has been met with mixed impressions. When he published his findings, Berger received hate mail. Music restoration is as controversial a pursuit as art restoration. One of the problems with the Brahms recording is that it begins at measure thirteen, a harmonically unsettled moment. Berger had to use his analysis of the available fragment to extrapolate what the entire composition would have sounded like.

More significantly, the spoken text at the start of the cylinder recording has been wrongly attributed as belonging to Brahms. Numerous writers, scholars and amateurs have speculated that Brahms introduces himself with the words "I am Doctor Brahms, Johannes Brahms". However a number of factors raise serious doubts as to who is speaking. The only mention of the recording by someone who was present (in the published memoires of Fellinger's son) states that Brahms was introduced. Considering the time between the announcement and the start of the music it seems improbable that the same person could segue from speech to playing so quickly particularly given the technological limitations.

The denoised excerpt reveals enough of the speech to suggest that the speaker (most likely Wangemann) introduces Brahms as follows:

"...Dezember Achtzehnhundertachtundneunzig. Haus von Herrn Doktor Fellinger, bei mir ist Doktor Brahms, Johannes Brahms".

and is translated to "...December Eighteen Hundred Eighty Nine. House of Mr. Fellinger, with me is Doctor Brahms, Johannes Brahms."

Here is a link to Dr. Berger’s original Bose acetate cylinder, with no restoration to the sound at all.  You will need to have Windows Media Player installed on your computer to play the file:

And here is a link to one of the restored versions. This LCT denoised version has had many layers of distortion removed. The cylinder itself had layers of debris removed with a fine brush even before years of sensitive denoising techniques were employed to create this particular audio file, however, it does not contain a midi overlay. Some versions use an overlay to clarify the piano playing by playing along with it in unison to demonstrate the speed and style of playing. This example, in my opinion, is the clearest and most pure restoration.  You will also need Windows Media Player to open this file:

Are they genuine?

That depends on the question of what they are, and who is playing.  This was a hotly debated topic 15 years ago. Many debated the topic based on the scores of the Hungarian Rhapsodies.  My take on it, in brief, is that the recordings are real, but they are probably not exactly what popular opinion is leaning towards. First of all, Brahms would never have introduced himself, or had himself introduced as “Dr” Brahms, because he never held or used that title. It may indeed be Wangemann introducing the music on the cylinder, but only if it is Brahms.

Considering the actual music played on this cylinder, I don’t find evidence that it is Brahms playing. Just prior to this cylinder of 1889, he had premiered his own Piano Concerto. Playing ( not to mention composing) at that level of proficiency requires enormous accuracy and consistency. The player on this cylinder deviates very far from the printed music as we know it today – so far a deviation, that it seems too unlikely to be Brahms. The wrong notes, far strays from the meter and rhythm, musical liberties outside of the realm of the typical Brahms suggest that either Brahms was devoted to far-reaching improvisation, or simply that someone else was playing.

Making a cylinder in 1889 was a project, even for the well-to-do. While this probably isn’t a rank amateur attempt at playing the music of Brahms, and was very likely recorded at the home of Dr. Fellinger, my best estimation is that this is most likely an amateur recording made at the hand of a wealthy friend of Dr. Fellinger, who was pretending to appear like Brahms at a dinner recital. If that scenario is true, it would not be as fantastic a discovery as Brahms himself speaking, or better yet, playing, but would still be collectible as an authentic piece of history for Edison cylinder aficionados.

* The cover image is an Edison wax cylinder recorder, ca. 1887.


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Comments (7)

Nice job!

Thank you, James.

Fascinating insight into the research process within the field of music. I can relate to a lot of these problems, but in my case it's with dusty architectural plans.

Thanks, Michael. Every field has its fossils. In music, it's mostly evaluating old manuscript, a topic that has been very exciting for me. But recovering audio is a much newer science and will continue to pose questions as the huge amount of unreleased and out-of-print vinyl pops up.

I have Windows Media Player, but still can't open it. Is there another access?

James: I honestly do not know. I tried the links on three different devices and they all worked for me. The PC used WMP, my friend's Mac also used WMP and the phone used streaming something-or-other. My only thought is that your player might need updating, but beyond that, I'm confounded, sorry.

No problem. I'll keep working on it.