Home » Technology » from laboratory curiosity to cultural steamroller

from laboratory curiosity to cultural steamroller

By Nicholas Six

Published on December 26, 2021 at 3:00 p.m. – Updated on December 28, 2021 at 3:29 p.m.

In the galleries of the Museum of Arts and Crafts, a mediator turns the crank of an old phonograph… and it’s time that she goes back. Surprisingly powerful sound springs from the bell of the device, releasing the voice of a singer who rolls the “r”. The lyrics are hardly intelligible, but the magic happens instantly: it feels like we’re back in the Belle Epoque.

The Hanged Man, performed in 1898 by André Maréchal.

How not to think of the first listeners of the phonograph, at the end of the 19the century? Some had already encountered the idea of ​​recorded music in ancient myths. Many had listened to the barrel organs playing crude mechanical scores. None were prepared to listen such an extraordinarily faithful recording. “People are taken aback and fascinated. Some do not believe in it and make accusations of rigging, ventriloquism, “ relate Sophie Maisonneuve, sociologist and author of The Invention of the Record: 1877-1949 (Contemporary Archives).

Beethoven in fanfare

In France, the first public hearings took place in 1878, but the success was not immediate. For ten years, the apparatus remained an interesting laboratory curiosity, above all marvelous lovers. It must be said that the sound quality of the phonograph is mediocre: “He transforms the voice of the most gifted baritone into an open voice”, note, in 1879, the writer Arnold Mortier.

The musicians are forced to record with particularly sonorous instruments: Ludwig van Beethoven is thus interpreted by a brass band. However, the phonograph passed a qualitative milestone in 1888 when Thomas Edison modified the cylinder on which the music was engraved: henceforth, wax replaced tin.

The notoriety of the device suddenly jumped during the Universal Exhibition of 1889, which drained twenty-three million visitors. On the Edison stand, more than ten people can listen simultaneously The Marseillaise. You have to imagine them, earphones on their ears, deeply moved by what they hear. “We have no idea of ​​the emotional shock experienced by the first practitioners”, explains Elizabeth Giuliani, director emeritus of the music department at the National Library of France.

Time and space travel

Brains are not prepared for it: the ear is accustomed to hearing sounds emanating from its immediate vicinity, but with the phonograph the person singing is invisible – many listeners are moved by this absence. “They don’t know where to look, it freezes them”, reports Sophie Maisonneuve. Moreover, the voice does not speak from the present, it springs from the past. Time is no longer a river that flows with constancy and clarity, “it becomes a millefeuille” judge Bertrand Tillier, historian and co-director of the Center d’histoire du XIXe century. The ear will have to develop its ability to navigate through time.

You have 71.43% of this article left to read. The following is for subscribers only.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.