This extraordinary effort by the Department of Special Collections of the Donald C. Davidson Library at UC Santa Barbara has made thousands of early cylinder recordings available for listening on the Internet. They include vaudeville performances, classical music, every conceivable variety of American folk music and much more.
One pleasure of this collection is that it gives us a window into what music used to sound like before recording changed it forever. Of course, cylinders imposed their very specific limitations — hiss that had to be punched through, time limits — but the music recorded in the teens must nevertheless reflect the sounds of live performance of the era, if only because the most popular stage artists would have been the ones contracted to make cylinders.
How different was music then? Take a couple of opera tracks: Addio del passato (1913), performed by Adelina Agostinelli, and Pagliacci (1910), sung by Florencio Constantino. The vocal vibratto on these performances is notably restrained compared with what is standard today.
Another fascinating piece is Beethoven’s Menuett (1913), played by the Tollefsen Trio with a loose, ragged feel that would today be scoffed at as hopelessly unprofessional. The tone is closer to Irish folk dance than to classical performance today, and this strikes me as the essence of what has gone wrong in classical music (and, more recently, jazz): technical proficiency has reached an extraordinarily high level that can only be matched through years of rigorous schooling, leading to a deadened academic mannerism. In the classical world there has been much emphasis on remaining true to the scores as composed, but it strikes me as deeply false to play Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and the rest with a technical precision that didn’t exist in their day and has only become possible with recording technology, just as it would be false to play Renaissance music on 19th-century instruments. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of divergence or reinterpretation, but it should be understood as such, and not as a true rendering of the sound-world in which the composers would have lived and composed.