Phonograph Monthly Review: A Forgotten Publication?


Phonograph Monthly Review (PMR) was first published in October 1926. Two of the three words in its title are fitting--"monthly" and "review." This was a monthly publication featuring many reviews of new record releases, especially of classical music. PMR adopted the 22nd of each month as a publication date since it allowed time not only for manufacturers to send the coming month's record releases but for PMR's writers to write brief reviews. A third word in its title, "phonograph," might suggest to modern readers a publication devoted to talking machine technology, but only occasionally are new technical developments discussed--notably, the Victor Auditorium Orthophonic Victrola ("world's most powerful instrument") installed at Loew's State Theatre, new phono-radio models, and the newly introduced long-playing "transcription" disc.

Axel B. Johnson, who signed his articles "A.B.J," was PMR's founder and managing editor, with Moses Smith serving as associate editor. When Johnson took a leave from PMR in 1930 after his wife died, Robert Donaldson Darrell served as managing editor, with Johnson eventually returning as associate editor. Richard G. Appel was literary editor. PMR's editorial office was at 64 Hyde Park Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts. Its business office was at 101 Milk Street. A yearly subscription was three dollars. Single issues sold for a quarter.

Executives of large recording companies contributed articles, but PMR was no mouthpiece for these companies. An editorial in the debut issue states, "The entire capital stock of The Phonograph Publishing Company is owned by a few enthusiastic music lovers; not a single share is owned--or can be owned--by any one connected with the trade, either directly or indirectly. The initial expenses covering the preliminary work have amounted to no less than $11,000. Our monthly up to $2600. Therefore it can easily be seen that strong support in the form of subscriptions is needed to carry on the work." Judging by the few copies of PMR that have survived, I assume it never had a large circulation. PMR lasted only six years. Major companies paid for advertising in PMR's early years but most stopped by 1931, a consequence of the nation's deplorable economic conditions.

PMR's editors were chiefly interested in symphonic music, or "serious music." According to an early editorial, "This magazine is to the United States what the 'Gramophone' is to Great Britain and bids fair in its splendidly edited pages to rival the 'Gramophone.'" (That British publication even today enjoys a healthy circulation.) However, PMR evolved so that "popular" music was also covered. When Louis Katzman, manager of Brunswick's Recording Laboratories, wrote for the November 1929 issue, it was to praise the journal's balance: "My reason for being so fond of the Phonograph Monthly Review is that it has always represented all branches of music." This is the Katzman found on many record labels, such as on Brunswick discs of the late 1920s.

I say "serious music" because the phrase is used by PMR's writers. Contributor John S. Macdonald uses it in the May 1927 issue: "There was a time when among music lovers, there was comparatively little respect for phonograph records of serious music, because in most cases the music was either poorly performed or poorly recorded or perhaps both, but that day has long gone by." Macdonald may have been thinking of Berliner discs and brown wax cylinders--that is, products of the era during which he began working in the industry. PMR introduces Macdonald as Columbia's recording director and a former Victor recording director, never mentioning that he was a tenor who, years earlier, recorded prolifically under the name Harry Macdonough. Macdonald died on September 26, 1931--unexpectedly, according to industry insiders--and the October 1931 issue of PMR paid tribute by summarizing his remarkable career in "J.S. MacDonald [sic] ('Harry MacDonough' [sic])." Details had been provided by "that indefatigable historian, Mr. Ulysses J. Walsh." Jim Walsh contributed often to PMR.

The magazine catered to a new type of collector--namely, the listener primarily interested in symphonies, concertos, complete operas, and chamber music. With electrical recording came a demand for recordings of long orchestral works, invariably issued in handsome albums (PMR praises Otto Heineman of Okeh-Odeon for being "the first to make the entire nine symphonies of Beethoven available"). Many record buyers of the Orthophonic era were new consumers. They had been indifferent to recordings of the acoustic era.

The late 1920s was an exciting time for symphonic music lovers. Through radio, many people were hearing for the first time complex works performed by great orchestras directed by famous conductors (it should be noted, however, that PMR regularly condemned radio for not doing enough to promote "musical literacy"). With the advent of electric recording, many of these same works were being recorded for the first time, enabling music lovers to own a work in some permanent form, a form that allowed for repeated listenings. People were able to hear and study these works in a new way. Today we take for granted that we may play a favorite passage of recorded music over and over. But in the early years of the electric era it was a new type of listening experience for lovers of symphonic music.

To put it another way, American urban dwellers before this time could enter concert halls to enjoy performances of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. With radios entering homes for the first time, many more people heard this work in its entirety. Of course, if one had a favorite movement, there was no way to stop a performance to hear that movement again. When Columbia issued a 12-part recording of Berlioz's work in March 1926, people for the first time could hear a favorite section over and over.

Understanding a complex musical work and appreciating a particular performance is easier when repeated listening is possible. PMR's editors and readers, excited by important musical works being recorded for the first time, understood this. The editor states on the June 1930 issue's opening page, "It is one of the phonograph's peculiar and most valuable talents to give the opportunity for comparative analysis and a close scrutiny of details that would be quite unthinkable in the concert hall." John S. Macdonald may be correct in stating in the May 1927 issue, "The most outstanding development in the record business in recent years is the recording of complete Symphonies by the leading orchestras of the world under the direction of the most celebrated conductors."

At the time of PMR's first issue, the industry was completing the transition from acoustic to electric recording. In PMR's May 1927 issue, Nat Shilkret discusses difficulties with recording tenor voices: "The tenor voice gave us plenty of grief for a while. At first they sounded rather thick, like baritones. At times hollow; but all voices finally were conquered." This helps explain why Billy Murray's early Orthophonic 78s are uneven in quality.

In an interview for the September 1927 issue, tenor Franklyn Baur made clear his preference for the new recording process: "The invention of the electrical process was of greater significance than the average layman realizes. Not only are the finished records incomparably better from every standpoint, but the strain on the singer is immeasurably eased. A record can be made in exactly one-third the time it used to take, and no longer is it necessary for us to nearly crack our throats singing into that hated horn..."

Phonograph societies were being formed. PMR promoted these, stating, "Can your community afford to be without a Phonograph Society? ...Write in to us for information and assistance." Societies were for lovers of recorded symphonic music: "Purpose: To bring together persons interested in the better grade of music as represented by phonographic recordings. Object: To provide opportunities for hearing and comparing new and unusual records of American and Foreign origin...Also to provide for discussions and occasional talks on matters of interest to the members." Societies were not formed for jazz aficionados. Nobody at this time would have understood a need for lovers of jazz recordings to meet for exchanging information and listening to discs.

The ideal phonograph society, according to articles, had for each meeting a leader who is "fair and without prejudice"; a suitable place for meeting, preferably "a lodge room, hall or dealer's display room...and not someone's home"; and the co-operation of record manufacturers as well as distributors, who were to supply samples. Articles urged that programs be varied, with talks ranging from disc manufacturing to the phonograph's role in schools. Each program should feature "a demonstration of some new recording or a comparison of various recordings of some selection."

These societies, sometimes called gramophone societies, were established in Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Boston, but I find no evidence that any society flourished. Letters to PMR indicate that, in contrast to Britain's many gramophone societies, American cities sustained phonograph societies only with difficulty. (Monthly meetings of the New York Gramophone Society, with a board of governors including John Secrist, Bert Annenberg, John Christie, Robert Nathan, and Ely Winer, were enthusiastically attended, but it was started in the mid-1950s.)

PMR's editors were charter members of Boston Gramophone Society, and this society seemed better organized and better publicized than any other. Jim Walsh wrote a letter to PMR to express interest in joining a society in his part of Virginia. His town of Marion was far too small, however, to sustain such an organization.

Phonograph societies are described as formal organizations, but I suspect that at least some "societies" were groups of friends who met informally in homes for the purpose of sharing recordings. After all, recordings were expensive. For example, Chopin's Piano Concerto in F Minor, issued as a set of records in late 1930 by Columbia as Masterworks 143, had a retail price of $6.00. Only the wealthy could afford to purchase each month more than one or two newly issued sets.

It may seem odd that organizations formed for the promotion of "serious" music were termed phonograph societies, which to modern readers may sound more appropriate for a group of machine collectors. But in the late 1920s no hobbyists were organized for the preservation of talking machines, so there was no confusion then about the purpose of a "phonograph society."

Researchers, professional and amateur musicians, company executives, and classical music enthusiasts in general contributed to PMR. Nat Shilkret wrote in installments about his career, calling the series "My Musical Life." Columbia had two years earlier begun issuing its Masterworks series (in November 1924), and many of the company's executives took a keen interest in PMR, including not only John S. Macdonald but Frank Dorian, George C. Jell, and H.C. Cox (who, beginning in March 1925, served as President of the newly organized Columbia Phonograph Company, Inc.). RCA-Victor President E.E. Schumaker wrote an article titled "Television" for the December 1930 issue. Walter L. Welch, who would decades later co-write From Tin Foil To Stereo, discusses cylinders in a letter in the October 1930 issue.

PMR was, as far as I can tell, the first American publication to feature on a regular basis articles written by some writers who were primarily interested in old recordings and the industry's early years. One such writer, George W. Oman, wondered aloud about the origins of Busy Bee machines and recordings, and in a subsequent issue a Columbia Research Department employee explained how the Busy Bee came from "a premium house in Chicago operated by the O'Neill-James Company," adding that "their General Sales Manager was Mr. Bisbee, hence the origin of the name, 'Busy Bee.'" Additional background information was given about Busy Bee as well as the American Record Company (maker of the odd-sized blue discs that collectors often identify by the Indian on its label).

Letters sent by various PMR readers indicate that as early as 1930 Jim Walsh was recognized as an authority on "popular" recordings of the past. Interested in both "popular" and "serious" recordings of the past was S.E. Levy. He resided in Shanghai and in 1928 wrote about "phonographic conditions" in that part of China. He died in 1931, as Jim Walsh informed PMR readers. Walsh called Levy "the world's foremost authority on old records."

Writing authoritatively about early opera recordings was William Henry Seltsam (1897-1968), then residing at 318 Reservoir Avenue, Bridgeport, Connecticut. His first contribution was in PMR's August 1930 issue, an article titled "The Ballets of Igor Strawinski [Stravinsky]." Seltsam is identified as "a dancer, a pupil of Mikhail Mordkin, and one of the first to utilize an electrical phonograph and recorded ballet music in ballet presentations and dance recitals."

Seltsam is now remembered as author of Metropolitan Opera Annals and, among record collectors, as founder of the International Record Collectors' Club (IRCC), the formation of which he proudly announced in the February 1932 issue:

"I am convinced that there is a demand for the historical record. To test my theory more fully I am founding the International Record Collectors' Club, the policy being to unearth and offer special editions of these rarities. The club will be run somewhat similarly to the record-of-the-month plan, with, however, the omission of the dues fee ....While many very rare matrices are being traced in Europe, our first issue will be an American recording...Two 10" recordings of Miss Farrar's voice which have never been published or offered for sale in any form have been found....Miss Farrar has given our club special permission to issue these recordings in a limited edition. The edition will consist of numbered copies, the first 100 to be personally autographed on one of the labels by Miss Farrar."

As early as June 1931 Seltsam wrote to PMR's readers about having approached Columbia to urge "pressings of an early Edouard DeReszke record."

Upon publishing the March 1932 issue, PMR became defunct, a victim of the Great Depression. It had too few subscribers. It had become a very thin journal in the 1930s. The death of PMR coincided with John Philip Sousa's death--editor Axel B. Johnson open PMR's final issue by paying tribute to Sousa ("In Memorian").

A successor to PMR was The Musical Record, edited by Richard J. Magruder (Volume 1, Number 1 appeared in June 1933).

I could write more about what is in PMR's pages, but PMR should speak for itself. I have duplicated several pages and include them as special inserts with recent issues of V78J. I have also duplicated the best pages in spiral-bound books.

A remarkable article--Irving Kaufman making Okeh records.