The First Recordings of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

By Brian Bell

Feb. 18

BSO on Record for this week, heard on Sunday, Feb. 20, at 2pm, is not exactly easy listening. But those who have heard this program in the past talk to me about it for months afterward.

The most recent recording in this show was made nearly 95 years ago, and so to call the hour "historic" is something of an understatement.  Some of these discs are one-of-kind, and several of them were not released for more than 75 years.

The bulk of the program consists of the complete surviving recordings of the Boston Symphony Orchestra with conductor Karl Muck (left, from Wikimedia Commons) made in October of 1917.  All but four of the nine sides (eight selections actually, as the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony finale is taken up by two 12" discs, that were recorded only on one side), were not released until 1995, when the BSO released the discs as part of the premiere issue of BSO Classics.

That's preceded by a rather noisy disc that is something akin to the Dead Sea scrolls. In 1912, an outfit in Boston, in evident violation of Edison's patents, made a series of recordings of BSO musicians, not sanctioned by the Boston Symphony. One of them was the concertmaster Anton Witek playing the Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2 for solo violin, which is exemplary musicianship in any age.

The hour begins with a series of discs that were brought to my attention in 2006.  The Boston Symphony Trombone Quartet discs were acquired by BSO Bass Trombonist Douglas Yeo, and the significance was ascertained when I discovered the listing in the Victor discography.  Immediately I had them transferred to CD for the most likely the first-ever broadcast on October 22, 2006.  There is a fabulous page Doug has put together, which I highly recommend.  Just visit his website.

But that's not all!  As soon as the broadcast took place, Thomas Vendetti e-mailed me about an earlier recording of a BSO musician, which indeed dates to the very earliest discs ever to emerge from what was to become the Victor Talking Machine company. It is 'cellist Alexander Heindl, who made recordings beginning in July of 1900. 

The really intriguing question is this:  is it the Alexander Heindl who apparently played Principal 'Cello in the Boston Symphony during the orchestra's first season in 1881 (that's him, to the left, courtesy of, or his younger relative, who played in the BSO from 1900 until 1907?  (Was it a son?  A nephew?  It's unclear;  isn't history fun?  Oh, and inconveniently - for us - he's also named Alexander Heindl...)  Something to ponder as you listen.


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