Sunday, 9 June 2013

Best friend with Charles Ives

 Elie Robert Schmitz (Piano)

Debussy: Arabesque No. 2 in G Major
Debussy: Children's Corner - Suite  
5. The Little Shepherd  6. Golliwogg's Cake Walk  

Edison Diamond Disc 80690
[18261 B-1-7; 18262 B-2-2]
Recorded: Saturday 25th February 1928

Chopin: Nocturne in F Sharp Major Op. 15, No. 2
Chopin: Waltz in C Sharp Minor Op. 64, No. 2

Edison Diamond Disc 80696
[18590 B-1-3; 18591 B-1-2]
Recorded: Monday 25th June 1928

Link (FLAC files, 73 MB)

I don't think these four electrically recorded solos played by  Elie Robert Schmitz (1889-1949) on Edison have ever surfaced on CD or the Internet. The Schumann Piano Quintet Op 44 (see below) is however available through the British Library site but only to Europeans so I thought I should tag this recording onto the end. I also recommend listening to Bryan's transfer at Shellackophile blog of Beethoven: Piano Quartet in E-Flat, Op. 16 with members of the Roth String Quartet.

A biography of Schmitz can be found on Wikipedia and Yale University (who hold his archive) has an even more fulsome details. Being both well acquainted with Debussy and his works and a pupil of Louis Diémer, teacher of Cortot among many others, his small recorded output ought to have had more exposure.

I don't agree with Charles Timbrell's assessment (in his essay on Debussy in Performance in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy) that Schmitz playing was affected due to an injury on his left hand during the First World War and that it 'may account for the inelegant and erratic playing heard on his Debussy recordings.' Trimbell had access to only the recordings of Debussy Preludes Books I & II from 1947 but still I think he has misunderstood Schmitz's interpretations.

Of the Chopin the middle section of the Nocturne is quite magical and I would dearly have like to heard more of Schmitz's Chopin playing, especially so considering his pedagogical lineage.

I feel a better assessment of this musician place in the history of performance is better understood by Ronald V. Wiecki in his article (Two Musical Idealists - Charles Ives and E. Robert Schmitz: A Friendship Reconsidered American Music Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1992), pp. 1-19.) Wiecki also gives cogent reasons why Schmitz is near forgotten, and when remembered, often misunderstood:-

'For a number of interconnected and complex reasons, Schmitz's importance, not only for Ives, but also for the history of music in America between the two world wars, has been overlooked. In part, this is because his musical and cultural ideals were at odds with the dominant trend of the time toward commercialization of "classical" music and reliance on "superstar" virtuosi. But, in addition, Schmitz's internationalist outlook in music means that he does not fit easily into the nationalistic perspective of historians studying the emergence of post-World War I "American Music." From his early association with American composers such as Emerson Whithorne and Leo Sowerby through Ives to Virgil Thomson, Schmitz was a friend of American music more committed than many American-born musicians. Schmitz has fallen into relative obscurity because he has been commonly perceived as insufficiently "modern."' his, in spite of the fact that the composers he championed were at the time considered to be among those seriously committed to carrying on the musical tradition through the combination of both old and new elements.' 

Elie Robert Schmitz (Piano) & 
Philharmonic String Quartet of New York
Scipione Guidi (vn), Arthur Lichstein (vn), 
Louis E. Barzin (va), Osvaldo Mazzucchi (vc)

Schumann Piano Quintet Op 44 (abridged)  
Edison Diamond Disc 80885-80886
[18051 B-1-3; 18052 C-2-1; 18055 C-1-2; 18056 C-1-3 [1-1] ]
Recorded: Tuesday 22nd  & Wednesday 23rd November 1927

Link (FLAC files, 90 MB)

Of the Schumann Piano Quintet one member of the Philharmonic Quartet remembered the recording session and was none too happy about the result:-

HARVITHS: We know that you took part in a recording of the Schumann Piano Quintet for Edison in the late 1920s, with E. Robert Schmitz and the Philharmonic String Quartet of New York.
BARZIN: I wasn't at all happy with that quintet release [issued on Edison Diamond Discs EDD 80885/6, out of print]. If I hadn't been bound by contract, I wouldn't have allowed it to be released.
Schmitz was a French pianist who came to this country. He wanted to record, and his outlet was Edison. He knew me from Europe, so he came to me, mentioned the upcoming recording, and I said, "Well, if you want to play that quintet, use the Philharmonic Quartet. Why go and get four strangers?" That's how the project started.
HARVITHS: As a musician who recorded for both Victor and Edison in the 1920s, how would you compare the behind-the-scenes recording operations of the two companies?
BARZIN: You know, that dog in front of the horn is quite a symbol. The professional music world completely disregarded Edison. The people who registered the sound at the other companies knew more about what they were registering and therefore tried to get more fidelity and a sense of live music.;
HARVITHS: And you felt that musicians were more in control at the Victor Company?
BARZIN: Much more. The staff was geared totally differently. At Victor you kept in contact with a musician who was the head of what they called serious music. There was the sheet music department, you had the jazz department. I mean, they had people who handled things. It was better organized, and certainly commercially they were much better, distribution was much greater.
At Edison you didn't know. There was no musician attached to the department. You might have been talking to a very good, efficient bureaucrat, yes. But you were never talking directly to a musician. They just worked from a scientific point of view. They were never interested in the relation of the tone of a violin to the tone of a viola, for instance. They just let us play through the quintet, and they took it. They never said, "This bar or this passage could be clearer." They just took it, and that was it. The other companies made you play it six or seven times before they would make a take.
HARVITHS: What kind of reliance do you think present-day musicians can place on recordings of forty, fifty, sixty years ago?
BARZIN: Reliance is purely nostalgic.
HARVITHS: You really don't think there is anything of substance that we can rely on in those recordings?
BARZIN: Well I hear, for instance, pianists say "X," and they go into ecstasy. I hear a recording of "X" and I say, "Yes, he must have been great, but that's not the way he played." Artists sit in the studio and repeat and repeat. Or they finally say, "All right! I allow you to send this out." But inwardly, they're not very happy. Understand what I mean? They're never
HARVITHS: What do you think the advantage of recording has proved to be, then?
BARZIN: Purely as home recreation. "I heard Schnabel; I'd love to have him home." That was the original idea. If I could hear today a recording of [violinist Eugene] Ysaye, I wouldn't care if it was a terrible recording. Because having known him, I'd say, "Oh, yes, but this is the way I hear
him." I hear him as a human being; I don't hear him because of the record. I hear what he would have done.
HARVITHS: So you would say that anyone who listens to recordings would have to have an idea of what the artist sounded like in person?
BARZIN: I think so. I think there should be some kind of human contact.

Edison, musicians, and the phonograph : a century in retrospect edited by John Harvith and Susan Edwards Harvith. New York : Greenwood Press, c1987 (pp. 170-171).

Slightly earlier in the interview Barzin complains of playbacks sounding different from the performance. From this I believe that the pitch problems in the Edison's – apart from the balance and abridgement of the piece, caused his negative judgement.  

The first side starts about a quarter-tone down and sinks another quarter tone towards the end – the next three side are about a half-tone out and again are not consistent. In fact Edison Diamond Discs seem to have a tendency to speed up or slow down! I have managed to correct this annoying habit in these downloads.

The usual problems with Edison is the amount of rumble and the variability of the pressings - I'd rather leave in the noise than loose any of the sound.


  1. As always, completely unexpected and beautifully done. Barzin does seem to go around in circles in his comments, though.

    1. Thanks again Buster

      Maybe after 50 odd years Barzin could not quite remember the event but felt sore.

      As usual three takes A, B & C of each side would have been made and the best of these issued. In comparison to say the Lener or Budapest and other quartets recording at this time I suppose he felt he could have done better and could have achieved more fame and more recordings if he had been with say Victor

      This abridged version would have been available for a short period before Edison Co collapsed so I doubt the recording had good sales. Most people would be buying the Flonzaley Quartet with Ossip Gabrilovich on Victor. Makes me wonder why they chose this piece - maybe the thought there was a gap in the market that Edison format could plug


  2. Haven't listened to the Schumann, but, wow... Thanks! Are there more recordings of Schmitz?

    1. Dear Brian

      Thanks for your note

      These are what I am aware of

      For Edison
      CHOPIN: Waltz in E minor, B.56 - (acoustic recording)

      For Victor
      DEBUSSY: Preludes Books I & II, Suite
      DEBUSSY: Bergamasque
      DEBUSSY: Reverie
      RAVEL: Pavane pour one infante d'Honte

      For Columbia all with Roth Quartet
      BRAHMS Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34 (unpublished)
      FRANCK, Work: Quintet In F Minor
      BEETHOVEN, Work: Piano Quintet in E-flat major

      Also some Debussy piano works for Columbia unpublished and group of piano rolls and maybe some live recordings.

      What I would give to hear Charles Ives and Schmitz playing piano duets. They seemed to do a lot of improvisati

  3. Nice to have these here! Two things I should mention in regards to Edisons - one is that these discs lose much of their rumble when played on an Edison machine, especially if using the "New Standard" or "Edisonic" reproducer the company introduced in 1927 to get the best out of their new electrically-recorded records, and the horn on Edison Disc Phonographs is actually acoustically well-designed and very responsive. (Hearing these on an all-electric Edison C-1 or C-2 phonograph from 1928-29 is something else again; their inbuilt equalization and top-grade Peerless speakers designed for these specific discs make them sound better than any other electrical discs of their time. The problem is that those machines are not only rare, but their lack of a mechanical feed for their heavy magnetic soundboxes means that they can wear the records much more easily than earlier Edison instruments.) Secondly, although Edison's acoustically recorded piano solos are generally very vividly engineered, the Chopin E minor waltz was unusually weakly recorded, and all the pressings I've encountered have substandard sound. Schmitz also made some piano rolls of Debussy for Ampico, and they are also quite lively and expressive.

  4. Your comment also about why they chose the Schumann is also interesting - I think those two discs are actually the earliest electrical recordings released in Edison's 80000 series, which was basically their high-end "classical" series, and they were attempting to make their first serious chamber music sets, not only in Diamond Discs, but preparing for a planned shift to lateral-cut discs. Two of the works they recorded, the B flat trio by Schubert (which is the longest work Edison ever recorded, requiring four discs) and a Haydn trio, were actually available in both formats; as rare as the DD issues are, the gold-label "Needle Cut" 12-inch issues are infinitely rarer, as they were on sale for only a few weeks in the late summer of 1929.

  5. I have heard these discs played on an Edison and they do loose a good amount of rumble, but the lower harmonics are often quite restricted on the Edison machines. I don't play anything on old machines as a rule as the records suffer; and placing a mike in front of an Edison machine really does not do either the machine or the records justice. I don't think any needle-cuts came to the UK although the Edison DD of the trio & quartet did cross the Atlantic and where also marketed in Australia and New Zealand. The Schubert as a competitor for the famous Casals/Cortot/Thibaud on HMV - you will find that on another page of this blog by the way the Edison DD version.

    I now have the other Edison DD by Schmitz but have not put it yet but will do! Edison got some quite good piano tone from his acoustics - he used a very long 3 foot diam. bronze pipe which seemed to have helped with the tone.The pipe was carted off as scrap for the war effort in the early 1940s I believe.