National Gramophonic Society

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This page presents a brief account of the National Gramophonic Society.

It is part of the site Classical 'Society' Records by Nick Morgan.

The brainchild of the novelist Compton Mackenzie, the NGS was the first body to fund recordings by subscriptions.

Active from late 1924 until early 1932, the Society issued 165 78 rpm discs (plus 2 extra sides), little known today, yet of considerable musical and historical value. For the Society's discography, see National Gramophonic Society discography.

A brief history

In 1922, the novelist Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) underwent a conversion. He was not musically trained but had come to enjoy listening to classical music 'live', and even performed himself it after a fashion, pedalling an organ which played perforated paper rolls. Sound recordings, on the other hand, he found so unbearable that he dismissed them out of hand. This was a problem, because he not only enjoyed music but positively needed it, as it helped him to write and pay his bills. So much so that his wife Faith (1878-1960), a talented pianist trained to concert standard, occasionally found herself obliged to play for him as he wrote, late into the night. In 1922, shopping for a player organ and rolls, Mackenzie was told they were discontinued and was persuaded to take a gramophone and some discs instead. Listening to them was a revelation: almost overnight Mackenzie became an ardent advocate of recorded music, especially chamber music, his favourite genre, which happened to record tolerably well. At the same time, he was incensed by what he saw as the record industry's wilful neglect of this and other 'good' music, and frustrated by the lack of independent advice on the best discs and machines to buy.

Never a shrinking violet, Mackenzie set out to plug both these gaps himself. In April 1923, he launched The Gramophone, effectively the world's first consumer magazine covering records and playback equipment; and in September 1923 he mooted 'a society which will aim at achieving for gramophone music what such societies as the Medici have done for the reproduction of paintings and for the printed book'. This wasn't Mackenzie's only scheme for getting more 'good' music recorded, but it was the one that worked: the National Gramophonic Society was launched in October 1924 and issued the first discs to its 300-odd subscriber-members in December. As well as being a workaholic, Mackenzie was a good delegator: he had already persuaded Faith's brother Christopher Stone (1882-1965) to help him edit The Gramophone, after which he also took on the running of the NGS.

Not content with founding the world's first subscription record label, Mackenzie decreed that it would only issue works new to disc, complete and uncut, so taking a stand against his twin bugbears of 'duplication' and 'cutting'. This policy also placated the commercial companies, who were sent the NGS's proposed recording programme to check if it clashed with theirs (it sometimes did, obliging the NGS to abandon chosen works). In another notable innovation, the Society's planned programme was then voted on by members, unfortunately adding another layer of bureaucracy. And of course, to record the winning works, artists had to be recruited, sessions organized, and test pressings 'passed'. These were tasks for trained professionals, for which the NGS formed an Advisory Committee of Gramophone critics and musicians, including the violinist and string quartet leader Edwin Spencer Dyke (1880-1946), who would make the largest number of recordings for the NGS (132 sides out of 332). The Society's second most prolific artist (some 90 sides) was André Mangeot (1883-1970), likewise a violinist and quartet leader; although not on the Advisory Committee, Mangeot seems to have shared with Spencer Dyke the job of recruiting artists, not least his own quartet, whose cellist was a young John Barbirolli (1899-1970).

It was for the NGS that Barbirolli made his debut recordings as a conductor, in January 1927. The Society's initial two 'seasons', which started in October, had produced solely chamber music, from duos to sextets. Besides these first orchestral issues, the 1926-27 season also brought the NGS's first electrical records, made by the Vocalion Gramophone Company, using the Marconi electrical process. The Society's earliest discs were produced by the Columbia Graphophone Company, reportedly on the orders of Sir Louis Sterling (Mackenzie's plans allegedly met with resistance from the industry), and at a discount. For reasons unknown, the Society soon switched to Parlophone, recently established in Britain, whose producer was Oscar Preuss (1889-1958), better known for hiring George Martin many years later. The NGS's partnership with Parlophone was also short-lived, and in early 1926 the Society teamed up with Vocalion, until the latter ceased producing 12-inch (30 cm) records in 1928. After a single Parlophone electrical production, the Society reverted to Columbia, from May 1928 until its last recording sessions in March 1931. Some NGS discs remained for sale into the 1950s, pressed by Columbia's parent company EMI, but all metal manufacturing parts were scrapped by early 1964.

Quite how Stone combined his job as NGS Secretary with that of London Editor of The Gramophone, not to mention being Britain's 'first disc jockey' (more or less) and an ever more vocal promoter of Britain's record and radio industries, is hard to fathom. He was briefly relieved by the Hon. Robert Gathorne-Hardy (1902-1973), now remembered as a novelist and writer on horticulture, but Stone soon had to resume the reins. Mangeot and others helped considerably with the musical side, while Cecil Pollard (1899-1965), business manager of The Gramophone (and, later, Editor and owner), exercised salutary control of the money side. Still, the NGS should be remembered as Stone's achievement as much as Mackenzie's. Strangely, the two shared an aversion to advertising, and the Society was poorly promoted, even, to begin with, in The Gramophone (incidentally, the Society was not a fully constituted business but only a subsidiary activity of the magazine's parent company, Gramophone Publications Ltd.), while advertisements in other publications were few and far between. Nor was this the Society's only self-inflicted problem. The subscription system proved restrictive and had to be progressively relaxed until it was abandoned, leaving the NGS in danger of not being able to fund its recordings. The membership split early into three factions: those who wanted 'modern' music, those who didn't, and those who just wanted to be told what to listen to. Amid ever lower turnout, the voting system was sidelined at the start of the 1929-30 season. By then, Gramophone Publications faced more serious trouble: in November 1929, weeks after the Wall Street Crash, Mackenzie launched Vox, a fortnightly radio review, with extra office space and staff. The magazine folded after fourteen numbers, threatening to take The Gramophone and NGS with it. The Society issued 28 discs that season but only four the following season and a final three in 1931-32. It was officially closed down in 1935.

It would be unfair to blame the NGS for its demise. In hindsight it appears ahead of its time, though not by much. Commercial companies, notably in Germany, were moving in the same direction, recording ever more chamber music, likewise uncut. Columbia and other British companies weren't far behind, and they soon pulled the rug from under the Society, adding insult to injury by 'duplicating' the NGS's choicest works. Whether the Society prompted this trend, as Mackenzie not unreasonably claimed, remains unproven; other factors were in play, not least broadcasting. In any case, chamber music was a niche interest; in the mid-1920s, as now, orchestral music was more of a draw, especially in the new electrical sound. It didn't help that the NGS acquired a reputation for indifferent quality and performances, not unfounded: its orchestral records do sound coarse. Artistic merit is more subjective, but commercial companies like Columbia had stars such as Hungary's Léner String Quartet on their books, and they could exploit them in ways the NGS could not hope to rival, for instance recording the first complete cycle of Beethoven's string quartets to mark the centenary of the composers' death in 1927.

Size mattered, in the end. Mackenzie's 'society' idea was visionary, but it took the global reach of HMV, plus the perfectionism of producer Walter Legge (1906-1979), to realise its potential. In December 1931, Legge attended the launch of the NGS's last issue, the premiere recording of Peter Warlock's The Curlew, and treated those present to a preview of his own new project: HMV's Hugo Wolf Society. He had surely borrowed Mackenzie's idea, though he never said as much in public, and he knew HMV could secure Elena Gerhardt or Arthur Schnabel, unlike the NGS (remarkably, members had discussed engaging Schnabel as early as January 1929). By then, it seemed Mackenzie had long lost interest in his Society, but it's fairer to say that he was after 'good music', first and foremost, and didn't mind who provided it. Sure enough, he immediately threw The Gramophone's weight behind Legge's project, begging readers to sign up when it looked as if HMV might not reach its target of 500 subscribers.

HMV's Wolf, Beethoven Sonata, Haydn Quartet Societies and so on – and others from Columbia, Decca and Parlophone – are the greatest legacy of the NGS, if an indirect one. (Less well known are the small record societies it inspired in Japan and the USA.) But its own catalogue is also historically important and, in places, artistically rich. The Society's most obvious achievements are first recordings by Barbirolli and Constant Lambert (1905-1951) as conductors, by the pianist Kathleen Long (1896-1968), the horn player Aubrey Brain (1893-1955) as soloist, the French flautist René Le Roy (1898-1985), the mainly Italian Poltronieri String Quartet (1923-1950), and the piano duo of Ethel Bartlett (1896-1978) and Rae Robertson (1893-1956), as well as early solo recordings by the oboist Leon Goossens (1897-1988). Important in a different way are the Society's recordings of now-forgotten artists who were stalwarts of Britain's chamber music scene in the 1920s and beyond, not least the Spencer Dyke String Quartet and André Mangeot's Music Society and International String Quartets. It may come as a surprise to learn that for the NGS these ensembles made the first ever sound recordings of a work by Arnold Schoenberg, and of chamber music by Henry Purcell, Orlando Gibbons, Matthew Locke, Arnold Bax and Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Society also preserved rare recordings by such figures as the viola-player Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), now more celebrated as a composer, Eugene Goossens III (1893-1962), playing his own music on his sole disc as a pianist, and the composer, pianist and editor Donald Tovey (1875-1940), who made only one other record. Other precious recordings document the Marie Wilson Quartet, the first British all-female quartet on 78s, and the Cobbett Quartet, led by the industrialist, patron and champion of chamber music Walter Willson Cobbett (1847-1937), whose playing gives a strong flavour of nineteenth-century bourgeois domestic music-making.

Very few of these had been transferred to newer media before 2008, when Pristine Classical started a comprehensive NGS series. That remained incomplete and is now deleted, but transfers by the CHARM project and collector Bryan Bishop are still freely available online, supplemented by the odd commercial CD and/or download (all listed in this discography). In early 2021, CRQ Editions began to publish a series of new transfers by Jolyon Hudson: the fruit of deep expertise and long experiments, especially with acoustical recordings, they promise to give the NGS's somewhat variable productions a new lease of life.