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Desmond Shawe-Taylor

For a long while successive periods in the history of the gramophone (or phonograph) tended to follow one another at approximately 25-year intervals. The invention itself dates from 1877, the year in which the Frenchman Charles Cros (1842–88) deposited with the Académie des Sciences a paper containing proposals for the reproduction of sound, without putting his theories to a practical test, and in which an American, Thomas Edison (1847–1931), independently began to study sound recording and reproduction as part of his wider researches into telegraphy, and was soon able to recite Mary had a Little Lamb into a crude recording horn and to hear his words immediately and recognizably played back.

Thereafter, nothing very momentous happened until the last decade of the century. The early death of Cros and Edison’s lack of interest in the musical possibilities of his invention left the field open for a while to the apparently extensive and important but somewhat shadowy achievements of an Italian cavalry officer, Lt Gianni Bettini, who indulged in activities of considerable scope and value, and actually recorded the voice of Pope Leo XIII in his 93rd year. With the exception of an undoubtedly genuine recording of the great Polish soprano, Marcella Sembrich, which was romantically discovered in the attic of a New Zealand hotel, scrupulously dubbed and made generally available in ...