On the Imitative Aristocracy, the Democracy of Industry, and the Inadequacy of Pianissimo
1. Vess L. Ossman’s Banjo Orchestra: “Razzle Dazzle”
We’re still forming a picture of what music was at the turn of the twentieth century, and while we tend to think of ever-multipling branches as time moves forward, that doesn’t mean that music was ever one solid trunk at any time in history. Certainly not this recently. We’ve had minstrelsy, musical comedy, and opera—now we have three instrumentals. Vocal music has traditionally been only a small part of popular music; the post-60s focus on lyrics is historically an outlier, as dance fans know.
Vess L. Ossman was perhaps the most popular recorded instrumentalist of his day. He was a banjoist, and he was the Benny Goodman, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, or Eminem of the era—which is to say he was a white performer who had immense success with an originally black form: ragtime.
“Razzle Dazzle” isn’t strictly ragtime, however; it’s a cakewalk. The difference is mostly in the rhythm, but we’ll get more into that when we encounter genuine ragtime on down the line. The thing to know about the cakewalk is that it was a highly specific dance form—at least it had solidified into one in the nineteen-oughts—and it was also a form of minstrelsy. At this time in history aristocratic white people were dancing cakewalks in imitation of black dancers (like Williams and Walker) who were improving on the moves of white minstrels who claimed to be imitating slaves who were imitating the posh line dances of the slave-owning aristocracy. That’s a burlesque five times removed, and if the whole of that history doesn’t quite spring out of this recording that may be due more to our inability to hear past the orchestra’s stiff oompah into the snappiness that coded black.
Ossman was a virtuoso, but here he underplays in favor of vernacular twang. Though the song was composed by the prolific, even hacky Harry von Tilzer, it left an unpleasantly vulgar aftertaste for many—cakewalks were still plenty black for White America.
2. Albert Benzler: “Turkish Patrol”
Nobody who was writing a survey of music in 1903 would have thought to include the recordings of Vess Ossman; the vulgarity (for which read blackness) of banjo music, not to mention its uncouth rhythms, would have set it beyond the pale. But instrumental music could be popular without being vernacular.
“Turkish Patrol,” for example, was a fine old march predating even John Phillips Sousa, in 1903 the Grand Old Man of clean-limbed Popular Music. It was composed ca. 1870 by Theodore Michaelis, a composer of various origin and little note, becoming something of a standard by dint of its ease to play and adapt. It was written for military marching band, as the title suggests, but it was recorded by any number of instrumentalists; that Albert Benzler gets the nod here is less because he nailed the tune than because I wanted an excuse to talk about him.
He was an employee of the Edison factory in the years of vertical integration, when ownership of the cylinder plant also meant ownership of the musicians who made the music on the cylinders (and if you think that’s confined to the past, consider Sony), a pianist, xylophonist, and campanologist who made a lot of successful recordings both under his own name and as an uncredited accompanist for Edison and, once trusts began to be busted, other record labels. But more importantly, he also argued with the boss. Edison, a shrewd businessman, had his employees vote on which records to release, figuring that the microcosm of the public at his disposal would be a good predictor of sales, while Benzler believed that performers should decide the records’ fate. And a hundred-plus year history of artists fighting their labels began.
If Benzler had any qualms about “Turkish Patrol,” they weren’t preserved. The bright percussive sound of the xylophone recorded far better than the muddy, noisy orchestra, and the repetitive figures he plinks through even anticipate the way DJs would use samples in the epochs to come.
3. Edvard Grieg: “Remembrances”
We’ve climbed from the degrading depths of cakewalk into the middle-class plains of march; now we scale the heights of Art. Cultural prejudices courtesy of the period, of course—our imaginary chronicler of music in 1903 would have spent most of his wordcount in these exalted regions. Parlor song and other sheet-music hits would have been dealt with glancingly if at all; minstrelsy might have been allowed a nostalgic smile, and ragtime—let alone the music of rural citizens, black or white—would have been ignored entirely. But the bulk of the volume would have been dedicated to composers that today we’d call minor, from countries that even then would have counted as obscure.
Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg is today best remembered for his score to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which contains two passages familiar to anyone who has ever listened to music, watched television, or had working ears in the past hundred years (“Morning Mood” and “In The Hall of the Mountain King”). But that was way back in 1876; the music that could be considered his life’s work was the collection of piano works known as the Lyric Pieces.
The first set of the Pieces was published in 1867, the tenth and final set in 1901; Grieg would die in 1907. There were sixty-six Pieces in total; the sixty-sixth, “Remembrances” (“Efterklang” in Norwegian), is a restatement of the theme of the first, “Arietta,” composed thirty-five years previously. Grieg made a handful of records in 1903; since this was clearly one of his favorite melodies, it’s hardly surprising it was included.
The very word piano means “soft” in Italian; while pianofortes have one of the broadest ranges in standard orchestral instrumentation, they were notoriously difficult to record well using the primitive acoustic method invented by Edison and not substantially altered until 1925. Grieg is very nearly swallowed by surface noise here; the only solution, as it is to nearly everything in music, is to turn it up loud.