Puccini by Victor Herbert
Victor Herbert’s Orchestra
Puccini: Madame Butterfly—Fantasie
Recorded in 1911
America’s best-known composer of operettas was also a conductor of some distinction. After leaving the Pittsburgh Symphony, he founded his own orchestra, which recorded for Victor beginning in 1911. This is from that first session.
It would be hard to praise the Victor sound adequately. According to Paul Whiteman, whose memory was not always reliable, the essential part of the Victor acoustical recording process—the assembly with the diaphragm and stylus—was a secret so carefully guarded that it was committed to the hands of two engineers, a pair of brothers who lived together: they unscrewed the thing and took it home with them every night. [Update: Note a helpful comment below from “Pilsner Panther,” who helps sort the truth from the legend in Whiteman’s story.]
Victor Herbert’s orchestra, though reduced and rearranged a bit for acoustical recording, also deserves high praise. The better-known symphony orchestras are often ragged and out of tune on early recordings, but Herbert’s orchestra plays at the level we would expect from a symphony orchestra today. His arrangement of tunes from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is as tasteful and effective as you would expect from a man who was himself a distinguished composer.