The Classical period was over far too early for any film footage to exist. Textbooks usually say that the Romantic period ended in 1900 and even that’s too early – the oldest surviving film in existence was made in 1888, a short silent film directed by French inventor Louis Le Prince. However, a few long-lived Romantic composers lived well into the 20th century. This historical video collection features performances, interviews, and conversations with some of the greatest composers living in the 20th Century.
1. Voice of Tchaikowsky & Anton Rubinstein On Edison Cylinder (1890)
This Edison phonograph cylinder recording from 1890 was made by Julius Block, a Russian Businessman of German descent (The Old Man with the Umbrella in this video) who became fascinated with the phonograph (and even convinced Tchaikovsky to sign an endorsement). The recording was kept by Block until his death in 1934. His family donated the cylinder (with other cylinders made by Block) in a German Archive after his death. The recording was re-discovered in the Pushkin archive of St. Petersburg, Russia in 1997, and was labelled with the names of the participants: Anton Rubinstein (composer), Elizaveta Lavrovskaya (singer), Peter Tchaikovsky (composer), Vassily Safonov (pianist and conductor), Alexandra Hubert (pianist), Julius Block (the host himself).
2. Gabriel Fauré – silent film footage was taken in 1913
Gabriel Fauré was a French composer, organist, pianist, and teacher. He was one of the foremost French composers of his generation, and his musical style influenced many 20th-century composers. Among his best-known works are his Pavane, Requiem, nocturnes for piano and the songs “Après un rêve” and “Clair de lune”.
3. Camille Saint-Saëns Conducts, Plays and Speaks
This rare footage is showing Camille Saint-Saëns conducting. This film was made by Sacha Guitry in 1914, in order to celebrate famous French artists, “Ceux de chez nous”.
4. Sir Edward Elgar Speaking and Conducting (1931)
Newsreel film of Elgar speaking, then conducting the Trio of Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 at the opening of EMI’s Abbey Road studios, 12 November 1931.
5. Gershwin plays I Got Rhythm (New York 1931)
6. Sergei Rachmaninoff Footage With His Own Voice Included
His sense of humour seems very much in evidence in every scene. We already knew him partly from the incredible depths of his musical genius. To see him as a funny, family man, he merely ascends in our opinion, if that were possible. What a poorer world it would be without Rachmaninoff.
7. Sergei Prokofiev Plays Piano And Discusses His Music
It is a rare treasure to see Sergei Prokofiev playing the piano and then hearing him speak, even if those who don’t speak Russian can’t understand him. At least we now know what he sounded like and how he played. There are all too few commercial recordings of him playing the piano: the June 1932 British recording of his third piano concerto and some short solo pieces recorded in 1935. The rare films offer a fascinating glimpse of the great composer’s playing technique.
8. Georges Thill and Joseph Canteloube at the piano (1933)
The French tenor Georges Thill (1897-1984) sings excerpts of Canteloube’s lyric drama Vercingétorix which the composer had written with his voice in mind for the title role. Vercingétorix was premiered on 22 June 1933, after a month of rehearsal with the composer in attendance.
9. Bruno Walter conducts Weber
Bruno Walter was a German-born conductor, pianist, and composer. Born in Berlin, he left Germany in 1933 to escape the Third Reich, settling finally in the United States in 1939. He worked closely with Gustav Mahler, whose music he helped establish in the repertory, held major positions with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Salzburg Festival, Vienna State Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Staatsoper Unter den Linden and Deutsche Oper Berlin, among others, made recordings of historical and artistic significance, and is widely considered one of the great conductors of the 20th century.
10. Arturo Toscanini Conducts
Arturo Toscanini has conducted many performances. During the late 19th and of the 20th century, he was one of the most talented musicians. Being renowned for his intensity and perfectionism, his ear for orchestral detail and sonority, and his eidetic memory.
11. Young Shostakovich Playing end of op.35 (c. 1937)
This is the famous surviving video of young Shostakovich playing his first piano concerto. This performance is from Moscow Conservatory‘s Bolshoi Zal. We get to hear the very end of that performance (starting with the piano cadenza) – the only footage that, supposedly, survives.
12. Charles-Marie Widor plays his Toccata from V Symphony Op. 42 No. 1 (1932)
Here the legendary organist plays his most famous work, Toccata from 5th Symphony. When the recording took place, he had been already 88 years old. He many times mentioned, that Toccata was wrongly popularised, as a plain showpiece, without feeling, but with ridiculously fast tempos. Of course, here the age is the main argument, but… let’s the composer speak through his music!
13. Richard Strauss conducts ‘Till Eulenspiegel’ (1944)
In this footage the video and audio are not properly synchronised, the audio is higher than it should be, which is why Strauss‘ conducting appears behind. But nevertheless this video is fascinating!
14. George Enescu and Constantin Brancusi (Paris, 1947)
The reception held for George Enescu at the Romanian Embassy in Paris, 1947. This historical footage captures the meeting of these two great Romanian personalities.