Composers Datebook®

Edison, for the record

Composer's Datebook - Aug. 12, 2023


Some have claimed that it was on today’s date in 1877 that the American inventor Thomas Edison recorded his own voice reciting, “Mary had a little lamb” on a tin-foil cylinder of his own design. Other historians date the precise birth of the phonograph earlier, others later. In any case, the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company wasn’t established until January of 1878.

Initially, music wasn’t Edison’s top priority: He thought his phonograph might be profitable as an aid to stenographers, or for families who wanted to record the last words of beloved relatives.

Eventually, however, classical music and the phonograph began to interact.

In London in 1888, a bit of a Crystal Palace performance of Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt” was captured on an Edison cylinder. In Vienna, Johannes Brahms, seated at the piano, recorded a snippet of his famous Hungarian Dance No. 3, with a spoken intro many wrongly assumed was by the composer himself.

The voice of British composer Sir Arthur Sullivan WAS captured, however, commenting: “I am astonished—and terrified—at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever!”


Well, Sir Arthur, I’m afraid there’s no going back now…

Music Played in Today's Program

Antonin Dvořák (1841 - 1904) arr. Kreisler Songs My Mother Taught Me Fritz Kreisler, violin Pearl 9324

George Frederic Handel (1685 – 1757) excerpt, fr Judas Maccabeus Edward Lloyd, tenor Koch Historic 7703

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) plays on an Edison cylinder (r. 1889) Johannes Brahms, p. Pearl 99049

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) Hungarian Dance No. 1 Idil Biret, piano Naxos 8.550355

On This Day


  • 1644 - Bohemian composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Von Biber, in Wartenburg (now Straz pod Ralskem) near Reichenberg (now Liberec);


  • 1612 - Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli, age c. 55 (his exact birthdate is uncertain), in Venice;

  • 1928 - Czech composer Leos Janácek, age 74, in Ostrava;

  • 1992 - American composer John Cage, age 79, in New York;


  • 1845 - Verdi: opera "Alzira," in Naples at the Teatro San Carlo;

  • 1964 - David Del Tredici: "I Hear an Army" for soprano and string quartet (based on a poem by James Joyce) at Tangelwood Festival in Massachusetts;

  • 1964 - Panufnik: "Sinfonia Sacra," in Monaco, as the prize-winning work in an international competition sponsored by Prince Rainer III

  • 1984 - Berio: opera "Un Re in ascolto" (A King Listening), at the Salzburg Festival, conducted by Lorin Maazel

  • 2001 - Esa-Pekka Salonen: "Foreign Bodies," at the Schlewswig-Holstein Festival in Germany, with the Finnish Radio Symphony conducted by Esa-Pekka Saraste;


  • 1845 - A statute of Beethoven is unveiled in Bonn, Germany, the composer's birthplace; Ludwig Spohr conducts a performance of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" at the Bonn cathedral; Liszt had been instrumental in raising funds for the statue, and was present, as was Hector Berlioz, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Great Britain, and the King and Queen of Prussia;

  • 1877 - Frequently listed (and almost certainly incorrect) date on which the American inventor Thomas Alva Edison recorded his own voice reciting, “Mary had a little lamb” on a tin-foil cylinder phonograph of his own design; Edison filed the patent for his new invention on December 24, and it was granted on February 19, 1878; In London in April of 1888, Edison’s phonograph would record excerpts from a live Crystal Palace performance of Handel’s oratorio, “Israel in Egypt”; On December 2, 1889, Theo Wangemann, a representative of Thomas Edison recorded Johannes Brahms playing the piano in Vienna. The latest research suggests the voice introducing this famous recording is probably that of Wangemann, not Brahms himself, as was earlier thought;

  • 1922 - First live broadcast concert of the New York Philharmonic over New York radio station WJZ; The concert was broadcast from Lewisohn Stadium during the orchestra's summer series, and included music by Dvorák, Saint-Saens, Mendelssohn, Rimksy-Korsakov, Brahms, and Gluck. The conductor was Willem van Hoogstraten, the orchestra's regular summer-event director; On October 5, 1930, the New York Philharmonic began its regular weekly series of Sunday afternoon national broadcasts over the Columbia radio network

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®