Pre-1923 recordings offer a (free!) treasure trove for choral fans

Thousands of recordings made before 1923 entered the public domain earlier this year, such as the Victor Opera Company's 1921 recording of tunes from the 1885 British comic opera 'Erminie,' by Edward Jakobowski.Library of Congress

April 07, 2022

A boatload of choral recordings that had been “out to sea” and out of reach for more than 100 years just came ashore. Thousands of recordings made before 1923 entered the public domain earlier this year, as required by the 2018 Music Modernization Act. Now you can listen to them online from sources such as the Library of Congress and share them, edit them, remix them, make them your own — all for free.

What will choir lovers hear? So much that’s different from today: the size and makeup of choirs, the diction, the music itself — but the love of singing still shines in these long-ago voices.

Start exploring! You’ll get used to listening through the scratches of time. Close your eyes, and there’s a World War I-era choir, often only a handful of singers because that’s all that could squeeze into the recording studio. They’re clustered with a piano or small orchestra in front of a megaphone that sent their sounds to a stylus, which inscribed the music onto a cylinder covered with wax or soft metal.

Of the 400,000 or so newly available recordings, here are a fun handful for the choral-curious to explore:

● Four handsome sons of a Methodist minister in Rochester, New York, were busy recording artists in 1908 and 1909. The Whitney Brothers Quartet made more than two dozen recordings of gospel tunes, hymns and popular songs, such as “The Cheerful Wanderer.” Nice sibling harmonies!

●      The Great War was nearing its conclusion in the summer of 1918, so the Victor Oratorio Chorus (perhaps just 16 singers) sang the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah with extra joy.

●      The Victor Opera Company packed a studio with singers and orchestra in 1921 for this suite of tunes from the 1885 British comic opera, Erminie, by Edward Jakobowski. Complete with whistling!

●      Far easier to host just four singers with a small orchestra, in this case the Lyric Quartet who recorded “How Lovely Are The Messengers” from Mendelssohn’s oratorio, St. Paul in 1912.

●      The men of the Boston Opera Company crowded alongside an orchestra and baritone Ramon Blanchart in 1910 to sing “Pescator, affonda l'esca” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda.

 And several hundred thousand more await at the Library of Congress audio archive. Have fun!