Friday, April 1, 2016

The NRR Project: ‘The Pattison Waltz’ and ‘The Fifth Regiment March’

Edward Issler
The Pattison Waltz
Effie Stewart, vocal; Theo Wangemann, piano
February 25, 1889

The Fifth Regiment March
Issler’s Orchestra
March 1889
Commercially recorded music starts off painfully white. These two pieces are samples of the first commercially available recordings. As such, they were chosen for the widest possible popular appeal, as well as the ability to translate effectively for playback. Brass and drums went over fine, as well as strong, high pitches. Subtlety was out.

So what do you, you mythical world’s first music producer, program?

“The Pattison Waltz” dates from 1877, and is named for its composer, J.N. The post-Civil War, pre-recording age in music in America consisted mainly of people making their own music at home, via “parlor songs,” hymns, and commercial hits from minstrel shows, including a remarkable number of racist “coon” comedy numbers -- and was dominated by sheet music. My research has not determined whether this piece originally ornamented a New York show, the usual path for success for pre-Tin Pan Alley hits such as “After the Ball” and “The Bowery.”

This rendition is performed in sheer vocalese, but there are lyrics by E.A. Valentine. They are in Italian, with English lyrics below (“I would like/If we could/Here alone/with no other . . . “). The American art song was a long, long time in coming (Charles Ives was 15 in 1889), and it was considered proper for upper-class Americans to ape European culture, even if it meant singing something “in translation” to class it up and increase its sales appeal that was probably first written in English.

Effie Stewart is referred to only once, via the non-profit compendium project the Internet Archive, as a soloist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She is introduced by a male voice that stops and coughs out three ironic barks during his identifying spiel. Is he mocking her? Is SHE mocking her?

What erupts is a trill-laden, swooping kind of gay and lighthearted waltz that was a good solid bet to be enjoyable, more or less, to the entire family. It’s the kind of kitschy, operetta-influenced piece that would be ruthlessly parodied in films and cartoons to come. The opera-gushing, pigeon-breasted, lorgnette-wielding pretentious grande dame was the indispensable foil for comic from Chaplin on down. And this was the kind of insufferable crap she would sing.

“Fifth Regiment March” is much crisper and more distinct. Issler’s Orchestra, a small combo led by local music teacher and pianist Edward Issler, cranked out a number of early “hits” for Edison before being superseded by more “name” bands such as John Philip Sousa’s.

Marching band music was seemingly made to overcome the limitations of early recoding, muscling its way through the stylus onto the cylinder. The march is really a medley, running from “Goodnight, Ladies” to “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” Stephen Foster’s “Some Folks Do,” and others. The bandsmen give a collective hurrah at the end.

So there you have the distaff sides of early recoding – the frilly, silly doings of ladies and the martial music of men.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’

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