Opera on Old 78 RPM Records--With Additional Comments About Bulky Sets of Classical Music

By Tim Gracyk

A market exists for some 78s, especially blues, "hot" jazz, and early rock and roll. I explain this in detail elsewhere on my homepage in articles about the value of old 78s. But if you are reading this to learn how to sell 78s that are operatic or symphonic--or to learn what kind of price to put on them--I'll break the bad news at the onset. Classical 78s, or old records featuring "serious" music (that is how they were once described by the industry), are among the hardest to sell. Supply is relatively high, and demand seems to go lower each year.

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Classical 78s sold well decades ago. Most opera 78s were bought decades ago by folks with relatively high incomes, and for various reasons the upper middle classes preserved their 78s. They owned homes with the space for storing old 78s for decades. Also, the owners of such 78s were convinced they had something special worth passing on to coming generations. They rightly believed that Caruso and Galli-Curci were great artists, so the records of such artists were not tossed out. Although some blues and jazz 78s also sold very well decades ago (they were not bought by the same folks who were buying Caruso 78s), copies of Paramount and other "race" records are rare today since such discs, many of them originally used for dance music, were tossed out as time passed. Many were melted during World War II when old 78s were collected during "record drives." Caruso records and other once-expensive 78s were never discarded, as a general rule!

The Victor Talking Machine Company used a red label for its most prestigious artists. If you wonder why these Red Seal records can be often found today in near-mint condition whereas 78s of pop hits are often worn, keep in mind that opera records were not used for dancing, so they were not generally played as often as popular jazz and blues numbers. Younger people handled many of the 78s featuring popular tunes, and they were not always as careful as the slightly older people who were buying most opera 78s. Also, the owners of the Red Seal discs could afford to change the steel needle with every play, which prevents records from wearing out (one play per needle just wears out the needle--toss the needle).

A decade ago, when I used to buy collections of opera 78s on a monthly basis, I often marveled at how clean the discs were. Back in the 'teens and 'twenties some people must have bought opera records almost as prestige items, not discs to play often. They bought Caruso records as if to say, "Look, everybody--I have good taste since everyone knows Caruso is the world's greatest singer!" I suspect plenty of people never played their Caruso 78s.

Anyway, not many people are as enthusiastic about the old Red Seal, Columbia, and Brunswick discs featuring great opera singers of yesteryear. Somewhere in America someone may want the Louise Homer or Giuseppe de Luca disc that happens to be in the box of 78s that you inherited and that you now wish to sell. But finding that one buyer is going to be more trouble than it will be worth. After hours of searching, you might find someone to offer a buck or two (if your records are in excellent condition, perhaps I'll buy some!). Finding someone in your town to buy the whole box--let's say 100 discs for $35--may be equally difficult. Put an advertisement in your local newspaper, but don't pay much for the ad or you may regret it.

Some dealers who run auctions may get around $3 for some common classical 78s. To get the same price, you would have to put together an auction list, mail copies to a few hundred collectors (gathering names and addresses is not easy), and hope for the best. It probably would not be worth your trouble.

Some Classical 78s are Hard to Sell

Some classical 78s are very hard to sell, perhaps the worst being those featuring ballet music and symphonies. In the 1940s these were packaged as heavy, fragile "sets." Binders with glossy, colorful covers held several records. There is virtually no market for these even if they are in mint condition. I will again qualify this by saying that if you look very hard, you might eventually find someone willing pay for them (your chances may be best with someone who doesn't know what he or she is doing), but it will prove to be a lot of trouble to find that person, and the compensation will be small. Let's say you find a buyer after searching on the Internet. If you must rely on U.P.S. or the postal system to get such sets to your buyer, the shipping costs will be so high that the buyer won't offer much at all since that person also pays mailing costs.

Most people who love classical music prefer compact discs to 78s since modern recordings do not butcher the music into four minute segments. Another problem with sets is that if one record breaks (and these records do break easily), the whole set becomes worthless--that is, if it had any value to begin with.

One price guide is available for those curious about the value of old 78s, but this book--Les Docks' The American Premium Record Guide--ignores classical 78s. Some operatic 78s sell for big bucks, but the valuable ones represent a tiny portion of what is typically available. If you have a Fernando De Lucia disc on the Phonotype label or Luisa Tetrazzini on Zon-o-phone, let me know! I'll buy any red G & T records! I suspect that by now all surviving copies of such rarities are already in the hands of advanced collectors.

If you have a box with singers such as Amelita Galli-Curci, John McCormack, and Titta Ruffo on Red Seal Victor discs, I probably already have duplicate copies of what you have for sale. Friends who also collect classical 78s also already have the "common" 78s. I don't know anybody willing to pay anything substantial for such discs.

Caruso Records

Caruso records are common. In the World War I era, many homes with a Victrola had at least one Caruso record. As I suggested earlier, most Red Seal Victors were purchased by the upper-classes, but middle class consumers did buy some--and they certainly bought some Caruso discs (not many lower income households had Victrolas, which were relatively expensive at that time). Caruso records that today turn up in thrift shops and garage sales are not likely to be valuable. It is true that some Caruso items sell for astonishing sums today. Records made by the companies Zonophone and Pathe are Caruso's rarest--they almost never made it to America. The red G & T's almost never made it here from England. If they did, one advanced collector was sending it to another advanced collector--you don't find them at garage sales. Among discs made in this country, any Caruso title on Victor's "Monarch" series is an early issue (the word "Monarch" is written across the label), so it would probably be worth more to a collector than the same title on other (that is, later) Victor labels.

On the other hand, some of Caruso's "Monarch" pressings can be found more easily than some of the later Victor records, such as "Procession" on Victor 88556. I need a copy of this! Other Caruso records I need are "Gia i sacerdoti" from Aida (sung with Homer on Victor 89050), "Dio che nell'alma" from Don Carlos (sung with Scotti on Victor 89064), "Eternamente" (Victor 88333), "Le minaccie" from Forza (sung with Amato on Victor 89053), "Manella mia" (Victor 88465), "Donna non vidi mai" from Manon Lescaut (Victor 87135), "Mia canzone" (Victor 87213), "Mia sposa sara la mia bandiera" (Victor 88555), "Noche feliz" (backed by "Tu ca nun chiagne" on Victor 958), "Partida" (Victor 2-062003), "Ingemisco" from Verdi's Requiem Mass (Victor 88514), "Quando nascesti tu" from the obscure Shiavo (Victor 88345), and the piano accompaniment version of "Recondita armonia" (Victor 81029). When I acquire a copy of each of the above titles, my Caruso collection will be complete--a copy of everything issued by the Victor Talking Machine Company on mostly single-sided discs! I have all of the above titles on double-sided discs, but I am such a purist that I wish to own the original single-sided versions, which is how Caruso would have known the records (at least the ones issued in his lifetime). I have many copies of all other Caruso titles. Owning duplicates is inevitable. (Come to think of it: I need "Pimpinella" on Victor 87128--I want to get the single-sided version to replace my copy on a double-sided disc.)

Caruso's recording of "Vesti La Giubba" from Leoncavallo's opera I Pagliacci pops up so often that I have at least 15 copies in my garage. Other best-selling Caruso items were "O Sole Mio," the Lucia di Lammermoor sextette, and the quartet from Rigoletto. Common Caruso items sell among collectors for about a dollar, which is less than the original price almost a century ago! (I'll pay a lot more for the titles I'm missing!) If you are bidding for common Caruso titles on a record auction, try bidding around three dollars each and you'll probably win. More elusive Victor items, such as the tenor's one recorded duet with opera diva Nellie Melba, might sell for $5 or even $10 if in great shape. Caruso singing George M. Cohan's 1918 hit "Over There" sold many copies but is still in demand because of the attraction of the song itself and the novelty of Caruso singing--first in English, then in French--a Cohan composition (a fine performance!).

Other Opera Singers

Some opera singers whose more elusive 78s command prices from $10 upwards among collectors include Lillian Nordica and Edith Mason (these were both American sopranos with international reputations); the Italian tenors Alessandro Bonci and Francesco Tamagno; and the baritone Victor Maurel. Some discs of baritone Mattia Battistini are fairly common ($5 each) but some are elusive ($20 and up).

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The Victor Talking Machine Company and its successor, RCA, issued superb recordings by Frances Alda, Reinald Werrenrath, Lawrence Tibbett, Lauritz Melchior, and many others, but records by these artists tend to be worth only one or two dollars today since they sold well and pop up often. By the way, my advice to beginning collectors is to pay attention to acoustic era 78s that pop up often. Don't spend all your money on rare and expensive recordings. Listen at least once to the "common" records. Some of the best records are common ones. They are common today because they sold well, and many sold well for the best reason in the world--namely, they offer great performances.

Now let us consider records that are not so common but are excellent. The Fonotipia Company consistently issued quality recordings. Many fine Italian opera stars in the early years of the industry recorded outstanding performances for it. The company IRCC also issued (or re-issued in the 1930s and 1940s) rare performances of interesting arias. A ballpark figure for Fonotipia and IRCC discs is difficult since the ones I have (about 120 total) came with large collections. I suppose $10 each is fair if someone is buying several at one time. That may seem low to some. It may even exasperate some advanced collectors since some titles go for higher figures, but this hastily-written article is not written for advanced collectors, and to make fine distinctions would require a book.

The Victor Talking Machine Company used a red label for its classical artists, the famous Red Seal (the black label is just called a black label--there is no "Black Seal"). It resorted to lawsuits if other record companies tried to use a red label for its classical artists. Victor continued issuing one-sided records for these artists until 1922, long after it made use of both sides of a record for non-classical artists. Putting out classical music on one-sided records was a way of forcing buyers to pay more for getting more. Victor made one-sided records for over two decades, so they are not necessarily the oldest 78s nor the most valuable. I mention this since many people with 78s to sell say, "These must be over a hundred years old--or at least very special--since they are blank on one side." It is an understandable mistake.

Singers such as Alma Gluck, John McCormack, Geraldine Farrar, and Amelita Galli-Curci sold millions of records on the Victor label. As I have said, their common records tend to be worth a dollar or two if they are in excellent shape--but even at this low price, finding a buyer is no easy task. If the 78s are worn, no serious collector will bother with them. Alma Gluck's "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" (74420) might be the most common classical 78 from the acoustic era. It pops up so often that I sometimes chuckle when I see copies in collections of records for sale. If you hear someone hold it up and marvel at its rarity--"Gee, this should be protected in a bank vault!"--then you are hearing sarcasm. Gluck gives a wonderful performance, incidentally. It is an example of a "common" record being a great one.

Other "common" or one-dollar artists are Emilio de Gorgorza (a great singer--he was married to Emma Eames), Evan Williams (he often recorded great arias sensitively translated into English), Frances Alda (one of my favorites), Mabel Garrison (too bad she was often given inconsequential material like "Little Alabama Coon" to sing--my friend Houston Maples made for me a wonderful cd of Garrison records), Louise Homer (her operatic records are impressive--less important are once-popular items like "Banjo Song"), Pasquale Amato (he tends to be underrated), Riccardo Martin (an ordinary tenor in an age of great tenors--but homegrown, an American!), Emma Juch (well, you pay more than a buck if you are offered Monarch and Deluxe pressings), Reinald Werrenrath (he did not start out as a Red Seal artist--he was promoted from black label to purple to blue to Red Seal), Giovanni Martinelli (you either love him or hate him, it seems), Titta Ruffo (a big voice!), and Ernestine Schumann-Heink (a true contralto--where are the contralto voices today?).

More valuable are records by Emma Eames (as a stage performer she was considered "cold" by some critics but her discs don't support this generalization), Adelina Patti (she was well past her prime but her records are interesting), Nellie Melba (her voice did not record as well as some others but she was an important singer so collectors seek Melba discs--moreover, her records were originally priced quite high so many of her titles don't pop up as often as the discs of other famous singers), Francesco Tamagno (the first Otello!), Mario Ancona (nothing he recorded as a solo artist stands out in my memory), and Bessie Abbott (an acquired taste).

Brunswick records first appeared in American stores in January 1920, and great opera singers on this label include Elisabeth Rethberg, Friedrich Schorr, Edith Mason, and Nina Koshetz. Brunswick records are well-recorded, bright in the higher register. Many rank them among the best acoustic records made. Someday I hope to own at least one Edith Mason disc. I would happily trade all my Brunswicks featuring Mario Chamlee for one Mason. I'll also toss in some Giacomo Rimini discs.

Instrumental Works

As a collector of classical 78s, I am more enthusiastic about vocal recordings than instrumental. Some people do collect old records of instrumental works but that does not mean they will eagerly buy classical 78s that you wish to sell. Such collectors tend to be older people who are already at saturation point. They have been collecting for a long time and have no more space in closets, attics, basements.

Virtually nobody is searching for a Leopold Stowkowski or Eugene Ormandy performance of a favorite Beethoven work. What about the newest generation of collectors? No, I do not know young collectors seeking bulky sets. There are not many collectors under the age of 30, period--and I don't know any young people who collect Red Seal Victors in any serious way.

I snub bulky sets from the 1940s even when they are offered for free. I would much rather hear a recent (and stereo!) rendition of an important symphonic work conducted by, say, Herbert von Karajan or Bernard Haitink than sit with a big set of 78s, turning over a disc every few minutes. If once a year I wish to hear a particular Furtwangler or Toscanini interpretation, the work on compact disc suits me fine. I do own original Paderewski and de Pachmann discs but much prefer listening to modern pianists such as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Claudio Arrau (well, he has been around for a long time--I mean his modern recordings), Alfred Brendel, and Lazar Berman. And I consider myself a 78 rpm collector! Given the choice of hearing recordings of great performances from long ago or great performances from recent decades, I go with the latter. When it comes to a Chopin etude, I don't want to hear a 78 rpm disc.

Opera Recordings

But when it comes to opera--and the right voices--I will tolerate a lot of surface noise and overlook other drawbacks of 78s (for example, they are fragile and hard to store). For opera, I often reach for a 78 rpm disc instead of a compact disc. Why? First, in contrast to most symphonic works, operatic arias could be recorded within the few minutes of a 78 rpm disc, so the music is not chopped up or edited. More importantly, some voices in the early part of this century were very special, and I like to hear them on the original 78s--from shellac discs, the artists in their own time heard themselves. I do not feel the same about any instrumentalist of the past--not Paderewski, not Pablo Casals, not Jan Kubelik. I don't treasure their 78s the way I love 78s of great singers.

Since the advent of high fidelity recording, many great singers have made superb recordings--and I relish these (especially Schwarzkopf, Frick, Callas, and Ludwig)--but there was only one Ponselle, one Schipa, one Tibbett. No LPs or CDs featuring modern Wagnerian singers--well, maybe Gottlob Frick and Fischer-Dieskau--give me as much pleasure as old 78s of bass-baritone Friedrich Schorr, heldentenor Melchior, and soprano Frida Leider (Flagstad and Nilsson seem a bit cold when compared with Frida Leider). Actually, Wagner's music is not a great example since sometimes I want to hear wonderful orchestral scoring, which is nowhere evident on old 78s. So sometimes when I'm in the mood for Wagner, I usually will reach for a CD of a modern performance rather than a 78.

I listen to great tenors of recent decades--Domingo, Corelli, Wunderlich--but listening to Caruso, Gigli and McCormack is a different experience, different enough to be worth the trouble of storing heavy 78s and tolerating a certain amount of surface noise. Actually, I own clean copies of thousands of titles, play them on vintage machines that have been wonderfully preserved or restored, and change the steel needle with each play, so there is not much surface noise to complain about. The real problem is storing them and keeping them safe from breakage! Moving from one town to another recently proved to be a nightmare.

When you want to hear special interpretations of great operatic moments, there is no substitute for the best that was issued on original 78s. You do have to hunt for the best since there were many forgettable singers who recorded opera and lieder during the 78 rpm era. "Forgettable" is perhaps too harsh a word since nearly all singers who recorded for the major companies were very good in their day, and if they were alive today they would find themselves in demand in opera houses everywhere.

But given a full century now of great artists making records, should anybody today really make much time to listen to old 78s featuring Janet Spencer or Ricardo Martin? Or to such Columbia artists as David Bispham, Barbara Maurel, Leon Rothier, Florence Macbeth, or Tamaki Miura? (Miura was a Japanese soprano who recorded Madama Butterfly arias.) Columbia tried to match Victor when signing talent but Columbia was always in second place, notwithstanding having Nordica, Fremstad, and Ponselle. If you are a fan of one of the Columbia artists mentioned a few lines above and if I have offended you, drop me a nasty note--at least I'll know someone read this article until the end! I once had Jose Mordones in this list of not-exactly-first-rate singers but one reader objected passionately.

One reader of this article--Robert Fink, who is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at UCLA--recently gave these welcome comments: "You are absolutely right that Victor Red Seal and Columbia Masterworks sets from the 1940s are of little interest, usually.  But I'd hate for somebody to toss out the 1928 recording of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben conducted by Mengelberg when I'd give 'em something for it. Items that interest me greatly include album sets of 20th century and/or avant-garde music, especially if the composer is conducting.  An example would be Stravinsky conducting The Rite of Spring, which has obvious documentary value, especially in terms of liner notes.  Any Stravinsky on 78s interests me. Also, I seek album sets of 'early music' (before Mozart and especially before Bach).  Often these are really interesting for the "out-of-date" performance practices that mitigate against their ever being reissued on CD. In general, I am interested in chamber and orchestral performances (the more obscure the better) of warhorse pieces from the acoustic era, especially the earliest recordings (1911-12).  There aren't that many of these, since recording full symphonies only really took off after 1926, and the sound of the earliest orchestral performances is so unusual that it fascinates me.  Obviously nobody is ever going to transfer to CD performances by the Victor Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rosario Bourdon.  But these sold quite well, so I want to hear them.  Often they are single discs stuck in a ratty old album, and are the first to get dumped, while folks save the Toscanini Beethoven 5th."

Mr. Fink continues, "Certain conductors are usually worth a look:  Furtwangler, Weingartner, and especially Mengelberg.  Famous composers conducting:  Britten, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Lambert. Since I have a Credenza, 'orthophonic scroll' (Victor)/'electrical process' (Columbia) classical sets from 1926-1931 are always of interest, and one wants to have multiple sets so that one can play one and preserve the other!  Also Brunswick symphony series from the 1920s--in the beautiful gold albums--are often very cool.  In general, I tell people that if it has no picture on the cover I get interested, and if it says 'orthophonic' on the cover I get really interested. Blue records (European Columbia imports from the 1920s) and transparent red records (late 'indestructible' vinyl 78s) are worth looking at, no matter what's on them. Since I am a university professor, I can write a letter acknowledging a DONATION of a large archive of classical records and giving them a value for tax purposes.  I can also help assuage the conscience of somebody worried about the historical consequences of pulping grandpa's collection.  No university I have ever taught at except Stanford has kept classical 78s--UC Berkeley trashed all theirs, as did UCLA."

As for monetary (not aesthetic) value, the bottom line is that if you inherited some classical 78s that you now wish to dispose of, they won't be easy to sell. This article was written because many people have asked me, via the Internet, "How much are my classical 78s worth and will you please buy them?" I wish I could report that you are sitting on a goldmine, but it ain't so (more precisely, as Lawrence Tibbett sings in a wonderful collection of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess tunes, "It ain't necessarily so!").