THE NEIGHBORHOOD around 8th and I streets NW is changing and, with the possibility of a Civic Center going up near there, it is likely to change still more. There was a time when the small concrete building that still stands on the northeast corner of that intersection housed some of the more remarkable musical activities of this city.
That unprepossessing building was the home of Radio Station WINX, Washington's only Good Music Station then, and at the time the property of The Washington Post, whose owner, Eugene Meyer, bought the station, and, for several years, underwrote its deficits.
The thing that was unusual about the goings-on in that building was that WINX regularly broadcast recorded performances of complete operas, oratorios, symphonies, chamber music and other long works in a way that made people forget that the records were going around at 78 revolutions per minute, and that every four minutes one side of a record came to an end.
When that happened, it made no difference if Leopold Stokowski and the entire Philadelphia Orchestra were right in the middle of the most exciting phrase of the andante of the Fifth Sympthony by Beethoven. The music either had to come to a complete stop while the engineer cut off the volume, turned the disc over, set the needle down again and brought the volume up to the point it had been before the interruption. Or . . .
If the station owned duplicate sets of that recording, and if the engineer had practiced, and if everything want without a hitch, he would have the next side of the record set up and running on his other turntable, and would segue from the end of one disc to the point at which the music began on the other so smoothly that no one heard the slightest break.
The thing that constantly amazed me was how often the WINX engineers would manage to do exactly that.
Those were days that - from the easy vantage of today's long-playing records, to say nothing of cassettes, cartridges and reel-to-reel tapes - seem like the dark ages as far as broadcasting good music is concerned. Not that there was not a large repertoire available on the 78s of those days. There were more than 30 complete operas recorded then, several of them in two and three different versions, many boasting the greatest opera singers of the time.
The complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and Silbelius could be heard under some of the fabled conductors of the century: Furtwangler, Mengelberg, Toscanini, Beecham, Walter, Koussevitzky, Stokowski and Weingartner. Those were the years in which such storied performers as Szigeti, Heifetz, Schnabel, Rubinstein, Horowitz and Casals were at their peaks and recording some of history's finest performances.
Wanda Landowska's harpsichord was making her name famous across this country as her interpretations of Bach and Scarlatti became established ideals. In those same years Pablo Casals was giving the world its first glimpse of what the solo cello suites by Bach really could be, and Artur Schnabel recorded all of the Beethoven piano sonatas and concertos as some of them have never been performed since.
But that technical hazard was always there: Everyone who owned a record collection of any size at all had become conditioned to leaping up every four minutes to turn the record over. Some of us became so used to those intrusions that we still, today, instinctively tense our muscles and get ready to perform that familiar maneuver even now when it is no longer necessary, simply because we hear the measures that used to proceed the breaks.
There was a special esprit around WINX. Money was put into its staff and equipment so that the station would be able to do the best possible job of broadcasting good music in the most persuasive manner. As music director of the station, beginning in 1946, I was sent to record stores from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia out to Cincinnati and Chicago with a free hand and budget to buy every recording, singles and sets alike, to make the best of all record libraries for WINX.
It came to be a regular occurrence for the station to announce complete performance of Mozart's "Don Giovanni," "Marriage of Figaro," and "Cosi Fan Tutte," in the great Glyndebourne Festival recordings, made under the direction of Fritz Busch.
To these were added the unparaleled magnificence of Beecham's "Magic Flute," and his "Faust." Complete recordings sometimes brought Washington first performances of great works that had never been heard here before, either live or on records, like Puccini's "Turandot" and the Berlioz Requiem.
The music critic of The Post at that time, Ray C.B. Brown, wrote a review of the broadcast of the Requiem, saying that he had not supposed that he would ever hear it. He was equally impressed by an imposing "recorded broadcast of "Borls Godunov," though that opera had of course been sung in Washington by no less than Feodor Chaliapin.
One of the fascinating sidelights to these broadcasts was a habit that developed as the WINX public grew in size and enthusiasm. Before long, the station began to take out half and even full-page newspaper ads announcing the great works that would be broadcast over its station.
The recorded repertoire in those distant days was indeed light years from the ocean of music that is now listed month by month in the Schwann catalogues. But there were many performances then available that have never been equalled and many that were well off the beaten path.
Can you imagine the amazed delight of Washington's Czech community on May 30, 1946, when the station broadcast a complete recording of Smetana's "Prodana Nevesta," which is practically the Czech national anthem, the opera better known, if incorrectly in this country, as "The Bartaged Bride." For that was, to the day, the 80th anniversary of the first performance of the opera and the recording was by the artists of the Prague National Opera.
Do you know how many discs were required for some of these complete performances? For Debussy's "Pelleaset Melisande," it took 20 of those heavy discs. For the third act alone of Wagner's "Meistersinger," which was all that was recorded of the opera in any complete sequence, 15 were needed, and for a complete "Walkuere," which could be put together from two different recordings, there were 26 of the four-minutes-to-a-side, shellac-surfaced platters.
It was greatly to the credit of the recording companies in those days that they would occasionally take what seemed to them the risk of recording, at great expense, and with no way of pre-judging the public response to, certain unfamiliar works. It was to such enterprise that we owe the first, historic recording of Schoenberg's "Gurre Lieder," conducted by Leopold Stokowski, with six soloists, three choruses, and Philadelphia Orchestra considerably enlarged. The project took 14 records. The recording, now available on long-playing pressings, remains a milestone.
It was from those days that the songs of Debussy became widely known thanks to matchless recorded performances by Maggie Teyte and Alfred Cortot. One day after broadcasting this album, I received a phone call from a woman who, having had no contact with recordings until the station began to broadcast them, said. "I am Sister Mary Magdalen here at Visitation in Georgetown. Many years ago I went to school in London with Maggie Teyte."
Walter Gieseking's unparalleled performances of Debussy's piano music became familiar through his great recordings; as did Lotte Lehmann's unforgettable Schubert and Schumann, while her Marschallin became an added member of many households through the 13 records that were required even to record only a half of "Der Rosenkavalier" by Richard Strauss.
I think there was something in the caliber of these recorded performances and the greatness of their music that got to the engineers in WINX in those days that made them determined so to handle their end of he job that the impossible illusion of an unbroken performance could be created through the expert manipulation of these inflexibly four-minute discs. I heard it too often there on the corner of 8th and I streets or at home not to be mesmerized into believing. Even when I stood right next to their turntables, it was often hard to realize what they were achieveing. But they did it.