70 Years of Singing on Record, 1900-1970

By J.B. Steane

Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1974, 1994 reissue. Out of print.

Writing well and descriptively about the human voice is an especially difficult challenge for a music critic. No matter how differently Itzhak Perlman and Jack Benny may have played the violin, their sounds, musical and otherwise, were made on the same basic instrument. But every singer has a unique tonal quality, as distinct and individual as a fingerprint. And here the problems begin: If Luciano Pavarotti, with his sun-splashed lyrical sweetness, was a representative tenor, what do we make of Peter Pears, who gasped and squawked his way through most of what he sang (notably the operas of Benjamin Britten) yet remained one of the most gripping interpreters of the 20th century? And how does one explain these differences to a reader without the benefit of a recording?

The British critic J.B. Steane doesn't seem to have any problems with this particular task, which is why his 1974 work, "The Grand Tradition: 70 Years of Singing on Record, 1900-1970" (Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1994 reissue, out of print), is the best book on the voice ever written. This vivid, minute and exacting study of opera and classical song recordings from the first primitive wax cylinders through the heyday of the stereo LP permits Steane to examine and explain the work of hundreds of artists.

Here is Steane on tenor Giovanni Martinelli, for example: "Beauty of sound is certainly there on the records, its characteristic form being a kind of shining precision. He drew sound with the thin definition of a pencil line, but glowing brightly as if the pencil were pointed with fire." Or, in a comparison of five sopranos singing Bellini's "Casta Diva," Steane on Maria Callas: "Hers is simply the most interesting and most fully human face there. Hers is the most aptly expressive treatment of the music: she is rapt but not sleepy, dignified but not statuesque. She sings with what can best be called love: that is, with care, understanding and sudden personal insights." This is not only magnificent prose; it also has the inestimable merits of being both true and educational.

(Secondhand copies of "The Grand Tradition" are available through and New copies, at approximately $64, are available from

-- Tim Page, classical music critic