Research in the spring (II): Phonographs in fin-de-siècle Madrid

Published on: Author: Eva Moreda Rodriguez Leave a comment

Dr Eva Moreda Rodríguez is a Lecturer in Music in the Music subject area. She has recently published Music and exile in Francoist Spain with Ashgate.

 

My first research trip to Madrid in the summer 2007 involved 11-hour days in the Press and Newspapers room of the Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE) and crashing at a busy bed-and-breakfast on the Gran Vía. Since then, I have endeavoured to hit the Madrid archives every couple of years or so; these trips are, indeed, among the things I love the most about my job. So I was thrilled when I got a grant from the John Roberson Bequest to travel to Madrid in April to kick-start a project about the early history of phonography in Spain. For two weeks, I consulted a range of archival sources concerning the rise of the gabinetes fonográficos in Madrid between 1898 and 1905. The gabinetes fonográficos were commercial establishments who sold Edison phonographs and produced and sold their own recordings in wax cylinder support, employing mostly local opera and zarzuela singers. A selection of digitized early recordings can be found here.

Perhaps one of the most important realizations during these two weeks was that, for the first time, it did truly matter that I was conducting research in Madrid about Madrid. As a specialist in the political and cultural history Spanish music of the 20th century, Madrid is my default place for research because, as the capital of a country which has been historically very centralized, it hosts some of the main archives and collections I need, including those of the institutions which make up the state. Madrid, though, has also a rich local culture of its own, which, as a native of Galicia in the North-West of the country, I was not necessarily aware of beyond a few stereotypes.

For example, from the 1880s to the 1910s, Madrid was host to a thriving and busy musico-theatrical culture, with no less than eight theatres providing daily performances of zarzuela, a Spanish-language genre of musical theatre. When researching the location of both gabinetes fonográficos and zarzuela theatres around 1900, I was surprised to see that some of them were practically next door to or across the road from each other.

A map of Madrid's distrito centro showing the locations of gabinetes fonográficos (dots) and zarzuela theatres (squares) around 1900.
A map of Madrid’s distrito centro showing the locations of gabinetes fonográficos (dots) and zarzuela theatres (squares) around 1900.

 

Far from being simply a fun fact, this has opened up questions about the production and consumption of early recordings that I intend to pursue in the next few months: did phonography impresarios purposefully open their gabinetes in the surroundings of busy theatres, or was it the audiences who drove demand, encouraging local businesses, such as pharmacies and opticians, to start a side-line in wax cylinder recordings? Did recordings of zarzuela arias function primarily as a memento of favourite singers, pretty much in the same way as postcards did? And, with Madrid  being in constant transformation at the time due to immigration from the countryside and architectural reform, to what extent did the short-lived gabinetes fonográficos become a fixture in the capital’s urban landscape? Another set of sources I had the opportunity to look at while in Madrid included a collection of tourist guides of the city published in 1902 on the occasion of Alfonso XIII’s coronation. It was intriguing to see that, while some of them did include a few gabinetes  in their list of recommended shops, others did not – which was probably related to the fact that different guides were intended for different readerships: members of the provincial bourgeoisie were more likely to own a phonograph and would probably have the means to treat themselves to a few recordings of successful Madrid singers, whereas for those coming from the working classes, it would have been a bit of a stretch: the cheapest wax cylinders sold for about 4 pesetas, which was, coincidentally, about the same wage an employee of the Basque metallurgy industry made per day. For someone earning the average British salary of £26,500 nowadays, this would be the equivalent of spending in excess of £110.

A 1898 for the Madrid gabinete Villasante. Villasante was originally an optician and also sold a variety of scientific equipment.
A 1898 for the Madrid gabinete Villasante. Villasante was originally an optician and also sold a variety of scientific equipment.

 

A similar advertisement from 1900 for the gabinete Viuda de Aramburo. The gabinete was also active in the manufacturing and selling of electrical equipment.
A similar advertisement from 1900 for the gabinete Viuda de Aramburo. The gabinete was also active in the manufacturing and selling of electrical equipment.

 

A collection of postcards on how to wear a Spanish mantilla featuring zarzuela soprano Marina Gurina. Gurina recorded for the Valencia gabinete Pallás.
A collection of postcards on how to wear a Spanish mantilla featuring zarzuela soprano Marina Gurina. Gurina recorded for the Valencia gabinete Pallás.

Discourses of recording and other technologies, both in the late nineteenth century and now, tend to emphasize its equalizing, globalizing effects, with technology allegedly diluting borders and erasing local difference. My trip to Madrid, however, has made me realize that local culture is essential in understanding the early development of the recording industry in the city. It has also encouraged me to keep working on a grant application which will hopefully allow me to conduct similar research on other Spanish cities in which gabinetes thrived too, such as Barcelona and Valencia: I cannot wait to see how their local cultures influenced their recording practices.

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