05 July 2021

"A lovely camisole for 11/6d" : the 1927 HMV mobile recordings at Hereford

The HMV van at Hereford Cathedral, September 1927

Following the adoption of electrical recording in 1925, someone at the Gramophone Company (HMV) saw an opportunity for making records outside a dedicated studio or nearby building connected by GPO landline.

This led to the construction of the "Mobile Van" in 1926. A purpose-built Lancia commercial vehicle, registration number ML1003 (Middlesbrough County Borough), which contained seven tons of recording equipment. Housed at Gramophone Company headquarters in Hayes, Middlesex, it could be driven to locations across the United Kingdom. Although planned to make conventional recordings, it opened up the possibility of making recordings of performances in "real-time", as they happened.

The van's first task was to record Harry Goss-Custard playing the brand-new organ of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral on 8th February 1927

Famous recordings made on the van in 1927 included Ernest Lough singing in London's Temple Church in Mendelssohn's Hear my prayer, and cellist Beatrice Harrison duetting with a nightingale in her Oxted garden at "Foyle Riding".

HMV advertisement
Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Friday 20 January 1928

Early in the year the Gramophone Company started negotiations with the Three Choirs Festival Committee to make live recordings that the Hereford Festival in September 1927. One of their star artists, Sir Edward Elgar, was due to conduct not only The Dream of Gerontius and The Music Makers but also the premiere of his Civic Fanfare, specially commissioned for the opening concert in the cathedral.

The Bedfordshire Times and Independent reviewed the records on Friday 3rd February 1928. The review gives us a good idea of the impact the records made on contemporary listeners remembering, also, that they would have been heard on an acoustic gramophone, incapable of reproducing the finer details:

The Dream was performed at the last Three Choirs Festival in Hereford Cathedral under the conductorship of Sir Edward Elgar himself, and records were made of one or two passages by means of the mobile recording apparatus.

The results are vividly realistic - and moat tantalizing! Directly the first record begins we are actually m the cathedral, no effort of imagination needed : the sensitive microphone has caught and transmitted to the recording apparatus not merely the beauty of tone and detail of the performance, but the actual sense of the presence of large assembly. One is so conscious of forming part of that hushed audience that the abrupt break at the end of the record is quite a shock. However, we are but eavesdroppers and must be thankful that modem science can do so much for us.

The eavesdropping begins with the passages "So, pray for me" and "O Jesu help" in Part I. The solo part is sung with extreme poignancy by Tudor Davies, and the choral and orchestral background beautifully proportioned and distinct in every detail (the orchestra is the London Symphony Orchestra). In Part II we hear Horace Stevens singing with solemn impressiveness "Jesu, by that shuddering dread", and Margaret Balfour's exquisitely tender rendering of "Softly and gently", after the last few bars of the tenor’s final passage, "Take me away". The close of this record is the most tantalizing moment: if only we could hear the rest—that glorious blinding of earthly prayers and celestial hymns of praise. 

This is not all, however. There are two records containing passages from Elgar’s The Music Makers, the composer again conducting, and Brewer's Nunc Dimittis, and in each the choral singing is extremely fine. Referring generally to all four records it is difficult to praise too highly the skill of the "HMV" experts in securing such well-proportioned and beautiful reproductions.

The reviewer in the Yorkshire Evening Post of Saturday 28th January 1928 was cautious about the results:

Recording Public Performances. 

Three Choirs' Festival on Gramophone. 

The most ambitious attempt yet made to record for the gramophone an actual public performance of great musical works was that of the H.M.V. Company at the Three Choirs Festival a few months ago in Hereford Cathedral. The discs were made by the aid of microphones fixed in the cathedral and connected with a mobile recording laboratory mounted on a motor lorry which stood at one the entrances. They have now been issued and gramophone enthusiasts will able to judge the progress which has been made. 

The portions of the festival recorded are three numbers from Sir Edward Elgar's The Music Makers and four from The Dream of Gerontius, all conducted by the composer. It is appropriate that Elgar should be associated in this way with such a development, for he and his father were violinist and organist together in the orchestra of earlier Three Choirs Festivals which go back well over 200 years, while Sir Edward has shown keen personal interest the development of gramophone. 


Frankly, one must regard these records as largely experimental. Tbc difficulties which have to be overcome are great; but it must be said at once that the reverberations of the cathedral and the noises made the congregation, such as the movement of chairs and coughing, are much less intrusive than one has heard in broadcast performances under similar conditions. 

The fact that the performance cannot be regulated to suit the recording is apparent in two or three instances where the music on the disc finishes abruptly; but in the circumstances this is almost unavoidable. In the louder choral passages, the cathedral adds a characteristic echo, and it will found in playing these records that a much better effect is obtained listening to them at some distance from the gramophone—from adjoining room through open door, for example. There doubtless some scientific explanation for this. 

The tenor soloist in The Dream  is Tudor Davies, who has developed rather irritating mannerisms on the operatic stage; but in the cathedral his singing sounds much finer one had expected. 

The music of these records often attains real beauty, and to lovers of Elgar's choral works they will be especially welcome, while the H.M.V. technicians will have gained valuable experience for future efforts.

The Daily Herald's reviewer, on Tuesday 24th January 1928, took a more light-hearted approach;


Church Atmosphere on the Gramophone

 When the singer won't go to the gramophone recording studio, the studio must go to the singers. So a neat lorry drove up to Hereford Cathedral last September and waited there during the Three Choirs Festival

The lorry was connected to a microphone inside the cathedral, and the result of this quiet visit is the production of four H.M.V. records of the actual singing Elgar's Music Makers and The Dream of Gerontius. The atmosphere of a great church is uncannily conveyed, and there is a general effect of strength and singularity.

Forty-five years later, in a letter to the editor of The Gramophone of 2nd October 1972, retired HMV engineer Bernard Wratten recalled those Hereford recordings:

One evening, after the day's music making was done, Dr. Hull invited us round to his house, where we found an impressive assortment of English composers, singer and musicians. While we were there he told us that the wife of a local baronet, a lady with a considerable reputation for silliness, had been so taken with the hat of another member of the audience sitting just across the aisle during a rehearsal that she leant over to ask, under cover of combined choir and orchestra, where the hat had been bought. She had to raise her voice and at that moment the music stopped, She was clearly heard all over the Cathedral.

The tale acquired its widely circulated form from our Public Relations Officer. It had nothing whatsoever to do with our recording but he felt there was a good news-story in it, and after decorating it he sent it out to the newspapers, most of which published it.

It was Gramophone Company veteran, friend of Elgar, and Artistic Director of the International Artistes' Department, Fred Gaisberg who recorded the most decorated version of this story in his 1942 autobiography The Music Goes Round. He also provided a valuable insight into the successes and failures of mobile recording:

One of the first innovations to follow electric recording was a mobile van, with which we could realize the dream of recording actual performances. We used it with ah the gusto of a new toy. The Royal Choral Society choir of 800 strong was recorded during a Messiah performance in the Albert Hall, Gerontius at Worcester Cathedral during a Three Choir Festival, and massed bands of 1,000 players at the Crystal Palace. The Covent Garden Opera, Staatsoper in Berlin, La Scala in Milan, and the Paris Opera were all recorded later during actual performances. Many of these records were issued to the public and had a great success. For instance, the sale of the “Hallelujah Chorus” and “Lift Up Your Heads” afforded the Royal Choral Society a revenue for several years that made up the loss on many a concert.

Yet often apologies had to be tendered for coughs, sneezes and snorts from the conductor. In Toscanini’s case, for instance, he always sings along with the ’cello part and grinds his teeth. In the actual performances of opera the prompter, spitting out the cues and singing the entrance notes for the singers, disturbed the enjoyment of these records. 

Once at the Three Choir performance of Gerontius, during a sudden silent pause after a forte climax, a lady’s voice talking about “a lovely camisole for 11/6d” was clearly exposed when the record was played back, and so ruined a fine set. ["11/6d" would have been spoken as "eleven-and-six" or "eleven shillings and sixpence." In decimal currency it is the equivalent of 57.5p, or £23.44 in 2017.]

Before any of this “on the spot” recording could be projected commercially, complicated negotiations had to be undertaken with each individual unit concerned—choir, orchestra, soloists, conductor, Dean of the Cathedral and even the sexton, and their signed permission obtained before recording could legally be undertaken. At first the public bought these records because of their novelty, but afterwards the sales dropped off and the heavy costs made the venture unattractive for the gramophone companies. 


At the first Music Festival at Queen’s Hall, a fine recording conducted by Toscanini, of the Brahms Second Symphony, was ruined by so much coughing, an unmistakable sign of an influenza epidemic, that the records had to be destroyed.  

The Temple Church Choir, thanks to the masterly training of Sir Walford Davies, came into great prominence, but it was their gramophone recording of Hear My Prayer, one of the early commissions of the mobile van, that brought it international fame and caused the dusty old “church of the lawyers” to be so overwhelmed by visitors from the Dominions and the U.S.A. that tickets of admission had to be issued. The recording took place in 1926 at a special private session in the Temple Church. Thalben Ball was the choirmaster and organist, and Ernest Lough, then between 14 and 15, was the solo boy. A happy combination of chance helped to make this lovely record: the soft, acoustic resonance of the church, a boys’ choir with a fine discipline, a choirmaster who was a first-rate trainer, and a gifted boy with a musical sensibility and a silver voice just then at its prime. A year later the moment would have passed, for the voice had changed.  

The fame of record C1329 spread like wildfire and in a few years close on one million copies were sold. The royalties payable to the Temple Church really embarrassed the lawyers, so unexpected was their sum total. After bonuses to each member of the choir there was sufficient left over for a fine holiday. With the balance they founded a scholarship. 

Although Bernard Wratten in his 1972 letter said that HMV's Public Relations Department used this myth to promote the 1927 Hereford recordings, there is no evidence of this before the Nottingham Journal's item of Friday 13th November 1931. This was on the occasion of the inauguration of the new recording studios in Abbey Road, St John's Wood, by Sir Edward Elgar. The van had been built its own garage at Abbey Road:



(From Our Own Correspondent.) London, Thursday. 

Adjoining the vast new recording studios or the H.M.V. Company at St. Johns Wood, inaugurated to-day by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Edward Elgar, is a garage which accommodates the "flying squad" of the gramophone world.

In it is a large enclosed van containing ail the apparatus necessary for making a record in readiness to set out for any part of the country in short notice. 

It has been all over the North and Midlands to choir festivals, organ recitals and public gatherings.

It was used to make a record of an organ recital by Dr. Bairstow, at York Minster, and it has been to Leeds and Hereford for their famous choral festivals. 

"The apparatus carried weighs seven tons," one of the operators told me to-day, "and so the car has to driven very carefully. We can move when occasion requires, however. 

"The funniest experience I ever had when recording from the van was at Hereford. We were In the middle of making a record of the Three Choirs Festival when suddenly, to our horror, remark from somebody near the microphone came through loud and clear on our speaker. It was pointed reference to the silk stockings worn by one of the ladles present. We decided to scrap that record."


The Hereford photo of the van published in 1927 in a mock-up of the van outside York Minster