A Little Wonder And a 'Silent Night'
There really was a Little Wonder phonograph in the once-upon-a-time. And every year as the fall rains wash off the faded remains of the foliage, I have my recurring question, a big one: Is the voice of Ernestine Schumann-Heink preserved in her rendition of "Silent Night" in German? I hope we shall hear "yes," and that somewhere there is a Little Wonder to play it.
It was World War I time. The era of the Edison phonograph and its cylinder recordings was by no means finished, and the record was at hand. Beautiful players were being made by Columbia, and the Victor dog whose inclined ear listened to "His Master's Voice" was well known across the land. The Little Wonder was the tin lizzie in a Pierce-Arrow galaxy. It was a hand-crank mechanism contained in a small square base. The small amplifying horn had the reproduction point at its base, so the sound came directly from the stylus. The felt turntable was much smaller than that on a Victor, but the things would play the big records as well as the six-inch ones. The big ones just laid out over the edge. The horn turned as the record groove advanced.
At the time, Columbia was advertising that their recording was perfect. They could put an artist on the stage to sing, and beside him a phonograph with a record of his same song. The audience would be unable to tell when the singer stopped and the record began! Bless us! Today we know too well that the happiest invention of man is the mute button on the TV.
The recordings of that day were truly excellent. Consider that electricity was not involved, and master records were made by sound waves through a tube. Today the TV jazzes up the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" to make it old-time, corny, and unrefined. But Edison's cylinder of the song, recorded in 1895, was clear, sharp, and good enough to be used as is. If anybody wants to dispute me, I know where to find an Edison original. Does anybody today realize that the silver-tongued orator, William Jennings Bryan, can be played on a phonograph? Every letter distinct!
Christmas, as the holiday approaches, has one defect. It is the repetition in our barrage of Christmas music of "Jingle Bells." "Jingle Bells" is not Christmas music and never was. Its composer described it as a little sleighing song. He first played it for a neighbor piano teacher who said it was jolly.
"Silent Night" was meant to be a Christmas song, and Madame Schumann-Heink had a great deal to do with making it famous. Austrian by birth, in what is now the Czech Republic, she was trained in Germany and made her American operatic debut in 1898 in Chicago. Remember? She became an American citizen in 1905. Mme. Schumann-Heink sang contralto, an important difference, and she had great power and an amazing range. Her public kept her busy long after the lady's voice passed its prime, and nobody knows how many times she did "Silent Night."
I do not know if she ever sang into a microphone except on radio, but memory of her singing "Silent Night" on a Little Wonder suggests she never needed one to be heard. I remember that Henry Snow, upon hearing her "Silent Night," said, "She makes my marrer start!" and my mother said it gave her goose-bumps.
With today's electronic refinements, a Little Wonder recording of "Silent Night" by Ernestine Schumann-Heink could be copied and flashed simultaneously about the world so everybody could experience that same reaction. Instead, we get "Jingle Bells," and I for one use the mute button. If, as I like to hope, Mme. Schumann-Heink is reposing silent in the archives somewhere on a Little Wonder, I'd like to hear from her.
The Little Wonder phonograph might be considered "portable" today. It was compact, but the wee horn still had to be big enough to handle Enrico Caruso and Schumann-Heink. It would not fit handily in a lady's reticule, and would be a bit heavy for her if it should. Then if you carried the thing somewhere, you had to think about a stack of records. And put the crank in your pocket. But people did carry the Little Wonder about and shared its big wonders with friends and neighbors. "Jingle Bells" in July would not be so fine, but "Silent Night" by Ernestine Schumann-Heink goes very well.
DON'T believe for a moment that Little Wonder was all concert stuff. I clearly remember an eight-inch "platter" of a Swede who imitated "Jingle Bells" by singing "Yingle, yingle, yingle!" But in June or December Mme. Schumann-Heink cast her spell, and in hushed appreciation we listened to "Silent Night," and not a one of us save Grammie Benck knew a word of German. Yes, a fearful kitsch has prevailed in spite of us. The day after Thanksgiving it is Christmas, and to celebrate this we begin with "Jingle Bells." This continues until late Christmas Eve when UPS makes its last delivery. The world and "Jingle Bells" are too much with us this month.
I beseech our readership: Somebody must have a Little Wonder record of Ernestine Schumann-Heink and "Silent Night." Somebody must know somebody who could copy it and make it available. "Jingle Bells" is all right, but it should be saved for jolly sleigh rides where, with frozen hands and feet, everybody is dashing through the snow and wishing they were home where it's warm.