For, one of the supreme qualities of a gramophonic concert, as contrasted with hearing the same music from an orchestra in a concert-hall, is the superior intimacy, closeness of attention, fixedness of interest, absortion [sic] of all that the music means and conveys to ear and psychos; as there is not any of the sub-conscious distraction of attention that in [sic] inevitable in a public concert-hall, for the auditors….It is worth while to remember that when music is heard in presence of a public audience, the message of a master-musician is to others, as well as to you; but when you are hearing, just by yourself alone, then Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms,–they are speaking to you, in an individualized, personal interview, what they mean by their score. For such great honour to you, your phonograph is the mystic, faithful medium.Edward Prime-Stevenson, A Repertory of One Hundred Symphonic Programmes (Florence: Privately Printed, ca.1932/3), 26-27. Emphases original.
In this admittedly somewhat unwieldy sentence in the prefatory material to his last known book, Edward Prime-Stevenson lays out his methods for listening to recorded music. While much of this section details practical concerns for organizing one’s listening (including how to juxtapose material from different times, places, and styles and what extramusical materials to provide if one is listening with a group) and reflects Prime-Stevenson’s personal musical biases (for German and Italian symphonic music and against popular music, abstract contemporary music, and the radio), this paragraph seems spiritual or supernatural.
Part of this is the explicit comparison Prime-Stevenson makes between the listener and the attendee of a séance, with the phonograph cast in the role of the “mystic, faithful medium” and the great composers of history as those across the veil. Evocations of the ghostly are common across early 20th-century advertisements for sound recording and reproducing technologies, from wax cylinders providing the ability to preserve the voice across time to player piano advertisements suggesting ghostly performers. As Alyssa Michaud discusses in her 2019 dissertation, the industry for reproducing pianos emphasized a connection between the “ghostly” motion of the piano keys and the embodied practice of a human performer (106-107). Mediums themselves often made frequent use of manipulated sound and music in their activities well into the 20th century, from accounts of disembodied spirits striking percussion instruments or blowing horns to the case of midcentury medium Rosemary Brown, who claimed to channel new works by 19th-century composers throughout the 1960s and 1970s. (While I did not intend for my Queer History Month posts to also be seasonally themed, it seems like the question of musical ghosts will appear a few times over the next couple of weeks!)
The language of a personal message from deceased composers also aligns neatly with Prime-Stevenson’s approach to constructing a queer musical canon. As discussed in The Intersexes and Long-Haired Iopas, he frequently sought to pair (real or imagined) biographical interpretation with the experience of listening to particular works. His queer reading of Beethoven’s bachelorhood and relationship with his nephew Karl in The Intersexes, for example, relied heavily on his gossipy claims to a secret “Uranian” subtext to the Op. 111 piano sonata. Similarly, his readings of Tchaikovsky and Wagner involved appeals to listener experience and interpretation.
Repertory marries Prime-Stevenson’s musical interests with practical and theoretical concerns brought on by commercial recording technology: how to listen to and appreciate one’s favorite music in ways that incorporate a knowledge of music history without wearing out certain records. His reply to these issues is essentially a form of listening party or lecture (what he dubs an “audition”) organized around a kind of proto-playlist. He indicates that an audition can include a crowd of fifty to one hundred guests or a sole listener (“the gramphonist…himself”). He directs those who wish to compile their own audition programs to choose 4-6 contrasting excerpts of around 1.5 total hours of listening that provide gradual motion between historical periods and emphasize the dramatic potential of symphonic music (including, for his purposes, some operatic excerpts and orchestrated Lieder).
Program #22 (one of three Wagner-themed “auditions” in Repertory) depicts Prime-Stevenson’s continued interest in Wagner, including those excerpts from Parsifal (the Transformation Scene) and Tristan und Isolde (the Liebestod) that were of particular fascination for those seeking queer readings of Wagnerian music drama. The conductors and orchestras represented here (Stokowski in Philadelphia, Blech, Knappertbusch, and Strauss in Berlin, and Coates in London) also show something of the international range of Prime-Stevenson’s record collecting.
This approach to programming aligns with early 20th-century ideas of recordings providing a space for the classical listener who may be isolated from a major concert hall. As Wayne Koestenbaum discusses in The Queen’s Throat, the increased widespread availability of both commercial recording technology and music criticism allowed for a globally dispersed imagined community of opera audiences and fans. While Prime-Stevenson is quick to dismiss objections to the phonograph as a lesser substitute for live performances, it is clear that many of his personal choices in Repertory nonetheless draw on his experiences as a New York City music and theater critic in the last decade or so of the 19th century. He namechecks well-known conductors (including Anton Seidl), focuses overwhelmingly on the 19th-century German repertoire (with Wagner and Beethoven among the most represented), and–perhaps most tellingly–dedicates the book to his friend, former student, and former lover Harry Harkness Flagler, by then President of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Society.
This blending of using technology as a quasi-medium, finding secret messages in canonical music, and referring to personal connections all suggests that Prime-Stevenson’s actual listening was much more romantic (in both a “big R” and “small r” sense) and nostalgic than his claims to music appreciation and education might otherwise suggest. In my dissertation, I thought about Prime-Stevenson’s musical (and musicological) nostalgia as a form of imagined time travel, particularly in connection with a seeming desire to return to the New York concert scenes of the 1890s. In my more recent work on Prime-Stevenson’s musical fictions and potential listening practices, however, I have been thinking more about the possibilities for personal relationships with music that might seem idiosyncratic or ahistorical. When Prime-Stevenson listened to Beethoven (or Tchaikovsky or Wagner or Brahms or Bruckner), was it a ghostly communication from the composer he imagined? A particular conductor’s interpretation? His past listening experiences with Flagler and others? Or was it a cross-temporal mix of all of these at once, not unlike the medium who claims communion with both the great figures of history and the more recently departed loved ones of those present at a sitting?
Wayne Koestenbaum. The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. 2nd. ed. New York: Da Capo, 2001 .
Alyssa Michaud. “After the music box: A history of automation in real-time musical performance.” PhD diss., McGill University, 2019. https://escholarship.mcgill.ca/concern/theses/2f75rd30c
Edward Prime-Stevenson. A Repertory of One Hundred Symphonic Programmes, for public auditions of the Orthophonic Phonograph-Gramophone: with a prefatory on Programme-Making and Conducting. Privately Printed, ca. 1932/3.
For more about the particular type of machine used by Prime-Stevenson and referred to in Repertory, see James A. Carino’s article here on the Victor Orthophonic Credenza for the Canadian Antique Phonograph Society.
For more on Prime-Stevenson’s queer readings of Beethoven’s instrumental music, see my chapter “‘Legendary In-Reading’: Musical Meaning, Analysis, and Biography in Edward Prime-Stevenson’s Music Criticism and Sexology,” in Queer Ear: Remaking Music Theory, ed. Gavin S.K. Lee (Oxford UP 2023).