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Russian Julius Block was a music-lover. His German ancestors left him with a prosperous international business, and he built on it as he travelled the globe. Block loved the newest inventions — he introduced his country to the bicycle and the escalator. When he read in the papers about the phonograph, he had to go New Jersey to meet Thomas Edison and see it.

Edison thought of his invention mainly as a way to record voices, especially famous ones. However, Block didn’t want to limit this new contraption to being a simple voice recorder or dictating machine. He wanted to do more. Block was a good pianist, and knew Anton Arensky, Anton Rubinstein, Alexander Taneyev, and — most importantly — Peter Tchaikovsky. He wanted to record these people not just speaking, but performing.

After Block passed away in 1934, his recorded cylinders ended up in an archive in Berlin. When that city was almost totally destroyed at the end of WWII, it was thought that the recordings had been lost. Even Block’s own son had no idea they might have survived. But the Soviets didn’t let that happen. The cylinders were removed to the Pushkin House — where they’d originated in St. Petersburg.

Enter Ward Marston. Marston plays the piano and conducts his own orchestra, and is known for his restoration of old recordings. He lives outside of Philadelphia with his service dog, Vinnie, and nearly 30,000 records. Marston travelled to Russia and was able to access Block’s archives. He’s issued some of Block’s recordings on 9 CDs.

Today (Friday 12 June 2009) you’ll hear a recording made in 1890. In order of their appearances (or sounds, if you like), the voices are composer Anton Rubinstein, singer Elizaveta Lavrovskaya, composer Peter Tchaikovsky, pianist and conductor Vassily Safonov, pianist Alexandra Hubert, and our host Julius Block. Expect to hear Tchaikovsky speak after each time you hear someone sing. He is the one you hear whistling at the end — and Peter Tchaikovsky is the answer to our Friday Quiz.

Ward Marston’s website

A photo of Tchaikovsky taken about the time of the recording (1890)

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