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This man's recordings spent years under a recliner — they've now found a new home

A photo of Lionel Mapleson, pasted in one of his journals.
Alex Teplitzky
A photo of Lionel Mapleson, pasted in one of his journals.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Lionel Mapleson, then the librarian at New York's Metropolitan Opera, did something new: He took an Edison "Home" model phonograph and recorded operas with an orchestra as they were being sung on stage.

He experimented with recording from places like the prompter's booth, but finally landed on the catwalks high above the stage. Microphones weren't invented yet, so he used a giant horn, perhaps six feet long, to record acoustically.

"The Mapleson Cylinders, at least in terms of sound recording, are definitely among the most important sound documents of the 20th century," said Bob Kosovsky, a librarian in the music division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and an expert on early opera recordings.

"It recorded live performances at a time when people didn't think it was possible," he said.

In other words — these are some of the first live recordings of music ever.

Some of the Mapleson Cylinders donated to the New York Public Library by the Mapleson family.
Alex Teplitzky / NYPL
Some of the Mapleson Cylinders donated to the New York Public Library by the Mapleson family.

Mapleson recorded hundreds of cylinders, of operas but also of his family. Many are lost, perhaps forever. But the New York Public Library had 126 of them until last fall — all the known cylinders except for the 16 in possession of the Mapleson family. The library borrowed those in 1981 to transfer them as best they could and they put the collection on LPs; the result is hissy, scratchy — the music rises up like a ghost underneath a wall of static.

But then, last spring, the library bought an Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine, invented by Nicholas Bergh. NPR's story in April last year focused on how the machine worked, saying that it could digitize even broken cylinders with more clarity. And it mentioned how the library was excited to try to re-digitize the Mapleson Cylinders it owned to see if they could make them less noisy.

"So my brother, Peter, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, came across the story and he says, 'Oh, did you see this?'" said Alfred Mapleson, the great-grandson of Lionel. "And when I saw it was like, 'Oh, that's great. That means they probably can read the read these broken cylinders as well, which is great, is phenomenal.'"

He reached out to the library to donate them on behalf of the Mapleson family.

"And both Bob and I had just about fell out of our chairs with excitement, it was the best news we had gotten in 10 years," said Jessica Wood, assistant curator in the New York Public Library's music division.

A long family history

Mapleson's family had owned Mapleson Music since the 1700s, Alfred Mapleson said, a company which rented out its own opera orchestrations. They kept the cylinders as part of the business, but when it was sold to Educational Music Service in the 1990s, they kept the more personal things with the family — like the cylinders, which for quite a while were being kept in a beer cooler under Alfred's mother's recliner on Long Island.

But then Alfred moved them to his own house, along with Lionel's journals — about 50 of them. They're more like scrapbooks, really, with photographs and news clippings pasted in, along with thoughts about both Lionel's daily life and the big news of the day — like the sinking of the Titanic (he sailed on a boat to England with some who had survived), or the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake (the Met was there on tour).

Images and a post office receipt from about 10 days after the Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906.
Alex Teplitzky / NYPL
Images and a post office receipt from about 10 days after the Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906.

He also, said Wood, recorded "the day when Arturo Toscanini and Puccini came to his hotel room in the evening because they decided that act one of the opera Manon needed to be re-orchestrated."

The journals accompanied the cylinders to the library (details of how everything was packed up are here in an NYPL blog post by Wood.)

The librarians have been through about 20 of the journals so far, and there's not a lot about the recordings, though Kosovsky said it's clear that a lot of them were captured, not for posterity, but so his friends could hear themselves sing; many of them would never have heard their recorded voices otherwise. Yet what is there is rich, with detailed information about life in England and New York a century ago.

Alfred Mapleson himself has two sons — but he thought it was important that these journals, these cylinders, be available for others to use for research, so that his family legacy could live on.

"All I can say is I really hope I've done my family proud," he said. "You know, if Lionel could see this, or or my grandfather, or my dad, they'd be like, OK, you're doing right by by the family. That we all did what was right to perpetuate the Mapleson name and for history. And that's what's most important to me."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.