78 rpm Recordings of European Jewish Music

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What is a Discography?


I am often asked 'What is a discography'? My standard answer is that a discography is to records what a bibliography is to books. As, invariably, the next question is 'What's a bibliography?', this website offers as good an opportunity as any to explain in detail once and for all what a discography is, what has to be done in order to write one and, last but not least, why anyone in their right mind should want to devote a substantial portion of their all too brief lives in creating one.

Definition and Types

A discography is a list of recordings. The nature of that list is very much the decision of the discographer. If you were to draw up a list of all the records you have on your shelves at home, that would be a discography of sorts. If your collection is very small, preparing such a list would probably be a rather strange thing to do, but if your collection is very large, it may very well be a necessity, so you can keep track of what you have. I do know certain people (and I deny absolutely that I am one of them) whose record collections are so extensive that from time to time (i.e. frequently) they go and buy the same record twice, quite unaware that they already have a copy. If you have reached that stage, then you really do need to compile a list and if you wish to call it a discography, then you are quite entitled to do so.

Beyond this personal type of discography, discographies come in all shapes and sizes, but there are four main categories:

1)         label discographies, which catalogue the entire output of a record company;

2)         artist discographies, which document all the recording made by a particular artist;

3)         national discographies, massive undertakings which catalogue every single recording made within confines of the country concerned.  A fine example of this is the multi-volume  German National Discography that Dr Rainer E. Lotz and his team have been working on for decades (see http://www.lotz‑verlag.de/discography.html);

4)         thematic discographies, which gather together all recordings of a certain type regardless of when, where or by whom they were made.  For example, a world jazz discography would list every jazz recording ever made anywhere in the world.

My Discography of Early European Recordings of Jewish Music is just such a thematic discography, as is Joel Bresler's Discography of Sephardic Music (see www.sephardicmusic.org for the details.)

What kind of information does a discography contain?

Again, this can vary according to the inclinations of the discographer.  At the very least a discography will contain the name of the main artist, the title of the recording and the name of the record company that made the recording.  However, any worthwhile discography should contain at least the following:

Basic information

  • the name of the main artist together with details of all the subsidiary artists (instrumentalists, conductors etc);
  • the name(s) of the composer(s) of the music and, if a vocal item, the name(s) of the lyricist(s);
  • the name of the record label on which the recording first appeared;
  • the catalogue number of the recording;
  • the matrix number of the recording;
  • the precise date on which the recording was made;
  • the precise location where the recording was made
  • details of any subsequent reissues of the recording (record label name and catalogue number)

A discography could also include:

Additional information

  • the name of the recording engineer;
  • the diameter of the record;
  • the price at which it was sold;
  • any other numbers that appear on the record in addition to the catalogue and matrix numbers;
  • biographical information about the artists involved;
  • reviews of the recordings published in newspapers and specialist magazines;
  • profiles of the record companies mentioned;
  • locations (sound archives etc) where a copy of the recording may be found

What sources are used in compiling a discography?

There are many sources of information, each of which will yield a different set of data. There are the records themselves, assuming you are lucky enough to have sight of them; old record company catalogues, advertisements in newspapers, magazines and trade journals; record reviews in old newspapers and the sales catalogues of current record dealers. In addition, the archives of record companies may contain detailed information regarding recording sessions and, very importantly, the key to understanding the company's matrix number system.

The advent of the Internet has provided an additional and very important source of information, particularly auction sites such as eBay which as a matter of course nowadays provide label scans of the records for sale (unfortunately, usually only of one side of the disc). Record dealers, many of whom have carefully compiled data from decades of experience in the trade, can sometimes be helpful in providing information, even if they know you are not a prospective customer. Some private collectors also are very willing to provide information about their collections, though it has to be said that, in my experience at least, most of them are extremely unwilling to divulge any details whatsoever. Also, for anyone like myself who is working on a thematic discography, existing label discographies written by fellow discographers are of immense importance.

This brings me last, but absolutely by no means least, to the discographers themselves. During the 14 odd (sometimes very odd) years that I have been engaged on my research, it has been my great good fortune to stumble upon this little worldwide community. Time and time again I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of these selfless individuals many of whom have devoted their whole lives to rescuing from oblivion the world's heritage of recorded sound. Almost without exception they have carried out their painstaking work independently of any academic, government or other institution and at significant financial expense to themselves (the cost of discographical research is often considerable). They are driven to this not through any eccentric desire on their part, but purely because gramophone records are for the most part still widely regarded as trivia - mere ephemera of no cultural value - and it is extremely difficult to find any individual or organisation prepared to assist in the financing of research into such a low status area of cultural studies. This outrageous attitude, based on ignorance and prejudice, is still prevalent in most of those institutions that govern cultural life in almost every country in the world. It is an attitude that is, thankfully, slowly beginning to change, but there is a long way to go before recorded sound is granted the same cultural value as the printed word.

This is a subject to which I intend to return at length in a future article.

What use is a discography?

A discography gathers together under one roof information that otherwise is only to be found scattered across hundreds or thousands of different sources, many of which are very inaccessible.

Jewish Discographical Research - A Global Overview

We are now well on the way towards documenting the entire output of Jewish recordings everywhere in the world during the first half of the 20th century. The situation at present is as follows:


Recordings made in Europe are fully covered by my Discography of Early Recordings of Jewish Music and by Joel Bresler's Discography of Sephardic Music (www.sephardicmusic.org) Both of these projects are still ongoing. Volume 1 of Series 6 of the German National Discography was published in 2006 and deals with Jewish recordings made in German-speaking regions of Europe.

Jeffrey Wollock has published two important monographs:
European Recordings of Jewish Instrumental Folk Music, 1911 - 1914
Soviet Recordings of Jewish Instrumental Folk Music, 1937-1938

Both articles should be required reading for anyone even remotely interested in Jewish music, but the article on Soviet recordings is an outstanding example of how discographical research can serve as an effective tool in providing a fresh perspective on historical and musicological matters.

The Mediterranean, Israel and the Middle East

Sephardic recordings are being documented by Joel Bresler. As regards all other Jewish recordings made in this area, I am not aware of any discographical work that is being done. Israel badly needs a discography of some of its major historical record companies such as Hed-Arzi.

United States

Jewish recordings made in the USA up to 1942 have been documented in great detail by Dick Spottswood in volume three of Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942. The Jewish section in this volume documents somewhere in the region of 11,000 recordings - a monumental achievement. Nevertheless, since publication of the discography in 1990, recordings not included in the list have been steadily coming to light and the Jewish section now needs to be updated.

The Spottswood discography comes to an end in 1942, which means that the following 14 or so years of Jewish recordings on 78 rpm records are not included. This was a very productive period and it needs to be documented. There are rumours circulating that some person or persons are engaged on such a task, but so far no one has gone public.

South America

Judging by the number of South American recordings that are sold on eBay almost every day, South America, especially Argentina, was a very important region for the recording of Jewish music. I am not aware of anyone doing any research into this potentially very rewarding topic, though any Sephardic recordings will be dealt with by Joel Bresler's discography.

The Rest of the World

Basically this comprises Africa, the Indian sub-continent, the Far East and Australasia. Again, I am not aware of any research being conducted into recordings of Jewish music in these regions, though any Sephardic recordings will be dealt with by Joel Bresler's discography.

I would not like to hazard a guess as to how profitable such research into recordings made in these parts of the world might prove to be, but it seems likely that, at the very least, recordings would have been made in South Africa and Australia. Whether the music of India's small but ancient Jewish community was ever recorded deserves investigating, even if the likelihood seems remote. China would seem to be a most unlikely source, but I have heard rumours that Yiddish recordings were made in Shanghai, a city which, by all accounts, once had a Jewish population large enough to support seven synagogues.

As can be seen, much remains to be explored, even though the likelihood of finding anything might in many instances seem remote. Nevertheless, I would urge anyone contemplating research into these areas not to be deterred by such negative thoughts. When I embarked on my discographical project in 1994, I was told on many occasions, often by those who I had every reason to regard as authorities on the matter, that I was wasting my time and that it was inconceivable that Jewish recordings could have been made in pre-war Europe, especially Eastern Europe, on any meaningful scale. They were wrong, and I look forward to the day in 14 years time when any doubts I have expressed as to the viability of research into recordings of Jewish music in unlikely corners of the world are proved to have been equally ill-founded.

Michael Aylward
13 December 2008. (Posted 22 December 2008.)

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