EMI and Historic Masters

With EMI, it all started in Great Britain. The first series of Historic Masters appeared in 1972. Twenty records by great singers of the past were made available by the British Institute of Recorded Sound (BIRS – now part of the British Library, see below) on an advance subscription basis. So check out this article about EMI and Historic Masters.

The records were pressed on vinyl and the scheme represented a collaboration between the BIRS and EMI Ltd. It was a great loss to the collecting world when this series – which enjoyed considerable worldwide sales – was not converted into a continuing project.

A committee was formed under the Chairmanship of Lord Harewood in the hope of reviving the project and after the withdrawal of the BIRS, this became Historic Masters Ltd.

Despite very many technical and other difficulties, it became possible – thanks to the co-operation of Thorn EMI Ltd – to make a second series available of five double-sided records, again pressed on vinyl in an edition limited to 500 copies and for sale as a set only. Check out also this post about the History of EMI.

The discs were as follows:

HMB 21 – Tito SCHIPA – Boheme/Manon
HMB 22 – Selma KURZ – Les Diamants de la Couronne/Don Carlos
HMB 23 – Luisa TETRAZZINI – Faust/Forza del Destino
HMB 24 – Antonina NESHDANOVA – II Barbiere di Siviglia/Life for the Czar
HMB 25 – Lev SIBIRIAKOV – La Juive/Judith

Sales of Historic Masters were excellent, despite limited publicity and only a limited number of sets remain to be sold. This has enabled the Committee to announce a third series which became available in November 1984. Provided the collecting world would continue to support the scheme, it was intended henceforth to offer two further sets of discs each year.

Although Historic Masters was a limited company, the project for issuing discs in this form is not intended to be profit-making. Surplus income was being plowed into research and development, particularly the technology for pressing ten and ten and three quarter inch records. At a later date, it was hoped to subsidize other projects of interest to collectors.

The British Institute of Recorded Sound

In the first series of Historic Masters, issued in 1972 by the British Institute of Recorded Sound, there were four ten-inch discs. About this time, major record companies were ceasing to produce records in this form and gradually they disposed of the appropriate manufacturing equipment. When the new committee was formed to establish Historic Masters Limited, it was faced with an immediate problem.

Many of the greatest treasures in the EMI archive, to which Historic Masters had been given access, are in ten inch-form (sometimes 10 3/4 inch) form, but the technology for producing records of this size has been effectively ‘lost’. Resisting the temptation to issue the smaller discs in twelve-inch format, Historic Masters invested much effort in seeking what is, in effect, a recreation of this technology.

With the help of research grants from the Historic Singers Trust, they were able to overcome all problems and offered a set of five ten-inch discs – probably the first ten-inch discs to be produced for public sale in the UK in the 1980s! It is believed that this set contained much material of the greatest interest to collectors. The issue was, on this occasion, limited to just 300 sets.

Some collectors queried the need to issue and sell these records in sets of five. Historic Masters is only a very small record producer that lacked the resources to run a large or a back catalog.

The process of re-issuing records in 78 rpm form is expensive. Assuming there were some means by which they could offer records individually, the cost would work out at approximately double the cost they charged per disc then. Historic Masters was a service for collectors.

The Board certainly appreciated that all collectors would have their individual ideas on what we should or should not issue and may find the purchase of five discs at one time inconvenient. It was hoped, nonetheless, that collectors would give their full support so that the work can continue.

Check out also the following British Library video. The Library boasts the national British sound archive. This extraordinary collection contains almost 6.6 million recordings of music, speech, wildlife, and sounds from our environment. The recordings span a period from the early 1880s to today.

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