Guest post by Daniel Matoušek
Until now, there has not been much literature on the recording industry in the former Czechoslovakia. Particularly the history after the 1950s is not mapped at all yet. However, there are two books about the early music industry in the Czech lands that stand out in scope and in depth of detail: “Fonogram I” and “Fonogram II” by Czech record collector and sound industry historian Gabriel Gössel. The following short series of four articles is thus a look into the history of early gramophone industry in the Czech lands as described in these two volumes.
The first part deals with the very beginnings of a Czech recording industry before World War I, a time span when the Czech lands – Bohemia and Moravia – still belonged to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
The Czech Recording Industry Before World War I
The Czech recording history can be traced back to 1891, when Czech performers were recorded on Edison cylinders in Berlin. Later that year an agent of Edison’s company presented these records at the Provincial Jubilee Exhibition in Prague. However, none of them have survived and no names of the performers are known.
After that, it took some ten years for the technology to break through on a larger scale. Meanwhile, some first inventions in field of sound recording were patented by Czech inhabitants. The very first patent in this area was obtained by two inhabitants of Prague in the German Reich (imperial patent no 86584) for a “phonograph with a steady motion of the recording device, adapted for receiving [means: recording] in three different ways” in 1895 (Gössel 2006: 10). In 1900, Heinrich J. Rumler, who was also a member of prestigious International Union of Phonographic Science in Berlin, took out patents on a “device for a revolving carrier a of phonograph cylinder (…)” and on a “phonograph with several switchable cylinders” (Gössel 2006: 11). A few years later in 1903, a certain Emanuel Cervenka presented in Prague a new way of recording by inscribing rays of light that fell on a rotating photographic [glass] disc. Soon his invention received acclaim in the Phonographische Zeitschrift and later that year Cervenka also presented his invention before the Royal Academy in Berlin with the then German crown prince as an extinguished guest. Since Cervenka was not able to clarify some questions on the machine’s functioning, his invention sank quickly into oblivion.
A browse through newspapers from the turn of the century shows that the trade with recording equipment was on the rise. Jandourek & Duffek Co. was selling Edison’s Kinetoscope (a machine for screening pictures with sound accompaniment from cylinders) at the Ethnographic Exhibition in Prague in 1895. In 1896, probably the same machine was presented under the name Kinemato-fonograf and then again as Fono-kinematograf in 1904. Alongside, newspapers were filled with announcements of established foreign and domestic companies that widened their range of products from music instruments and music boxes to phonographs and gramophones. The number of sales agents rapidly increased and almost everyone could claim to be a general or official supplier of a given company.
In this thriving business field, there were several salesmen who can be considered prominent. One of them was Max C. Steiner. A “K & K Hofoptiker” (Imperial and Royal Court Optician) by title, he was the first Czech importer of discs of the British Gramophone Company. In his shop in the centre of Prague he also offered Edison phonographs and cylinders. Another one was Rudolf Guth, who was a member of the Verband der Deutschen Sprechmaschinen-Industrie (German Association of Talking Machines) and a representative of Schiff & Co. in 1906. The optician and mechanic A. Rosenthal was among first Czech music cylinder retailers. He was the first Czech agent of Deutsche Grammophone (the German branch of the British Gramophone Company), who also imported the quite expensive but famous Bettini cylinders.
However, the most important early – and not only early – businessman in the Czech recording industry was Diego Fuchs. Born in 1876, he initially was a door-to-door salesman for music machines. In 1902, he opened a “Specialized Wholesale Store with Music Machines” in the heart of Prague and sold also various music-related goods such as mechanical pianos, player-pianos or “orchestrions”. As a far-sighted businessman he predicted a bright future for the gramophone business. By 1904, he became an official director of the Czech subsidiary of Odeon. In 1906, he added the official distribution for the British Gramophone Company. In 1910, he started to sell Janus-discs and shortly thereafter also records of the Arena, Elite and Patria labels. With leased machines from German Polyphon Werke he also made recordings of Czech music repertory.
The industry flourished outside Prague too. “The first specialized shop for speaking machines in Moravia” was run by Karel Jarousek in Brno. Since 1906 he had issued his own quarterly catalogue-bulletin that was delivered to all customers. In West-Bohemian Plzen the trained organ maker Jakub Konrady ran a repair shop for music instruments since 1889. At the beginning of the 20th century he started to build table gramophones and to sell records. He mainly distributed the low-budget Omega-label with “Czech folk repertory” but also provided on-demand distribution of Odeon and Fonotipia products.
By the end of the first decade of the 20th cenrury, most of the foreign record companies had already entered the market for Czech recordings. Kalliope had offered Czech repertory since 1908. Beka was growing fast, especially after the launch of a national series of Czech recordings around 1907. Many of the recordings in Czech language were released on its sub-labels Svatopluk, A.B.C., and Record or Scala. In 1908, a Gramophone Company’s recording engineer cut about 100 records in Brno, which were subsequently released on the Gramophone Concert Record label. Meanwhile Czech recordings found their way also to America, mostly being made of matrices from Prague.
Not only gramophone discs enjoyed economic success, but also the manufacture of cylinders flourished. Light brown soft wax cylinders with Czech repertory were marketed as Apollo Records and appeared on the market already in 1901. Around 1904, the first commercial cylinders were sold by Edison, Columbia, and the domestic Cechia company. On Edison the first Czech version of a music piece was published in 1902, when a sextet from the Smetana opera “Bartered Bride” was recorded. Czech performers were issued shortly thereafter in few waves: a dozen of titles in 1904 and in 1905, respectively; then from 1906-1907 and in 1909 with folksy repertory. The German subsidiary of Columbia Graphophone released the first Czech material with the then famous Kmoch brass band of Kolin in 1905. Recordings of opera singers and orchestral pieces followed, but most of the recordings were comic songs, usually performed by cabaret singers. Columbia Graphophone quit manufacturing cylinders in 1912, but no Czech recordings can be identified after 1907.
Domestic Cechia label started with five records of a National theater bass singer, but otherwise offered the usual light music repertory. It trumpeted itself as the first Czech plant for phonographic cylinders with solely Czech and Slavic repertory. Its operations can be documented until the beginning of World War I. The same year, yet another domestic enterprise, the Silesia-based Electra label started to manufacture cylinders in a new factory located in Vysocany by Prague. It is very likely that the company was managed by the aforementioned Diego Fuchs. Its repertory was half Czech, half German but most of it was folksy: Its catalog comprised of potpourris of popular songs, marches delivered by “Sokol” brass bands and comic songs by cabaret singers. When production of Electra ceased in 1908, all records were taken over by Cechia.
Shortly after the Czech cylinder production was established, the first local disc pressing plants were opened. In 1907, Erhardt Jäckel established a manufacture of Janus-discs in his log cabin in the small town of Smrzovka. It was not really a plant though, and its operations did not last very long. In 1910, Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft opened its plant near the North-Bohemian town Usti nad Labem. In the years before, the discs were imported to Austria-Hungary from the record plant in Hanover. Thus, they were subject to high import duties. Therefore, it seemed to be more efficient to DGG’s director Joseph Berliner to build a plant inside the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The Austrian Gramophone Company was incorporated as the owner of the new plant. Gramophone Concert Record discs (sold for 2-4K) and Gramophone Monarch Record discs (sold for 4-16Kronen = crowns) were manufactured. As a consequence of the increasing competition a budget label, priced at 1-2K, was launched in 1911. The factory employed up to forty workers on ten record presses. The discs were supplied throughout whole Central Europe – at least until 1912 when a new plant of the Gramophone Company was built in Poland.
In 1911, a second plant went into operation, when Kalliope built a pressing facility in Obergrund nearby Podmokly. On eight presses the workers produced mostly discs for the Rena label and records for private customers. A main customer was the Berlin businessman Hermann Maassen. In 1902, Maassen became the European representative of Zonophone company. In 1904, he headed the Austrian-Hungarian subsidiary of International Talking Machine Company (Odeon discs), and in 1912 he established the Record Werke Hermann Maassen (RWHM) inVienna, which operated also a pressing plant. Besides other things RWHM set up several labels with Czech repertory (Eden, Metafon, Sylvia). However, the Obergrund plant was used by Kalliope only for two years and had been standing idle since 1913. In 1914, Maassen decided to shut down the Viennese production site and bought the plant in Obergrund. He allegedly modernized the equipment and opened a new pressing facility in order to avoid importing records from the German Reich. However, there is no evidence for activities of the plant between 1913 and 1920. Thus, we can only speculate on what was going on there. The Obergrund factory played an important role, however, in the 1920s.
Although several pressing plant were operated in the Czech part of the Autrian-Hungarian Empire, there were no permanent recording premises until mid-1920s. The performers therefore had either go to Vienna and to Berlin for recording or had to wait for foreign technicians to come to Prague.
Afocionadoes of gramophones and discs founded the “The First Czech Gramophonists’ Club” in 1908. With the aim to popularize the gramophone, they demonstrated machines and publicely played discs all over Prague. By 1909, the “Gramophonists” had their regular weekly meetings and they even launched a disc rental service. A year later they announced public playbacks of the newest records every Thursday in one of the restaurants in Prague’s city centre where people also could rent discs. The club was mentioned the last time in February 1912.
The next part will examine the Czech recording industry in the 1920s, when the Czechoslovakian radio and electric recording technology were established as well as sound films became popular.
Gössel, Gabriel (2001). Fonogram I. Prague: Radioservis
Gössel, Gabriel (2006). Fonogram II. Prague: Radioservis.
 Maassen himself hired Diego Fuchs for Czech distribution.