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.
This last part examines the wartime period and the complicated situation in the post-war years. From 1939 to 1945, the Republic of Czechoslovakia was occupied by the national socialist German Reich and was officially renamed to Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, whose economy was directly controlled by the nazi regime. With the rise of the Communist party and the pressure towards nationalization after the war all recording companies were merged into a single state-owned enterprise called “The Gramophone Works”. The way of the Czechoslovakian music industry through the years of occupation and to post-war nationalization is examined in the following.
The Last Pre-War Years
By the end of the 1930s the only foreign competitor for domestic record companies Esta and Ultraphon was The Gramophone Company Ltd., which was part of the EMI conglomerate. When the political situation in CSR got worse the recording industry – especially the British owned Gramophone Co. – was also affected. In 1937, all Czech offices of the company were closed by the English headquarter due to the tightened political climate. The pressing plant was also shut down shortly thereafter. However, domestic Esta was also victime of the political turbulences. In late 1930s, director Schmelkes was dismissed and replaced by Josef Hasa whose main task was to “arianise” the company. All Jewish employees were fired, but also politically and racially unwanted acts were replaced by politically “loyal” and racially “acceptable” ones.
EMI did not want to leave the country head over heels and therefore searched for a new owner for the Czech branch. Vladimir Chmel was interested. Originating from a butchery business family, Chmel became head of sales for Columbia Graphophon’s CSR subsidiary in 1925. After the merger of Columbia Graphophone and Gramophone Co. to EMI, Chmel left the new company in 1935. He opened a record and gramophone shop with a focus on classical music in Prague. When EMI and Gramophone Co. respectively wanted to sell its Czech assets, Chmel did not have sufficient financial means to participate in the auction. Notwithstanding, he asked one of his best clients, the rich businessman Rudolf Pollert to apply with the promise that Chmel would play an essential rule in the new company. Out of twenty eight bids, Pollert won the auction in 1937 and Chmel was appointed managing director of the now Czech His Masters Voice (HMV).
German Occupation and World War II
During the first year Czech HMV sold 120,000 discs and the new company prospered. However, Pollert was aware that recording all sessions with equipment and technicians from Vienna and Berlin (who had to travel to Prague for each recording session) made things too complicated and too expensive. Eventually, Pollert and Chmel obtained a permanent permission to use recording equipment that was sent from Britain to Czechoslovakia in 1938. Unfortunately they could record only a few discs and had to return the equipment to EMI in 1939 when Bohemia and Moravia were occupied by Nazi troups. In the same year Pollert agreed with Chmel that – due to Pollert’s Jewish origin (he eventually was murdered in KZ Theresienstadt) – it would be safer to hand over the official leadership of the company to Chmel while Pollert would still keep a 50 percent stake in the firm.
By 1939, Czech HMV’s pressing plant was closed after a tentative agreement was made the previous year with Esta. Therefore, HMV, Odeon and Electrola records should by pressed by Esta. Two automatic presses were transported from Berlin to Prague and all usable equipment of the HMV factory in Usti nad Labem was removed to Prague. Eventually the deal was cancelled from Esta’s side. Esta’s new head Josef Hasa was probably afraid of too much competition. Thus, HMV Czech was cut off from its record pressing facilities. However, due to the elimination of all tax barriers between Germany and the the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Chmel could import records from Electrola and Lindström in Berlin (both of them kept their pre-war directors). Czech HMV could also occasionally record Czech repertory there. Until the end of 1942 he could even order US-American and English hits. Unfortunately, the matrices of the pressing plant in Usti nad Labem were not complementary with equipment used in Germany so HMV could not use them for pressing there.
In October 1943 the manufacture of Electrola and Lindström records was banned all over Germany and they could only continue to sell their stocks. However, the Protectorate was not affected by this ban. Thus, Electrola and Lindström approached Chmel to find a facility in Prague to continue with record pressing there. Chmel came to an agreement with Baklax – a company which produced plastic components – promising its owner a bright future and big profits after the end of the war. After the agreement was made, Electrola and Lindström sent twenty half-automatic presses to Prague. In October 1944, the factory also started to press Odeon records from older Czech matrices. However, a month later HMV/Baklax had to stop their operation due to denunciations from Esta and Ultraphon. The managers as well as the workers were threatened by sending them on forced labor to Germany. Baklax ultimately managed to resume manufacturing in February 1945. However, it was ordered that only German repertory had to be pressed and that Chmel’s company was not allowed to sell those records. This leads to the paradoxical situation that Geram records were pressed under the supervision of Chmel who was not allowed to sell them, when, at the same time, German Electrola started to press Czech repertory (on the HMV and Columbia labels) in the Berlin Tempo plant, which was supplied to Chmel’s company.
In the wartime years the record studio landscape also changed in the then German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. In 1941, the private owned A.R. Studio was established in Prague. It was then the largest and best equipped one in the Czech lands. There, it was already possible to make “full frequency range recordings” (ffrr), a technique that was recently invented by British Decca. With its special emphasis on incidental music and services for theaters and cinemas, it soon could provide the most comprehensive database of sound effects in Czechoslovakia (Lochmann 1955: 246).
A special product of the wartime years were records made abroad by exile Czechoslovakians. The main center of so-called “exile records” was London where many of them were issued as attachments to “The Czechoslovak”. This magazine was published by the Czechoslovakian National Committee in London and most of all records were produced by BBC’s “The London Transcription Service”.
The First Post-War Years and the Communist Coup in 1948
After the war the Czech Ministry of Industry (on initiative of the British Embassy) appointed Vladimir Chmel as a national administrator of Lindström and Electrola, but also as an interim national administrator of the Czech branch of Siemens-Halske, which had owned all properties of the pressing plant in Usti nad Labem since 1941. In 1945, Chmel suggested to restructure the Czech national music industry by merging all existing companies to one big player with a centralized pressing facility. Cheml’s vision of a unified Czech music industry became reality with the so-called “Benes decrees” (after the first president of the Czechoslovakian Republic Edvard Benes). In decree number 100, which was passed by the government on 24th October 1945, the nationalization of the recording industry was ordered. In the following a new state enterprise “The Gramophone Works – National Corporation” [Gramofonove zavody, n.p.] was established. It became an umbrella organisation for all record companies, which manufacted dsics in Czechoslovakia before 9th May 1945. Namely Esta, Ultraphon, Telefunken GmbH Berlin (as a part of Ultraphon), Baklax, The Gramophone Co. (Czechoslovakia) Ltd. (= plant in Usti nad Labem), Carl Lindström A.G. Berlin and Electrola GmbH Berlin were affected.
The key person of the newly founded “The Gramophone Works” was Josef Hasa who soon turned out to be the fiercest enemy of Vladimir Chmel. Hasa started his “career” as a radical leftist in the twenties, but took over the responsibility to arianise Esta for the Nazi regime in 1938. Later he left Esta and opened his own music store. In 1945, however, he was called back and appointed director of Esta in order to prepare its nationalization. Furthermore he was appointed a “temporary plenipotentionary of the Minister of Information for manufacture and exploitation of gramophone discs”. In 1946, he was finally named a head of “The Gramophone Works”. His first deputy became Jan Valentini (head of Ultraphon) and the second one was Vladimir Chmel. Thus, all three big companies were represented in the administration of “The Gramophone Works”.
However, the process of nationalization was slow, confusing and erratic, especially due to unclear competences between the Ministry of Industry and the Ministry of Information. The latter was aware of the power of mass media and strived to get the music industry under its wings. Further, there was also some administrative chaos. The Gramophone Co., for instance, was nationalized twice: the first time as a property of Siemens-Halske as part of “Tesla State Corporation”, which manufactured electronic devices and the second time as part of “The Gramophone Works”. Thanks to these discrepancies and chaotic circumstances immediately after the war, Chmel’s Gramophone Co. was perhaps the only private company in Czechoslovakia to do some business. From September 1945 to December 1946 he and his Baklax plant manufactured 160,000 Odeon and HMV records.
In October 1946, Chmel and Hasa negotiated in London to reintroduce HMV original records in Czechoslovakia. Although the contract was supposedly already prepared for signing before their arrival, it was finally rejected as the Czech side refused to return EMI’s property that had already been nationalized. This debacle caused the disputes between Hasa and Chmel who accused each other of the failure. Hasa even did not shrink away to publicily attack Chmel with severe accusations. Although Hasa was removed as director of “The Gramophone Works” in 1946 and even was detained several times by police, he was successful in denouncing Chmel as German agent in a letter to the Minister of Information in 1948. Chmel was arrested a few days after the Communist coup in February 1948 and Hasa was appointed administrator of Chmel’s company. In 1949, Chmel was released and in the following trial he was acquitted of all charges. However, after protests of Hasa the trial was resumed and Chmel was sentenced for “disturbing the nationalization” to 21/2 years imprisonment. He died embittered in 1957.
After establishing the definite structure in late 1940s, “The Gramophone Works” was organized in five basic units. The first one was called “Gramozavod” and gathered all twelve facilities for phonograph and record manufacture – five of them located in Prague. The second one was “Gramoedice”, which was responsible for the six recording studios – five in Prague and one in Bratislava. The third one was “Ultraphon”, which was established as a distribution network for records and playing devices. The fourth one was Supraphon, which was used as export record label. Later Supraphon was transformed to the only label for both the domestic and the foreign market. The fifth one was the “Theatre of Music”, which organized events to promote new record releases (Lochmann 1955: 253-254). The whole conglomerate of five administrative entities was a state-owned corporation under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Culture. However, this period from 1948 to 1989 has not been thoroughly researched until yet. This series of four articles on the “Early Recording Industry in the Czech Lands” might help to motivate research on the music industry in the CSSR, but also its succession states – Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Gössel, Gabriel (2001). Fonogram I. Prague: Radioservis.
Gössel, Gabriel (2006). Fonogram II. Prague: Radioservis.
Kotek, Vladimir (1998). Dejiny ceske popularni hudby a zpevu, Vol. 2: 1918–1968. [A history of Czech popular music and song]. Prague: Academia.
Lochmann, Adolf (1955). Gramofnova deska [The Gramophone disc]. Praha: Prace.