Playing Speeds of 78 rpm Records


     One vexing problem facing the serious collector of classical 78 rpm vocal recordings is that of the proper playing speed. (Recordings of instrumental music are far less troublesome because instrumental works are almost invariably played in the key in which the composer wrote them.)

     Much has been written about this matter, including the degree of precision to which it is possible to aspire. Rehashing the subject is beyond the scope of this web page. I suggest those interested read the introduction to Aïda Favia-Artsay's Caruso on Record, Michael E. Henstock's essay on the subject that precedes his discography of Fernando de Lucia in Fernando de Lucia: Son of Naples, and William R. (Bill) Moran's discussion in the introduction to volume two of the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings (see bibliography, below).

     The most important thing to be learned from these sources is that there is little—some would say no—absolute certainty about the correct speed at which to play any classical vocal recording made in the 78 era. The one point on which most agree is that many discs made during this period emphatically do not play at 78 rpm.

     That, however, has not kept many of us from trying to figure out what we think is the right speed.

     It is in that spirit that I post the link below, which lists the speeds—assembled from many sources, all credited—for records in my collection and also in my computer database that list a speed. Note that I have been collecting records seriously for over half a century. I have many records cataloged on index cards that are not in the computer; in addition, many entries in the computer database lack speeds. These are just the opinions of the sources cited, and not to be viewed as received truth; they are the speeds at which I play my copies, offered for whatever help it may give other collectors. If you prefer to listen to yours at a different speed, that is fine with me!

     This was inspired by Laurie Hevingham-Root's two-part article "Speeds and Keys" in The Record Collector, v. 14, nos. 1-2 and 3-4. The concept struck me as a good idea, one I could easily implement for the records cataloged on the computer.


How to Identify the Sources

I hope most of the other sources, which appear much less frequently than those above, will be self-explanatory. With the exception of Historic Masters issues, I would consider speeds taken from the record labels to be the least reliable.


How I Determine Speeds

     I do not have perfect pitch (sometimes called absolute pitch) or anything remotely approaching it. I adjust the turntable speed with the score or the appropriate Barlow and Morgenstern book (see bibliography) in hand, while playing an A=440 Hz pitch pipe like a harmonica. (See Favia-Artsay and Henstock, mentioned above and fully cited in the bibliography, for a thorough disquisition on A=435 vs. A=440 and why the matter is moot.) For pieces for which I do not have a score and for which there is no entry in Barlow and Morgenstern, I use my best judgment, based on my experience with speeds that often seem to have been used by a particular record company and knowledge of arias and songs that are frequently transposed. My turntable has a digital speed readout to one decimal place. I have given speeds determined by others as in the source, without regard to whether a 50- or 60 Hz stroboscope was used.


The List of Speeds

     Arrangement is alphabetical by the artist's surname. Within each artist's listing items are in the order in which I entered them into the database.



Bibliography

Barlow, Harold, and Sam Morgenstern. A Dictionary of Musical Themes. New York: Crown, ©1948.

Barlow, Harold, and Sam Morgenstern. A Dictionary of Vocal Themes. New York: Crown, ©1950.

Fagan, Ted, and William R. Moran. Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings, v. 2. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Favia-Artsay, Aïda. Caruso on Record. Valhalla, N.Y.: Historic Record, ©1965.

Henstock, Michael E. Fernando de Lucia: Son of Naples. Portland, Or.: Amadeus Press, 1990.

Hevingham-Root, Laurie. "Speeds and Keys [part one]," The Record Collector, v. 14, nos. 1-2: 30-47.

Hevingham-Root, Laurie. "Speeds and Keys (Continued) [i.e., part two]," The Record Collector, v. 14, nos. 3-4: 78-93.

Worth, Paul W., and Jim Cartwright. John McCormack: A Comprehensive Discography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.


Created: 12 Oct 2020
Updated: 17 Nov 2020