The Alfred Hertz Legacy at the SF Symphony

It's time to add another article to my continuing series on the San Francisco Symphony's discography, this time on the recordings from 1925 - 1930 made on RCA Victor with Alfred Hertz.

The story so far:

Alfred Hertz (1872 - 1942) first showed up as a conductor on the famed cylinders recorded at the Metropolitan Opera by librarian Lionel Mapleson in the first decade of the 20th century. (The cylinders were transferred to LP and some have been digitized as well, although obviously the sound quality is seriously below par.)

Hertz took the reins of the SFS in 1915. His appointment was not without controversy, although the fuss was not about him, per se, but about the board's decision not to renew Henry Hadley's contract. In fact, board member Joseph Redding was reported as having threatened to resign should Hadley leave.

Hertz had visited the SFS in April of 1915 as the conductor of that year's Beethoven festival. The SF Chronicle reported: "A glimpse of Alfred Hertz, and a grasp of his hand, and your hopes that he may become the director of our symphony orchestra receive a tremendous impetus."

Hertz was far too canny to allow himself to be drawn into any statements concerning his potential directorship: "The former 'big man of the Metropolitan,' as he was called, easily persuaded the writer of the impropriety of which he would be guilty should he discuss at this time the possibility of remaining in this city after the Beethoven festival in order to direct the local symphonic forces to higher places in music."

Negotiations were clearly underway, inasmuch as Hertz "had already, while still in Los Angeles, named the conditions upon which he would consent to assume the responsibilities of the orchestra's direction for the coming season...For Hertz is clearly a disciplinarian and will be content with nothing short of material from which he can evolve an orchestra comparable to any similar organization elsewhere."

On July 21, 1915 the SFS announced Hertz's appointment. Hertz's open letter to the people of San Francisco, published in the Chronicle the same day, made his intentions clear:

The best in music is just good enough for San Francisco. That fact is a conviction with me and to the extent of my ability and to the limits of the possibilities I shall seek to provide it.

I believe that one cannot imagine Beethoven without knowing Haydn and Mozart; that one cannot imagine Wagner without knowing Beethoven; that one cannot imagine Strauss without knowing Wagner. I shall begin at the bottom, not the top. The classics are the firm and beautiful foundation. I do not believe in a work merely because it is old, and I do not believe in a work merely because it is new...I shall aim to select with discrimination, rehearse to the limits of my instrumentalists' capacity and produce with eagerness of spirit and confidence in the beauty of my selections.

I shall seek to make the orchestra an intimate influence in the life of San Francisco and a cultural force on the Pacific Coast.

I did not seek the appointment and I am not unmindful of its tremendous responsibilities and great possibilities.

Hertz's appointment was a tremendous boon to the orchestra, soon to be enlarged to eighty players and to see its rehearsal and performance schedule dramatically increased. It's clear that during his fifteen-year tenure (the second-longest of any conductor so far) Hertz built the San Francisco Symphony into a precision instrument, and with the advent of the SFS's new recording contract with RCA Victor beginning in 1925, a record in sound was preserved for the future.

It's fitting that among the very first Hertz/SFS recordings would be selections from Wagner's Parsifal, given Hertz's leadership of the first U.S. performance.

The two Parsifal selections (the Prelude and Good Friday Spell), recorded on three 78 rpm sides each, may have marked the beginning of an era for the SFS, but they also marked the end of another era, being among the very last acoustic discs ever made by RCA Victor. (Auber's Fra Diavolo was their other acoustic recording from the same year.)

From 1926 onwards, all Hertz/SFS recordings were made electrically, using microphones.

I should mention that these discs were first recorded at the new RCA Victor studios in Oakland, off 78th Street and conveniently located near a railroad spur to allow easy distribution. The studio was designed primarily for smaller groups (jazz, mostly) and as a result it was hardly ideal for a full symphony orchestra.

Before long the SFS was making its recordings in alternate locations -- in particular, what was then called the Columbia Theater (nowadays the Geary, home of the American Conservatory Theater, and pictured to the right), and in 1928 at the Scottish Rite Temple on Madison Avenue in Oakland, near Lake Merritt. (It's still there, now home to the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California.)

The repertory recorded was almost entirely Romantic, with Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 the earliest work, and Fritz Kreisler's Caprice Viennoise the newest. In addition to the Parsifal selections, the orchestra also put down the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

The discography contains some works which aren't as popular today as they were in their own time, in particular Massenet's Phèdre Overture, works from Delibes ballets (Coppelia and Sylvia), and works by Auber, Delibes, Gounod, and Glazunov. The collection also includes a fair amount of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music, and some scattered Schubert, Rimsky-Korsakov, Brahms, Moszkowski, and Luigini.

It makes sense to record mostly shorter pieces, given the short playing time of 78 rpm discs. However, we're left with a slightly skewed perception of Hertz's SFS in that our recorded legacy consists mostly of encore-type pieces or concert fillers, and lacks works of scope.

Be that as it may, the SFS under Hertz represented a musical high point for the orchestra. Certainly the SFS, at least as recorded, was in overall better musical shape than it would be under Monteux. Woodwind intonation was secure and blended (unlike the wind intonation wars of the Monteux era), the brass was free from noticeable blemishes, and most importantly, the strings sounded absolutely wonderful -- beautiful, lustrous, and obviously carefully reheased.

I particularly enjoy some of the later recordings -- the Brahms Hungarian Dances, Kreisler Caprice Viennoise, the Massenet Le Cid ballet.

The Hertz-era SFS is an older-school orchestra and for uninitiated listeners might require a bit of adjusting. Portamenti (short slides between notes) were common in the string section, and they might even be encountered coming from brass instruments. But beyond those issues of stylistic change, there is a great deal to enjoy and admire in these recordings.

Their unavailability is all the more frustrating as a result. These call out for re-release; they've never been on LP, much less CD. To the best of my knowledge they remain under copyright, so legalities would require the appropriate permissions and so forth. But they're out there, and they can be (and should be) heard.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Frederick Fellers of Indianpolis, Indiana, who has very graciously shared some of his Hertz/SFS recordings with me, and also for those of you amongst the readership who so kindly pointed me in the direction of various resources.