We need your help identifying the sound from a home recording made, we believe, over a hundred years ago. This test is quite distinct from the one we proffered in The Big Sleuth, where we knew the contents of the cylinder’s audio that is drowning in a sea of noise but wanted to see if you could figure it out. On this one, the sound is crystal clear, but we have no idea what the song is that’s being sung. We aren’t even sure it’s in English.
It’s a brown-wax concert cylinder (the large, 5-inch diameter type), which means it can’t be any earlier than 1898. Based on the group of cylinders it was found with, we believe it is a recording by the Rittersville Church Choir, from Rittersville (now incorporated into Allentown), Pennsylvania. In any case, it’s definitely a chorale of multiple mixed voices, and we know it’s a sacred selection because the one word that can clearly be made out is the double “Amen” sung at the end.
The problem with doing an acoustic recording of a group of people, on even the best wax records—and this one is done exceptionally well—is that the sound ends up muddy and indistinct. The notes are clear, but the words are not. By the way, the cylinder and the box top picture above come from the David Giovannoni Collection. This is the fully restored audio—sounds pretty amazing, doesn’t it?
We’ve checked with all our experts, including Rusty McKinney, the church music director who helped us identify a similar field recording of a choir from 1897. That one turned out to be an aria from Haydn’s Creation, the earliest known recording of anything from that grand oratorio. So, please, send this to all your friends, and have them redistribute (that means you, Caroline), and maybe together we can figure out what this beautiful song is!