Deutsche Grammophon: 120 years old but not treading softly

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120 years Deutsche Grammophon

The world's oldest recording label is celebrating its 120th anniversary on November 6 with a concert in the Berlin Philharmonie. A glance back at how the "yellow label" wrote music history.

Founded in December 1898 in Hanover, the recording company known worldwide by its German name, Deutsche Grammophon (DG), is as old as the recording industry itself. The founders were the American Emil Berliner — born in Hanover and the inventor of the shellac disk and the gramophone — and his brother Josef. Berliner's disk was a further development of the cylinder that had been patented by Thomas Edison.

The music world was quick to pick up on the new technology: As early as 1902, the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso was singing into a horn to have his voice captured for posterity. Many more followed. By 1907, the record factory in Hanover had 200 record pressing machines.

Many names, one tradition

In the decades to follow, many names were associated with Deutsche Grammophon: the Gramophone Company, Polydor, Siemens & Halske, Telefunken, Archiv Produktionen, Polygram. The company was affiliated with some, founded others and was taken over by yet others. Today Deutsche Grammophon belongs to the Universal Music Group, but the label's original name remains, as does its sometimes decades-long relationships with artists.

The founder of the company, inventor Emil Berliner

In 1913 came the first complete recording of an orchestral work: Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was released on four disks, both sides recorded, with Arthur Nikisch conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

Two world wars led to bitter setbacks in the company's history. During World War I, DG was separated from its affiliate, the Gramophone Company in England, and the allies banned its recordings from export.

Before World War II, Nazi policies resulted not only in the banning of Jewish artists but also the destruction of countless of their recordings: an irretrievable loss for music history.

Read more: A 20th century giant: 100 years of Leonard Bernstein 

Times change, people adapt

The iconic yellow label came only in the postwar era. DG had to reinvent itself, and it did, by gathering some of the greatest names in the business, such as the conductors Herbert von Karajan, Karl Böhm and Wilhelm Furtwängler and the singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, to name but a few. The returns from the big names enabled the company to pursue other activities, such as on the sub-label "Archiv Produktion," whose recordings of baroque music were appreciated worldwide.

The yellow label's artists

Herbert von Karajan

Karajan recorded for Deutsche Grammophon (DG) for over 50 years, releasing four different recordings of all nine Beethoven symphonies and countless other works on the "yellow label." The official website of the conductor mentions 1,279 recordings altogether. Standard-setting interpretations with a bent towards perfection and a lively interest in technological developments were among his hallmarks.

The yellow label's artists

Ferenc Fricsay

As principal conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, he made a major contribution to rebuilding music life in postwar Germany. Born in Budapest in 1914, Fricsay was particularly noted for his warm, dramatic and ardent renditions of Mozart. He signed an exclusive contract with DG in 1948 and never recorded for a different label.

The yellow label's artists

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Responsible for a renaissance in art song, he recorded all 500 of Franz Schubert's lieder and hundreds more: his recording activities were nearly encyclopedic. His intellectually informed renditions, impeccable vocal technique and clear musical messaging were so standard-setting that every singer of lieder today is influenced in some way by Fischer-Dieskau.

The yellow label's artists

Leonard Bernstein

After World War II, many Jewish artists steered clear of the company for decades. Bernstein was one of the few to break that trend, beginning his association with DG in the late 70s and later signing an exclusive contract. The many recordings of his later years with the Vienna Philharmonic have legendary status.

The yellow label's artists

Anne-Sophie Mutter

The violinist has been associated with DG for 40 years, one-third of the label's history. Discovered as a 13-year-old by the conductor Herbert von Karajan, her first album was released in 1978, with Mutter as soloist in Mozart violin concertos accompanied by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. That was followed by 46 more releases comprising more than 140 works.

The yellow label's artists

Maurizio Pollini

DG had its first recording session with the Italian pianist in 1960, so in 2020 the artist and the label will celebrate 60 years of collaboration. Pollini praises the company's policy of publishing not only the mainstream, but also lesser-known yet important works of music.

The yellow label's artists

Gustavo Dudamel

"Since my childhood in Barquisimeto, DG has been part of my DNA," says the Venezualean conductor. The artists on the recordings opened up a world to him far beyond his home town and "as big as my imagination." Now principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel has been called classical music's greatest hope.

The yellow label's artists

Andris Nelsons

As with probably every conductor of his generation, recordings on DG made a deep impression during his youth. Currently leading two world-class orchestras, the Latvian is involved in a major project with both: recording a cycle of Dmitri Shostakovich's symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and an Anton Bruckner symphony cycle with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig.

The yellow label's artists

Yannick Nézet-Séguin

The 43-year-old Canadian features on a number of recordings with the orchestras he has led in Rotterdam and Philadelphia. Now begins a new era: as future principle conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the conductor people fondly call "Yannick" is positioned to lead decades of performances to be preserved for posterity.

The yellow label's artists

Lang Lang

It's a credit to him that tens of millions of Chinese children now take piano lessons. Lang Lang appreciates DG's "unique synergy of the traditional and the new."

The yellow label's artists

Daniil Trifonov

The Times of London describes him as "beyond question, the most astonishing pianist of our times." His singular, utterly unpredictable performances have made the 27-year-old Russian a cult figure. Trifonov's premiere album in 2013 was a live-recorded recital in Carnegie Hall. A recording released two years later includes "Rachmaniana," a piece written by Trifonov himself.

The yellow label's artists

Anna Netrebko

During her childhood in Russia, recordings from Western Europe were not widespread and thus not among her most formative influences – but all the more so when the now famous diva began studying music. Today there is hardly a classical musician who has been uninfluenced by the recordings made by their predecessors.

The development of the Compact Disc in the early 1980s led to an upswing in the recording industry's fortunes. After having reached saturation, the market was eager for the new technology, and many older releases were digitally remastered.

The company has responded to wide-reaching transformation in the digital age, placing its recordings on streaming services including Apple Music and Amazon.

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Yet in Germany, DG still releases 80 percent of its classical music output on recording media such as the CD and repopularized vinyl. Only 20 percent is distributed by purely digital means. Consumer preferences in the US are different, with 55 percent of classical music releases now distributed on digital platforms.

An early recording session for Deutsche Grammophon

Enduring values still in trend

Deutsche Grammophon's president Clemens Trautmann sees "in the confusing variety of available music experiences in the digital age, a need for enduring values and orientation, which is leading to a renaissance of classical music."

That does not exclude new genres or performance venues, such as neo-classical music or the "classical lounge," where serious artists perform in relaxed club settings, their performances streamed live.

In general, says Trautmann, the trend today is towards individualistic and unique musical renditions — and the boundaries between the media are becoming fluid. Musicians now disseminate their artistry via multiple media channels, including the social media. Thus there's a good chance that the "yellow label" will be around for some time to come.

Including a 120th anniversary celebration at the Berlin Philharmonie on November 6, the "Yellow Label" is marking the date with a year-long series of commemorative events that began with a gala in Peking's "Forbidden City" on October 10. Additional special events are scheduled for December 6 in Seoul, January 19 in Hamburg, April 9 in Hanover and May 1 in London.