Home at Last: Mapleson’s Diaries and Remaining Wax Cylinders

By Jessica Wood, Assistant Curator, Music and Recorded Sound
January 4, 2023
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
A circular photo pasted inside a diary that shows a man leaning against a balcony along an oceanfront
Lionel Mapleson depicted in a photo inside one of his diaries

On March 17, 1900, Lionel Mapleson, the librarian of the Metropolitan Opera, purchased for $30 an Edison “Home” model phonograph which could both play and record sound on wax cylinder. Wax cylinders are 4- to 6-inch tubes made of a soft, soap-like substance into which a recording stylus could cut grooves. It was the primary format for both commercial and home audio recording between the 1890s through the early 1900s. 

Soon after his purchase, Mapleson brought his new machine to the Met where he began recording rehearsals and performances—first from the prompter’s box, and eventually from the catwalk above the stage. 

The now-legendary “Mapleson cylinders” are significant for being among the earliest live opera recordings, for documenting major singers early in their careers, and in some cases, for capturing particular singers in their only known recordings. For example, Mapleson cylinders contain the only recorded evidence of the tenor Jean de Reszke and soprano Milka Ternina. One of these, of de Reske singing “Oh paradis” from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, is currently on display in the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures.

In all, it is thought that Mapleson made hundreds of cylinder recordings of Metropolitan Opera performers between 1901 and 1904. A 1904 article in The New York Times states that "Mr. Mapleson has taken the task of providing himself with phonograph records of all the operas performed at the Metropolitan." For various reasons, only 140 cylinders are extant; the remainder Mapleson may have left with family members in England, given away as gifts, or discarded. Between 1939 and 1962, NYPL’s Music and Recorded Sound division acquired 124 of those 140 cylinders from three different sources. The 16 remaining cylinders have remained with the Mapleson family since the early 1940s. 

Several of these 16 cylinders were loaned to NYPL in 1981 to be transferred to magnetic tape for inclusion in the Grammy-nominated LP boxed-set The Mapleson Cylinders Complete Edition published by NYPL in 1985. This set is available for research at the Library for the Performing Arts as *LRX 9007. 

As part of his research for the boxed set, recorded sound curator David Hall visited the Mapleson family's site to study the dozens of diaries kept by Lionel Mapleson between 1882 to his death in 1937. He hoped for clues to several outstanding "Mapleson mysteries." For example, how many recordings did Mapleson actually make? Assuming there were many more than 140, where are the rest? Do Mapleson’s recordings count as "bootlegs," or did Mapleson have permission from the Met’s management to record? Why did he seem to stop recording operatic performances in late 1903? Was it because he annoyed the performers by dropping equipment from the catwalk onto the stage? Did new Met management disapprove of his activities? Was there competition from record labels to record Met singers?

A woman with white gloves leans over a table and some boxes containing wax cylinders
Jessica Wood preparing the wax cylinders for shipment to the Library for the Performing Arts.

Hall unfortunately did not find answers to these mysteries, though he did find several entries related to Mapleson’s phonographic activities. One of these entries, from March 22, 1900, was quoted in liner notes to the boxed set: “For the present, I neither work properly nor eat nor sleep, I’m a phonograph maniac!!  Always making or buying records.” The personality-filled nature of this and other excerpts from the diaries published in the liner notes have left people wanting more. Particularly as Mapleson has become known in some circles as “the grandfather of bootlegging,” the Music and Recorded Sound division has fielded increasing inquiries from patrons wishing to consult the diaries. For years, we’ve held out hope that an occasion might present for the diaries and the remaining 16 cylinders to come live at NYPL.

An exciting development occurred in August 2022, when Mapleson’s great-grandson, Alfred Mapleson, agreed to donate to the Library the remaining cylinders, the diaries, and a cylinder machine that had been given to Mapleson by Thomas Edison. A squad from NYPL packed up the materials and on November 29, 2022, they at last arrived at the Library for the Performing Arts, joining the existing collection of Mapleson cylinders.

A wax cylinder cannister that is labeled Verdi Requiem

Notable among this “new” batch of cylinders are two excerpts from Verdi’s Aida, including an aria featuring Louise Homer, Emilio de Marchi, and Joanna Gadski, an excerpt from the Valse and cadenza from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette featuring Nellie Melba, and the “B” section from the “Habanera” of Bizet’s Carmen, featuring Emma Calvé. Mapleson was notorious for reusing cylinders by shaving off layers of grooves containing Met singers, and then re-recording on the same cylinder with sounds of his children. (This is why some of Mapleson’s cylinders are precariously thin). One such cylinder arrived with this donation, containing a recording of his children wishing “merry Christmas.”

A cannister for wax cylinders that says "Dearest Mother"

Also included are two unidentified cylinders that were transferred as part of the LP boxed set project, likely Met Opera performances. (The boxed set’s liner notes caution that these particular cylinders “are emphatically not recommended for recreational listening.”) Two other cylinders were badly broken as of 1981, and not possible to transfer. However, with the arrival of our Endpoint Cylinder machine last February, NYPL now has the capability to digitize those broken cylinders.

Though the containers are often mismatched with the cylinders they contain, they themselves contain useful information. In one charming example, Mapleson has written “Dearest Mother” on the rim, which may indicate that he gave specific cylinders to his mother during one of his summer visits to England. In another example, a container is labeled “Verdi Requiem.” Considering that none of his cylinders seem to contain this work, the container is useful in indicating that Mapleson likely recorded it on one that has since been lost.

A page showing a train with drawings on it
A page from a diary with paragraphs written below dates
A page from Lionel Mapleson's diary which recounts his experience during the 1906 earthquake.

The diaries are similarly rich with documentation, with newspaper clippings, programs, photographs, telegrams, ticket stubs, sketches, maps, ship passenger lists, menus, and other ephemera glued inside. Being the librarian at the Met meant traveling with the ensemble as they went on tours across the United States, England, and France, befriending legendary singers, composers, and other public figures.

Diary entries include comments about the opera houses the Met visited (the Pittsburgh opera house he describes as “a perfect death trap”), about Nellie Melba’s frequent bouts with bronchitis, about the moment the Met began using electric lights, and about current events that affected their travels. For example, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 occurred during the Met’s tour to that city, and destroyed a good portion of the Met’s music library that Mapleson had brought along.

A faded sepia photograph of a woman with handwriting above and below
A photo of Helen Mapleson, Lionel's wife, in his diary

There are also unbelievable anecdotes, such as when the first trumpet player collapsed in the orchestra pit five minutes before a performance of Carmen, when a piano slipped offstage, or when Arturo Toscanini abruptly ended rehearsal “in a rage” because of an annoying noise on the Met’s roof. According to an entry from 1910, while on tour in Paris, Mapleson was visited by Arturo Toscanini and Giocomo Puccini in his hotel room; Toscanini and Puccini had decided to reorchestrate Act I of the opera Manon the day before the dress rehearsal, meaning Mapleson would need to prepare new parts for the ensemble. Mapleson reports that after they’d finished the Manon discussion, Puccini played through his newest opera, Girl of the Golden West.

Also of interest are Lionel’s entries concerning his wife, Helen Mapleson, who was herself an accomplished Met soprano. The diaries give details on the roles she sang, her friendships with other singers, and general phases of her career. (Several entries indicate that Puccini was pleased with her singing in his Madame Butterfly.)

A drawing of a man with a blue sailors cap holding a cat, sitting on a chair next to a table that has on it an oil lamp
A drawing by Lionel Mapelson in his diary

Other entries describe Mapleson’s life in New York City between 1900 and 1937—mundane events such as having his toe stepped on while on the subway, suffering indigestion and toothache, eating with Nellie Melba at Browne’s Chop House, taking his children to the Bronx Zoo, suffering noisy neighbors in apartment 3D, or witnessing a tornado knocking over street carts in Harlem. Mapleson also made many charming illustrations of everyday life, including these of his cat “Tom” sitting in a box.

A drawing in a book that shows a boy sitting at a table writing a letter, next to a stove and a cat sleeping in a box
A drawing by Lionel Mapleson in his diary

The diaries abound with so many stories and first-hand observations of major world events, music history, and New York City moments, it will be a life’s work to uncover them all. We are grateful to be making these available to patrons to help us pour through them.

Read the New York Times report about the Library for the Performing Arts' efforts to acquire, digitize, and preserve these precious sounds.