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Qin recordings of Herbert Müller 1 休伯特•繆勒的錄音

Around 1990 the Museum for Folk Arts in Berlin (now the Ethnological Museum)2 inherited a very large collection of wax cylinder recordings dating from the early 20th century. They previously had been in storage in East Berlin and in the Soviet Union.

The original recordings are made on soft wax, and so one should avoid replaying them as they will quickly wear out. From these soft wax masters a mold was made, and from the mold the final hard wax cylinders were made. Most of these hard wax cylinders are apparently in very bad shape. A curator at the museum told me that a Japanese person had recently invented a laser mechanism for reading the reverse tracks on the molds without damaging them, but that the Museum had not yet had the opportunity to copy many of these cylinders onto tape/digital format. Perhaps if some interest were expessed to them in a particular cylinder, it would improve its chances for prompter recording onto a medium that would allow it to be heard.

In September 1997 I discovered in their catalogue mention of guqin ("old qin") recordings made on wax cylinders in 1912 by Herbert Müller. They also have a letter from Müller to Erich Von Hornbostel (Wiki), giving details of this recording.

Here is the relevant part of the letter:

24 July 1912

It's 1 o'clock (in the morning) but I must write to you my fresh impression, having just listened to qin music. The player, Xu Lüyuan,3 is the blind (former) director of the emperor's orchestra, so he is a man we can trust - we can believe he can play the instrument well. The qin was made in 1712 - there is an inscription on the bottom. Three of my Chinese friends listened as well - one with German education, one with English education and the third no European education; but all three were well-educated Chinese. None had ever listened to qin music before, (but) everyone told me about the wonderful strength of qin music. Maybe it is enough to say that the qin playing was a real disappointment for everyone. To convey the sense of qin music I would have to make not just a recording but a film. While the right hand plays, the left one is always sliding on the strings, sometimes varying the tone, sometimes without connection to the play and without influence on the sound. The left hand stops the strings to determine the tone, and sometimes doesn't influence the tone. Each of these movements has a name and is notated with a special character. It is the strangest music I have ever heard and seen in my life....
(The letter goes on to say he needs more cylinders and that he would like to make a film.)

The index indicates that in 1912 the five following pieces were recorded:

  1. Pingsha Luo Yan
  2. Gao Shan
  3. Pu'an Zhou
  4. Si Da Jing
  5. testing

To my knowledge, as of 2021 only one of these (Si Da Jing) had been made available and it is in very bad condition.4

Footnotes (Numbers refer to entries in Zhongwen Dacidian)

1. Herbert Müller Recordings
An online reference says a set of 111 "Berlin Demonstration Cylinders" includes recordings made in China and elsewhere between 1903-1913. "The East Asian recordings were made by Herbert Mueller in China." (See the Guide to ethnographic wax cylinder collections linked from the British Library website.)

2. Ethnological Museum (Ethnologisches Museen), Berlin
Part of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, it was formerly called the Museum for Folk Arts. As of 2012 it was combined with the Museum of European Cultures and the Asian Art Museum to form the Dahlen Museum (Museen Dahlem). Its entrance is at Lansstraße 8, Arnimalle 25, 14195 Berlin (Dahlem is the district of Berlin).

3. Xu Lüyuan (?)
Apparently as of 2017 an attempt had been made in Germany to make a digital copy of at least one of the recordings made here in 1912, and in 2017 it was published as the first piece in the compilation Jue Xiang (q.v.). A note in the book published with that compilation lists the four pieces and tuning example said to have been recorded; it also states that the recording was made with a guqin made in 1712.

Unfortunately, based on the sounds from that track, no music can be discerned from the noise on the recording. Presumably the wax cyclinder had been damaged in some way. Jue Xiang makes no mention of a sound problem, nor does it say whether any attempt had been made to digitize the other four wax cylinder recordings.

In addition, to my knowledge no one has yet published the name of this Xu Lüyuan in Chinese (in the German documents apparantly he is referred to only as "Hsüh Lü-yüan"), so the characters are not known.

4. Availability
The only source I know for this recording (Si Da Jing) is Guo Peng, who obtained a copy from the Berlin archive said to be from Muller. The short clip can be heard here in Guo Peng's collection. However, it is only 49 seconds long and the qin sound cannot be heard clearly

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