Goddard Lieberson

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There is a tendency, in writing and reading about classical recordings, to forget that they're as much a part of business as art -- and that, as a result of this duality, executives can play as important…
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There is a tendency, in writing and reading about classical recordings, to forget that they're as much a part of business as art -- and that, as a result of this duality, executives can play as important a role as artists in determining what we here and how we hear it. Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records is one such example. Along with Walter Legge, his opposite number at Britain's EMI Records, Lieberson was perhaps the most influential executive in the field of recording, and specifically classical recording, in the entire world from the 1940s until the '60s. He was responsible, directly or indirectly, for facilitating the industry-wide switch from the three-minutes-to-a-side 78 rpm shellac disc to the 33 1/3 rpm long-playing record, which revolutionized classical listening (as well as jazz and, eventually, pop and rock as well); he was the guiding force behind some of the earliest recordings of complete operas ever done in America; he was the head of Columbia Records during the subsequent switch-over from monaural to stereo recording, a new technology change that Lieberson and Columbia Records transformed into an opportunity, pursuing an aggressive policy of re-recording the standard repertory that, in the process, helped turn newly appointed New York Philharmonic Music Director Leonard Bernstein into a media superstar, and further broadened the audience for classical music in the process; and, as an adjunct to all of this, Lieberson was also the father of the modern Broadway cast recording. Goddard Lieberson was born in England in 1911. His father was a manufacturer of rubber heels for shoes, and moved the family to America in 1915. He attended the University of Washington and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. During this period, he also earned money on the side as a nightclub pianist and music critic for the local newspaper. He was a student of composition, and after graduating, made his living teaching music in a private school while he wrote -- by 1939 Lieberson had written more than 100 compositions, several of which had been performed by orchestras under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration, part of the federal government's relief program for creative artists during the Great Depression. Teaching and composing with the support of a government program made for a precarious way of life, however, and in 1939 he went to work for Columbia Records as assistant to the director of the Masterworks division, which was Columbia's classical label. His timing was fortuitous -- the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio network had just acquired the American Record Company, turning it into Columbia Records. What's more, despite the war about to break out in Europe, the whole company seemed poised for rapid expansion: In contrast to most of the rest of the entertainment industry, radio had boomed in the 30s, the CBS network was flush with cash, and the impending international crisis only boded well for CBS as a major conduit for news and, as a by-product of reporting news, ever larger audiences and revenues. The early to mid-'40s ultimately proved not to be as rewarding as those involved might've hoped. The Japanese conquests in Asia and the Pacific cut off supplies of shellac, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of the 78 rpm discs then in use, but also an essential war material -- from early 1942 until the second half of 1945, the government allowed the recording industry only just enough shellac for the labels to keep their doors open; some categories of music that were considered marginal, either as profit producers or artistic merit, such as "race" (i.e. blues) records and "hillbilly" (i.e. country), were devastated as the major labels trimmed their release schedules. Classical didn't suffer quite as much, even though it wasn't necessarily very profitable -- this was because Columbia and other major labels saw the need and responsibility to cater to the classical audience and the music, regardless of its profitability. Additionally, Columbia had a special commitment to classical music through its already decades-long exclusive contractual relationship with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (then known as the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York). Moreover, there were positive sides to the recording of classical music in the U.S. in those days. Thanks to Hitler's having turned Europe into a literal and cultural charnel house, hundreds of renowned musicians from the other side of the Atlantic were suddenly living on American shores, eager to work and with any of their pre-existing contractual relationships in Germany, Austria, or the occupied countries voided at least for the duration, if not longer. Bruno Walter, one of the two or three most revered and respected conductors in the world, took the podium of the New York Philharmonic, cutting sides for Columbia in 1941 (including a brilliantly passionate, achingly lyrical recording of Dvorak's Slavonic Dance No. 1 that sounds like a shadow anthem for the Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia). Joseph Szigeti, newly arrived and seeking asylum and citizenship, was signed by Lieberson, as was Rudolph Serkin. Lieberson also got the company to record then new works by Bartok, Berg, Schoenberg, and Prokofiev, none of whom were well represented in any company's catalogs at the time. It was after the war, however, when the record companies could worry about more than just finding enough shellac to stay in business, and the population started thinking about pleasure and not just survival, that Lieberson's daring and innovative thinking took hold at Columbia. In the process, he ended up transforming not only Columbia but the entire recording industry. Ever since someone attempted to cut the first classical piece of more than three minutes' duration, probably in the first decade of the 20th century on an Edison cylinder, the record industry had chafed under the restricted running time of its existing software. The cylinder's successor, the 78 rpm platter could, under the best of circumstances, hold around four minutes of music on a side. This was a vexation on the artist and the recording manager -- individual movements of works like the Beethoven Symphony No. 5 took up at least two sides, and sometimes three, on two platters, requiring the listener to change platters and interrupt the piece at least once or twice on each movement. Additionally, the artist had to tailor a recording, regardless of the tempo they might've normally used in concert, to meet the side-break at a spot that was as unobtrusive as possible -- that meant hitting the end of a bar, and the right bar, at a pause, at just the right moment in a recording. And the platters themselves were heavy and very brittle, and, thus, easily broken. To top it off, all recording in those days outside of Germany, where they'd perfected a primitive but viable form of magnetic recording tape, was done to disc, on wax masters. There was no such thing as "playback" as such -- if a producer or artist wasn't sure if a note had been hit wrong, or a passage flubbed somewhere deep in the orchestra, they either had to order a test-pressing and wait anywhere from two weeks to a month to get it back, or do it over then and there. If there was doubt, it was faster and cheaper to redo the entire side; thus, retakes were the order of the day -- when Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis Symphony cut the first-ever recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 1, for Columbia Masterworks in 1940, it took most of a morning just to get through the first half of the first movement. RCA-Victor had devised an experimental long-play disc in the early '30s, able to fit seven or eight minutes on a side, but it required new playback equipment, and springing that on the public during the depths of the Great Depression, with unemployment inching up to 20- percent and record company profits dropping by 90-percent, didn't seem like a good idea. By the mid-'40s, however, a musician and producer at Columbia named Peter Goldmark proposed another attempt at a new kind of long-playing record -- Lieberson saw the potential that this held and got the development budget allocated, and by 1947 engineers at Columbia had perfected the long-playing, microgroove record, capable of holding 15 minutes on a side in its 10" version, and 22 minutes on a side in its 12" form. The advent of the long-playing record, introduced by Columbia in 1948, revolutionized the whole recording industry, though not immediately. Almost simultaneously with Columbia's new innovation, RCA-Victor debuted its own new music software, the 45 rpm single. It, too, was an improvement over the 78, holding the same three to four minutes of music but being far lighter, cheaper, and easier to make, and far less breakable. Moreover, RCA-Victor, as owner of the National Broadcasting Company, had its own radio and television outlet through which to push the 45 disc. The formats battled it out for three years, although by 1950 there were no more classical 78s to speak of. Some recordings were released in all three formats, and a few as LPs and 45s (one of the oddest releases in opera that one can find is London Records' 45 rpm version of the Beecham recording of The Tales of Hoffmann, from the soundtrack of the 1951 film -- 20 45 rpm discs that allow the listener to go through the opera in 40 three-minute bits, an experience some describe as the juke-box version of Tales of Hoffmann). Eventually, the LP won out for classical and jazz, and as a vehicle for grouped pop releases, while the 45 became the standard for popular music. Coincidental with the development of the LP, Lieberson also established a contractual relationship between Columbia Records and the Metropolitan Opera. The LP made the recording and release of complete operas (which had been done on a very limited basis in Europe in the '30s, before the war) feasible for the first time. Beginning with the Met recording of Puccini's La Boheme in 1947, Columbia began an enviable and unique body of operatic releases that vastly broadened the range of the entire existing classical catalog. Additionally, at approximately the same time, the label began recording various non-operatic classical works whose length would have made a pure 78 rpm release impractical. The most important of these was Bruno Walter's 1947 New York Philharmonic performance of the Mahler Symphony No. 5, the first complete recording of the piece. All of this new recording entailed a massive switch over of equipment in the home. There were tens of millions of old-style 78 rpm players out there, and a hundred times as many wide-tipped steel needles (the V-Disc program alone during World War II had distributed billions of steel needles to troops to play 78s), all of which were useless in playing the LP. The new format spoke its virtues in loud volumes, but more encouragement was needed. Columbia provided this -- for a time in the late '40s, through retailers, the record company supplied new 33 1/3 long-play phonographs at virtually below cost to listeners, in exchange for a commitment to buy a certain number of Columbia LPs. The initial program didn't make money, but the label correctly predicted that once the new players were in peoples' homes, they would buy still more LPs to "feed" them. Every new player moved into a listener's hands at or below cost ensured dozens, and sometimes even hundreds of subsequent record sales. Additionally, each new player in the home was a musical experience waiting to be discovered by a house-guest, relative, or employee, who might then buy his own player and start purchasing LPs. It was so simple a process, especially in those prosperous, pre-inflation days, that it was brilliant. The company thus hastened the end of the 78 rpm record, at least where classical and mainstream pop music was concerned (though the 78 hung on, especially in poor households, Black and White, in the Southern and border states, right to the start of the '60s, as evidenced by the existence of 78 releases by Elvis Presley and Muddy Waters). In some ways, Columbia created a monster that it couldn't entirely control -- much as the success of the compact disc overwhelmed software makers for a time in the '80s, the growth of the LP market was more than Lieberson or Columbia could have predicted. The label scrambled for several years to convert existing 78 releases to LP, because it couldn't make new recordings quickly enough. The arrival of magnetic recording tape in the studios of the major labels at the end of the '40s put the final touch on the revolution that Lieberson started. Now it was possible to instantly replay passages just put down in the studio, edit performances, and cut uninterrupted masters of pieces and movements running 30 to 40 minutes. Columbia was actually a little late in adopting tape, but Lieberson showed that he knew well what to do with it. Now the recording of complete operas was even easier to accomplish, and, moreover, through its ability to be edited, tape gave the producer even more control in the studio. The most important classical creation to arise from these elements was Columbia's 1951 recording of George Gershwin's Porgy & Bess. Recording a full opera, with an all-black cast, by a composer, even one of Gershwin's stature, although he'd been dead about 14 years, was ambitious enough. Lieberson did more than that, however -- as producer of Porgy & Bess, he re-created the ambience of a stage performance in the studio, complete with the sounds of an actual opera house performance. As an adjunctive activity to his work in classical, in 1949, starting with Paul Robeson in Othello, Lieberson also began recording classical and modern plays. At the same time, Lieberson immediately recognized the value that the LP would have in presenting cast recordings of American musicals. Columbia had pioneered this category of recording in 1930 with its studio recording of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Showboat, featuring principal members of the show's original and early casts, but it was in the late '40s that the cast album began its boom period. Lieberson had already recorded Song of Norway and Carousel as 78 rpm releases in 1945 -- they were joined in 1949 by Kiss Me Kate and South Pacific, Guys and Dolls (1951), and the triple-LP extravaganza The Most Happy Fella (1955). These were not necessarily all big sellers, but they sold well over time, very steadily, and they attracted the kind of upscale, educated, middle class and upper-middle class audience that CBS coveted. Still later, Lieberson initiated studio recordings of the scores from shows that hadn't had their runs during the postwar era, including Rodgers & Hart's pre-World War II The Boys from Syracuse. His other pet projects included musical-historical releases such as The Union and The Confederacy, a pair of albums devoted to the patriotic songs from each side of the War Between the States, packaged in big, handsomely illustrated, and heavily annotated gatefold jackets. In 1949, Lieberson was elevated to executive vice president of Columbia Records, which gave him the authority to bring in an old classmate of his from the Eastman School of Music, oboist Mitch Miller -- who was amassing a considerable record of success at the newly founded Mercury label -- as head of the company's pop division. Miller, in turn, brought with him Frankie Laine, among other artists, although he did manage to alienate Frank Sinatra in short order, given his penchant for assigning novelty tunes to the artists on his roster. In 1956, Lieberson was promoted to the presidency of Columbia Records. It was during this period that he initiated a series of audio documentary albums in conjunction with the CBS radio and television networks, featuring Edward R. Murrow, called I Can Hear It Now and, later, John Fitzgerald Kennedy . . . As We Remember Him. Columbia was a little slower to embrace stereo recording than several rival companies, including RCA-Victor and Decca-London, but this was due, in part, to the lack of a practical playback machine for stereo LPs in the home until the end of the 50s. When Leonard Bernstein was made the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, however, Columbia under Lieberson seized a dual moment -- the label had switched to stereo that year, and here was a chance to sell it, and a generation of new recordings, to the public. The Philharmonic's sales under outgoing music director Dimitri Mitropoulos and his predecessors had always lagged behind those of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, who were also signed to Columbia. Lieberson and Columbia saw the young, charismatic, media-conscious Bernstein as offering the chance to correct that imbalance and sell the new stereo format -- with Bernstein as their point-man, getting lots of publicity (including a fair amount from the CBS network) at the time, as the first American-born Music Director of a major American orchestra (and it should be remembered that these things seemed to, and indeed did, matter a lot more to the public and the press in those days), the company embarked on an ambitious program of recording. Bernstein and the orchestra were offered every chance to go into the studio, recutting (or cutting for the first time) any piece of repertory that might reasonably seem like it would find a serious audience. The result was the creation of a classical music media superstar, and the generation of sales figures for the Philharmonic that not only delighted Columbia but also the orchestra's management. This led to an era in which the Philharmonic musicians' salaries were raised, and the orchestra's schedule expanded to virtually the year round, all to fill the demand. Bernstein and the Philharmonic became the first classical musicians that millions of American children heard, and the only classical musicians that many teenagers of the late '50s and early '60s ever heard. The opening of the Philharmonic's new home, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in New York in 1963, was the crowning touch, atop these other successes. Nor did Columbia neglect its other commitments -- Bruno Walter was engaged for a glorious and historically essential series of late-career stereo recordings on the West Coast, to which he had "retired" in 1956, that lasted for six years. And Ormandy and the Philadelphia still sold. And to accommodate the presence of yet another world-class American orchestra, the Cleveland under George Szell, as well as a contract to release records by one of the greatest orchestras in Europe, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Columbia offshoot label Epic Records got its own thriving classical division. Epic also became the home for the Italian Baroque ensemble I Musici, who, like the Concertgebouw, were signed to Philips in Europe. Additionally, Lieberson was able to persuade CBS to become the sole backer -- and, thus, holder of all rights -- to the Lerner & Loewe musical My Fair Lady, an unheard-of investment for a record label. The stage production not only ended up earning back many times its investment on its initial run, but the cast album sold millions of copies, and the film rights were ultimately worth millions by themselves -- in addition to which, CBS Video earned millions more with the home video release of the film beginning in the late '80s. It was a golden age, but it couldn't last, partly due to one element of shortsightedness on the part of Lieberson and his pop music director, Mitch Miller. Columbia Records regarded itself as the recording equivalent of its parent company, CBS, which was known in its industry as the Tiffany network. This didn't mean that Columbia didn't cater to the masses -- it had pop music by Rosemary Clooney and Frankie Laine, among numerous others, and a pretty formidable country music division under producer Don Law, and had even gotten one unabashed future superstar in that field, Johnny Cash, away from Sun Records in Memphis. The company also had its hand in R&B through its OKeh and Epic labels, and the records of the Treniers and Roy Hamilton, and had a jazz roster to die for. But Columbia had completely missed the boat that had sailed in 1955/1956 with the advent of rock & roll. Apart from a couple of years trying to get a hit out of Carl Perkins in Nashville, the company seemed almost deaf to the music that millions of teenagers were spending many more millions of dollars on. In a way, it was understandable -- Lieberson usually recorded with a big-picture, of long-term as well as short-term sales in mind, and no one knew how long teenagers would stay interested in rock & roll, or how one developed the career of a maturing rock & roll artist. Producer Steve Sholes at RCA was still trying to write the first version of that strategy with Elvis Presley, and Columbia never found its Elvis Presley. In the early '60s, Columbia did sign a few artists who figured seriously, or at least somewhere in the history rock -- Paul Revere & the Raiders, Bob Dylan (who was a discovery of producer John Hammond), Simon & Garfunkel, the Byrds, and the Cryan Shames. Except for the Raiders and the Byrds, however, none was a success right out of the box. In 1965, to address this gap in Columbia's success, which was made even more glaring in light of the British Invasion of 1964, Lieberson hired entertainment lawyer Clive Davis to run Columbia's pop division. Davis turned Columbia into a powerhouse label in the field of rock music, helping even to define the term "rock" as distinct from rock & roll. Ultimately, Lieberson was "kicked upstairs" in the CBS corporate structure and Davis succeeded him as president of the Columbia label. By that time, more than half of Columbia's sales came from rock music, and classical and cast recordings were receding in importance. In 1973, Davis was suddenly fired in a management shake-up at Columbia, and in his place, Lieberson returned to his old job as president of the label. It wasn't quite like the old days, however -- in the past, the pop divisions of companies like Columbia had made millions with rock & roll, and stood by while the older, presumably wiser heads who favored classical and other music aimed at "mature" listeners parceled out budgets and priorities. Now those executives in the pop division demanded that their units reap the rewards of their success, instead of having resources allocated elsewhere. Lieberson was able to secure the occasional "marginal" project, such as Columbia's cast recording of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, which he produced himself, but he no longer had the like-minded allies among the top executives that he'd had in the '40s and '50s. Leonard Bernstein, whose excitement and sales had slackened in the late '60s, had given up his Columbia contract and the Philharmonic. His successor, Pierre Boulez, made some very important recordings that didn't sell nearly as well, and his successor, Zubin Mehta, was to make less important recordings that sold even more poorly. The world had changed around Goddard Lieberson. Lieberson died of cancer in the spring of 1977, leaving behind about as large a legacy of important recordings as any man in music. Although his credits as a producer were rare (he was moved up past that level early), he facilitated many important projects in classical music, made Columbia Records' Masterworks division a giant in the field of classical music, and remade the music industry.