Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 May 2011
In December 2008 the Bibliothèque Nationale put on show some recently unearthed treasures from the French musical-archaeological patrimony: a pair of copper urns that had lain buried beneath the Paris Opéra for a century. Together they formed a musical time capsule containing a gramophone, instructions for its use, and two dozen shellac discs on which had been recorded performances by some of the most prominent artists of the late nineteenth century. The discs were donated in 1907 by Alfred Clark, the American head of the Compagnie Française du Gramophone. His only condition was that the containers should not be disinterred until a hundred years had passed, by which time the recordings inside would surely represent a priceless performance-practice legacy. In fact they were brought up from their silent resting place in 1989, when work on the Opéra's ventilation system revealed they were at risk, but the terms of the bequest were respected and only in December 2007 were they ceremoniously unsealed. A year later, the necessary restoration work having been completed, the library hosted a commemorative conference and reproduced the recordings on its website, where some of the exhumed voices may now be heard with eerie clarity despite their crackly patina of historical distance. Obviously pleased with its long-term publicity stunt, Clark's company announced that in its twenty-first century incarnation it would continue catering for the posterity market by creating another time capsule to house, in the words of the library's press release, ‘recordings representative of contemporary music’.