John Culshaw

John Culshaw

John Royds Culshaw (May 28, 1924 - April 27, 1980) was a pioneering English classical record producer for Decca Records.

Along with Fred Gaisberg and Walter Legge, he was one of the most influential producers of classical recordings. "The Times" said of him that ‘he stood in that great tradition of propagandists from Henry Wood to Leonard Bernstein, who seek to bring their love and knowledge of music to the widest audience.’ ["The Times" obituary]

Early years

John Culshaw was born in Southport. He underwent no formal musical education beyond childhood piano lessons, and began his working life not with Decca but in the Midland Bank in Liverpool. After wartime service as a navigator with the Royal Naval Air Service (the Fleet Air Arm) he joined Decca in a junior capacity in the company’s London office in November 1946, initially writing promotional material. His first book, a short biography of Rachmaninoff, was followed by a popular introduction to the concerto and a guide to modern music. ["The Times" obituary]

By 1947 he had been given the chance to produce classical sessions for Decca’s rapidly expanding catalogue. At Decca, the musicians whom he recorded included Ida Haendel, Eileen Joyce, Kathleen Ferrier and Clifford Curzon. In 1948 he first worked with Georg Solti. From 1953 to 1955 he headed the European programme for Capitol Records, before returning to Decca, where he concentrated on the emerging stereophonic recording technology including the famous Decca tree.

Culshaw wrote a general book on music, "A Century of Music", which was published in 1953. [Dean, Winton, "The Musician's Bookshelf" (reviews of books by John Culshaw and Norman Demuth) (February 1953). "The Musical Times", 94 (1320): 67-70.] He was Manager of the Classical Recording Division of Decca from 1967-1975. ["The Times" obituary]

The Decca Ring

By 1958 Decca, with its pre-eminent technical team, was in a position to embark on a complete studio recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Culshaw engaged Solti, the Vienna Philharmonic and a cast of the best known Wagner singers of the day, and the engineers were generally acknowledged to have surpassed themselves. [The Gramophone, October 1984] The set was received with rapturous acclaim; to the astonishment and envy of Decca’s rivals "Das Rheingold" and the subsequent instalments of the cycle were best-sellers, outselling popular music releases such as those of Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. ["The Times" obituary] The cast included the veteran Kirsten Flagstad in one of her last recorded performances, Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Gottlob Frick, Wolfgang Windgassen and Régine Crespin, with even minor roles sung by such stars as Joan Sutherland.

In these productions – as in his only slightly less famous Decca releases of Richard Strauss's operas "Salome" and "Elektra," also with Solti and Nilsson – Culshaw put into practice his strong belief that a properly made sound recording should create what he called ‘a theatre of the mind’. ["Ring Resounding", pp. 23-26] He disliked live recordings (such as those attempted at Bayreuth) because to him they were technically flawed and – crucially – were merely sound recordings of a theatrical performance. He sought to make recordings that compensated for the lack of the visual element by subtle production techniques, impossible in live recordings, that conjured up the action in the listener’s head. ["Ring Resounding", pp. 23-26]

He also went to unprecedented pains to ensure that Wagner’s musical requirements were met. Thus where in "Das Rheingold" the score calls for eighteen anvils to be hammered during two brief orchestral interludes, Culshaw eschewed the usual electronic fabrication and arranged for eighteen anvils to be hired and hammered. Similarly, where Wagner called for steerhorns, Culshaw arranged for them to be used, instead of the more usual sound of the trombones used at Bayreuth and elsewhere. ["Ring Resounding", p. 190ff]

Culshaw wrote a memoir of the making of this recording of the "Ring" cycle, "Ring Resounding". [Sasscer, Harrison, Review of "Ring Resounding" (April 1968). "Music Educators Journal", 54 (8): 127, 129-131.] In his later years, he published another book on the "Ring" cycle, "Reflections on Wagner's Ring". [Allison, Jim, Book Reviews (of books by Charles Osborne and John Culshaw) (January 1978). "Music Educators Journal", 64 5: 121-123.]

Other recordings

As well as his success with Solti in Wagner, Culshaw produced recordings of Britten’s music conducted by the composer, with whom he maintained an excellent relationship despite the latter’s notorious oversensitivity. "The Times" described these recordings as ‘a priceless heritage for posterity.’ ["The Times" obituary] With Herbert von Karajan he produced many of the conductor’s best-known opera sets, which still sell steadily forty years later.

Later years

By 1967 Culshaw wished for a change, and moved from the record industry to television, becoming BBC Television’s Head of Music Programmes. He produced several series of "André Previn’s Music Night", and commissioned Britten’s opera "Owen Wingrave," written expressly for television. ["The Times" obituary]

He left the BBC in 1975 and worked freelance as a record and stage producer, writer and broadcaster. He died in London in 1980 from a rare form of hepatitis. His very funny, if sometimes waspish, unfinished autobiography, Putting the Record Straight, was published after his death.

Among the honours given to John Culshaw, "The Times" listed ‘eight Grands Prix des Disques, numerous Grammys and in 1966 an OBE’, and the Vienna Philharmonic’s Nicolai Medal in 1959 and its Schalk Medal in 1967. ["The Times" obituary]



*Culshaw, John "Ring Resounding" Secker & Warburg, 1968 - Culshaw's account of the recording of Wagner's Ring cycle. ISBN 0-436-11800-9
*Culshaw, John "Putting the Record Straight" Secker & Warburg, 1981 - Memoirs posthumously published. ISBN 0-436-11802-5
*"The Times" obituary notice, 29 April 1980, page 16.

External links

* [ Link to talk by Culshaw on "Die Walküre"] An audio file from a Metropolitan Opera broadcast intermission feature (scroll to "From The Archives - March 1, 1975 - John Culshaw discusses "Die Walküre"; you will need Real Player to hear this)

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