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This man's recordings spent years under a recliner — they've now found a new home

More than a century ago, a Met librarian made some of the first live music recordings. Now, (with an assist from NPR) 16 of the Mapleson Cylinders are joining the New York Public Library collection.

Transcript

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Wax cylinders with some of the most important sound recordings of the 20th century are now going to be housed in a public institution. That's thanks to an NPR story from last spring that was heard by the great-grandson of the New York Metropolitan Opera's former librarian, Lionel Mapleson. Here's NPR's Jennifer Vanasco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: This recording probably doesn't sound like much. It's scratchy and hard to hear, but it's the Metropolitan Opera in New York City singing the finale to Verdi's "Aida" on January 31, 1903. Bob Kosovsky is a librarian at the New York Library for the Performing Arts. He says this and the other Mapleson recordings are so important.

BOB KOSOVSKY: It's because it recorded live performances at a time when people didn't think it was possible.

VANASCO: Those live recordings were captured by Lionel Mapleson. He was using his Edison phonograph to capture music from the opera house stage on fragile wax cylinders. The library had 124 in its collection. The Mapleson family had 16 more, and, boy, the library wanted them. But they were patient. So there the cylinders sat under the recliner of Alfred Mapleson's mother on Long Island. Alfred Mapleson is the great-grandson of Lionel, who made the recordings.

ALFRED MAPLESON: So my brother, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., came across the story. And he says, oh, did you see this?

VANASCO: And also, he learned that technology had advanced enough that even the broken cylinders might be readable, and the intact ones would be less noisy. So he reached out to the library.

JESSICA WOOD: It made him think that the cylinders might need to be stored more safely.

VANASCO: That's Jessica Wood, a curator in the sound division.

WOOD: Both Bob and I just about fell out of our chairs with excitement - the best news we had gotten in 10 years.

VANASCO: With the cylinders came about 50 of Lionel Mapleson's journals, really scrapbooks with drawings, newspaper clippings and thoughts about living through important events, like the sinking of the Titanic or the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or the time...

WOOD: Arturo Toscanini and Puccini came to his hotel room because they decided that Act 1 of the opera "Manon" needed to be re-orchestrated.

VANASCO: But there's one more thing. Lionel Mapleson recorded hundreds of those wax cylinders. Most are missing. The librarians hope that maybe someone will hear this story and pull them out of their attic.

Jennifer Vanasco, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIP JONES ENSEMBLE AND ELGAR HOWARTH PERFORMANCE OF VERDI'S "AIDA - ARR. R. SANDERS, ACT 2: MARCIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.