Friday, March 25, 2016

Character Studies--Edward Issler(1856-1942)

Issler, c.1894
that's also Issler(no arguments! I'm 100% sure this time!)

Edward Issler was a much more brilliant and versatile studio worker than history has allowed. He has only really been said to have been a pianist in the earliest days of recording, which he was, but he was more than that. Now, Issler's origins are still awaiting to be uncovered, but one thing is clear, that he was very well trained, and was a truly "Victorian trained" pianist. What I mean by this is that when you hear him playing anything on those cylinders, you are hearing truly Victorian music played by a pianist who was trained in the 1860's and 1870's. Issler was no member of the up-and-coming "punk" movement of its time, "Rag Time".  Issler was a special case of Victorian pianist however, most Victorian or "Romantic era" playing was actually very jagged in rhythm, and was not accompanied with a strictly "straight" rhythm that we well know of to-day. Just for a good example, listen to this cylinder here from 1897 of Johann Strauss's "Pizzicato Polka" as an example of this:
(they can't understand the announcement on this website, but Len Spencer says "Pizzicato Polka, played by Gilmore's Band...")
The Polka was all the rage, beginning in the 1840's, and throughout the rest of the 19th century. It had a very unsteady yet playful rhythm to it, and Strauss' polkas are among the finest there are. The "Pizzicato Polka" was written in 1867 by the way. 
Anyhow, back to Issler. Issler's was trained in the era of the polka and mazurka, when straight rhythm was considered a true gift, and a sort of rare genetic mutation. Issler had fantastic rhythm. He was far better than his comrade Fred Gaisberg, and was cherished by the record companies for this, among other things. In many ways, Issler had better rhythm than Fred Hylands, though Hylands was at a disadvantage because of his terrible drinking habit. Issler's days before recording are unknown, and it is hard to know how Edison's small staff in 1887-88 took an interest in him in the first place. All we know is that Walter Miller found Issler to be the most important and life-saving employee they found in the earliest years of Edison's company, as Miller was forced to play piano on test recordings they did before he found Issler. When he officially became a member of their staff, he was always needed there, as he was the only pianist they had employed at the time. It didn't take too long for Columbia to take an interest in him, and the Edison workers over at North American as well. In 1892 and 1893, he was working for Edison regularly, Columbia, and North American. 

Issler was a man of average height, with a full beard, hair always slicked back, pointy ears, and somewhat long hands. He was not freakish-looking chap, save for the very Germanic feature of the beard(he did much look like Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak!). He didn't exactly speak with a German dialect, unlike a few of his parlor orchestra members. He always dressed modestly when coming to work in the studio, which served him well in the varying weather conditions. He would always be ready to make records, and when his gang of musicians came along with him, he was always keeping them in-line with sound balancing and what was going to be played for the day. He always fixed the piano so it sounded supreme on every recording he made with his orchestra. The amazing sound of the piano he made even dazzled the members of the band, Schweinfest, Tuson, and Dana alike. Issler was not one who was too extroverted, which helped when making records, but not when people asked him how he did it at exhibitions, his sound effects man Len Spencer did that for him. Issler formed his parlor orchestra around 1886-87, and they were just a small performance group who did house concerts and some performances around the Washington D.C. area. By 1893, Issler's orchestra was a very popular group to play on phonographs everywhere, as they were the elite of the studio groups in that time, and nothing really as great as them ever succeeded. Issler kept up with the company lawsuits of 1894 through 1896, and was probably a witness in some of the court hearings. The the height of his orchestra's fame, 1895 and 1896, they were making thousands of rounds a months for Columbia, New Jersey Phonograph Company,the U. S. Phonograph Company(no more North American by this time...), but for some reason, they weren't making records for Edison anymore. I never knew why Edison dropped Issler from their staff in 1895 or 1896, guess it was because of his disloyalty by working out at all the Columbia associated companies, we know who took his place from there(Frank P. Banta and Bachmann). Issler remained making records with his orchestra until early 1897 when some major changes at Columbia were made. He had still been the usual accompanist over at Columbia for the entire time that he worked there making records with his orchestra, and even a little bit after the group was dissolved. Issler faded away slowly as the year 1897 progressed forth, and his "axing" from the staff was even closer on the horizon when a new "hot-shot" Rag-Time pianist captivated Messrs. Easton and Emerson---Fred Hylands. It's almost completely unknown after 1900 what became of the studio genius Issler, though it's very possible that he started his own band sometime after his studio orchestra morphed into the Columbia Orchestra in 1897. The genius of Edison's early studio faded away and did not return to the business ever again, and vanishing from all who knew him. It's unfortunate really, as Issler was a very underrated star of the earliest recording business, who was overshadowed by  the pianists who worked alongside him and also the one who succeeded him at Columbia in 1897. 

Anyhow, to close off this post on Issler, I will have two examples of his orchestra, then I will have one record of each of his famed soloists:

*Just for some weird information, I just learned this evening that a "Yorke" is actually a kind of late-Victorian dance, much like the Mazurka or Schotticshe, and I don't know anything about the "Yorke", if anyone knows anything about it, please comment on this post!*

Ricard Wagner's "Evening Star" played by David B. Dana in 1895: by a young Len Spencer, and Issler is probably on piano here)

Schweinfest playing "The Jealous Blackbird" in mid-1897 with the other two musicians listed above, but with their master thrown out, instead Fred Hylands is on piano(I think, I did  post a while back on the mounds of debate that come with this cylinder...):
 (announcement by Harry Spencer)

I hope you enjoyed this! 


  1. I remember that a ca. 1880 census record listed Issler as a music teacher, with his mother from Prussia and father from Bavaria. I haven't found anything on Issler-led groups after 1900, though despite the immense competition from other musicians, I wouldn't be surprised if Issler had a "society band" [like Eugene Jaudas] that played "sweet" music and upbeat tunes, possibly morphing into a salon orchestra in the 1920s.
    Thanks to that music scene, he'd likely had an even rougher time, but veterans like Edward Rubsam were making recordings into the 1940s (Rubsam was a session player for years), so if a radio transcription of "the old German maestro, you might have taken a lesson from him, Ed Issler, playing some old favorites your grandparents played" ever came about...

  2. Just after I did this post, my dear friend Charlie Judkins sent me a treasure trove of information on Issler, and it would seem that by 1903, he was leading a military band, performing at Ashbury park much like Arthur Pryor and Sousa's band were at the same time. It's odd that he decided to remain involved in the military band field for a few years when the competition was literally at its worst. I don't know if he led a "society orchestra", of if he secretly helped out in recording studios after that, but it's very likely that he stayed at Columbia as a pianist until at least 1902, as Fred Hylands had too much to deal with all the time, so there's no way he was the only pianist there. Since Issler was so valued, they wouldn't just drop him immediately after his orchestra disbanded.

    I wonder if he ever did any sort of radio work later, that really would be great if he did that. Or if they just mentioned him somewhere in a radio program.

    1. I did some more digging on the Asbury Park lead, and it looks like Issler was music director for the Salaam Temple in Newark by 1910, and his band there was playing live performances by 1920...! Like an 1890s mention of Issler's group playing balls and dances, it seems like he kept that line of work for a long time, and since much of what we know about Issler wasn't know until recently, I have a feeling that one day, a private recording (maybe a cylinder since that was the "tape recorder" still of the 1920s, and Edison made 4-minute recorders and attachments plus stronger blanks for such) of that ensemble could turn up...

      With the Haydn Quartet, 1920 - - 1920 banquet orchestra - 1910 parade/festival band

    2. Mehlin piano endorsement -
      Cached link since the original link is gone, but I'll quote the bit about Issler - at the end of this paragraph -

      "STALE RODZ SWANS N N 1 E Commandery Ball at Coleman House Largely Attended Despite Inclemency of the Weather. Sir Knights in full uniform, with their ladies fair, attended the annual ball and banquet of Corson commandery, No. 15, Knights Templar, held last evening in the Coleman House, which for elaborateness and beauty surpassed anything yet given by the commandery. From points north and south the participants, numbering 200 or more, motored to the event, not a few of the guests remaining over night at the hotel, while others, going south, took the theatre train, but all determined on having an enjoyable time despito the hardships of returning to their homes. Cut flowers. Masonic emblems and national colors were used in the foyer decorations, where, as usual, a committee of hostesses, distinguished from the other fair dancers by corsage bouquets of eweet peas, welcomed the guests, who in turn were given cut flowers as souvenirs of the occasion. On this committee were Mrs. John C. Osborn of Keyport, Mrs. William Rojchley, Mrs. Edmund Do Monseigle, Mrs. John D. Beegle, Mrs. George W. Hunt, Mrs. Phineas Proctor, Mrs. Arnold Briggs. Mrs. Edward S. Thomas, Mrs. G. Fred Beegle, Mrs. Fred M. Davison, Mrs. Joseph Mayer, Mrs. Willard A. Fritz, Mrs. Fred Van Note, Mrs. Theodore H. Bennett. Mrs. William A. Kelley, Mrs. William Delamotte, Mrs. Joseph Ackerman, Mrs. Harry M. Wldson, Mrs. William F. Widmaier. Mrs. Joseph M. Pickle. Miss Myrtle Sickles, Mrs. Robert G. Poole. Mrs. Walter Franklin and Mrs. Andew Van Cleve. The - of the evening deviated a bit from former years, in that the ball and Knights Templar march In the winter ball room, occupied the early part of the evening, followed at 10.30 by the banquet. This enabled late arrivals to participate In the banquet with those who arrived earlier. In the ballroom festoons of national colors, interspersed with the commandery pennants, were used as the decorations and here from 8.30 until the banquet and following this the danco devotees reveled to their hearts' content. At the conclusion of the fourth dance, the feature of the evening, the commandery grand march, always a spectacular and impressive event, was formed. Led by Sir John C. Osborn, 32 Knights, resplendent In their white feathered ehapeaux and gold and bejeweled uniforms, fell Into single line, to bo Joined by their fair partners as they encircled tho room. Then under the direction of J. Egbert Newman another of the feature marches was given, the various couples forming the different figures of the commandery. This terminated in a one-step. Too much can no tbe said of the music, Issler's 11 piece orchestra from Salaam temple, Newark. It was by far the best music furnished (Continued on Page Six)"