RCA Victrola was a budget record label introduced by RCA Victor in the early 1960s to reissue classical recordings originally released on the RCA Victor "Red Seal" label. The name "Victrola" came from the early console phonographs first marketed by the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1906. Many of RCA Victrola's reissues included recordings from the historic RCA Victor "Living Stereo" series first released in 1958, using triple channel stereophonic tapes from as early as 1954. There were also some first stereo releases of recordings that had previously been available only in monaural versions. For several years, Victrola released both stereophonic and monaural versions of many albums.
The label began in 1962 with VIC-1001, a monaural album featuring Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in historic performances of Elgar's Enigma Variations and Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn. This was followed by excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake with the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden, conducted by Jean Morel, released in both stereo (VICS-1002) and monaural (VIC-1002) versions.
Most of the early releases were issued in stereo and monaural sound, and included recordings by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Münch and Pierre Monteux, the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Arthur Fiedler, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner. There were also recordings conducted by Morton Gould and Leopold Stokowski, usually with the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, which was actually the Symphony of the Air, the former NBC Symphony Orchestra. Among the most noteworthy of the releases were Munch's performances of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and Debussy's La Mer, and Reiner's remarkable 1954 recording of Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. Victrola also issued Arthur Fiedler's first stereo recording, a 1954 recording of Gaîté Parisienne, Manuel Rosenthal's ballet based on the music of Jacques Offenbach.
In 1967, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, Victrola began an ambitious project of reissuing most of Toscanini's approved recordings with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, mostly from the 1940s and early 1950s. Most of the Toscanini Victrola album covers featured some of the famous photographs taken by Robert Hupka of Toscanini in rehearsal. Victrola also reissued Toscanini's highly acclaimed 1936 recording of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Initially, only original monaural versions were issued. Then, in an attempt to satisfy fans of stereo, a number of "electronic stereo" versions were issued; generally, these were less than satisfactory because the recordings seldom had high enough fidelity to justify the separation of highs and lows, changes in equalization for each channel, or use of out-of-phase effects. Remarkably, for the time, the album liner notes often included the dates and locations that the recordings were made.
Victrola also went well back into the RCA Victor archives to issue tributes to various operatic singers, as well as groups of singers. Several complete operas, including Erich Leinsdorf's famous Rome sessions, which began with the acclaimed 1957 stereo recordings of Puccini's Tosca with Zinka Milanov, Jussi Björling, and Leonard Warren, and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor with Roberta Peters and Jan Peerce, were also reissued. Victrola released a number of compilations of operatic recordings, dubbed mostly from 78-rpm "Red Seal" discs. RCA Victor had an extensive catalog of operatic recordings by famous singers from opera's golden age, dating back to its beginnings as the Victor Talking Machine Company in the early 1900s. The most famous recordings were by the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso; all of his recordings were made by the acoustical recording process before Victor began commercial electrical recording in 1925. There were a number of Victrola albums devoted to a single singer such as Caruso, Amelita Galli-Curci, Lawrence Tibbett, Rosa Ponselle, Ezio Pinza, John McCormack, Titta Ruffo, Elisabeth Rethberg, Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad as well as several compilations with (mostly) unified golden age casts devoted to highlights from specific operas including Rigoletto, Aida and Madama Butterfly. Although these albums were released well before the advent of digital remastering, great care was taken to achieve the best possible sound through various electronic processes available in the 1960s and 1970s.
Most Victrola LP releases beginning in the early 1970s were issued on RCA's "Dynaflex" format, which used thinner, more pliable, lighter-weight records. This cost-cutting effort frustrated many record collectors of the time, especially since some of the discs had an audible rumble when played on better quality turntables. Despite RCA's claims to the contrary, these records could warp over time and the company eventually abandoned the process.
In 1982, RCA began issuing a series of budget priced Victrola audio cassettes, retailing for $2.99 each. Beginning in 1987, RCA issued a new Victrola CD and cassette series consisting of stereo recordings of mostly standard symphonic and instrumental works drawn primarily from former Red Seal issues. The fairly short-lived RCA "Papillon Collection" and RCA Victor Silver Seal label also offered lower priced reissues of stereophonic Red Seal recordings of the standard classical repertoire. The RCA Victrola label was eventually replaced on LP by RCA Gold Seal, which continued with digitally remastered historic performances until the mid 1980s. The RCA Victor Gold Seal CD label later released several complete or comprehensive historical collections including the complete Toscanini recordings released by RCA Victor and the complete Rachmaninoff recordings issued by Edison Records and RCA Victor. (In 1973, when the Rachmaninoff collections were first released on Red Seal LPs, RCA reported that it had frequently utilized record collectors to provide vintage recordings because its own archives are incomplete.)
With the 2004 merger of BMG (the parent company of RCA Victor recordings) and Sony (the parent company of Columbia recordings), RCA Victrola, as well as Gold Seal and Silver Seal were abandoned as active labels. Many of these recordings can still be found on various websites. Sony, however, continues to reissue historic recordings from both the RCA Victor Red Seal and Columbia Masterworks catalogs.
- RCA Victrola liner notes
- Wikipedia article on the "Symphony of the Air"
- RCA Victrola catalogue
- Review by Robert E. Nylund
- Sony BMG website