The voice of Oscar Wilde


How to combine two recent {feuilleton} obsessions? Ask whether Oscar Wilde had his voice recorded on an Edison machine at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, 1900. It’s a tantalising question. We know from Wilde’s letters that he visited the Exposition several times; he talked with Rodin and admired a self-portrait by his old painter friend Charles Shannon in the British pavilion. Edison staff were prominent at the exposition and did us a favour by filming parts of it. Several of the Wilde biographies mention the rumoured recording, the details of which are recounted at Utterly Wilde:

According to H Montgomery Hyde’s 1975 biography of Oscar Wilde: “…It was during one of these visits to the Exhibition that Wilde was recognized in the American pavilion, where one of the stands was devoted to the inventions of Thomas Edison. One of these inventions was the ‘phonograph or speaking machine,’ and Wilde was asked to say something into the horn of the recording mechanism. He responded by reciting part VI of The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, which consists of the last three stanzas of the poem, and identifying it with his name at the end.” (More.)

The purported wax cylinder is lost but an acetate copy surfaced in the 1960s. Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland, identified his father’s voice then changed his mind later on. An analysis by the British Sound Archive threw further doubt on the recording so we’re left to make up our own minds which you can do for yourself here. It doesn’t sound to me like the voice one would expect from a man of Wilde’s physical size, but then I also never expected Aleister Crowley’s voice to be so highly-pitched. If anyone knows of more recent research or detail about the Wilde recording, please leave a comment.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Oscar Wilde archive

11 thoughts on “The voice of Oscar Wilde”

  1. Spooky; fascinating. Somehow I think,not Wilde.

    Pitch is directly related to speed of reproduction. Recording technology was very crude in 1900. As in film-cranking, speed standards weren’t established; record and playback speeds were controlled mechanically machine by machine. (I once owned an Edison machine; not a paragon of accuracy. You might not -believe- how crude.)

    The recording machine, for example, may have been maladjusted in the hustle and bustle of the fair. Playback on the same machine (?) would sound fine – an error would go uncaught.

    Similarly, the (possibly dumbkoff) person who made the supposed transposition to acetate probably had to settle for whatever playback machine was at hand. It probably wasn’t in the best shape by the 1960s.

    I’d put absolutely no stock in the (somewhat chipmunky) pitch you hear. While I haven’t (yet) done it, many PC audio programs will allow you to change the playback pitch. I’d like to try it at about 2/3 of that speed.

    Too: those machines could not record bass tones. (Listen to old 78s … no drums? No bass instruments?) You’re hearing a highly filtered reproduction.

  2. Hi TJ. Yes, speed is bound to be an issue, and one compounded by the re-recording. The same thing occurs with early films which were hand-cranked at varying speeds, frequently less than 24fps. I tried time stretching the recording and it makes the recitation a lot less hurried but doesn’t do much for the voice which still sounds far more mannered and silly than I can imagine Wilde speaking.

    One consistent thing with Wilde is that many people were put off by his appearance but found themselves completely beguiled by his speech and conversation; this was even the case with the egregious Marquis of Queensbury when they met by chance. That voice sounds more like a later attempt to impersonate what someone imagines an effete aesthete to sound like.

    A final point I should have added above: Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Aleister Crowley all suffered the attentions of either forgers or (in Crowley’s case) alleged illegitimate sons during the 20th century. As Wilde’s public profile rose after his death a number of dubious manuscripts surfaced, none of which have been deemed authentic. The acetate recording may be the product of a similar impulse to exploit the author’s fame.

  3. I also similarly noted the high pitch of the Crowley recordings, and those are, I believe, known to be genuine.

    English male voices are generally higher-pitched than American’s – and it is my perception, whether true or not, that this difference has decreased during my lifetime due to increased internationalization (film, TV, etc.) This is due to convention, rather than genetics – my voice definitely deepened after a decade here in the US.

    So you’d expect that Wilde’s voice might be higher than a contemporary male voice.

    As for the recording itself – intriguing! I have to say that I am dubious on the balance – in particular, the voice never seems to get distorted, which in my mind is characteristic of early recordings, but more, it sounds to me like there’s a noise track places on top of a clear vocal track – when there’s a click in an actual record, the whole sound stops for 10 milliseconds or so as the needle leaves the groove, and I don’t hear that here.

    Looking in the back of the book, it sounds like the British Sound Association has misgivings similar to mine, better worked out, and more of them.

  4. Very intriguing. While impossible to believe it was in truth Wilde’s voice, there remained a nagging fear that it actually was, so the British Sound Archive’s detective work was fascinating and reassuring in equal measure!

    Crowley’s voice always reminded me a bit of Oliver Postgate, which came as a bit of a surprise when those recordings first began to circulate, (in my head now I can hear the late Mr P. reciting the Hymn to Pan…) but as TJ noted, the bass tones were probably lost in the wax cylinder process.

    It’s odd how hearing someone’s voice can alter your whole perception of their work. I feel that Wilde would have been somehow diminished if this had turned out to be genuine, which would have been a tragedy in itself. On the other hand, the writer’s voice can give you a unique key to understanding their texts; I had a eureka moment when I first heard William Burroughs’ laconic delivery, which completely altered my take on the Naked Lunch.

  5. Tom: You’re right, I think we often make the mistake with the past (and films don’t help this) in assuming previous centuries were exactly like our own apart from different dress and customs. You only have to read Henry Mayhew’s books about London in 1850 to see how enormously different life was then for the majority of people. Photographs often show faces completely unlike those one sees today so it’s probable that the slight evolution which that implies may apply to voices too.

    Another note on the debit side for the recording: HG Wells was a contemporary of Wilde’s whose high-pitched voice was regarded as notable enough to be commented upon by friends and colleagues. I’d have thought that if Wilde had sounded at all similar then this would have been equally remarked upon, not least because of his great celebrity. We can hear HG Wells’ voice thanks to his radio discussion with Orson Welles from circa 1940.

  6. Dave C: I felt the same when I got to hear Burroughs’ voice. He’s that rare example of a writer whose words and vocal delivery complement each other perfectly.

  7. Just a side note : Tom, surely its English middle and upper class voices that are pitched higher than American voices – working class regional accents are usually lower and grittier.(And probably the main source for the American voice, mixed with Middle European, African, Spanish, ect ect ect ). Am i correct here or is there some evidence to prove otherwise? Things like this fasinate me.

  8. I’ve nothing of value to add to this discussion, but I will say that in my mind, Wilde will always sound like Stephen Fry!

    This post also brings to mind the fact that though most Americans imagine that Abraham Lincoln, who was quite tall for his time, had a deep voice, in fact his contemporaries report that he spoke in a high-pitched tenor. This would actually have been an asset, as his voice would be better heard when speaking before large crowds.

    Anyway, a fascinating post, John!

  9. Please bear with one more ‘Dan Brownish’ comment on Wilde’s voice and the National Sound Archive analysis.

    That analysis (dated 1987) failed to find “Audio Techniques, Inc.”; I quote: “there were no studios or record pressing operations under that name anywhere in New York.”

    Well, in fact there was a ‘tape and film recording service’ by that name. It was founded in NYC in 1960 according to Billboard magazine of Sep 26, 1960 ( ) which gives the names of the 3 founders. In 1973 a service of that name was located at 12 East 46th St.

    It’s possible that, if it ever did, the original cylinder still exists. New York’s WOR-FM existed until the late 1960s when it became WXLO. According to the NSA, “one of the radio station’s researchers had come upon the cylinder in an American archive.” Perhaps the ‘American archive’ was in that city.

    The 1996 book by John Stokes, “Oscar Wilde: myths, miracles, and imitations” is pretty definite on the subject: “Expert opinion now pronounces it to be a deliberate deception concocted decades after Wilde’s death.” (p. 18)

    But still … technology has advanced hugely since NSA’s 1987 college try. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to locate the (purported) cylinder … which – one would think – would show up in a careful net search. Without it, the NSA verdict must stand. Fascinating.

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