Today in Classical Music: Anniversary of the First Recording of Classical Music

This Wednesday will mark a particularly unique anniversary for both Classical Music and audio engineering. On the 29th of June 1888 at the Ninth Triennial Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace in London, the American colonel George Edward Gouraud wowed British spectators with a new, marvel invention: Thomas Edison’s new phonograph, updated from his original 1877 design. The civil war veteran descended from ambitious stock: his father, Francis Fauvel Gouraud, an engineer from France, had previously introduced into the US daguerreotypes for then primitive photography in 1839. Now, 49 years later, his son, acting as de-facto foreign agent to Edison would make his mark in the country by becoming a pioneer in the booming technology sector.

Edison’s new phonograph would exceed the limitations of his own original design, as Gouraud made evident by setting up the recording device some 100 yards distance from the stage which had been erected at the Crystal Palace to honor the works of the late German-turned-British composer George Friedrich Handel in both music and song.

The limitations of recording technology at that time, together with the number of voices, the distance of the recording device from the singers and the acoustics of the Crystal Palace, mean that the recorded sound was dim to begin with, and it has since then become badly degraded. What survives is barely audible but still identifiable by ear, and gives some insight into performance practices at the height of the Handel Festival phenomenon.

Israel in Egypt is a biblical oratorio by the composer George Frideric Handel. Most scholars believe the libretto was prepared by Charles Jennens, who also compiled the biblical texts for Handel’s Messiah. It is composed entirely of selected passages from the Old Testament, mainly from Exouds and the Psalms.

If you would like to listen to the original 1888 recording, you can do so here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qDwz3JdD1c

Edison with his phonograph