Earlier this year the National Sound Archive was delighted to receive a disc containing a recording the voice of Oscar Wilde reciting a passage from The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The lender was H. Montgomery Hyde, a collector of Wilde's letters and memorabilia and author of three books about him.
In 1963, when in America to promote his book Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, an account of the last years of Wilde's life, he had been interviewed for the New York radio station WORFM by a presenter named Caspar Citron. The interview, which lasted thirty minutes, was copied to an acetate disk, and was followed by an announcement: "What you are now going to hear is a recording of the actual voice of Oscar Wilde ..."
There followed an 80-second recording beginning "The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Part Six". The recitation was reasonably clearly audible with only a few words masked by the swoosh and crackle which seem so characteristic of cylinder recordings. At the close of the poem the reciter gives his name in a studied, high-pitched and langourous voice: "Oscar Wilde".
Caspar Citron told Montgomery Hyde that one of the radio station's researchers had come upon the cylinder in an American archive and also gave him details of how it had come to be made. Montgomery Hyde recounted the circumstances of Wilde's visit to the Paris Exhibition in the summer of 1900 in his biography Oscar Wilde, published in 1976: "Wilde was recognised 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. The recording ... was made on a wax cylinder. Fortunately, it survived along with other Edison memorabilia and to it we owe the preservation of the only recording ever made of Wilde's voice."
Montgomery Hyde never saw the original cylinder but only a tape of it. He brought back to England an acetate of his interview with the Wilde recitation tacked on the end, and this he played to Vyvyan Holland, Oscar Wilde's son, who verified the recording as being his father's voice.
Some time in the early 1960s a well-known American collector, Eddie Smith, was sent a tape of the Wilde recording. He in turn sent a copy to Richard Bebb, an authority on early speech recordings, asking him to authenticate it. Richard Bebb took it to the BBC where the then Head of Sound Archives, Timothy Eckersley, asked Vyvyan Holland to come in and listen to it. Vyvyan Holland then declared that the recording could not be the voice of his father.
The recordings are identical--why did Vyvyan Holland change his mind? It is possible that he was obliging a friend when he verified the recording of Montgomery Hyde and that he was swayed by expectation and enthusiasm, and that in the more formal situation of the BBC he was less sure of his attribution. He was, after all, in his seventies and had not seen his father since before Wilde's sentence in 1895--when he himself was only a young child.
Against the factors of age and the time lapse need to be set the persuasive facts that Vyvyan Holland had heard Oscar Wilde's voice more frequently and attentively than anybody else alive in the 1960s and that the voice might be expected to be particularly memorable, being a highly mannered mix of the patrician drawl with an Irish timbre.
If the recording was not Wilde but had been made at the turn of the century the possibilities existed that it was a recording of somebody's "party piece". It was not unknown in the early years of recording for an individual to recite a poem, dramatic extract or political speech onto the new-fangled recording apparatus and give the author's name at the end of it, with the intention only of entertaining and amusing rather than of perpetrating a piece of historical deceit. Edison's agents on promotional tours with the equipment were also known to recite pieces of contemporary writing to play to interested parties. In this instance, however, could these possibilities be discounted because Wilde's writings were, by the turn of the century, associated in the public mind with his unspeakable crimes and therefore not a fit subject for recitation?
Montgomery Hyde remained certain that the recording was of Wilde, and discussed its provenance not only in his biography of Wilde but also in a BBC programme about his own eventful life, Self Portrait, broadcast in March 1972.
Consequently word travelled that the voice of Wilde existed, and the BBC and the NSA then received, and continue to receive, scores of enquiries about it from all over the world. The NSA therefore contacted Montgomery Hyde and asked if we could make a new remastered copy of the interview and Wilde's recitation from the American acetate which was as close as we could come in this country to the original Wilde recording. He was very obliging and allowed us to borrow the disc to copy and photograph.
At this stage we were more than happy to accept the recording as genuine: that, after all, was by then the status quo and the recording was an important addition to the Archive. However, we then made a discovery that enabled us to go beyond all the arguments which had been marshalled over the years to contest or defend Vyvyan Holland's initial verification of the recording. The recording as it sounded could not have been made in 1900 for a number of complex technical reasons:
This certainty brought in its wake the obvious questions: how, when and where had the recording been made? Whose voice was it and why? The former could be answered by considering the resources available in a recording studio in the early 1960s, i.e. around the time that the acetate was cut.
The techniques evident in the recording are certainly consistent with the theory that it was created in an ordinary recording studio. The speech, picked up by a microphone and filtered with the relatively gentle characteristics of a 60s sound mixer or an indifferent tape recorder, would be overlain with clicks such as might be generated by running a gramophone pickup (bandwidth-limited) over the back of a single-sided 78 rpm disc. In the absence of an actual phonograph horn and "recorder" and/or a cylinder for generating genuine surface-noise, this would have been the only means available of making a credible forgery.
The radio station in New York, WORFM, was contacted. They were unable to shed any light on the problem without a definite date of broadcast. On the record cover, in Montgomery Hyde's hand, is the date when the disc was cut: June 1963. WORFM can trace no such interview during that month, and Montgomery Hyde is uncertain when the broadcast was scheduled. It is even possible that an acetate was supplied to WORFM but was never transmitted. WORFM have had at least two changes of management since the early 1960s and there is nobody on the staff who remembers the period.
We contacted the radio curators at the New York Museum of Broadcasting, who were unable to produce any new information, though they were able to confirm that if any New York station had made such a broadcast it would have been WORFM.
Enquiries to the Audio Archives at the Thomas Alva Edison Recording Laboratory at Syracuse University and the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey, yielded nothing except that they had heard of the Wilde recording and would dearly like a copy.
Attempts to trace the makers of the acetate, named on the label as "Audio Techniques, Inc." of 247 West 46 Street, New York, tel. Judson 6-2619, brought us into contact with a most sympathetic audio sales company formed only recently, who were prepared to go through their contacts and the New York phone book and assure us that there were no studios or record pressing operations under that name anywhere in New York.
Unable to get to New York to follow up possibilities, we contacted Dr Michael Biel in America, who is an expert on early cylinder recordings, and fakes in particular, and asked him to make some enquiries for us. We hope that in the early months of next year Dr Biel will have made progress; meanwhile we returned to the recording. The interviewer, Caspar Citron, had a Southern English voice, so we contacted the few Citrons around London in the hope that Caspar was somebody's nephew. He wasn't nor was he listed in the current New York phone book
His voice was distinctive, with a curious pitch and timbre. Indeed, it occurred to us that it was a voice not dissimilar to that alleged to be Wilde's. Caspar Citron had had the opportunity and access to the means of faking the recording; he also had the motive, in that he was an infrequent broadcaster--a freelance, according to the station--who might have thought that the discovery of such an historic recording would have guaranteed him broadcasting time.
We ran the voices of Caspar Citron and "Oscar Wilde" through the RT1000 Digital Spectrograph (as supplied by Voice Identification, Inc.) and found at on crucial words they were not exhibiting any of the expected similarities.
It was apparent from the interview that Montgomery Hyde's voice was quite unlike that which he believed to be Wilde's, though it is true that he also had the means and the motive to mastermind the forgery. However, our meetings with Montgomery Hyde lead us to believe that his is not perpetrating a hoax, though of course we have no proof apart from his own very genuine and heartfelt conviction. When Vyvyan Holland sat down with him and listened for the first time in sixty years to the voice which he unhesitatingly knew to be his father's, Montgomery Hyde was convinced.
It is hard not to have equal faith. So many people have heard the recording and believe in it; so many others know that the voice of Oscar Wilde exists, that it will be impossible here to gainsay their certainty without conclusive proof from America.
The knowledge that Wilde died in November 1900, only weeks after this recording is alleged to have been made, that he died in miserable exile, vilified by all and barred even from meeting his own children, entreats the listener to suspend disbelief as the distant voice recites the poignant final lines as though uttering its epitaph:
In Reading gaol by Reading town There is a pit of shame, And in it lies a wretched man Eaten by teeth of flame, In a burning winding-sheet he lies, And his grave has got no name.
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