Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

17 April 2023

Recording of the week: Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Falstaff

Falstaff disc label

The famously successful actor and theatre manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917) made this recording in March 1906. It was one of a set of five 10-inch discs recorded for release by the Gramophone Company. These were originally issued in a ‘special envelope’ (which we don’t have) which included the texts and a ‘character portrait’ of Tree.

Each single-sided shellac disc featured a soliloquy from Shakespeare. Here, Tree performs Falstaff’s speech on honour, from Henry IV, Part 1.

A soliloquy was pretty much all the technology of the time would allow. In the early years of commercial recording, playing times of more than just a few minutes were not technologically possible.

Note also that age of recording with electrical microphones was still two decades away. You are listening here to an acoustic recording. Tree would have been projecting his voice, with all the vigour he could muster, into the horn of the recording device.

Listen to Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Download Herbert Beerbohm Tree transcript

The presence of the famous HMV dog on the label indicates that this is a later reissue rather than the 1906 first pressing.

Somewhat unusually, the British Library also possesses an original copper matrix from which a new edition of the record could be pressed. This was one of a set presented to the British Museum by the Gramophone Company in 1906 and subsequently transferred to the Library in 1992.

This week’s ‘Recording of the Week’ was selected by Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.