Sound and vision blog

24 posts categorized "Literature"

28 March 2022

Recording of the week: Virginia Woolf's voice

This week’s selection comes from Sarah O’Reilly, oral historian and interviewer for National Life Stories on the Authors’ Lives project.

Enter the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery on the upper ground floor of the British Library in London and on your left you’ll find a pair of headphones. Through it you can listen to the only extant recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice, the writer who died on this day 81 years ago.

Woolf made the recording in 1937 for The Third Programme (now Radio 3) as part of a series of talks produced for the BBC by George Barnes. The broadcast – called ‘Craftsmanship’ - went out on the evening of the 29th April at 8.40pm and lasted around 20 minutes. Sadly only eight minutes of Woolf’s talk survive, due either to a conscious decision on the part of the BBC to record only a small part of the whole, or the accidental loss of the rest of the recording.

Download Virginia Woolf transcript

Oral historians deal in the oral and the aural, and Woolf’s broadcast is fascinating on both counts. To modern-day listeners the voice is extraordinary - her accent upper-class, her tone formal. A short transcription made by American scholar Emily Kopley and published in the Times Literary Supplement as part of a longer article captures its bygone cadences perfectly: 'Wehrrds, English wehrrds, are full of echoes, memories, associations.'

Woolf’s nephew, Quentin Bell, felt the broadcast misrepresented his aunt’s voice: ‘the record is a very poor one,’ he wrote later: ‘her voice is deprived of depth and resonance; it seems altogether too fast and too flat; it is barely recognisable. Her speaking voice was in fact beautiful…and it is sad that it should not have been immortalised in a more satisfactory manner.’ If Bell is right, this may have been the result of Woolf’s discomfort with the medium of radio itself: ‘it could have been a good article,’ she later wrote about ‘Craftsmanship’, ‘[but] it’s the talk element that upsets it’. She promised herself in her diary that she would ‘refrain from the folly’ of broadcasting ever again.

Barnes had suggested the title of the talk and Woolf immediately responded by taking issue with the very idea of the writer as a craftsman. In Woolf’s view, words did not yield to the efforts of the author as easily as materials might yield to the craftsman’s tools: ‘Words,’ she said, ‘resist efforts to constrain their meaning or define them exhaustively’. They had a life and a history - ‘They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries’ and as such could not be pinned down: ‘They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things’. As the Radio Times’ previewer put it on the 23rd April: ‘In Virginia Woolf’s opinion, craftsmanship is a word that can be applied to the making of pots and pans, but not to words in the way in which writers use them’. What, you might wonder, would Woolf have made of the proliferation of creative writing courses from the 1970s onwards? On this the previewer was equally clear: ‘Mrs. Woolf is a believer in the importance of a large choice of words, but she deplores all attempts to teach people how to write.’

Woolf’s characterisation of words as slippery and alive is an idea that comes up often in the National Life Stories Authors' Lives collection of oral history interviews. Here Peter Porter characterises writing as a kind of ‘fighting’ with words, whilst Maureen Duffy compares it to a high-rise tight-rope walk:

Peter Porter 'writing is fighting' [BL REF C1276/09)

Download Peter Porter transcript

Maureen Duffy 'tightrope' [BL REF C1276/03]

Download Maureen Duffy transcript

The aerial tightrope-walker is a good metaphor - one wrong step and you lose your footing and fall. The craftsman becomes a circus performer, carrying out a daring and dangerous highwire act.

If, as Woolf believed, writing could not be taught, how are writers made? Writer Penelope Lively suggests an alternative route:

Penelope Lively 'writing out of reading' [BL REF C1276/07]

Download Penelope Lively transcript

For Woolf, words are wary of the glare of attention: ‘All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live — the mind — all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious.’ So too are writers, when questioned too closely about their work, as the poet Anthony Thwaite argued when reflecting on the writing process:

Anthony Thwaite 'the arrival of a poem' [BL REF C1276/15]

Download Anthony Thwaite transcript

‘Words Fail Me’ was the title of the series in which Woolf’s broadcast was placed and the suggestion of the battle between words and their speakers is a theme which echoes throughout the Authors’ Lives recordings. Prompted to reflect on her life and her work in her Authors’ Lives recording, the novelist Hilary Mantel described the experience of being lost for words, in a manner that resonates perfectly with Woolf’s sentiments:

Hilary Mantel 'the problem with language'

Download Hilary Mantel transcript

For writers then and now, the struggle continues.

You can listen to a selection of extracts from Authors' Lives on British Library Sounds.   

Follow @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

08 November 2021

Recording of the week: James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union

By Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

The British Library launches a new web resource this week. It is called 'Speaking Out', and it seeks to explore the spoken word in its most forceful guise: that of the public address.  Through historical archive recordings, together with new essays, we aim to shine a light on the art and power of public speaking in all its forms.

Today's 'Recording of the Week' showcases a landmark speech by the US writer James Baldwin.

On 18 February 1965 Baldwin was invited to speak at the Cambridge University Union. The motion was 'The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro'. His opposite number in the debate was the conservative writer and broadcaster William F. Buckley Jr., a supporter of the racial segregation that existed in the Southern states.

The debate was a significant moment in the story of the US civil rights struggle. Baldwin's speech specifically is among the most celebrated in the history of the Cambridge Union. David Leeming's 1994 biography of Baldwin tells us it received a standing ovation and carried the post-debate vote, receiving 544 votes, as against 184 for Buckley.

Photo of James Baldwin - copyright Getty Images

James Baldwin. Photo copyright © Getty Images. 

Listen to James Baldwin

Audio copyright © James Baldwin Estate

Download Transcript

Founded in 1815, the Cambridge Union Society is the oldest debating society in the world. Speakers are drawn from all walks of public life and include politicians, peers, scientists, journalists, celebrities, experts of all kinds, and student debaters. 

In the summer of 2007, following successful negotiations with the Cambridge Union Society, the collected recordings of more than 600 of the Society's weekly debates were transferred to the care of the British Library. The Society was concerned to find a new permanent home for the collection, lacking the facilities on their own premises for archival storage of the material or the provision of regular public or student access to it.

The period covered is 1963-1999. Although the bulk of the collection is made up of TDK D90 audio cassettes dating from 1983 onwards, there are also many open reel tapes dating from the earlier period (such as the James Baldwin tape, pictured below). 

Photo of James Baldwin tape box

All the recordings are available to listen to at the British Library but you will need to apply for a Reader Pass if you don't already have one.

05 July 2021

‘Violence, shock, life’: the sounds of Pierre Boulez’s formative years

Pierre Boulez (1968)Pierre Boulez (1968)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Dr Caroline Potter

Pierre Boulez was one of the most important musicians of the 20th and early 21st centuries. His own music is often considered forbiddingly cerebral, not least because musicologists have tended to focus on its construction, but I contend that the French literary and broader intellectual context was at least as important to the composer as musical techniques such as serialism. My research project, generously supported in 2020-21 by a British Library Edison Fellowship, uncovers the crucial impact of this context on Boulez, enhancing our understanding of his work and leading towards a more visceral, emotional response to his work.

Boulez’s reputation as the ‘angry young man’ of European modern music followed him for the rest of his long life. He was angry because music mattered hugely to him. Of course, this anger sprang from his rejection of the conservative French musical culture of his youth, from a desire to wipe the slate clean after the horrors of World War II, and surely also from his rejection of senior male role models, including his father who wanted him to train as an engineer. But, more profoundly, this violence and anger has striking parallels in Parisian artistic culture of the 1930s and 40s, and specifically from artists broadly connected with surrealism.

Antonin Artaud 1926Antonin Artaud (1926)

 One of the most important figures in Boulez’s artistic evolution was Antonin Artaud (1897-1948). He is best known today for writings including The Theatre and its Double, but for Boulez, Artaud was not primarily a cultural theoretician, but a performing artist whose work only truly existed live. It was Paule Thévenin, Artaud’s friend and later his literary executor, who introduced Artaud’s work to Boulez (she later also edited a collection of Boulez’s writings). Artaud’s final public performance took place at the Galerie Loeb in Paris in July 1947, where he read some of his texts surrounded by an exhibition of his drawings. This was an intimate space; ‘Boulez and his friends had to sit in front of the first row of chairs, and they found themselves almost ‘under’ the voice of Artaud when he was reading.’[1] Being within spitting distance of Artaud, still a charismatic performer despite his much reduced physical condition, was an experience that Boulez never forgot. Towards the end of his life, he recalled that Artaud’s performance ‘made an impression on me because what initially seemed to make no sense suddenly made sense very strongly.’[2]

Few Artaud recordings survive: there are copies of Aliénation et la magie noire (1946) and Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (1947) in the British Library. In Pour en finir… Artaud pushes his voice to its very limits;

Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (1947) extract

through the extremes of expression, register and dynamics, he sought to transcend the limitations of human utterances. Listening to Artaud’s vocal performance alongside the final movement of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata played by Maurizio Pollini, with its aggressive performance directions such as ‘pulvériser le son’, shows that they both inhabit a sound world where no holds are barred.

Boulez Piano Sonata No.2 extract

In the 1920s, Artaud was briefly associated with André Breton, the self-appointed leader of the surrealist movement. The French surrealist circle was a pluridisciplinary environment whose members had wide-ranging artistic and intellectual interests. Often these coexisted in one publication, as in the reviews Documents and Minotaure, whose pages provide a complete portrait of contemporary surrealism, from psychoanalytical studies of delirium to images provoking new ideas through incongruous juxtapositions. And Breton himself frequently combined photography, autobiography and fiction in a single publication; he also had a strong interest in ethnography and amassed an impressive collection of non-Western and esoteric objects.

One obvious connection between Breton’s stories – one that was particularly resonant for Boulez – is the recycling of the last phrase of his novella Nadja (1928), ‘La beauté sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas’ (Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be). At the end of ‘La beauté sera convulsive’, a short story published in Minotaure in 1934, we read this extension: ‘La beauté convulsive sera érotique-voilée, explosante-fixe, magique-circonstancielle ou ne sera pas’ (Convulsive beauty will be erotic-veiled, exploding-fixed, magic-circumstantial or it will not be).[3] Convulsive beauty is a physical shock, an instant unmediated reaction which has the power to reunite supposed opposites. It provokes profound sensations instantaneously which according to Breton, ‘could not come to us via ordinary logical paths.’

‘La beauté sera convulsive’ is illustrated by a photo by Man Ray captioned ‘explosante-fixe’: a female dancer wearing a full skirt and sleeves, perhaps a flamenco dancer in a trance, captured in a freeze frame with her arms, sleeves and skirt suspended in mid-whirling motion. This fleeting instant captured on film exemplifies ‘convulsive beauty.’ Images, it is suggested, are superior to words as conduits of convulsive beauty, provoking as they do an instant, unmediated reaction. And moving beyond Breton, I contend that music has an even stronger power to convey convulsive beauty. Music can only exist in time and in sound; its action on our senses is literally ‘moving.’ Unlike Breton, the Belgian composer André Souris, a friend and early supporter of Boulez, understood the unique power of music; he believed that ‘the language of music was more apt than any other to faithfully relay the deepest feelings’ and that music was ‘perhaps the medium most suited to surrealist expression.’[4]

The impact of surrealism on Boulez has been underplayed: most obviously, he used a Breton fragment, …explosante-fixe…, as the title of several related works in the 1970s-90s, and this fusion of apparent opposites – explosion and stasis – is a highly apt metaphor for his music. A recording of an early version conducted by Boulez at the Proms on 17 August 1973, when compared with later versions, shows that its musical identity remained remarkably stable. This extract was recycled in later iterations of …explosante-fixe…, including the offshoot Mémoriale (1985).

Explosante Fixe (1973) extract

In a letter to Souris written in 1947, Boulez wrote that his music was about ‘violence, shock, life’ and he believed ‘this is what is most lacking, it seems to me, in every work by the serial “school”.’[5] In the work of Artaud and Breton, Boulez discovered the ‘violence, shock, life’ which is the defining characteristic of his first compositions.

[1] Sarah Barbedette, ‘Différentes façons d’être voyant’ in Barbedette (ed.) Pierre Boulez [exhibition catalogue]. Paris: Actes Sud, 2015: pp. 23-37, at p. 25: ‘Boulez et ses amis doivent s’asseoir devant le premier rang de chaises, et c’est presque « sous » la voix d’Antonin Artaud qu’ils se trouvent lorsque celui-ci profère ses poèmes.’

[2] François Meïmoun, Pierre Boulez: La Naissance d’un compositeur. Paris: Aedam musicae, 2010, p. 59: ‘[…] ce qui n’avait initialement aucun sens prenait d’un coup un sens, et un sens très fort.’

[3] André Breton, ‘La beauté sera convulsive’, in Minotaure, 5 (May 1934): pp. 8-16, at p. 16.

[4] Cited in Robert Wangermée, André Souris et le complexe d’Orphée. Entre surréalisme et musique sérielle, Liège, Mardaga (1995), p. 6; ‘la matière musicale était plus propre qu’aucune autre à épouser fidèlement les mouvements intérieurs […] [la musique constituait ‘peut-être le moyen le plus conforme aux démonstrations surréalistes.’

[5] Wangermée (1995), p. 272; ‘Boulez disait ensuite ce qu’apportait sa propre musique: la violence, le choc, la vie. “C’est ce qui manque le plus, me semble-t-il, à toutes les œuvres de ‘l’école’ atonale”, ajoutait-il.’

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

 

 

21 June 2021

Recording of the week: Carol Ann Duffy reads ‘Mrs Midas’

This week's selection comes from Dr Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings and Digital Performance.

I have been listening to Carol Ann Duffy reading her poem ‘Mrs Midas’ at an English PEN event held in London in 1994.

King Midas is known in Greek mythology for his ability to turn everything he touches into gold. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is set in modern times and is written from the perspective of the King’s wife, Mrs Midas. The story starts with a perplexed Mrs Midas at their home where there is something odd going on with the King. Through a sequence of incidents at dinner time the King makes a confession. On seeing the food and homeware turned into gold Mrs Midas recounts:

___________________________________ I made him sit
on the other side of the room and keep his hands to himself.
I locked the cat in the cellar. I moved the phone.
The toilet I didn’t mind. I couldn’t believe my ears:
how he’d had a wish. Look, we all have wishes; granted.
But who has wishes granted? Him. Do you know about gold?
It feeds no one; aurum, soft, untarnishable; slakes
no thirst.

Listen to the recording to find out what happens next.

'Mrs Midas' [BL REF C125/347 C7]

Read poem transcript

‘Mrs Midas’ is part of Duffy’s collection The World’s Wife, published by Picador and Anvil Press Poetry in 1999. Each poem engages with a mythological or historical male figure. The poems are always written from a female perspective and in monologue form. Several of these women are spouses. The collection provides a revised outlook on familiar narratives but all of them place women centre stage.

There are five years between Duffy’s reading at PEN and the publication of The World’s Wife, yet the poem did not change. There are four other poems from this collection in the recording, ‘Mrs Tiresias’, ‘Mrs Aesop’, ‘Queen Kong’ and ‘Mrs Darwin’.

The English PEN collection consists of literary talks and readings hosted and recorded by PEN between 1953 and 2006. It also includes the International Writers Day events, recorded by the British Library. Most of the events took place either in London or different parts of the UK.

This collection has been preserved by the Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project. It includes a total of 1184 recordings from over 400 tapes, which are now accessible in the Library’s Reading Rooms. In due course, from early 2021, you will be able to listen to up to 325 English PEN recordings online.

Since I am still working from home in London, I have included this picture of King Midas from a children’s book my mother gave me as a child growing up in Spain. This was my first encounter with the King Midas story. The story feels more complete now with the addition of Mrs Midas’ views.

Illustration of King Midas
Illustration of King Midas from the book 'El rey Midas. Mis cuentos favoritos' published by Editorial Vasco Americana, 1967

English PEN is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year (1921-2021). To mark this important occasion they are running Common Currency, a year-long programme of events, residencies and workshops, which includes a three-day festival at the Southbank Centre, London, 24-26 September 2021.

To tie in with PEN’s centenary I will be featuring more recordings from the collection in the coming months.

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

08 March 2021

Recording of the week: Mohamed Choukri at the ICA

This week's selection comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Recordings.

Tangier  Morocco - photo by Brett Hodnett
Tangier, Morocco by Brett Hodnett – used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-2.0

Today’s selection features the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri (1935-2003), recorded at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, 22 September 1992.

Choukri’s first volume of autobiography, published in English as For Bread Alone, tells the story of a harsh and poverty-stricken upbringing in Tangier. Choukri was in fact illiterate until the age of 20. Two further volumes, Streetwise and Faces, continued the story.

Choukri is also known for his personal accounts of friendships with Paul Bowles, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams – all foreign-born writers who resided for varying durations in Tangier.

In this excerpt, Choukri talks (in Arabic) about his motivation for being a writer.

Listen to Mohamed Choukri at the ICA

The live English translation is provided by Owen MacMillan.

Download English-language transcript

This recording excerpt comes from our ICA Talks collection, which comprises recordings of more than 800 talks and discussions held at the ICA, London, during the period 1982-1993. These events featured leading writers, artists and filmmakers. Almost all of the recordings are available to listen to online.

Follow @BL_DramaSound@BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

01 October 2020

‘Using your eyes as a pen’ – Black British Poets in Performance

By Dr Hannah Silva, British writer and performer and Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.

Paula Varjack
Paula Varjack selfie.

“What you actually do is you use your eyes as a pen,” David J is telling me how he learned to freestyle, “off the dome.” We’re sitting in a studio at the British Library, recording an interview for an archive: Black British Poets in Performance.

David J developed his craft out loud. When freestyling “it’s your life really that gets played out.” He describes hiding in a corner: “a silent child hears more.” He picked up vocabulary from books in the family home, medical journals and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and integrated it into his freestyling, “we can have fun ’cause my family is medical so we’re gonnna do vocal autopsies so everyone is… ah! nah he’s gonna rip em apart... nah I’m gonna do it clinically, ’cause mum’s a health visitor.”

Throughout these interviews it becomes clear that writing ‘out loud’ and ‘on the page’ are not differentiated practices, that performance is as much a part of ‘writing’ as writing is performance.

Here’s Anthony Joseph discussing how vocalising a poem can connect you to “other musical ideas”:

Anthony Joseph [47.55-48.24] ref. C1874_1

Download Anthony Joseph transcript.

Vocalisation is a way of embodying writing, engaging not just the ears in listening, but the breath, diaphragm, larynx, and vocal folds. Malika Booker comments that she likes to walk whilst she writes: “because I need to get the rhythm, I need to hear things I need to feel things […] writing is not just a solitary sitting down act.”

In the padded windowless room David J is looking at me, “you see Hannah” and looking around: “you see: speaker” and now he’s inhaling the words and mixing them with “what’s inside of you… your thought.”

David J [17.56-18.33] ref. C1874_15

Download David J transcript.

Kayo Chingonyi comments that “the label of ‘poetry’ has shrunk over the centuries”, that performance has often not been accorded the same importance as “dancing that intellect on the page.” He analyses the racialised aspect of labels such as spoken word and performance poetry and how this is linked “to having bodies”:

Kayo Chingonyi [26.37-27.30] ref. C1874_9

Download Kayo Chingonyi transcript.

Jacob Sam-La Rose discusses the importance of having spoken word and performance poetry in archives that can be accessed by poets developing their craft:

Jacob Sam-La Rose [19.50-20.40] ref. C1874_16

Download Jacob Sam-La Rose transcript.

This is that kind of resource.

These interviews feel groundbreaking because of the depth to which each poet discusses their craft. As Malika Booker says, this is “an artform that needs to be interrogated.” Every interview is over an hour long, and is accompanied by readings. We discuss how labels can exclude, and conversely how self-naming can be a creative act. We have conversations about the Black British voice, the Lyric I, presence, audiences, artistic development, performance poetry criticism, and poetry within theatre. We discuss influences and inspirations, and zoom in on moments of writing and performing.

Booker writes on her feet both at the early compositional stage, and sometimes in performance. In our interview she explains that her poem ‘My Mother’s Blues’ was edited in performance in response to her audience. Initially she wasn’t “sure how to use the ‘pain’.” She wrote “twenty-six drafts, trying to figure it out.” It was only when she did it for an audience that she realised the poem was “important.” Her description provides an example of how the body, voice and audience can all play a part in the writing of poetry, she treated “the performance space as a laboratory.” It also illustrates the interactive joys of a poetry night:

Malika Booker [45.50-52.00] ref. C1847_12

Download Malika Booker transcript.

Other unforgettable moments in this archive include Paula Varjack revealing that her name and performance persona were constructed around a pair of sunglasses. Lemn Sissay, whom I interviewed by a pool in Brazil, demonstrating how he started to deconstruct the moment of performance as it happens, and how he uses gesture as part of his writing (read more here: Lemn Sissay: Defamiliarsation and Performed Palimpsests. There’s Inua Ellams on guerrilla gardening, Karen McCarthy Woolf on vulnerability and hybridity and how trauma made her especially sensitive to sound, and a chat with Raymond Antrobus and Deanna Rodger behind the Latitude Poetry Tent (already a historical event).

Also – we had fun. Here’s Joshua Idehen parodying poetry styles and prosodies:

Joshua Idehen [55.28-56.28] ref. C1874_5

Download Joshua Idehen transcript.

The poets in this archive are there because I wanted to talk to them, and because they were willing to talk to me. My own research interests and my connections and friendships inevitably shaped it. The interviews were recorded several years ago and the poets would record different interviews today, but this archive enables us to, as Sam-La Rose puts it, “chase back movements and ways of thinking.” It is by no means a finished project and I hope it continues to be expanded and that the interviews are an exciting resource that supports further research.

Thank you to all the poets who agreed to talk to me for the archive, and all those who talked to me outside of the British Library context too. So far this archive contains interviews with Raymond Antrobus, Dean Atta, Malika Booker, Kayo Chingonyi, Inua Ellams, Anthony Joseph, Ria Jade Hartley, Joshua Idehen, Keith Jarrett, David J, Chanje Kunda, Deanna Rodgers, Jacob Sam-La Rose, Andra Simons, Lemn Sissay, Mark Mace Smith, Paula Varjack, Indigo Williams and Karen McCarthy Woolf.

The archive was constructed as part of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with Stirling University and The British Library.

This collection is available in the Library's Reading Rooms and will be online next year. If you would like to browse the collection online, please enter C1874 into the Library's Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

05 September 2019

Sir Isaac Pitman – phonography and the phonograph

Isaac Pitman

Sir Isaac Pitman (The Pitman Collection, University of Bath)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

When Isaac Pitman delivered a speech to the Phonographic Association in 1891 one would think it was to an assembled gathering of enthusiasts of Edison’s discovery of sound recording in the form of the newly invented phonograph.  However, Pitman was the inventor of phonography – a system of phonetic shorthand that he developed in 1837 which came to be known as Pitman’s shorthand.  By 1886 he had sold one million copies of his Phonographic Teacher in Britain.  

Book cover 1900

Pitman Shorthand 1900 edition

Indeed, for most of the twentieth century hundreds of thousands of women learnt to read and write shorthand and use a typewriter to gain employment as secretaries. 

Book cover 1970Pitman Shorthand 1970 edition

Isaac Pitman was born in 1813 in Trowbridge, Wiltshire.  In 1835 he became a teacher, married a widow twenty years his senior and opened a small school in Bath.  He married again in 1861 a woman twelve years his junior.  By the age of thirty Pitman, an advocate of spelling reform for the English language, had his own publishing firm and gave up teaching.  His system of shorthand was used worldwide and during the 1840s he originated the idea of correspondence courses due to the uniform postal rate adopted in the United Kingdom at that time.  He set up the Phonetic Institute at Bath – a printing office and publishing house for the dispatch of books to all parts of the world, a business managed by his two sons.

In 1894 Pitman was knighted by Queen Victoria and he died in 1897 at the age of eighty-four.

Although similar names, but completely different scientific paths, it seems that Pitman’s phonography and the phonograph actually were brought together, for by 1891, when he was nearing eighty, Pitman was unable to travel from Bath to London to give his lectures at the National Phonographic Society meetings. 

The London Daily News reported on 20th October 1891 that the Earl of Albemarle would preside over the meeting and that

The speech of Sir Isaac Pitman, who is unable to attend personally, will be delivered by the phonograph, a special messenger having been dispatched by Colonel Gouraud to Bath for the purpose of recording it.

Two days later the Aberdeen Free Press reported that

The two ingenious inventions for mastering the human voice were brought in contact tonight at the annual meeting of the London District of the Phonographic Society.  Mr Isaac Pitman was unable to be present in the flesh, yet his spoken message was entrusted in Bath yesterday to Edison’s phonograph, and was delivered tonight in London to his disciples.  Before the phonograph delivered Mr Pitman’s speech, Colonel Gouraud explained on its behalf that, in order to be heard in the hall, it was not necessary to speak loudly into the instrument, but that one ought rather to pronounce one’s words clearly and deliberately.  Mr Pitman, knowing that his remarks were to be uttered in a large hall, had attempted to raise his voice in proportion, with the result that his speech came in a somewhat vague and husky manner from the phonograph.  Nevertheless, it could be heard by an attentive listener at the back of the building.  The diplomas of the Phonographic Society were afterwards distributed, and there was an exhibition of typewriting, which is becoming a vast industry for young women in the Metropolis.

However, the correspondent of the Coventry Evening Telegraph disagreed about the quality of the recording and thought that

Phonography and the phonograph were in pleasant companionship last night.  The occasion was the first annual meeting of the National Phonographic Society – an association founded to advance a well-known system of shorthand writing, and to test, and attest by diplomas, the efficiency of public teachers of the art.  The venerable founder – Mr Isaac Pitman – was unable to be present, but the speech that he would have delivered was spoken by him at Bath on the previous day, and recorded by one of Edison’s phonographs.  By this means it was reproduced with such clearness that every word was heard by the audience which filled the Memorial Hall, London.

Cylinder box lid

Cylinder box lid

The first cylinder of Pitman’s recorded speech has survived so we can now hear the voice of a man born more than two hundred years ago.  Here is the commencement where he thanks the Earl of Albemarle, a transcript of which is below.

Isaac Pitman opening speech

Isaac Pitman, to the phonographers speaking here tonight.  My Lord Albermarle, Ladies and Gentlemen, phonographers all, I greet you right heartily.  I would be present in person if I could leave my desk with a clear conscience so that, even from a hundred miles from London, I can speak to you without writing thanks to Mr Edison, Colonel Gouraud and his assistance.   And especial thanks are due from the, the disassociation for obtaining thus my invisible presence.

And here is the least worn part of the cylinder where he speaks about phonographers are phonography bringing him into contact with people across the world.

Isaac Pitman closing remarks

Their labours, by extending phonography to all parts of the earth where the English language is spoken have brought me into communication with a great number of people who reside in distant countries extending from California in the West to Japan in the East and Tasmania in the South.

There is a memorial plaque to Pitman in Bath Abbey the inscription of which reads:

Inventor of Pitman’s shorthand.  His aims were steadfast, his mind original, his work prodigious, the achievement worldwide.  His life was ordered in service to God and duty to man.

Bath Abbey - Memorial plaque of Isaac PitmanMemorial Plaque to Sir Issac Pitman, Bath Abbey (By GraceKelly - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

26 August 2019

Recording of the week: Winnie-the-Pooh

This week's selection comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Recordings.

This week's recording of the week features A. A. Milne reading from his children's classic Winnie-the-Pooh. This is a short excerpt from the complete chapter three featured on the disc, 'in which Pooh and Piglet go hunting and nearly catch a Woozle'.       

Listen to the voice of A. A. Milne (1CS0089348)                                                                                                     

The recording was made in June 1929 and issued on a 10" disc by the Dominion company, which produced a series of  twelve literary spoken-word discs featuring popular writers around that time. 

Photograph of the Winnie the Pooh disc

A. A. Milne famously based his Winnie-the-Pooh stories on the bedtime stories he told his son, Christopher Robin. Toy animals provided the inspiration for Pooh the bear and his friends, Piglet, Eeeyore, Kanga and Roo. Milne also wrote collections of children's verse, humourous essays, plays and an autobiography.

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