Friday, 29 June 2018


Georg Friedrich Händel, formerly of Halle, Germany, would
become a naturalised British citizen on 20 February 1727. The
Brits would later claim the composer as their own after
Handel (now George Frederick) became a pioneer of the
English oratorio, boosting the British nation into the forefront
of musical meccas.
It was on this 29th day in June 1888 at the Ninth Triennial Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace in London that American lt. 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.

Some 20-30 thousand admission-paid attendees[1] had gathered for the festive occasion during “Handel Week” in the Handel Auditorium to witness Sir August Manns, director of music at Crystal Palace, conduct a massive chorus comprised of both amateur and professional vocalists,[2] who performed select works by the composer, including the aria "Moses and the Children of Israel" from Handel’s 1739 oratorio Israel in Egypt. It would be this number that col. Gouraud recorded using Edison’s phonograph, onto yellow paraffin cylinder. The historic recording would send shock waves through London, as playback on the device echoed the collective voices of some 4000 vocalists intoxicating the crowd with an epic ode to the late musical trailblazer who had so successfully pioneered the much beloved English oratorio, and set London on the map as a reckoning force in the endless quest for rivaling nations to obtain musical mecca status in the West.

The technological feat proved so successful with spectators, col. Gouraud would be invited to hold a press conference in the English capital two months later (above), where he would have the opportunity to introduce the new and improved phonograph to a even broader audience.

The highly degraded recording of Moses and the Children of Israel survives in the public domain - it can be heard below:

audio not working? Listen on

It had long been assumed the above recording, marked on the cylinder as "A chorus of 4000 voices recorded with phonograph over 100 yards away" was the oldest known recording of music – a distinction trumped by the discovery in 2008 of French printer and inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville of France singing the French folk song “Au Claire de la lune” in front of his primitive invention, the phonautograph (a predecessor of the phonograph used to study acoustics, which “transcribed sound waves as undulations or other deviations in a line traced on smoke-blackened paper or glass.”)[3]

Ticket from the Grand Handel Festival, 19 June 1857. It would be this concert performance that
would act as a precursor to the Triennial concerts to come, including the Ninth Triennial, during
which the historic recording was made. The concerts were designed as an homage to Handel's
influence in England, and was the brainchild of Sir Michael Costa, director of the Sacred Harmonic
Society, and the societies librarian, Robert Bowley (later General Manager of the Crystal Palace).
Other festivities during Handel Week included acrobatic performances (on a flying trapeze),
phrenology seminars and swimming performances, among various other entertainments.[4]

A child-like Scott can be heard on the phonautogram singing the french traditional (converted by audio techs from “squiggles on a paper” to digital audio at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory at Berkley, CA). A later adjustment was made at the laboratory, significantly slowing down the high frequency audio file in which Scott’s mature voice can clearly be heard. The phonautogram was one of two deposited in a Paris archive by Scott himself in the late nineteenth century, which lay forgotten for some 148 years. It predates Gouraud’s recording by 28 years, having been recorded April 9th, 1860.

The Scott recording, "Au Claire de la Lune," original transfer (L) and later edit (R).

Listen below to a modern recording of Handel's Moses and the Children of Israel: John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir.

[1] The Musical Times, 1 July 1888, vol 29, no. 545, pp. 408
[2] The Musical Times, 1 July 1888, vol 29, no. 545, pp. 408
[3]Wikipedia: Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville
[4]The Musical Times, 1 July 1888, vol 29, no. 545, pp. 407
Learn more about Edison's phonograph here on Unraveling Musical Myths.



  1. Classical_Music_Fan23 July 2018 at 00:51

    Amazing! Such a great piece of music history, be it the first recording or the second!

    1. Hi Classical_Music_Fan,

      I agree! I love these primitive recordings - they are a great reminder of the technological hurdles the recording industry has had to overcome, and, as you so aptly pointed out - a fantastic piece of music history.

      Thanks as always for your comment!

      Kind Regards,