What did politicians sound like before they were on the radio and television? The fascination with politicians’ vocal characteristics and quirks is often connected to the rise of audio-visual media. But in the age of the printed press, political representatives also had to ‘speak well’ – without recourse to amplification.

Historians and linguists have provided sophisticated understandings of the discursive and aesthetic aspects of politicians’ language, but have largely ignored the importance of the acoustic character of their speech. CALLIOPE studies how vocal performances in parliament have influenced the course of political careers and political decision making in the 19th century. It shows how politicians’ voices helped to define the diverse identities they articulated. In viewing parliament through the lens of audibility, the project offers a new perspective on political representation by reframing how authority was embodied (through performances that were heard, rather than seen). It does so for the Second Chamber in Britain and France, and in dialogue with ‘colonial’ modes of speech in Kolkata and Algiers which, we argue, exerted considerable influence on European vocal culture.

The project devises an innovative methodological approach to include the sound of the human voice in studies of the past preceding acoustic recording. Adapting methods developed in sound studies and combining them with the tools of political history, the project proposes a new way to analyse parliamentary reporting, while also drawing on a variety of sources that are rarely connected to the history of politics.

The main source material for the study are transcripts of parliamentary speech (official reports and renditions by journalists). However, the project also mobilizes educational, satirical and fictional sources to elucidate the convoluted processes that led to the cultivation, exertion, reception and evaluation of a voice ‘fit’ for nineteenth-century politics.