When we think of Victorian society, ‘prudish’ is probably one of the first descriptions that springs to mind. However, the popular music at the time suggests that the Victorians may not have been as prudish as we tend to think of them as.
Research for this task involved searching through the V&A online collections on music halls and performers, as well as an online gallery from the British Library containing 188 popular Victorian songs. Some books were also consulted, such as The Singing Bourgeois: Songs of the Victorian Drawing Room and Parlor by Derek B. Scott and Popular Music in England 1840-1914: A Social History by Dave Russell.
Music in the Victorian era is home to the music of the Romantic era. This style of music was enjoyed by the middle and upper classes especially. Key composers of this genre include some of music’s most recognisable names including Chopin, Mozart, Verdi, Beethoven and Shubert. Romantic music made use of folklore as inspiration to both lyrics and compositions. A much wider variety of instruments were used compared to other eras, specifically brass instruments. This is due to their recent improvements and inventions. Pianos were extremely important, and the instrument became a central feature of upper class households as it brought families together to play and listen to music together due to the lack of recorded music and other forms of modern entertainment, such as television.
|A typical bandstand.|
Bandstands were also a common occurrence. They were built in parks across the country to house brass bands, who played live music, and are similar in appearance to a gazebo. As there were not many other forms of entertainment available, bandstands were seen as vitally important to recreational parks.
|Cover for the sheet music for Lottie Collins' signature song.|
Also popular was the sale of sheet music for pianos. They were especially popular because recorded music was unavailable at this time, so the only way to hear the songs at home was to play them from the sheet music. Music sheet copies sold very well, and a popular song could sell over 80,000 copies. Almost one hundred music shops existed in London by 1888 according to the V&A, signifying just how culturally important music was to the Victorians. The popularity in the sale of sheet music for pianos indicates some parallels to the music industry of today. By the 1890s, music sheet covers typically portrayed the singer of the song on the cover, the start of album art as we know it today. It also encouraged the application of copyright laws to musical compositions, giving birth to the business and legal aspect of music. Music was becoming a lucrative business and an interesting cover art for sheet music helped to maximise sales, an idea that is still functioning in today’s music industry.
Some of the period’s most popular singers were female. Marie Lloyd is remembered as the “Queen of the Music Hall” and referenced as the Madonna of her time for her boundary pushing stage acts. She was a national and international superstar, performing sold out shows across Britain and globally from America to South Africa. Audiences loved her songs and performances, and she toured globally to much success. Her songs were famously full of sexual innuendos, and her performances popularised by the sexually suggestive nature in which Lloyd performed them in. Some of her popular songs include “If You Want to Get on in Revue”, about advancing in theatre work by performing sexual favours, and the sexually suggestive “She’d Never Had Her Ticket PunchedBefore”. Perceived as a threat to society for her risqué image, she was banned from performing at the Royal Variety Performance for being too obscene. Lloyd retaliated to this by holding a sold out headlining show at the London Pavilion “by order of the British public” according to advertisements printed for it. She was so popular that towards the end of her career, she was earning a staggering amount of £470 a week (around £27,000 in today’s currency) for performing in music halls due to her star power. Her extreme popularity can be used to redefine modern preconceptions about the Victorians; how could they be a truly prudish society when somebody like Lloyd enjoyed colossal success?
Marie Lloyd wasn’t alone in enjoying success for ‘obscene’ performing. Lottie Collins, a fellow music hall performer, become a national star after an infamous performance at the London Tivoli of her song “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay!” Performing the song five times a night at the height of her popularity, Collins would enthusiastically launch into a hypersexual version of the popular ‘skirt dance’ which purposefully exposed her stockings, held up by sparkling garters, and bare thighs. The performance drove audiences wild with excitement yet unsurprisingly drew complaints from Puritans. The fact that audiences responded so unreservedly to her performance clearly shows an appreciation among many Victorians for this kind of performing. Sexually infused performances from pop stars today are still met with disdain from audiences (Miley Cyrus caused outrage and became infamously synonymous with ‘twerking’ this summer) so we can only imagine how a performance as shocking as Collins’ would have been received.
|Madonna impersonated Tilley for a performance in 1993.|
Vesta Tilley is perhaps the embodiment of an eccentric Victorian performer. She was a maleimpersonator, who took her act across the country and the globe. Her act was an audio-visual experience, as detailed in a report from W.R Titterton. Her performance art featured her taking on the role of a male character, and performing songs in these male character roles. Tilley was dedicated to her art, and spent many hours studying and preparing for her performances.
There is something all of these women have in common - money and power. They have power in the sense that they were financially independent, and were able to independently succeed in a patriarchal society. They were free to perform in ways that challenged what was socially acceptable. Perhaps this is what drives Margaret in Mary Barton towards pursuing a career in singing. It is not clear where exactly Margaret sings, but based on her class we can assume she may have sang in a music hall, as these were predominantly working class institutions. Mary explains how Margaret might “become as famous, maybe, as that grand lady fra' London as we see'd one night driving up to th' concert-room door in her carriage" (90) indicating the luxurious lifestyle that a successful career in music could give, the kind of lifestyle enjoyed by Victorian singers such as Marie Lloyd. Margaret is clearly very talented and her future in music seems fruitful, as indicated by how “th' managers said as how there never was a new singer so applauded” (89). Margaret ends up touring through “Bolton and Bury, and Owdham, and Halifax” (132), and apparently makes a lot of money as she always has money to give to Mary when she sees her.
The popularity of Victorian music stars such as Marie Lloyd is tremendously telling of their society. The fact that acts such as hers could be so popular and respected indicate that their society was not as straitlaced as we tend to remember it. They seemed to thoroughly enjoy a raunchy performance just as much as we do today, so in that sense, were the Victorians really so different to us now?