|Friedrich Nietzsche with his intimidating facial hair. |
But was he right about English musicality?
One subject, however, which is seldom brought up when reading historical or literary journals about the Victorian period, is music. When it does come up in texts about Britain from the time, one finds condescending remarks such as this one by Nietzsche: “what [...] offends us about the most human Englishman is his lack of music” (qtd. in O'Gorman 101). Considering the dominant position British music has today, commercially, world-wide, and has had since the 1960s (of course, alongside American music), this, to the contemporary reader, appears rather confusing. What did these Victorians listen to? Why is it that music appears to have played such an insignificant role in Britain during this period?
|Felix Hendelssohn - perhaps not quite as |
|Prince Albert seen amusing Queen Victoria and Felix Hendelssohn on the piano. Note that Prince Albert appears to be an exception to the gender stereotype associated with piano playing at home discussed below.|
|Victorian women singing and playing music. A more|
stereotypical image than the one above of Prince Albert.
|Cremorne Gardens, Chelsea. In the background can be seen a typical|
Victorian bandstand with conductor and brass band. (click to enlarge)
During the early Victorian period, the British working class, inspired by the French Revolution and the subsequent revolutions around Europe, formed the Chartist movement. Chartist poetry was not uncommonly sang by demonstrators as they marched. In order for everyone to be able to get involved and sing along, many poems were set to the tunes of old hymns and catchy folk tunes. Sometimes, already existing melodies were adapted and rewritten with new lyrics. “'The Song of the Low' is perhaps the most notable example of a Chartist poem set to music; John Lowry was the composer” (Scheckner 29).
These recognisable tunes combined with the public bandstands and the availability of instruments and sheet music strengthened an already strong musical culture in Britain during the Victorian period. O'Gorman claims that street musicians, while sometimes not worth listening to at all and only worth sparing some coins for them to stop playing, made music “literally inescapable” in the streets of London (111). Also, on top of everything mentioned, the Victorian period saw the emergence of Music Hall as a form of popular entertainment - a form which would last long into the 20th century. For anyone who would like to read more about the Victorian Music Hall, click here.
In the end, the fact that Victorian Britain did not produce a British Beethoven is still undeniably true. However, claiming therefore that Britain was a “land without music” (Zon in introduction to Rodmell) is, as shown, simply wrong. Quite the contrary is closer to the truth. Music was, in one form or another, everywhere in Victorian society. Whether you were a working class locksmith, a middle class businessman or a well off lord, you were sure to stumble upon music in the park, on a bandstand, in Music Hall theaters, on the street or perhaps even in your own home. Music, in all of its different forms, had perhaps never before been as widespread and as easily accessible as it was in Britain during the Victorian period.
Fuller, Sophie, and Losseff, Nicky, eds. Idea of Music in Victorian Fiction. Abingdon, Oxon, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2004. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 19 November 2014.
O'Gorman, Francis, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press, 2010. i-xvi. Cambridge Companions Online. Web. 19 November 2014.
Rodmell, Paul, ed. Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain : Music and Institutions in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Abingdon, Oxon, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2012. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 19 November 2014.
Scheckner, Peter. An Anthology of Chartist Poetry: Poetry of the British Working Class, 1830s-1850s. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1989. Google Scholar. Web. 19 November 2014.