Friday, 21 November 2014

Music in Victorian Britain

Friedrich Nietzsche with his intimidating facial hair.
But was he right about English musicality?
Victorian Britain is commonly associated - it is safe to say - with things being huge and powerful in one way or another. The British Empire was the largest it had ever been, Britain was the most industrially developed nation in the world and great British writers wrote extremely ambitious works in which they took on subjects as enormous and diverse as entire cities. Progress was being made in every field and society was seen as being on a steady course towards a bright future and even greater greatness.

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
One reason as to why Nietzsche and others may have looked down on Victorian British musicality may have been the lack of a British equivalent of Beethoven. Britain, being in the forefront of so many other fields, surely should have produced a musical genius as well. This was simply not the case yet. However, despite Britain's lack of original, contemporary musical genius, the British people, as a whole, appears to have been huge music fans. Professor Francis O'Gorman describes Victorian Britain like this: “in terms of interest and participation there was no more vital musical culture in Europe” (102). Apparently, foreign composers spent quite a lot of time in London, and some, such as Germany's Felix Mendelssohn, were good friends with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. London was, in a way, “the metropolitan epicentre of musical activity for most of the [19th] century” (O'Gorman 102). Why was it that composers were more successful in Britain than in their own countries?

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.

If one finds oneself near the British Library in north
London, one can stroll in and take a look at original
Victorian sheet music such as this one of
Fred Albert's Bradshaw's Guide (a piece for Music Hall
about George Bradshaw's first train timetable - how exciting!).
It was not necessarily the fact that the British people were inherently more musically engaged and better listeners than other nationalities, but Britain did, during this period, have a rather large, and growing, middle class. The rapid industrialisation of Britain had enabled this growth and now provided middle class people more leisure time to spend in whichever way they fancied. Not only did this enable the Victorian novel to become thicker, it also made it so that more people had time to listen to, and play, music. Higher demand naturally led to higher production; printed music and instruments became cheap enough for the middle class to own. This can be seen as an example of the Victorians' will for autodidacticism; one could buy a piano and some sheet music, and as long as one had enough musical knowledge to read notation, one could teach oneself how to play. This led to more and more music being played at home. According to O'Gorman, “bourgeois daughters at the keyboard dominated [this] field” (106).

Victorian women singing and playing music. A more
stereotypical image than the one above of Prince Albert.
Victorian women playing the piano or singing has become a commonly recognisable image. Gentlemen and boys were usually not supposed to play music at home; “rumour had it that a taste for music was considered a tragic development, or even a disgrace, in a male child” (O'Gorman 107). Novels such as Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, among many others, surely played a part in creating this image of Victorian musical women. In Mary Barton, Gaskell makes it so that Margaret Jennings, Mary Barton's friend who becomes blind, sings beautifully. This has been analysed as a representation of Margaret being an agency for the heavenly; her “unschooled, ‘natural’ [voice], make[s] no pretence to any kind of knowledge, [...] allowing unmediated channels to the divine” (Losseff and Fuller 3-4). This would indicate that Gaskell did not exactly challenge the stereotypical gender norms of the time. Men were the ones expected to have knowledge of the world, leaving the, increasingly less significant task of speaking for the divine, to women. If Mary Barton is to be seen as Gaskell's biblical and compassionate solution to Britain's political problems of the mid 19th century, this analysis does make sense. Speaking of poor, distraught people singing, what about the music of the Victorian working class?

Cremorne Gardens, Chelsea. In the background can be seen a typical
Victorian bandstand with conductor and brass band. (click to enlarge)
The increase in production of musical instruments made possible the Victorian working class brass band. These bands were originally intended as entertainment and a spurring on of workers in factories in the north (O'Gorman 113), however, once the workers got hold of the instruments, they realised that they could make a living outside the factories as well. (Perhaps not quite what the factory owners had first intended.) Brass bands started performing on public bandstands—semicircular structures with a roof held up by pillars specially designed for public entertainment. Brass bands played in these bandstands in parks and other public venues around Britain. Music was, in this way, a chance for members of the working class to escape the harsh, physical labour in mines or factories.

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.


Works cited

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.

Resource links

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting topic! I really enjoyed to learn more about music during Victorian period, as I never really thought about it before!