Category Archives: Notes on Music

The philosophy of music: or the music of philosophy ?

Domestic Parlour Music and beyond in the nineteenth century and its literature

As part of the Alice in Wonderland project by the Music department this year, the programme to the performances includes an essay on domestic music-making during the nineteenth-century by Dr Siobhan Harper. An alumna of the University of Kent and former Music Scholar, Siobhan read English Literature at Kent and graduated in 2009; she obtained her PhD in Victorian Literature at the University of Durham, and in the essay examines the role of music, and its portrayal in literature, during the era in which Alice in Wonderland was first published. Her essay, which features in the programme accompanying the performance of the Musical Dream Play, appears here in its entirety.


A sound of music issued from the drawing-room’: Domestic Parlour Music and Beyond in the Nineteenth Century and its Literature

England in the nineteenth century was known as ‘Das Land ohne Musik’ – the land without music. This is, of course, a ludicrous claim, and one that was heavily contested by musicologists at the time; there is ‘no doubt that professional and domestic music-making was an important part of daily life’.[1] So much so, indeed, that ‘much of the literature of the period is rich with musical scenes and themes’, with ‘novels throughout the century […] brimming with scenes at the piano’.[2]

The British were, however, ‘musical and not musical, depending on the speaker’[3] – and, more importantly, the subject. Music was for ‘women, foreigners, industrial workers, and professional musicians’, to the extent that it was considered an ‘emasculating [and] debasing activity for men of the aspiring middle classes and nobility to practise’; men of these classes were the audience only, always distanced.[4] Music was, then, ‘largely gender specific’, since it ‘was one of the few fields in which most middle- and upper-class girls were educated, and boys were not’.[5] As such, it was inextricably tied up with ‘perceptions of ideal femininity’.[6]

It was domestic music that dominated the first half of the nineteenth century, and ‘any household that could afford one was likely to possess a piano’.[7] But owning a piano was about far more than the instrument itself: it indicated that ‘not only can the family afford a piano, sheet music, lessons and leisure time, but the choice of instrument, the piece being played, and [the pianist’s] manner of execution all communicated her genteel taste, or lack thereof’.[8] The piano, its player, and all of the accoutrements therefore ‘visibly and audibly demonstrated a man’s respectable social standing and financial well-being to those who shared the same cultural capital’.[9]

Theodore Robinson, Girl at Piano, circa 1887

The quotation above specified ‘her genteel taste’ with good reason – for it was always her. The piano was the middle-class luxury ‘most significant in the lives of women’; it was ‘an emblem of social status’, a ‘gauge of a woman’s training in the required accomplishments’, and ‘its presence afforded women a particular distinction within domestic culture’,[10] as girls and women ‘performed for select gatherings of peers after dinner’.[11] And while men of this class certainly sang – think of Frank Churchill in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), who is ‘accused of having a delightful voice, and a perfect knowledge of music’, and Mr Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), who ‘has a fine bass voice, and an excellent taste for music’ – this was generally only when accompanied by, and often duetting with, a woman. The most prominent male pianist exhibited in the literature of the period is Herr Klesmer, in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda’s (1876), who is at once both foreign and a professional musician and music teacher; an outsider in two respects.

The performers of choice in the middle- and upper-class home were unmarried daughters, to the extent that ‘it seems that the greater use of amateur music was to obtain a good marriage’.[12] After all, as William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848) espouses, what else could cause young people ‘to labour at pianoforte sonatas, […] and to play the harp if they have handsome arms and neat elbows, […] but that they may bring down some “desirable” young man with those killing bows and arrows of theirs?’. After-dinner or social performances in the parlour ‘presented potential suitors with an opportunity to watch a young lady’s graceful and beautiful movements, […] and/or to note her father’s social status which allows her enough leisure to practise music’.[13] But it was just as important for these young women to play appropriately as it was to play well: daughters playing ‘rigorous works which required virtuosic skill […] brought censure’,[14] and being ‘too technical is equated with being unladylike’.[15] Not least of the reasons for this was because ‘most male audience members were musically illiterate’,[16] and desired a wife with musical skill in order to relax and soothe, as Tertius Lydgate, of George Eliot’s Middlemarch’s (1873), muses that the society of a wife should be like ‘reclining in a paradise with sweet laughs for bird-notes’.

Chamber Music Concert, Jules Alexandre Grun, circa 1885-90

In addition to the music itself, the instruments that women were allowed to play were carefully regulated. The ‘model young lady sang and/or played the piano, the harp, or the guitar’; these instruments ‘were thought to display the player’s posture and movements advantageously’, and so ‘assisted the family’s upward mobility’ by way of their daughters’ advantageous marriages.[17] Violins were objected to on the grounds that ‘the players looked unattractive’,[18] and ‘the flute was especially problematic because of its shape’, which had been ‘a favourite symbol of masculinity’ during the eighteenth century. Given the disapproval of the flute for female musicians, we can only assume that the clarinet would have met with even worse favour due to the angle at which it is played; the bassoon due to its size; and the cello due to its unfortunate positioning between the legs. History does not relate the culture’s opinion of the piccolo, and one wouldn’t care to speculate whether its size would have made it more or less acceptable in the eyes of those who thought the flute too suggestive.

Despite the limited range of instruments available for amateur middle- and upper-class women, and although the piano held ‘indisputable prevalence … in the home’,[19] it is important to note that domestic music comprised more than just this instrument. String quartets also found a place in the parlour, principally made up of male amateurs or male professionals, and some with accompaniment from a female pianist.[20] A writer in 1924 ‘[deplored the] public’s ignorance of wind chamber music’ in the preceding century,[21] so it seems that this was much less popular for a home environment. These examples are few; but while it’s certainly true that domestic music remained firmly under ‘the smothering influence of the parlor piano, the ubiquity of which is impossible to deny’,[22] their existence does demonstrate that this was not a hegemony.

As the century wore on, however, the consumption of and knowledge surrounding music began to change. The school curriculum widened in 1839 to formally include music lessons.[23] The lower classes experienced wage increases, particularly in the 1860s to 1890s, while, concurrently, ‘music for the masses grew at unprecedented rates’.[24] Band competitions started in 1853 with the Belle Vue Contest, choir festivals began in 1855 in Manchester (excluding the notable history of Welsh choir competitions, of course), and ‘by the end of the century, there were thousands of brass bands and choral societies in Britain’.[25] More people were able to ‘participate in music-making’, and, importantly, ‘concert attendance rose mid-century as rural and urban workers took advantage of this newly available entertainment’.[26] An 1860 article in Macmillan’s magazine examined this phenomenon as it happened:

Not many years ago an orchestral symphony or a stringed quartet [sic] were luxuries hardly to be indulged in by those Londoners whose guineas were not tolerably numerous. Times are changed for the better; and not a week passes, even in the dullest season of the year, that some good music is not to be heard at a cheap rate in London.[27]

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) alludes to this phenomenon as it affected northern cities; the fictional town of Milton (modelled on Manchester) has ‘good concerts’, though Fanny Thornton complains that they are ‘too crowded’ since ‘the directors admit so indiscriminately. But one is sure to hear the newest music there’.

There was at this point so much ‘performed music … available to an increasingly mobile […] audience by the middle of the nineteenth century’[28] that it was almost inevitable that the number of players of music would increase in a similar fashion. Pianos began to be ‘affordable by families further down the social scale’,[29] which was unacceptable to the classes of women for whom the piano had been theirs; there was suddenly ‘a need to secure a respectable domestic instrument for women from the upper social classes’ as a result.[30] By the 1870s, the violin’s grace overruled the unattractive appearance of the players, and women were permitted to take up this instrument.[31] Similarly, the flute was deemed acceptable for women once the phallic symbolism was overcome by supporters of female flautists encouraging focus ‘on the flute’s sound rather than the flautist’s picture’.[32] And ‘the cultural unacceptability for women to learn string instruments’ as a whole ‘finally crumbled around 1870’, and ‘many middle- and upper-class women took up the violin, viola, and cello’ as a consequence.[33]

Victorian music-making

Domestic music did not wane, but music consumption outside of the home widened and diversified hugely. The first performance of Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Dream Play for Children and Others in 1886 is situated in the centre of this expansion of music in the period. The musical choices made for this performance echo, without mimicking, the forms that domestic, amateur music-making took in the period; while remaining faithful to the musical styles of the period, these musical choices also succeed in evoking the changes that were occurring musically as the nineteenth century progressed. The small instrumental ensemble is reminiscent of the piano-accompanied performances, while the presence of the flute, clarinet, and bassoon are representative of the diversification of instruments and types of performance that occurred outside of the home, particularly in the last four decades of the period. Moreover, that the flute and bassoon are played by women gives more than a passing nod to the ‘cultural unacceptability’[34] of these instruments for female performers – even, or perhaps especially, in a private, domestic setting – only 150 years ago.

It is surely impossible to give an impression of a whole century’s musical fashions, endeavors, and habits; such an expanse would not be easily captured. The musical choices made here are, however, both gloriously resonant of the enduring and venerated domestic parlour performances, and evocative of the sweeping and significant musical expansion that marked the last half of the nineteenth century. All this pouring forth from ‘Das Land ohne Musik’.

© Dr Siobhan Harper January, 2020

Bibliography

Baron, John H., Chamber Music: A Research and Information Guide (New York: Routledge, 2010).

Bashford, Christina, ‘Historiography and Invisible Musics: Domestic Chamber Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Summer 2010), pp. 291-360.

Burgan, Mary, ‘Heroines at the Piano: Women and Music in Nineteenth-Century Fiction’, Victorian Studies 30.1 (Autumn 1986), pp. 51–76.

Clapp-Itnyre, Alisa, Angelic Airs, Subversive Songs: Music as Social Discourse in the Victorian Novel (Ohio, Ohio University Press, 2002).

da Sousa Correa, Delia, George Eliot, Music and Victorian Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Gray, Beryl, George Eliot and Music (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1989).

Weliver, Phillis, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900: Representations of music, science and gender in the leisured home (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2000).

[1] Weliver, Phillis, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900: Representations of music, science and gender in the leisured home (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2000), pg. 19.

[2] Clapp-Itnyre, Alisa, Angelic Airs, Subversive Songs, pg. xv.

[3] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 20.

[4] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 19.

[5] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 21.

[6] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 1.

[7] Gray, Beryl, George Eliot and Music (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1989), pg. 1.

[8] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 33.

[9] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 33.

[10] Burgan, Mary, ‘Heroines at the Piano: Women and Music in Nineteenth-Century Fiction’, Victorian Studies 30.1 (Autumn 1986), pp. 51–76, pg. 51.

[11] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 33.

[12] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 33.

[13] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 33.

[14] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 34.

[15] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 36.

[16] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 37.

[17] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 47-8.

[18] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 48.

[19] Bashford, Christina, ‘Historiography and Invisible Musics: Domestic Chamber Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Summer 2010), pp. 291-360, pg. 303.

[20] Bashford, ‘Historiography and Invisible Musics: Domestic Chamber Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, pg. 307.

[21] Baron, John H., Chamber Music: A Research and Information Guide (New York: Routledge, 2010), pg. 94.

[22] Bashford, ‘Historiography and Invisible Musics: Domestic Chamber Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, pg. 312.

[23] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 28.

[24] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 27.

[25] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 28.

[26] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 28.

[27] ‘Classical Music and British Musical Taste’, Macmillan’s, quoted in Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 29.

[28] Gray, George Eliot and Music, pg. 1.

[29] Bashford, ‘Historiography and Invisible Musics: Domestic Chamber Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, pg. 317.

[30] Bashford, ‘Historiography and Invisible Musics: Domestic Chamber Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, pg. 317.

[31] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 48.

[32] Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900, pg. 50.

[33] Bashford, ‘Historiography and Invisible Musics: Domestic Chamber Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, pg. 294.

[34] Bashford, ‘Historiography and Invisible Musics: Domestic Chamber Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, pg. 294.

Image Gallery: Alice in Wonderland – a Musical Dream Play

Congratulations to the University Cecilian Choir, soloists and instrumentalists on a marvellous performance of the Victorian stage adaptation of Carroll’s classic tale – Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Dream Play which came to life in Colyer-Fergusson Hall for the first time since 1927.

Third-year Sophia Lyons in the title role

The adaptation, overseen by Carroll himself and first performed in 1886, was brought to vivid life by University musicians, including students and staff from across the university community, Music Performance Scholars and Award Holders, in a reconstruction by Deputy Director of Music, Dan Harding, who also played the piano as part of the onstage chamber ensemble which accompanied the production.

If you missed it, the production returns to Colyer-Fergusson for a second performance on Friday 29 May, to launch this year’s Summer Music Week. #AliceatUKC will return…

Images © Matt Wilson / University of Kent

Alice in Wonderland project: the Nonsense Songs quartet

As part of the build-up to this Friday’s performance of Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Dream Play by the University Music department, we’re pleased to present a series of films each day this week of some of the Nonsense Songs, written by Liz Lehmann and published in 1908, that will be performed at the event.

The suite of characterful and charming songs takes its text from the nonsense rhymes that appear in the book – including How doth the little crocodile, You are old, Father William, and Will you walk a little faster – and creates a series of pieces for variously a quartet of voices, solos and duets. The songs will be performed live on the foyer-stage in Colyer-Fergusson by a quartet drawn from the principal cast, who will sing as part of the Hatter’s Tea Party which takes place immediately before the performance.

The first song – How doth the little crocodile – is here performed by Will Clothier (baritone), Maddie Jones (soprano), and two University Music Award Holders, Matthew Cooke (tenor) and Sophia Lyons (soprano). The rest of the songs will be released daily on YouTube over the course of this week, building nicely up to Friday’s performance of the Dream Play.

 

Tuesday: the second song, a duet of You are old, Father William, featuring baritone Will Clothier and tenor Matthew Cooke.

 

Wednesday: the Duchess Lullaby, Speak roughly to your little boy, sung by third-year soprano, Maddie Jones:

 

and the quartet sings Will you walk a little faster said the whiting to the snail:

 

ThursdayThe Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts sung by third-year soprano, Sophia Lyons:

 

And the final song from the cycle features the whole quartet in the heart-breakingly beautiful Epilogue.

 

Details and tickets for Alice in Wonderland: a Musical Dream Play can be found online here. Watch all songs as they are released on a dedicated YouTube playlist throughout the week here.

Celebrating Alice in Wonderland in music and two ancillary exhibitions

The Music department is preparing to deliver an ambitious production of Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Dream Play next week, bringing to life a musical stage adaptation of Carroll’s classic tale first performed in 1886 and written with Carroll’s close involvement. The University Cecilian Choir, soloists and ensemble lift the curtain on Alice’s mysterious, magical and musical world on Friday 21 February at 7.30pm.

Alongside the production, there are two art exhibitions on campus celebrating the bicentenary of Sir John Tenniel, illustrator, and cartoonist, whose illustrations graced the pages of the first publication of Alice in Wonderland in 1865. The production of the Musical Dream Play will feature many of Tenniel’s ilustrations projected above the stage during the performance, and these are currently on display in Colyer-Fergusson Gallery throughout February, allowing visitors the opportunity almost to walk through pages of the book…

Our colleagues over in the University Special Collections and Archives have also responded to the project, creating a special  exhibition celebrating Tenniel’s contribution to political cartooning in his own work for Punch, and  also in the lasting influence his Alice illustrations have had on subsequent generations of political cartoonists.

Politics in Wonderland: Sir John Tenniel at 200 features original cartoon artworks, cuttings and publications from the British Cartoon Archive by cartoonists including Nicholas Garland, Vicky, Strube and E.H. Shepard, and can be viewed in the Gallery, A Block Floor 1 of the Templeman Library until 20 March; more details here.

Tickets for the performance available here.

Full of Beans: Musical Theatre Society get ready to raise the curtain!

The University Musical Theatre Society has been busy rehearsing, preparing to bring a brand-new, self-devised production to the Marlowe Theatre Studio on Friday 31 January and Saturday 1 February.

HasBeans: The Musical follows the daily lives of a bunch of mis-matched coffee store baristas and find out how they cope, when a mystery troll armed with a group of Ravenous Reviewers threaten to bring reality into view.

With a pit-band conducted by second-year David Curtiss and a hard-working cast, you’ll find out what happens when the rose-coloured glasses come off and the gloves come on…

Find out more on Facebook here, and grab your tickets online here.

Serenade across the sea: Camerata performs in the city of Calais

A standing ovation from over six hundred people greeted the end of yesterday’s concert by the University Camerata in L’Eglise de Notre Dame in the heart of the city of Calais.

The Camerata is a real cross-section of the University community, comprising undergraduate and postgradudate students, staff and alumni, all coming together to represent the University in public concerts throughout the year. Yesterday’s performance was the result of an invitation earlier this year by Calais city council to bring the two cities of Calais and Canterbury together, to recognise and celebrate the cities’ shared history (Calais was once part of the Diocese of Canterbury) and to make cultural connections (see previous post here).

An early morning start saw the coach-load of musicians leaving Colyer-Fergusson in various stages of wakefulness (well, 6.30am on a Sunday can be a little early for some…), with a welcome coffee at the Folkestone terminal of Le Shuttle enlivening the group further still on its way to an 11am (French time) rehearsal in the church beneath glorious November skies.

Click to view image

Music by Elgar and Warlock was soon swirling around the nave of the magnificent church, with later on the strains of Marcello’s Oboe Concerto lifting into the roof courtesy of Professor Dan Lloyd, who joined the string group on oboe, stepping out of his busy schedule as Deputy Head of the School of Biosciences.The Camerata’s international make-up mirrors that of the wider University community, with members from Germany, Lithuania, France and Canada, including an Erasmus-student cellist; the Schools of Psychology, Law, Mathematics and Biosciences were also represented by the ensemble’s constituents, many of whom are either current or former University Music Performance Scholars. It’s a testament to the nature of extra-curricular music-making at Kent that it transcends boundaries – geographical, hierarchical, institutional – as it creates communities working together in rehearsal and performance.

The concert, part of the city’s current festival, drew over six hundred people to witness the power of collaborative creativity which lies at the heart of the University’s vision. We’re already looking forward to the second event in our planned collaboration later in the year.

Congratulations to all the performers, to leader Floriane Peycelon and conductor Susan Wanless, on a magnificent ambassadorial showcase that illustrated, to an international audience, what an international University can do.

Click to view image
Click to view image

Facebook users can view an album of photos from the day here.

Allons-y! University Camerata visit to Calais is coming

Preparations are underway here at Colyer Towers for a special event next week, when the University Camerata will cross la Manche to give a concert at the l’Eglise de Notre-Dame in the city of Calais.

Featured in next month’s local magazine, Les Rêves de Notre-Dame, the event is first of several events throughout the current academic year which celebrates Canterbury’s historic links with the city; the string ensemble, comprising students, staff and alumni, will cross the Channel armed with a programme of music by Purcell, Warlock and Elgar, as well as  Marcello’s Oboe Concerto featuring the Deputy Head of the School of Biosciences, Dan Lloyd.

The Camerata last sailed in to port back in March for a performance of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf; we’re looking forward to presenting a largely English musical feast for the burghers of Calais at the end of next week, on Sunday 10 November; should you happen to be in the city at 3pm, the event is free, join University musicians as we celebrate our historic links with the French city-port – event details online here.

Celebrating Leonardo da Vinci in words and music

A fascinating event comes to the University of Kent’s Colyer-Fergusson Concert Hall on Saturday 9th November. Marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, I Fagiolini will bring their new programme Leonardo: Shaping the Invisible to Canterbury as part of their national tour.

The event combines projections of his best-loved masterworks with choral pieces that connect with the images. Leonardo expert Professor Martin Kemp and I Fagiolini’s director Robert Hollingworth will also be introducing the evening.

Shaping the Invisible culminates in a new commission on a theme of Leonardo and scientific endeavour, with poetry by Gillian Clark and music by Adrian Williams.

You can listen to repertoire included in the event on the group’s Spotify playlist here, including works by Monteverdi, Howells, Rubbra and more, an aural glimpse of what’s to come…

Tickets available online here.