Musical Inspirations in the Long Nineteenth Century

British Music and Literary Context – Artistic Connections in the Long Nineteenth Century, by Michael Allis, Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2012, xii + 320 pages, illustrated, £60 (hardback), ISBN 9781843837305

Reviewed by  Iain Quinn (Western Connecticut State University)

This book offers an interdisciplinary examination of the relationship between literature and music during the long nineteenth century. Music and literature fulfill defined roles in British life with the paradox that, although Victorian literature has remained popular to the present day, many of the substantial musical works still linger on the periphery of the performed repertoire. Books were by nature more accessible than concerts of symphonic works and thus the reception was all the more puissant when success was achieved for the creator. However, recent research and the production of hundreds of recordings in the past twenty years have allowed British nineteenth-century music to be seen anew. For composers, concert promoters and music publishers it was an era of extraordinary growth in repertoire for domestic, ecclesiastical and concert settings as the culture of ambition overflowed into the arts.

Although based on five nuanced case studies, this book follows a consistent methodology by presenting the musical and literary backgrounds of both composer and author/poet while examining the external influences that may well have impacted on their creative processes. As such, this book offers a fascinating mirroring of both the composers and the writers and will serve as a valuable contribution to nineteenth-century studies. Each chapter is underpinned by two central threads that weave throughout the book: the newly found assurance composers demonstrated in their engagement with major literary figures and a modern view of how readers and audiences might evaluate the music-literature connections of specific works (pp. 6-7).

Chapter One studies the relationship of Hubert Parry and Robert Bridges, particularly in relation to the music and poetry in the Invocation to Music. It is an absorbing account of two independently minded approaches to the creative process. Bridges was well connected to the musical establishment and it is noteworthy that Gerald Manley Hopkins primarily viewed him as a composer until 1874 (p. 14). In addition to publishing his own Yattendon Hymnal (1895-9) and numerous later essays, Bridges also befriended prominent musical figures including W. S. Rockstro and John Stainer (p. 14). The Leeds Festival (1895) commission of Parry’s cantata, ultimately titled the Invocation to Music, marked the bicentenary of the death of Henry Purcell. Bridges presented his own musical outline to Parry even noting tempi markings and the vocal scoring. However, when Parry noted his desire for the inclusion of more than one soloist with the personification of Man, Woman and Nature, Bridges offered revisions.  There were understandable frustrations in both directions and, although expressed politely to each other, Bridges came to realise that the eventual quality of the work could suffer as a consequence (pp. 19-21).   However, Parry also took liberties with the text which Bridges felt unsuitable (p. 22). In the end Bridges noted that he had ‘hoped to do a good thing’ but ‘Parry [had] spoiled it as a poem’ (p. 28). As such, one develops sympathy both for Parry’s situation in trying to appease the ever-present creative spirit of Bridges as much as one can comprehend Bridges’s anxiety regarding the composer’s chiseling of the text. Allis offers an illuminating account of their respective approaches to prosody and, given Bridges’s strong views, this commentary allows for a valuable reassessment of the larger relationship of music and text when both creators are engaged contemporaneously.

Chapter Two discusses Stanford’s setting of Tennyson. Their professional relationship began when Stanford was commissioned to write incidental music for Tennyson’s play, Queen Mary (1875) and, in all, he set twenty works with a connection to the poet (p. 64). As with other areas there is a certain overlap with Parry. Tennyson’s recitation, transcribed by Parry, of The Lotus-Eaters Choric Song (complete with markings that note the chant-like oratorical delivery) is provided.  ‘The Irish Tennyson’ is the subheading for a section which draws on the question of Stanford’s Irish identity in his music and the early Tennysonian influence on Stanford through Aubrey Thomas de Vere who also encouraged his study of the historical side of Irish life. As Allis notes, Stanford was not beyond overt commentaries on the political situation in Ireland (p. 87) but was also prone to be “as Irish as he wished to be” (p. 84). Moreover, this chapter offers an important glimpse into the creative influences on Stanford, not only in giving musical voice to a poet revered for his unique oratorical skills but also working with a major figure in the national landscape. Stanford’s lifelong desire to be affiliated with men of greatness is thus further examined through his compositional impulses and Allis draws on this complex relationship with rewarding results.

The third chapter examines Granville Bantock’s ‘reformulated dramatic monologue’ of Robert Browning’s Fifine at the Fair. The interpretation, or indeed analysis, of a dramatic monologue is by nature an examination that will bring forth variegated questions depending on the reader. It can be little surprise that Bantock, whose catholic reading tastes included Oriental literature, Napoleon, travel, geology, Japanese art, Balzac, Russian literature, Ibsen, Shaw and Yeats, (p. 87) should find particular pleasure in setting a work perceived by some critics as diffuse and challenging (p. 87). In all, Allis notes nineteen works of Bantock inspired by Browning’s poetry. Several of these works are examined within the course of the chapter, not least the piano pieces which serve as a useful introduction to the more sophisticated orchestral works. Throughout the study a broader inquiry is advanced in terms of the reception of literary works that are in some way ‘set’ to music. This raises questions about whether the resulting musical work can engender a similar aesthetic or emotional response to the original text. In a somewhat similar vein to Parry, Bantock reconfigures the text, although in this case by reordering. While the greater significance of Bantock’s work eluded some contemporary commentators, Allis presents a strong case for reevaluation for this is not a work to be judged on a single hearing.

Chapter Four studies the ‘hidden narrative’ of Edward Bulwer Lytton’s novel A Strange Story found in Elgar’s Piano Quintet, op. 84.  The extra-musical associations were first noted by Elgar’s wife, Alice (p. 189) and, bearing in mind the text was one of Bulwer’s most successful occult novels, a rich tapestry of potential musical translation is to be found. Elgar’s interpretation is further buttressed by the novel’s reference to the hypnotic quality of music (p. 216). This chapter has a special resonance due to Elgar’s fame in setting texts for his larger choral works. Like Parry, he remains a composer still well known for his choral pieces and thus analyzing an instrumental score influenced by a literary work reveals a complementary impression of Elgar’s understanding of literature. The chapter includes a subsection on Elgar’s approach to programme music, not least in terms of his relationship to the critic Ernest Newman who noted the inconsistencies of the composer’s elevation of absolute music while writing so many descriptive pieces (p. 201). Allis’s very detailed analysis of the quintet reveals a side of Elgar hitherto little encountered.

The final chapter looks at ‘Elgar and travel literature’ with particular reference to his orchestral work, In the South. This particular study allows for a broader European context with the recurring commentaries of the similarity of Elgar’s work to that of Richard Strauss (p. 249) and the larger question of Germanic influence on the English canon. The impact of ‘The Grand Tour’ on musical and literary works is also considered through this rewarding use of parallelism. The critical response to British music has always been complex, with the adulation (and adoption) of the visitor nearly always surpassing the national figure. That Handel is still considered by some to be an English composer attests to this predicament and the critical question of ‘otherness’ in the British psyche is brought forward here. The need to find a balance between the known and unknown in travel literature (p. 271) becomes all the more pronounced through music as does the desire to bring The Grand Tour to a wider public. For the majority of the population who could not afford to travel the tour could be brought to them through the arts and from this could come both public affection as well as critical suspicion. In turn this presents the question of whether the typically acerbic response of the nineteenth-century music critic should receive primacy in modern reassessment and Allis challenges several preconceptions authoritatively. This book offers an impressive study, replete with musical examples, not only of the relationship of music and literature but also an engaging commentary on contemporary thought, sentiment and the response to the creative works of the era.

Iain Quinn (PhD Dunelm) is a Lecturer at Western Connecticut State University. His research interests include nineteenth-century Britain, nineteenth and twentieth century American music, and issues of performance practice. He has recently published editions of the organ works of Samuel Barber (G. Schirmer), the complete organ works of Carl Czerny (A-R Editions) and is presently working on a critical edition of the complete anthems of John Goss (A-R Editions).

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