As I mentioned in this forum a few months ago, I have been re-reading books this year. In particular, I have been revisiting and enjoying some favorites from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. George Eliot’s Middlemarch was a particular joy. I’ve been told that my parents hoped for a hard working man like Caleb Garth, so they hung the name on me. I’m afraid I will continue to be a disappointment. Each time I’ve read Middlemarch, I’ve looked for a little me in Caleb Garth. In addition to this hunt, the issue of getting and keeping money stood out for a few hundred pages. Fred Vincy and the Lydgates' struggles with financing their lifestyles evoke the troubles of our economy today.
Eventually another theme began to tickle at my consciousness. In most novels of the nineteenth century, the women and girls sit at the piano and entertain groups in the parlor. When I read anything other than contemporary fiction, the music means little to me. My mind’s ear hears nothing because I am unfamiliar with the songs. Middlemarch mentions particular composers and songs several times in part because playing music and music as a metaphor recur throughout the novel. Not surprisingly, I am not the first to notice this. Many well regarded literary scholars (as opposed to biologists) have written at length on the subject (c.f. Byerly, 1989). As with the financial issues of the Middlemarch’s characters, the musical theme drew me in to the novel. My ignorance led me to start searching for some of the music and looking at the way music informed some of the depictions of the characters.
Interestingly, Eliot portrays Rosamond, the main character associated with music, as quite devoid of true ability. For Rosamond Vincy, playing music acts as the perfect feminine adornment. Lydgate quickly falls for her charms, specifically her musical ability. He apparently had made this mistake before when living in France. Pretty tunes and a pretty faced easily caught his fancy. As Byerly (1989) and others have noted, Eliot specifically points out that Rosamond had no real soul. She had learned to play during her school years from a man who actually had true feeling and aptitude, she merely aped this: “Rosamond played admirably. Her master at Mrs. Lemon's school ...was one of those excellent musicians here and there to be found in our provinces, worthy to compare with many a noted Kapellmeister ... Rosamond, with the executant's instinct, had seized his manner of playing, and gave forth his large rendering of noble music with the precision of an echo.” (Chapter 16).
Dorothea, on the other hand, declined to play music. Nevertheless, Mr. Garth describes her in musical terms, “You would like to hear her speak, Susan. She speaks in such plain words, and a voice like music. Bless me! it reminds me of bits in the 'Messiah'”(Chapter 56). The narrator draws the reader's attention to Garth’s appreciation for music because of his station: “Caleb was very fond of music, and when he could afford it went to hear an oratorio that came within his reach, returning from it with a profound reverence for this mighty structure of tones” (Chapter 56). Rosamond represents the ephemeral appreciation of music whereas Dorothea signifies the good in music. Eliot clearly felt that much popular music was dreck, but that people of any level in society could appreciate good music.
Several times during the novel characters make distinctions between high and low music. Mr. Brooke, Dorothea’s uncle and protector, makes the distinction in his typical way praising both at once, but linking the feminine (personified in Celia his other niece) with the light fare of the day, or as the narrator describes it: “small tinkling and smearing in which they chiefly consisted at that dark period” (Chapter 7).
So what is this “tinkling and smearing”? The specific song alluded to above is “The Last Rose of Summer,” a folk song that is performed frequently even today. A recording from 1909 is probably as close as we’ll get to what it might have sounded like then. The style and delivery of this song fit my suspicions. I expected high pitched singing and maudlin piano playing. Thomas Moore, the Irish poet, wrote the fine lyrics and one can find pleasant renditions of the song in standard Irish arrangements. The narrator tells us that Rosalind plays the “fashions of the time” mostly to please those who she is entertaining. Eliot gives “I’ve been roaming” by C.E. Horne, a German composer, as an example of one of these fashions. Horne, composed the music to “Cherry Ripe” as well. A tune that Fred Vincy, the ne’er do well scion of the Vincy family plunks out “[a]ble men who have passed their examinations will do these things sometimes.” The lyrics to “Cherry Ripe,” come from a Robert Herrick poem.
As I’ve mention, Mr. Brooke claims to dislike the low music of the day, “I'm a conservative in music—it's not like ideas, you know. I stick to the good old tunes” (Chapter 7). The narrator mentions Gluck, Mozart and Haydn. Not a surprising list really. The narrator also points to songs above the fashion of the time saying that Rosamond plays, "Black-eyed Susan" with effect, or Haydn's canzonets, or "Voi, che sapete," or "Batti, batti." Clearly our narrator appreciates opera and the “good old tunes.”
The songs derided as fashions of the time have now become classics of course. Classical performers and folks musicians play them, as the links above attest. My hunt for these songs has revealed something about Middlemarch, the town, that I hadn’t really considered. The appreciation for music hasn’t changed much, nor has the hierarchy of what many people consider good. Unfortunately we have largely lost the parlor performances.
Often in reading I come upon references to other authors or artists. Sometimes I catch the allusion and it enriches my experience. Other times, I know I’m missing something, so I look it up. There’s little reason not to do the same with music; in picturing a parlor seen in Middlemarch or a Jane Austen novel, the music could add flesh to the scene. I’ll close with a few great resources. One is the “Victorian Web” curated by George Landow at Brown University. This has lots of informative links to songs and other art of the period. Public Domain Music is a website curated by Benjamin Robert Tubb containing hundreds of songs as midi files from different eras.
Alison Byerly "’The Language of the Soul’": George Eliot and Music” Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jun., 1989), pp. 1-17.
George Eliot Middlemarch. Project Guttenbeg, 2008.