In Concert

Get a flavour of the music collections of the Library of Birmingham – quirky, practical, historical, contemporary

Harriet Beecher Stowe in song — September 21, 2017

Harriet Beecher Stowe in song

When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published as a complete novel in 1852, it quickly became a sensation. As with any sensation, there are always plenty of people who want their own slice of the action. In the 1850s, one way of jumping on the bandwagon, was to write songs featuring characters from the book. At this period, it was thought no permission was needed from the author, so both people and publishers made free. Whether Harriet Beecher Stowe approved, or even knew, is anyone’s guess.

Both in the pre-civil war USA, and in the UK, the book sold heavily, although the novel’s focus on the abolitionist cause meant it didn’t sell in the Southern states of the USA. There, it tended to be vilified. and also resulted in numerous anti-Tom publications. Today, the novel’s perceived role in promoting stereotypes of its African-American characters, together with its sentimental writing style, has meant that it draws a considerable amount of negative criticism with only some praise for its anti-slavery stance. However, I think it is interesting to look at a couple of items in our collections which are related to the craze which followed the initial publication.

George Linley (1797-1865) was one such lyricist and composer who took the opportunity offered. A composer of fashionable and popular ballads, Linley wrote and composed six songs in all, based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The title illustration, and a quotation from the book, set the scene, but everything else was by Linley.

Back cover of Evangeline
Back cover of ‘Evangeline’ showing all six songs

The title page illustrations were all by John Brandard (1812-1863), a Birmingham-born lithographic artist and designer of sheet music covers. His subjects were usually opera or ballet, so I wonder if he did these as a favour to the composer. That impression is given more weight in my mind, because the illustrations here are only tinted in one colour, rather than the full colour covers he was famous for designing. They’re well produced (going on the two specimens we have), but marred by excessive sentimentality, to my modern eye.

Evangeline – ballad (publ. 1852?)

Evangeline - front cover illustration

Our copy of the songsheet has been cropped at both top and bottom. As far as the image goes, the best thing about it to my mind, is the background. It’s meant to depict a scene where Eva (Evangeline) meets Uncle Tom on a Mississippi steamboat. The excerpt from the novel quoted in the songsheet, is vague:

Evangeline - showing quote from the novel

and could be seen as simply an excuse for a sentimental ballad. The song text starts:

Sportive and free As the summer air, Bright as a ray on the mountain stream, Glides she along, Like a spirit fair, Happy and blest, as in some sweet dream.

I suppose one of the first words is ‘free’, but set to a grazioso waltz, there is nothing to suggest a great involvement in the issues of slavery. The only other thing is perhaps, to compare it to other songs in the collection. Maybe that was what Linley intended?

Emmeline and Cassy – duet (publ. 1852?)

Emmeline and Cassy - decorated front cover

Emmeline and Cassy are two minor figures in the novel, but important ones in that the author uses them to illustrate the sexual exploitation of female slaves. In doing this, Stowe was departing from the sentimental tone of the rest of the novel. None of this subject makes its way into the song setting – that would have been completely beyond the pale for amateur Victorian singers. Instead, the quote from the novel focusses on Cassy’s desire for freedom, and her relationship with Emmeline:

Emmeline and Cassy - showing quote from the novel

And here, Linley makes rather more effort with his words:

Oh! what to me, a careworn slave, Would freedom’s gift now be? Can it my children e’er restore, Or yield past joys to me?

Although, the final 6/8 duet section returns squarely to the realm of Christian sentimentality. In that, of course, it keeps in tune with Stowe’s novel.

It’s not clear at all how popular these songs were. One of the reasons for jumping on the bandwagon must have been for the possibility of making money? Or, at least, that’s how I think. However Linley’s fortunes were changed in the 1850’s by these six songs, the two copies we have are now quite rare in the UK. There’s only one other copy of Evangeline evident, and no other obvious copies of Emmeline and Cassy.

 

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Birmingham Triennial Festivals 1 — July 13, 2017

Birmingham Triennial Festivals 1

Most of us are very familiar with summer music festivals, and benefit concerts. This is the tale of a benefit festival which lasted for over a century and involved some of the major British and European composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the town of Birmingham was expanding rapidly. The free thinkers and scientific explorations of the Lunar Society , the canal expansion, and the explosion of manufacturing drew in large numbers of people. One important facility in the town was the General Hospital. This wasn’t funded in any way by the government of the day, but instead, relied largely on charitable donations. This was where the Triennial Festivals came in.

The Festivals in the 1820s

Started in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, by the 1820s, the Festivals were established as a popular, important source of funds for the hospital. A festival took place every third year, lasting for three or four days of concentrated music-making.

Birmingham General Hospital - early engraving
Engraving showing income and donations from the various Festivals

A closer look at a section of these basic accounts reveals that the Festival was dealing in serious amounts of money (in pounds sterling):

Section of accounts from preceding illustration

It is noticeable, though, that the Festivals’ expenses were almost as large as the amounts given to the General Hospital. This remained an issue throughout the entire run of the Festivals – sometimes, I get the impression that the social, musical occasion was more important than the original charitable purpose. In 1823, the gross receipts were nearly £10,560. The final Festival in 1912 generated only slightly more on paper – of course, allowing for inflation over the intervening ninety years, the amount was presumably substantially less. The expenses of the 1912 programme only left about £1550 nett and this was used to cover an operating deficit from the two previous Festivals. Nothing went to the General Hospital.

Organising any large-scale event requires a lot of effort and sometimes, a lot of bureaucracy. The bound Festival programme books that we have, contain fascinating glimpses of the structure behind the Festivals’ smooth operation. Here’s one such document.

Notice to coachmen

The two main venues for the Festival at this period were St Philip’s Church (now Birmingham’s Anglican Cathedral ) and the Theatre Royal on New Street. You can definitely get a sense of how busy the concerts and services could get. This aspect of traffic control continues to feature, with one of the programme books in the mid C19 having a large, coloured map of the permissible routes.

The tickets for each event were miniature works of art – look at this ticket for a concert in St. Philip’s. Notice also, the small embossed image of the General Hospital in the RH corner. Was this to stop fakes being produced, I wonder? Also, if the ticket numbering was running sequentially, then this was ticket number 587 – that’s a pretty good audience size.

Chancel ticket for 1823
Ticket from 1823

The Festival organisers didn’t miss a trick. The popularity of the ticket images were noted and concert goers were offered the opportunity (at a price, of course) of owning the image they liked.

Application form for copies of ticket images

I’ll take a look at the composers, performers and their music in the 1820s Festivals next time.

Fire survivor — June 15, 2017

Fire survivor

When the first Birmingham library burnt down in 1879, only a thousand items were saved. Today, I’m going to look at one of the possible survivors.

When exploring the historical printed music collections here, I was always curious as to why we stocked nothing prior to the 1880s. By this, I mean items which came into the collection at the same time as they were published. We have a large number of items published before the 1880s, but they all came into the collection through donations or later purchase. Then I learnt something of the history of public libraries in Birmingham.

Following the Free Libraries Act of 1850, the people of the town (as it was then) decided they wanted a library, together with an art gallery. By 1866, both lending and reference libraries existed. They were popular, and grew until, by the time of the fire, the building housed 50, 000 items. The fire was catastrophic, destroying the building and the vast majority of the stock.

The volume I’m going to look at has some smoke damaged pages at the start, and it wouldn’t be a great stretch of the imagination to think that it was one of the rescued items.

Songs and Etchings by T. Anderton and R.S. Chattock (publ. 1871)

Songs and Etchings

Thomas Anderton (1836-1903) was quite a prolific composer of choral works – cantatas and operettas mostly. He wasn’t that well known on the musical scene during his lifetime. and has since virtually disappeared from view. He lived and worked in Birmingham which explains in part, why the library bought this volume. Richard Chattock (1825-1906), an artist and etcher, was also local, being based in Solihull. Their project was evidently to take a selection of poems from different poets, illustrate one of the lines from each with an etching and then Anderton set the whole poem to music as one of a set of songs.

A contemporary news cutting pasted into the opening pages, puts it like this:

It is the joint production of Mr Anderton and Mr Chattock, and the bond of union between them has evidently been both perfect and complete. The etchings go so perfectly with the songs … that it is plain that the musician and artist were each inspired by the same thoughts … and each was similarly moved, by love of beauty, admiration of harmony, and faith in art.

Interesting that there’s no acknowledgement of the poets concerned …

Ben Jonson: To Cynthia

Etching for Jonson's To Cynthia
Thou that mak’st a day of night, Goddess excellently bright

I like the way the moonlight is depicted, and the way it makes the figures very dark. The sky looks turbulent – maybe it’s a by-product of the etching process. Certainly the turbulence doesn’t seem to extend to the trees or the people.

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Ode to a Skylark

Etching for Shelley's Ode to a skylark
The pale purple even Melts around thy flight.

In this example, the rocks and the sheep almost seem photographic in their clarity and ‘realness’. And the sense of open country. Again, to my mind, the sky doesn’t quite work

Here is a flavour of how Anderton set both poems to music. I can’t help feeling that the etchings (for all any faults) are rather more inspired than the music. A quick look at both of these excerpts suggest Victorian parlour song to me. They are aimed squarely to appeal to home music-making.

Sebastian Evans: Shadows

Etching for Shadows
Lonely o’er the dying ember I the past recal.

Sebastian Evans wasn’t particularly known as a poet, but he was local, and prominent in a number of different arenas. This is my favourite etching in the collection – the dense cross-hatching strongly suggests the gloom, both of the room and of the old man, himself. It’s a pity that again, Anderton’s music doesn’t live up to the illustration. There is no hint of regrets or gloom in the music. I suspect a better, more adventurous composer would have made a much more atmospheric job of settings these words.

Shadows - closing section

Altogether, a fascinating volume.

Songs from across the centuries 2 — May 18, 2017

Songs from across the centuries 2

There’s been a lot written and said about World War 1 recently because of the various centenary commemorations, but very little has focussed on the music. By this, I mean popular songs and piano music, not the well-known works by Elgar, Butterworth and others. From the examples we have in our collection, there was no room for doubt about the progress of the war at all in the minds of the composers and publishers. The outcome was certain – it was just a matter of time. Relentlessly upbeat would be a good description of a lot of them and the patriotism was applied by the bucket load.

I’m going to spend most of this blog looking at one sheet with particular Birmingham connections but, as I was looking for it, I came across this, a good example of a music hall song published in 1914.

God bless my soldier Daddy

IMG_20170503_160051

Although it’s written as a girl talking to her mother, to me, it immediately suggests a male music hall performer. I can just hear him milking the pathos of the chorus:

God bless my soldier Daddy, To war he had to go, Protect him from all danger, Because I love him so, Take care of him when fighting, Don’t let me pray in vain, God bless my soldier Daddy … And bring him safe home again.

The next song sheet is a much more home-grown affair, and also very different in its tone and purpose.

Britannia’s Glorious Flag

IMG_20170503_160146

Throughout the war, those who remained at home were encouraged to raise money either for the general war effort or for the soldiers at the front. This sheet was the project of two people called Brookes (presumably related)  from Birmingham – one composed the music and the other wrote the words. Their objective was to raise money for their named causes:

As The AUTHOR was also the publisher ie a private individual, it was presumably only meant for local distribution and sale. Certainly, there are no other obvious library copies held elsewhere. I’m curious to know how many copies were printed and sold – you’d have to sell a large number to make any significant contribution. Ten percent of the profits on the 6d selling price wasn’t so very much.

I suspect that the printer the Brookes used wasn’t a regular printer of sheet music – the music engraving is decidedly amateur at times:

IMG_20170503_160337

but again, as private individuals, they wouldn’t have had access to the engravers used by the big London publishing houses. Nor would they have wanted to spend a large amount of money getting it printed if the principal object was to raise money.

The song text is very patriotic (as you’d expect) but interestingly, it isn’t particularly anti-German. In fact, apart from a couple of mentions of the Kaiser and some commentary in the first verse, it concentrates entirely on the people caught up in the war effort, both those fighting and those at home. Here’s a sample:

“England’s in danger” was the cry: a million men replied – “We’ll rally round the good old flag” in life, in death, in pride: Our watchdogs on the sea alert, their eyes turned to the foe, Our airmen in the skies above, our submariners below … 

I’ll close with their dedication  – it shows the Brookes’ serious intent compared with the first song I looked at.

IMG_20170503_160351

 

Pretty as a picture — April 25, 2017

Pretty as a picture

Old-style library bindings were never meant to be anything other than functional. This is a pity because they can conceal some very colourful and pretty covers. I’ve chosen three to look at, which I discovered by chance. It also gives me an opportunity to talk briefly about a female composer, Liza Lehmann.

Liza Lehmann (1862 – 1918)

Liza Lehmann was an English opera singer and composer – so it’s no real surprise that the music I discovered are songs. They’re mostly for one solo voice but some are scored for a vocal quartet. She was obviously aware of her position as a female composer and so, an outsider with limited influence in the mainstream of the classical music world of the time. Late in her life, she became the first president of the Society of Women Musicians . This grouping first met with the aim of improving their mutual chances within a male-dominated profession and continued until the early 1970s.

Nonsense songs from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, 1908

Nonsense songs

A delightful cover, showing all the non-human characters (as well as Alice) depicted in the various songs. Quite why the white rabbit is clutching a musical brass instrument isn’t clear.

Hips and Haws, 1913

Hips and Haws

Here, the typography is both part of, and complementary to, the illustration. This song cycle is notable for setting five poems by the writer and poet, Radclyffe Hall from her collection, ‘Songs of Three Counties and Other Poems’.

Henry Scott's Music Warehouse

The front cover also has a large, decorative advertising stamp of a Birmingham music retailer. Henry Scott must have been a successful businessman to have had three addresses in the city.

Songs of love and springtime, 1903

Songs of love and spring

A particularly lovely cover. showing spring blossoms. It’s interesting that Graves’ name is prominent – he’s not the poet but rather the translator of verses by the German poet and playwright, Emanuel Geibel.

Hope you’ve enjoyed these. As for the musical content – Lehmann’s work is rarely performed today, although a few performances can be found on the web.

Songs from across the centuries 1 — April 6, 2017

Songs from across the centuries 1

The Library of Birmingham has extensive music collections. One of them is our historical collection of song sheets. We have thousands and thousands of them – the main problem in featuring this collection is deciding which individual sheets to look at.

I’ve chosen a couple to look that which have local connections – they’re both from the nineteenth century and have pictorial covers which are wonderful and amusing to look at.

Here’s the first one:

Simon Squeers – the undertaker’s man (publ. 1878)

Music: Vincent Davies
Words: John Cooke Jnr
simon squeers

The words of the song can be found here: http://monologues.co.uk/musichall/Songs-S/Simon-Squeers.htm

The song is clearly one for the music hall. Sometimes, the covers of music hall songs sheets show the actual performers in costume – it’s not obvious from this cover whether that’s the case. Possibly not, as the performers enjoyed having their names in print as much as the composers and lyricists.

The most obvious local connection is the publisher – listed as H. Beresford of 99 New Street. Whether they had any particular reason for publishing this song, is not known. What is worth noting is the cost of the sheet – four shillings. This was a substantial proportion of the weekly wage for the working poor
http://www.victorianlondon.org/finance/money.htm ) so it was likely that it was bought only by the middle class.

The second sheet is:

The Bombardment of Alexandria (publ. 1882)

Music: Harry Fitter Ball
Words: Tom Browne
Bombardment of Alexandria

 

It was quite common for songs or other music to be composed to commemorate British military campaigns abroad – the title of this is self-explanatory to a degree. For more information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombardment_of_Alexandria . What is striking and funny about this, is the illustrator’s attempt to do Egyptian costume. The head wear looks relatively convincing, but, by the time you get to the footwear, the lace-up boots are entirely Victorian.

Again, the publisher is Birmingham-based but the address is missing because of the damage to the sheet. Loose music sheets like these are vulnerable to wear and tear, and were never meant to be long-term possessions. This is probably the main reason why there are apparently no other libraries or collections which hold this particular song.

I’ll be back soon with another selection of songs from the archives.

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In Concert

Get a flavour of the music collections of the Library of Birmingham - quirky, practical, historical, contemporary