The Journal of Victorian Culture: Swinburne, Wagner, T. S. Eliot, and the musical legacy of ‘Poems and Ballads’

I’m very happy to report that my article, ‘Swinburne, Wagner, Eliot, and the Musical Legacy of Poems and Ballads, has been published by the Journal of Victorian Culture. The article links to the post below concerning Francis Hueffer, whom the article discusses, as well as the work of Adela Maddison.

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Roses, pleasure, and pain: ‘A Match’ (1873) by Francis Hueffer

The following post is related to my article ‘Swinburne, Wagner, Eliot, and the Musical Legacy of Poems and Ballads in the Journal of Victorian Culture. In addition to the piece by Francis Hueffer below, if you want to hear the musical setting by Adela Maddison discussed in the article, please click the following link: The Triumph of Time.

Swinburne’s ‘A Match’, from his 1866 collection Poems and Ballads, has been set to music more often than any of his other poems. So far I have found 24 published versions (for between 1866 and 1920), one of which I have already discussed, by Louis Napoleon Parker. A reason for its popularity with composers may well be that ‘A Match’ was Swinburne’s most anthologised poem. However, it was also undoubtedly attractive to them for its short trimeter phrases (which play with a series of comparisons and contrasts) and its repetitions. These contrasts and repetitions set up a series of sound patterns across each stanza and the entire poem, which in itself moves in a musical process through a series of tightening moods from pleasure to pain and towards the kind of climax (again on a repetition) that music loves to perform. Additionally, the form of ‘A Match’ also perhaps demands to be set to music because of its origins in troubadour culture and Petrarchan poetic practice. As Katherine Williams has noted, the poem blends the triolet and the trimeter octave, forms that have much musical heritage. [1]

While the first stanza opens with a common poetic symbol of the rose as love – ‘If love were what the rose is | And I were like the leaf’ (though the conditional grammar suggests doubt while the contrasted images blur into each other) – by the end of the poem love has been transformed into the ‘queen of pleasure’ with the self now as the ‘king of pain’. There’s a sado-masochistic need for control and submission:

If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain,
We’d hunt down love together,
Pluck out his flying-feather,
And teach his feet a measure,
And find his mouth a rein;
If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain.

As I say, the six stanzas of the poem tighten their metaphors and similes as they go on, so it feels as if the subject and object are being taken through a series of mood changes, which, in a preface to his own version, Francis Hueffer (1845-1889) likened to a musical process itself. [2] In composing the setting in 1873, he had aimed to ‘match’ as ‘closely as possible the “poetical idea” […], that is, not only the sentimental keynote pervading the whole [song], but also the emotional changes in the single stanzas’. [3] Ideas, therefore, can be emotional, sensual, rather than purely intellectual.

His adaptation of ‘A Match’ is included in a collection called Seven Songs (1873), which, he specifically states, he composed in order to unite poetry and music as ‘it has always seemed […] strange and deplorable, that the treasures of English lyrical poetry have scarcely ever found congenial interpreters in the sphere of music’. Seven Songs also contains settings of poetry by William Morris and by both Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti.

Hueffer’s version uses only the first, second and final stanzas, as he appears to have interpreted the poem and adapted it to be more of a unified experience. He instead concentrates on the ‘sentimental keynote pervading the whole’, foregrounding this keynote while also dramatizing the ‘emotional changes within the single stanzas’ with sudden alterations in key and tempo (sometimes a creeping acceleration), and with sensual effects, which he signals to the singer in the score – ‘molta con espressione’ (‘with much expression’), ‘con tristezza’ (‘with sadness’). In feel and style, there’s definitely something of the German lieder about it, although I’m not entirely sure how successful the emphasis on the ‘sentimental keynote’ is at the expense of the poem’s measured tightening of mood. The piece appears to hit the expressive limit very quickly and then returns to it for two more attempts before halting, leaving little sense of the journey that the poem undoubtedly takes us on (though even in Swinburne’s text, the beginning and the ending of the poem contain elements of the other). Nevertheless, that one of the most important musical critics of the time was setting Swinburne to music is intriguing, not least for the impact that Hueffer had on musical taste by advocating Wagner to the public through his journalism.

The 1870s were a highly productive decade for Hueffer. Having studied music in Leipzig, Berlin, and Göttingen, Hueffer arrived in London in 1869. The reason for his emigration is unclear (possibly the mood in Germany before the Franco-Prussian War a year later?) but he then wrote for various journals on music before becoming The Times’s music critic in 1879. As he was publishing Seven Songs, he was also editing some of his articles from the Fortnightly Review so they could be re-published in 1874 as Richard Wagner and the Music of the Future. His account of the opening of Wagner’s theatre at Bayreuth and the first production of the entire Ring cycle is contained in Musical Studies (1880), which also highlights his passion for the philosopher Schopenhauer (an enthusiasm that Dante Gabriel Rossetti pokes fun at on numerous occasions in his letters). Hueffer’s Half a Century of Music in England: 1837-1887 (1889) also contains some fascinating anecdotes about various musical personalities of the Victorian age.

Unfortunately, Hueffer died suddenly and while quite young, leaving his wife, Catherine (Ford Madox-Brown’s daughter), and their children in a precarious financial position. The difficulties around this are documented in the Selected Letters of William Michael Rossetti, which also indicates the extent of the friendship between Hueffer and Swinburne, who became godfather to his son, the novelist Ford Madox Ford. [4]

The full score can be downloaded here: ‘A Match’ by Francis Hueffer.

Another piece by Hueffer on this site can be heard here: My Love, My Own.

[1]See Katherine Williams’s PhD thesis, ‘“Song New-Born”: Renaissance Forms in Swinburne’s Lyrics’(City University of New York, 1986) p. 180.

[2]Born in Germany, Hueffer also used his original name at times, Franz Hüffer.

[3]Francis Hueffer, ‘Avis au Chanteur’, Seven Songs(London: S. Lucas & Weber, 1873), p. 1.

[4]Selected Letters of William Michael Rossetti, edited by Roger W. Peattie(University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990).

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An Evening with the Gladstones

Last month I attended a hugely successful ‘Sounding the Salon’ event, which recreated an after-dinner concert originally given on Wednesday 12 March 1873 by Mary Gladstone – the daughter of the Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone – at the concert’s original venue, 11 Carlton House Terrace, London. This was then the Gladstone house, but is now part of the British Academy.

‘An Evening with the Gladstones’ – organised by Phyllis Weliver (Professor of English at Saint Louis University) and Dr Sophie Fuller (Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance) – featured as near as possible the same programme as the original evening. It included outstanding performances of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances (1869), Handel’s Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 1, No. 3 (1732) and ‘Where’er you Walk’ from Semele (1743), and the Spohr ‘Barcarole’ from Sechs SalonstückeOp. 135 (1846-7), given by Elena Abad (violin), Irina Lyahovskaya (piano), and William Branston (tenor). Uniquely, descendants of the Gladstone family were among the audience, which had been specially invited for the concert, which was both recorded and filmed.


Tenor William Branston and pianist Irina Lyahovskaya prepare to perform Handel’s ‘Where’er you Walk’ from Semele

Many of the details for the reconstruction were supplied from Mary Gladstone’s diary and from wider knowledge of the period about how salon concerts were staged. The audience, for example, were scattered into groups, rather than kept together in one block as is usually the case today. Also, while it was held in a large room (as can be seen from the photographs) the placement meant that the audience and performers were surprisingly near to each other. This created a feeling of shared intimacy (despite the room’s opulence and height), a feeling that is perhaps a rare commodity at concerts today – even at small studio events. Despite the proximity, the acoustics were strong yet surprisingly clear and bright, which was demonstrated perhaps most of all in the performance of Handel’s ‘Where’er you Walk’.


Phyllis Weliver and Sophie Fuller introduce the evening

The original guest list in 1873 included the Duke of Edinburgh, Lord & Lady Sydney, the Duke & Duchess of Cleveland, the Archbishop of Canterbury Archibald Campbell Tait and Miss Tait, and Lord Rosebery, among others.


The evening’s full programme


The room as it was in the nineteenth century

For further information visit the Sounding Victorian website

Follow the ‘Sounding the Salon’ Twitter feed

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Sounding the Salon: ‘An Evening with the Gladstones’

This exciting event is happening on Thursday (8 March, 2018) at the British Academy at Carlton House Terrace. It’s a re-creation, in the original space, of a concert that took place in 1873, the details of which come from the diary of Mary Gladstone (1847-1927). The performance will include violin sonatas by Le Clair, Handel, Beethoven; Spohr ‘Barcarole’; three Brahms Hungarian Dances. The event has been organised by Professor Phyllis Weliver of St Louis University and Dr Sophie Fuller of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance.

I’ll be putting up photographs after the performance. Click the link below for more details.

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Song, scandal, and a princess: We are not Sure of Sorrow (1898)

When I started this project, I would not have imagined Swinburne’s languid ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ from Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866) ever inspiring popular music, and certainly not the tone of this piece by Charles Paston-Cooper (1867-1941). Weary and somnambulant it is not, but celebrates the atheism of Swinburne’s words with the kind of triumphalism normally reserved for national religions. We are not Sure of Sorrow uses the poem’s last three stanzas, which contain some of Swinburne’s most famous lines (at least in terms of Victorian poetry), such as:

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea. (l. 81-88) [1]

Paston-Cooper’s setting is not quite as Swinburne understood his own poem. The song starts melodically, but quickly becomes bracing and jubilant, and at first I imagined that Paston-Cooper was merely using the popularity of Swinburne’s lyrics to sell the tune (which is partly the case, undoubtedly), but perhaps I now also see it as a sort of anti-hymn.

‘Hymn’ comes from the Latin hymnus, meaning ‘a song or ode in praise of gods’[2]. Even if Swinburne’s lyrics thank the ‘gods’, whatever they ‘may be’, the poem is not in praise of an eternal life to come, but in relief for the finality of death. ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ is a place of oblivion. Once the struggles of life have ended, it suggests, there will be no resurrection, in contrast to the Christian belief. Instead we will be freed from that ‘hope and fear’ and drift into a sea of forgetfulness and extinction.

In Poems and Ballads, First Series, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ immediately follows a notorious poem called ‘Dolores’ and comes before ‘Hesperia’, another mythical garden poem. The three are linked, which Swinburne highlighted in his Notes on Poems and Reviews, published in October 1866. Poems and Ballads had been published earlier that year in July by Edward Moxon, but Moxon had since withdrawn the book because of abusive reviews and fears of prosecution for indecency. While many poems in the volume were censured, ‘Dolores’ (which contains images of castration, ecstatic blood lust and perhaps could be described – figuratively – as one long, repeated, circular sexual act), was particularly attacked, with the London Review calling it ‘depraved and morbid’ and (rather wonderfully, I think) ‘[the] mere deification of incontinence’.[3]

Published at the same time as Poems and Ballads was reissued by John Camden Hotten (who was known to publish the occasional piece of erotica), Swinburne’s Notes on Poems and Reviews makes a general defence of his poetry and clarifies some of its themes. He draws out the relationship between ‘Dolores’, ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ and ‘Hesperia’, which he says form a loose narrative progression, expressing a ‘transient state of spirit through which a man may be supposed to pass’. Between the ‘violent delights’ of ‘Dolores’ and where the ‘worship of desire has ceased’ in ‘Hesperia’ is ‘The Garden of Proserpine’, which is when, he says, ‘the spirit, without fear or hope of good things or evil, hungers and thirsts only after the perfect sleep’.[4]

As I say, Paston-Cooper’s We are not Sure of Sorrow is definitely not about sleep, and it might be said that its title is an understatement. It isn’t sure about sorrow at all. It’s rather emphatic in its atheism, and there is a certainty, vitality and a jubilation about this music which, as I say, makes it sound like an anti-hymn rather than a song to be sung after dinner.

Sir Charles Nauton Paston-Cooper (he inherited a baronetcy from his father in 1904) seems to have had a very colourful, even scandalous life, although details about it are scarce. In his early life he composed several successful songs, including another that uses Swinburne’s lyrics, A Leave-taking, which was performed at the Proms in 1902, then held at the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place. However, in 1894 he appears to have gained an undesirable kind of fame as a potential philanderer. Several newspapers report his somewhat leading role in a ‘theatrical divorce case’ between the actor-manager Charles Hawtrey (1858-1923) and his wife Madeline Hawtrey. The divorce courts, if one follows the chain of news stories across several publications, heard evidence that Madeline (who had petitioned divorce from her husband) was accused of ‘improper relations’ with Paston-Cooper (which she denied), ever since they had slept in adjacent rooms at a hotel in Cannes in the late 1880s. Given in striking detail by Reynolds’s Newspaper, the story travels from Cannes, back to London, and onto Monte Carlo, Paris and Venice, and even involves Madeline’s maid, Poole, who, it is said, ‘warned Mrs Hawtrey of her position in connection with her intimacy with Cooper’. [5] Although it was clearly one of the great scandals of the day, Madeline eventually won her divorce and, subsequently, Paston-Cooper looks to have transcended the dishonour, as in 1899 he married the Princess Tatiana Dolgorouky of Russia.

We are not Sure of Sorrow, by Charles Paston-Cooper (London: Chappell & Co, 1898)


[1]The Garden of Proserpine’ has inspired two other songs that I know of, ‘A Prayer of Thanksgiving’ by Louise Llewellyn (1907) and ‘Somewhere Safe to Sea’ by William Harold Neidlinger (1920), and was given a full orchestral and choir treatment by Vaughan Williams in The Garden of Proserpine, which, although written in 1899, was not performed until 2010. It can be heard on Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Garden of Proserpine, In the Fen Country, Fen and Flood, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paul Daniel (Albion Records, 2011).

[2] Definition from the Oxford English Dictionary. Paston-Cooper had earlier published a setting of Ave Maria (Ducci & Co, 1893), and presumably the sentiments of this piece do not sit well with We are not Sure of Sorrow.

[3] Clyde K. Hyder, Swinburne: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 37.

[4] The Critical Heritage, pp. 53-55.

[5] Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 1 July, 1894. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times of 14 July, 1894, also carries interesting news of the case with court sketches, in an article entitled, ‘The Hawtrey Divorce Case’.

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Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain Conference, 2017

Glad to say that along with the other members of the Sounding Victorian consortium, I’m going to be talking about my research and the project at the Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain Conference at the University of Birmingham next week!

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‘East to West’ by Charles Villiers Stanford (1893)

By far the most complex recreation I’ve attempted, this is a section of a setting by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) of Swinburne’s ‘East to West’. The lyrics were commissioned by Stanford for the ‘Chicago World’s Fair’ or the ‘Chicago Columbian Exposition’ of 1893, but the piece was actually premiered at the Royal Albert Hall on 10 May of that year.[1] It appears that the music never made it to Chicago after its premier, only managing a further performance a bit nearer to home, in Cambridge, a month later.

As I say, this is just the first choral section (of a piano and four-part version, published by Augener & Co.), but hopefully it gives an idea of a piece that was very warmly received at its premier, with Stanford – a Cambridge and Royal College of Music professor and one of the greatest composers of the era – called to the platform by the audience for applause.[2]

It starts with a stately introduction, which the vocalists eventually join, before truly taking off at bar 41, and then turning wonderfully and swiftly melodic after bar 55. After a series of vocal exchanges reminiscent of ringing bells, this increasingly complex piece ends on a rather lovely piano section, though as this was supposed to blend into the next part of the ode, the video then ends rather abruptly.

Where the vocal parts share the words, I have only typed them out once. Where they break, I have given words to each line. It must be said that Swinburne’s lyrics are not exactly inspired, but then they were written to order for an event which perhaps, in turn, he didn’t find that inspiring. It is, however, yet another fine example of Swinburne’s work with the most important composers of the period.

London: Augener & Co, 1893.

[1] The Musical Times, ‘New Poem by Mr. Swinburne’, 1 February, 1893, p. 82.

[2] The Morning Post, ‘Royal Albert Hall’, 11 May 1893.

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