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).

Categories: music

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1 reply


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

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