British Music and Literary Context: Artistic Connections in the Long Nineteenth Century.
It is a privilege to review a book written after my own heart: the musical and literary connections in Victorian culture. Whereas much recent interdisciplinary work (by Phyllis Weliver, Nicky Losseff, Sophie Fuller, Laura Vorachek, myself) has examined the musical allusions and ideologies within literary texts, Michael Allis's book reverses the equation to put musical texts in the foreground, assessing the literary influence upon them. Further, he makes a point of highlighting British music, correctly noting how much of the scholarship to date still focuses on European musical influence on the Victorians. His musicological background undergirds the choice of foci, as his earlier publications on the music of Edward Elgar, Hubert Parry, and Granville Bantock attest to his musical expertise even as he now undertakes the study of poetic and fictional influences upon them. Allis acknowledges the independence of each chapter, yet offers two general arguments of the book: that there existed a "vibrant and diverse musical-literary correspondence in this period" (p. 6) and that there are ways we might further "interpret or appreciate the musicliterature connections" (p. 7). For instance, as opposed to the "music in literature" approach that many of us use, Allis's book tackles both "music and literature" and "literature in music" relationships (to use Steven Paul Scher's terms). Indeed, there is much need to right this balance and Allis's book fills this scholarly gap extremely well.
Allis pairs musical and literary Victorian personages in fascinating ways. In Chapter One, Allis considers choral composer and head of the Royal College of Music (1895-1912), Hubert Parry, and his cantata Invocation to Music (1895), written in collaboration with poet Robert Bridges, later Poet Laureate (1913-1930). Allis argues that Parry's final score failed to adequately interpret the poetry as Bridges wished, thus exposing "the difficulties of marrying poetry and music" (p. 55). Chapter Two tackles the most famous and prolific of Victorian poets, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and though Allis had his choice as to which composer to pair with Tennyson (Arthur Sullivan, Arthur Somervell, Hubert Parry, Edward Elgar, among others), he selected Charles Villiers Stanford, Irish composer and conductor best known for his choral works, who not only frequently used Tennyson as a source, but knew and admired him during his lifetime. This chapter is impressive simply in its coverage, Allis considering almost all of Stanford's twenty works based on Tennyson's poetry, including some insightful close analyses of Stanford's theatre piece, Queen Mary, part-songs from The Princess, various works based on In Memoriam, the choral ode from Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, and a cantata based on Merlin and the Gleam.
Chapter Three pairs the lesser-known choral and orchestral composer Granville Bantock with the lesser-known poem of Robert Browning, Fifine at the Fair (1872). Of almost twenty works of Browning that inspired Bantock over the years, Allis considers several vocal and piano pieces under the concept of musical "voice" as it makes manifest the dramatic-monologue approach for which Browning was so well known. Thereafter, Allis turns to an extensive consideration of Fifine at the Fair and the various themes (Don Juan, his wife Elvire, and the temptress Fifine) which Bantock creates for his orchestral work of the same name (1901-2). Ultimately, Allis argues, a close analysis of this piece reveals Bantock's intense reworking of the dramatic monologue and helps to explain the musical digressions and interruptions for which he is often criticized.
Chapters Four and Five turn to the most notable British composer of this era, Sir Edward Elgar, and several instances of Elgar's unidentified quasi-programmatic music (his Enigma Variations are a famous instance of this), for which Allis supplies possible literary sources. In Chapter Four, Allis argues that Elgar's Piano Quintet, op. 84, could relate to Edward Bulwer Lytton's novel A Strange Story (1862), based on a suggestion made by Elgar's wife. The final chapter places Elgar alongside not a single author but in the context of travel literature of the era, utilizing literary critic Chloe Chard's definitions of travel literature (intent, "otherness," past and present, etc.) to address recent critical confusion over the composer's overture In the South (1903-4).
This book is not for the musically fainthearted. As part of the rich Boydell Press Music in Britain, 1600-1900, series (edited by Rachel Cowgill and Peter Holman), this volume assumes a musically literate audience who will not need any introduction to this late-century "second" renaissance of British music and the careers of Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, and Granville Bantock. If intended also for an interdisciplinary audience, literary specialists especially, foregrounding these lesser-known composers and their contributions to music history, at least in the Introduction, would have been useful (as well as the lesser-studied writers Robert Bridges and Bulwer Lytton for non-literary scholars). The same might be said for the musical-score excerpts which are generously printed throughout the book, referenced within Allis' arguments, though rarely closely explained or explicated for the non-musician. Occasionally the literary-music connections that Allis sees are less convincing (Stanford's Second Symphony in D Minor relating specifically to Tennyson's In Memoriam's section 70 or Elgar's Piano Quintet closely paralleling Bulwer Lytton's A Strange Story), though still enjoyable to consider. At other times, chapters may become bogged down with interesting though somewhat long sections (literary plot summaries, discussions of genre such as program music, author-composer biographical connections) as one waits anxiously for the proffered musical analysis. These comments aside, Allis proves to be impressively well-versed in both musical and literary scholarship, offering ample critical references in his text, voluminous footnotes, and a nearly-20-page bibliography to ground his study in the major scholarship of both disciplines. As such, his discussions shed light not only on musicological debates (regarding, for instance, the structure of Elgar's In the South; or the neglect of Bantock's compositions), but also enter into current literary discussions (of the gendering of music in Tennyson's The Princess, or the ways that travelogue literature operates, for example). There are fascinating passages of musical analysis to prove music's ability to translate poetic meaning into auditory form: Stanford's "stuttering rhythmic dislocation ... [and] tonal deflection" to link with "Tennyson's ocular uncertainty" of In Memoriam (p. 118) or the " 'growl' motif [that] is developed in a cadenza-like passage [in Bantock's "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister"], representative of the increasingly colourful fancies of the speaker" (p. 155), for example. Allis is at his best when closely explicating musical ethereality for tangible meaning; it is a delight to read.
This is an exemplary work of scholarship that I anticipate becoming a major work of Victorian and Edwardian interdisciplinary studies. I recommend it whole-heartedly.
Indiana University East Richmond, Indiana
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|Publication:||Fontes Artis Musicae|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2015|
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