Charles Dickens’s works attest to a keen familiarity with the ballads and traditional songs of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Less obvious from his writings is his deep love of Western classical music—he adored the lieder of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, he championed Arthur Sullivan, and he reported being “overcome” by Gounod’s Faust.
Still, Dickens found a rich vein of humor in the music making of the common folk—not least in the character of Mr. Morfin in Dombey and Son:
“He was a great musical amateur in his way…and had a paternal affection for his violoncello, which was once in every week transported from Islington, his place of abode, to a certain club-room hard by the Bank, where quartettes of the most tormenting and excruciating nature were executed every Wednesday evening by a private party.”
“He was solacing himself with this melodious grumbler one evening, and, having been much dispirited by the proceedings of the day, was scraping consolation out of its deepest notes…[but] his landlady…was fortunately deaf, and had no other consciousness of these performances than a sensation of something rumbling in her bones.”
This according to “Dickens and music” by Charles Cudworth (The musical times CXI/1528 [June 1970] pp. 588–590. Today is Dickens’s 210th birthday!
In 1833 Sophy Horsley, a well-heeled British teenager, wrote to her aunt “Mendelssohn took my album with him the night of our glee-party, but you have no idea how many names he has got me.” Over the following years Horsley and Mendelssohn Bartholdy, who was a family friend, collected musical works, illustrations, and autographs in a 144-page album measuring 1⅞ by 1¼ inches.
This according to “Sophy’s album” by Anne C. Bromer and Julian I. Edison, an article included in Miniature books: 4,000 years of tiny treasures (New York: Abrams, 2007); the book was published in conjunction with an exhibition at The Grolier Club, New York City, from 15 May through 28 July 2007. Many thanks to James Melo for bringing it to our attention!
Below, Rahmaninov plays his transcription of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s “Scherzo” from his incidental music for A midsummer night’s dream, written when the composer was a teenager himself.
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