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Charles Dickens, la musique et la vie artistique à Londres à l'époque victorienne


James Lyon


Collection L'Éducation Musicale

Paris : Beauchesne,  2015

Broché. 267 pages. ISBN 978-2701020341. 23 €


Reviewed by  Gilles Couderc

Université de Caen



An ambitious title for such a slim volume and such a prolific novelist! But James Lyon, as he warns the reader, does not aim at comprehensiveness. Considering the writer’s output, it would probably take a century for Lyon to tackle the whole of Dickens’s œuvre. Besides, what publisher in the world of today would sanguinely consider such an undertaking? Lyon’s book sketches musical and artistic life in London at the time of Charles Dickens. His aim is to elucidate the novelist’s sometimes transparent, sometimes obscure, references to music in any sort of dress—be it opera or popular ballad—to paintings and architecture, to poetry and literature, to politics and religion for the reader better to understand the world and the culture in which Dickens lived, loved and created his novels, a very legitimate objective.

The volume is organised in four parts. The author's foreword,  called “La culture et la civilisation anglaises”, sets out to defend Dickens from negative prejudices, to show him as a creative novelist, and to recall that Victorian society was a complex and contrasting world whose reality has become hidden under widely uninformed generalisations. For Lyon, Dickens's use of musical allusions in his work is as important as his choice of illustrators: far from being innocent, their illustrations provide deeper meaning to his “character studies”. Lyon draws the picture of a rich musical life in England and in London and debunks the much-bandied notion of Victorian Britain as “Das Land ohne Musik”, quoted in the book's Preface. The phrase was originally due to Carl Engel, a German musicologist who, in his Introduction to the Study of National Music published in London in 1866, lamented the neglect by English composers of their own folk-songs and the absence of collections thereof when German poets and composers, prompted by Johann Gottfried von Herder's 1807 Stimmen der Völker in Liedern had been drawing inspiration from that source. This was partially true. Scottish folks-songs had been collected and published with enough success for Beethoven and Haydn to use them for their own realisations. Thomas Moore's very popular Irish Melodies (1807/1834), much admired by Dickens, borrowed well-known Irish tunes to which Moore wrote his own verse. But the thorough collecting of English folksongs was to wait until Cecil Sharp, the founding father of the English folksong and folkdance revival, in the early 20th century.

Engel's criticism also pointed to the huge imports of foreign musical talents in Victorian Britain and the absence of composers of international acclaim among British musicians. True, at the time, Britons were keener on developing Empire, trade and industry and on consuming music rather than on fostering native musical talents and it took Victoria's and Albert's patronage of music and musicians for a “Great Awakening” to occur in the mid-century and for the “English Musical Renaissance” of the 1880s to take place. Engel's expression was maliciously taken up as the title of a book by Oskar Adolf Hermann Schmitz, first published in 1904, when Britain had signed the “Entente Cordiale” agreements with France as Germany had turned into a potentially aggressive neighbour. The expression conveyed chauvinistic prejudice under which British composers long laboured and under which English music still labours in France: apart from Purcell and Britten, what British or English composers—especially of the Victorian era—are featured on concert bills in France? Let us consequently salute the pluck of Lyon’s publishers for bringing out a book about what in French musical circles is considered as a non-entity: English music of the Victorian era.  

At the time of Dickens, music was everywhere, in many guises, and an incredible quantity of music was produced and consumed. Dickens loved music. As most Britons of his time, he loved Mendelssohn, who had almost replaced Handel in the heart of the British public, his oratorio Elijah a rival to Handel's Messiah. His Songs Without Words were played by thousands of amateur pianists, the piano becoming the emblem of Victorian gentility, to be mocked by Dickens. He also loved Mozart and was much taken by Auber, Meyerbeer and Gounod's Faust, an opera which probably appealed to his religious sentiment and to his belief in redemption. His liking for opera, where situations and sentiments are given far greater, if not overblown, dimensions than in real life is not surprising when one remembers Dickens’s love for the theatre and his gift as a performer when giving public readings of his novels. He disliked the ubiquitous barrel-organ and bells that disturbed him in his work. For Lyon, beside “serious” and popular music, another great influence on Dickens was also church hymnology, hymns, anthems and psalms, which Dickens mentions only sometimes to criticise the excesses of Wesleyan Methodism and religious hypocrites. At the time, the great tradition of Anglican choir services and evensong was slowly being revived, what with the competition from “chapel”, Oxford Movement Tractarians and secular choral societies, whose repertoire mostly consisted in the ubiquitous sacred oratorios, causing Wagner to comment on the English craze for the genre and their appetite for religion. 

The next six chapters offer a short biography of Dickens which replaces him in the social, historic and cultural context of his lifetime. They sketch the main events of his personal and professional life, provide perspectives on a few of his novels and elucidate musical or artistic intertextuality. More than a biography of Dickens, born in the late Georgian era and dying in the full glory of the Victorian Age, it is a small biography of the cultural life at his time. Instead of Dickens surrounded by his characters at Gad's Hill as in Robert William Buss's famous Dickens's Dream, Lyon offers a partial view of the world in which the novelist lived. He quotes a telling example of Dickens's love of music with his description of Tom Pinch's playing the organ in the final chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit which sounds like a genuine “Ode to music”, and Lyon includes the engraving of Tom at the organ by H.K. Brown, used as the novel's frontispiece, for his own book cover. Yet music was the cause for one of the bitterest and most humiliating blows Life dealt Dickens. In 1823, his sister Fanny, his confidante and the loving companion of his happy childhood, was admitted to the brand-new Royal Academy of Music to become a pianist and a singer, while his own schooling was brutally interrupted when, due to his father's Micawberish improvidence, he was employed in a London blacking factory, at the age of twelve, before his father was committed to the Marshalsea Prison for debt, a fall from grace that affected his whole life and outlook.

Lyon quotes in French translation fragments of the ballads, hymns or poems incorporated in the novelist's text or gives musical examples, thus awaking the echoes in the novelist's text, itself rich in musical harmonies. He sometimes provides his own French translations as he feels some musical terms have been carelessly translated by previous French translators who do not take into account the English musical context and tradition and finally miss Dickens's objective when making those references, as he shows with a passage from Nicholas Nickleby.  Copious notes at the end of this part provide still more information so that no stone seems to have been left unturned in the quest for illuminating Dickens’s references and one can but admire Mr Lyon's fine scholarship and his will to give the French reader so many pointers as might be wished. Moreover, should the reader have missed some of the musical references, they are listed alphabetically, identified, and their place in Dickens's work indicated, in a Musical References index, bearing witness to the novelist's wide range of musical allusions from opera, popular ballads, glees and catches or church hymns.  

As the book's subtitle indicates, this part is followed by a “Dictionary of Biography” whose entries, of various importance and length, list and identify composers, instrumentalists, historical figures, musicians, novelists, painters, philosophers and poets who counted for the novelist. The entries indicate Dickens's relationship with them when they were his contemporaries or how he felt about the others. The dictionary paints the picture of an intense cultural and musical life in Britain between the Georgian era, with composer Thomas Arne of “Rule Britannia” fame, to the 1950s, with Arthur Benjamin's 1953 Tale of Two Cities, his opera adapted from Dickens, one among many others. Lyon's field of research being hymnology and folk-song,(1) it is no surprise that so many composers of church hymns are quoted, what with the Methodist revival of the late eighteenth century, the Oxford Movement and its influence on Anglican ritual, but the references to organists who composed those hymns are somewhat overwhelming. Moreover, listing Prince Albert among composers may be stretching the point too far, even though his love of music and patronage of Mendelssohn persuaded English philistines of the importance and worth of music and encouraged his sons to support the creation of the publicly-funded Royal College of Music in London in 1882. French readers will no doubt discover many English composers listed here who remain unknown on this side of the Channel. On the other hand, what strikes one is the wealth of continuous cultural exchanges between Britain and Europe, an instance of artistic globalisation before the word was coined, reminding us that Britain was seldom if ever truly isolated from its Continental neighbours, except by Napoleon's blockade, fog or her politicians’ narrow-mindedness.

After the biography of those who contributed to the making of the novelist, Lyon provides a “Dictionary of Characters Quoted” that also recalls their association with music in Dickens's novels under discussion here. What will strike his fans is the novelist's gift for “musical onomastics” when naming his characters and how those names stick to one's memory like a familiar tune. Two indices, a general one and one to Dickens's characters, finally provide further cross-referencing. As Lyon indicates, his book follows the example of James Thomas Lightwood whose pioneering 1912 Dickens and Music tackled the novelist's telling use of musical references. That was a hundred years ago. Since then, the relationship between novels and their references to music, music and literature or music and poetry, has become the object of many studies. James Lyon's book is aimed at French-speaking readers and one can only commend him and his publishers for bringing out such a work, when so few books about music are published today, and French ones about English music of that period so outdated or patronising. Even if the book's format, partly a biography, a dictionary and a broad sketch of British culture and artistic life, may seem somewhat baffling, it provides an excellent introduction both to the world of Dickens and of English music and arts. Let us hope that this labour of love will bring Lyon its rewards in the shape of readers of Dickens and listeners of Victorian English music.


(1) See his Leoš Janacek, Jean Sibelius et Ralph Vaughan Williams, un cheminement commun vers les sources, Paris : Beauchesne, 2011. 


 Illustrated version on The Victorian Web :


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