june 2012


A Charles Dickens Bicentennial Moment

Charles Dickens And Music

By James T. Lightwood

Author of Hymn-Tunes and their Story

(Editor’s note: Continuing our Bicentennial Dickens salute, this month we remain focused on our subject’s relationship to music, both as a musician and as an author, as chronicled in James T. Lightwood’s 1912 study of Charles Dickens And Music, originally published in London by Charles H. Kelly. This month, Chapter IV, a continuation of Chapter III’s study of the various and sundry instruments that appear not inconsequentially in Dickens’s works, focusing this time on the church bells that so maddened Dickens in real life but also inspired some of his most memorable characters and scenes.


The kind-hearted Tom Pinch, from Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit, at the organ. ‘The references to the organ are both numerous and interesting, and it is pretty evident that this instrument had a great attraction for Dickens.’


Many musical instruments and terms are mentioned by way of illustration. Blathers, the Bow Street officer (Old Times), plays carelessly with his handcuffs as if they were a pair of castanets. Miss Miggs (Barnaby Rudge) clanks her pattens as if they were a pair of cymbals. Mr. Bounderby (Hard Times) during his conversation with Harthouse,

with his hat in his hand, gave a beat upon the crown at every division of his sentences, as if it were a tambourine;

and in the same work the electric wires rule 'a colossal strip of music-paper out of the evening sky.'

Perhaps the most extraordinary comparison is that instituted by Mrs. Lirriper in reference to her late husband.

My poor Lirriper was a handsome figure of a man, with a beaming eye and a voice as mellow as a musical instrument made of honey and steel.

What a vivid imagination the good woman had! Her descriptive powers remind us of those possessed by Mrs. Gamp in speaking of the father of the mysterious Mrs. Harris.

As pleasant a singer, Mr. Chuzzlewit, as ever you heerd, with a voice like a Jew's-harp in the bass notes.

There are many humorous references to remarkable performances on various instruments more or less musical in their nature. During the election at Eatanswill the crier performed two concertos on his bell, and shortly afterwards followed them up with a fantasia on the same instrument. Dickens suffered much from church bells, and gives vent to his feelings about them in Little Dorrit, where he says that

Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick-and-mortar echoes hideous.

In his Pictures from Italy he wrote thus:

At Genoa the bells of the church ring incessantly, not in peals, or any known form of sound, but in horrible, irregular, jerking dingle, dingle, dingle; with a sudden stop at every fifteenth dingle or so, which is maddening.... The noise is supposed to be particularly obnoxious to evil spirits.

But it was these same bells, which he found so maddening, that inspired him with the title of a well-known story. He had chosen a subject, but was at a loss for a name. As he sat working one morning there suddenly rose up from Genoa

the clang and clash of all its steeples, pouring into his ears, again and again, in a tuneless, grating, discordant jerking, hideous vibration that made his ideas spin round and round till they lost themselves in a whirl of vexation and giddiness, and dropped down dead.... Only two days later came a letter in which not a syllable was written but 'We have heard The Chimes at midnight, Master Shallow,' and I knew he had discovered what he wanted. (11)

Dickens may have found church bells maddening--even though they inspired one of his most beloved stories, ‘The Chimes’--but he might have thought differently if he had been around to rock out to the Willows’ great group harmony classic from 1956, ‘Church Bells May Ring,’ on the Melba label.

Yet, in spite of all this, Dickens shows--through his characters--a deep interest in bells and bell-lore. Little Paul Dombey finds a man mending the clocks at Dr. Blimber's Academy, and asks a multitude of questions about chimes and clocks; as, whether people watched up in the lonely church steeples by night to make them strike, and how the bells were rung when people died, and whether those were different bells from wedding-bells, or only sounded dismal in the fancies of the living; and then the precocious small boy proceeds to give the astonished clockmaker some useful information about King Alfred's candles and curfew-bells.

As Smike and Nicholas tramp their long journey to Portsmouth they hear the sheep-bells tinkling on the downs. To Tom Pinch journeying Londonwards 'the brass work on the harness was a complete orchestra of little bells.'

What a terror the bells are to Jonas Chuzzlewit just before he starts on his evil journey! He hears

the ringers practising in a neighbouring church, and the clashing of their bells was almost maddening. Curse the clamouring bells! they seemed to know that he was listening at the door, and to proclaim it in a crowd of voices to all the town! Would they never be still? They ceased at last, and then the silence was so new and terrible that it seemed the prelude to some dreadful noise.

The boom of the bell is associated with many of the villains of the novels. Fagin hears it when under sentence of death. Blackpool and Carker hear the accusing bells when in the midst of planning their evil deeds.

We can read the characters of some by the way they ring a bell. The important little Mr. Bailey, when he goes to see his friend Poll Sweedlepipe (Martin Chuzzlewit) 'came in at the door with a lunge, to get as much sound out of the bell as possible,' while Bob Sawyer gives a pull as if he would bring it up by the roots. Mr. Clennam pulls the rope with a hasty jerk, and Mr. Watkins Tottle with a faltering jerk, while Tom Pinch gives a gentle pull. And how angry Mr. Mantalini is with Newman Noggs because he keeps him

'ringing at this confounded old cracked tea-kettle of a bell, every tinkle of which is enough to throw a strong man into convulsions, upon my life and soul,-oh demmit.'

The introduction of electric bells has been a great trial to those who used to vent their wrath on the wire-pulled article or the earlier bell-rope, which used not infrequently to add unnecessary fuel by coming incontinently down on the head of the aggrieved one. What a pull the fierce gentleman must have given whose acquaintance Mr. Pickwick made when he was going to Bath! He had been kept waiting for his buttered toast, so he (Captain Dowler) rang the bell with great violence, and told the waiter he'd better bring the toast in five seconds, or he'd know the reason why.

We're fairly certain Dickens’s disdain for bells would have evaporated had he experienced the irresistible shuffle of the Del-Vikings’ 1957 hit (#5 R&B, #9 pop), ‘Whispering Bells,’ with Kripp Johnson’s dynamic lead vocal; Joe Lopes’s bright, chiming guitar (Lopes also arranged the tune); Ben Smith’s ebullient, sputtering sax; and bass man Clarence Quick’s percussive scatting. The Del-Vikings’ breakout hit was 1956’s ‘Come Go With Me,’ an undisputed classic and the first top 10 rock ‘n’ roll hit by a racially mixed group.

Dickens rang far more changes on the bells than there is space to enumerate; but I have shown to what extent he makes their sound a commentary on innumerable phases of life. A slight technical knowledge of bell phraseology is found in Barnaby Rudge (7), where he mentions the variations known as a 'triple bob major.' Finally there is an interesting reference in Master Humphrey's Clock to a use of the bell which has now passed into history. Belinda says in a postscript to a letter to Master Humphrey, 'The bellman, rendered impatient by delay, is ringing dreadfully in the passage'; while in a second PS. she says, 'I open this to say the bellman is gone, and that you must not expect it till the next post.'

In the old days it was the custom for the letter-carriers to collect letters by ringing a bell.

There is no doubt that a most extraordinary, certainly a most original, musical effect is that secured by Mr. George (Bleak House), who had just finished smoking.

'Do you know what that tune is, Mr. Smallweed?' he adds, after breaking off to whistle one, accompanied on the table with the empty pipe.

'Tune,' replies the old man. 'No, we never have tunes here.'

'That's the "Dead March" in Saul. They bury soldiers to it, so it's the natural end of the subject.'

Surely a highly original way of bringing a conversation to a close!

This march is referred to in Our Mutual Friend, where Mr. Wilfer suggests that going through life with Mrs. Wilfer is like keeping time to the 'Dead March' in Saul, from which singular simile we may gather that this lady was not the liveliest of companions.

Several other instruments are casually mentioned. Mr. Hardy (Sketches by Boz, Tales 7) was a master of many accomplishments.

He could sing comic songs, imitate hackney coachmen and fowls, play airs on his chin, and execute concertos on the Jew's harp.

The champion 'chin' performer of the early Victorian period was Michael Boai, 'The celebrated chin melodist,' who was announced to perform 'some of his admired pieces' at many of the places of entertainment. There is another reference to this extraordinary way of producing music in Sketches by Boz, where Mrs. Tippin performed an air with variations on the guitar, 'accompanied on the chin by Master Tippin.' To return to Mr. Hardy, this gentleman was evidently deeply interested in all sorts and degrees of music, but he got out of his depth in a conversation with the much-travelled Captain Helves. After the three Miss Briggses had finished their guitar performances, Mr. Hardy approached the Captain with the question, 'Did you ever hear a Portuguese tambourine?'

'Did you ever hear a tom-tom, sir?' sternly inquired the Captain, who lost no opportunity of showing off his travels, real or pretended.

'A what?' asked Hardy, rather taken aback.

'A tom-tom.'


'Nor a gum-gum?'


'What is a gum-gum?' eagerly inquired several young ladies.

The question is unanswered to this day, though Hardy afterwards suggests it is another name for a humbug.

When Dickens visited the school where the half-time system was in force, he found the boys undergoing military and naval drill. A small boy played the fife while the others went through their exercises. After that a boys' band appeared, the youngsters being dressed in a neat uniform. Then came a choral class, who sang 'the praises of a summer's day to a harmonium.' In the arithmetical exercises the small piper excels (Uncommercial Traveler 29).

Wise as the serpent is the four feet of performer on the nearest approach to that instrument.

This was written when the serpent was practically extinct, but Dickens would be very familiar with the name of the instrument, and may have seen and heard it in churches in his younger days.

In referring to another boy's attempt at solving the arithmetical puzzles, he mentions the cymbals, combined with a faint memory of St. Paul.

I observe the player of the cymbals to dash at a sounding answer now and then rather than not cut in at all; but I take that to be in the way of his instrument.

In Great Expectations Mr. Wopsle, who is a parish clerk by profession, had an ambition not only to tread the boards, but to start off as Hamlet. His appearance was not a success, and the audience was derisive.

On his taking the recorders-very like a little black flute that had just been played in the orchestra and handed out at the door-he was called upon unanimously for 'Rule Britannia.'

Reference has already been made to Bucket's music-shop, so we must not forget to visit Caleb Plummer's little room, where there were

scores of melancholy little carts which, when the wheels went round, performed most doleful music. Many small fiddles, drums, and other instruments of torture.

The old man made a rude kind of harp specially for his poor blind daughter, and on which Dot used to play when she visited the toy-maker's. Caleb's musical contribution would be 'a Bacchanalian song, something about a sparkling bowl,' which much annoyed his grumpy employer.

'What! you're singing, are you?' said Tackleton, putting his head in at the door. 'Go it, I can't sing.'

Nobody would have suspected him of it. He hadn't what is generally termed a singing face, by any means.

The wonderful duet between the cricket and the kettle at the commencement of The Cricket on the Hearth certainly deserves mention, though it is rather difficult to know whether to class the performers as instrumentalists or singers. The kettle began it with a series of short vocal snorts, which at first it checked in the bud, but finally it burst into a stream of song, 'while the lid performed a sort of jig, and clattered like a deaf and dumb cymbal that had never known the use of its twin brother.' Then the cricket came in with its chirp, chirp, chirp, and at it they went in fierce rivalry until 'the kettle, being dead beat, boiled over, and was taken off the fire.'

‘Cricket on the Hearth,’ the traditional American fiddle tune, as performed by the group Hickory Wind on its 1978 album, Crossing Devil’s Bridge (released on the Flying Fish label). Group members included Bob Shank (hammered dulcimer, 5-string banjo, percussion, vocals); David Rice (bass, vocals); Hank Pittman (drums and percussion); Sam Morgan (acoustic and electric guitars; fiddle; mandolin; piano; vocals); Mark Walbridge (acoustic and electric guitars, plectrum banjo, flute, tin whistle, vocals).

Dickens was certainly partial to the cricket, for elsewhere (Master Humphrey’s Clock) we read of the clock that

makes cheerful music, like one of those chirping insects who delight in the warm hearth.

There are two or three references to the key bugle, which also used to be known as the Kent bugle. It was a popular instrument half a century ago, as the addition of keys gave it a much greater range of notes than the ordinary bugle possessed. A notable though inefficient performer was the driver who took Martin Chuzzlewit up to London.

He was musical, besides, and had a little key bugle in his pocket on which, whenever the conversation flagged, he played the first part of a great many tunes, and regularly broke down in the second.

This instrument was on Mr. Feeder's agenda.

Two more instruments demand our attention. At the marriage of Tackleton and May Fielding (Cricket on the Hearth) there were to be marrow-bones and cleavers, while to celebrate the union of Trotty Veck's daughter Meg and Richard they had a band including the aforesaid instruments and also the drum and the bells. It was formerly the custom for butchers' assistants to provide themselves with marrow-bones and cleavers for musical effects. Each cleaver was ground so that when it was struck with the bone it emitted a certain note. (12) A complete band would consist of eight men, with their cleavers so tuned as to give an octave of notes. After more or less practice they would offer their services as bandsmen on the occasion of marriage ceremonies, which they had a wonderful faculty for locating, and they would provide music (of a kind) ad libitum until the requisite fee was forthcoming. If their services were declined the butchers would turn up all the same, and make things very unpleasant for the marriage party. The custom dates from the eighteenth century, and though it has gradually fallen into disuse a marrow-bone and cleaver band is still available in London for those who want it. A band took part in a wedding ceremony at Clapham as recently as the autumn of 1911.

The following extract, referring to the second marriage of Mr. Dombey, shows what bridal parties had to put up with in the good old days:

The men who play the bells have got scent of the marriage; and the marrow-bones and cleavers too; and a brass band too. The first are practising in a back settlement near Battle-bridge (13); the second put themselves in communication, through their chief, with Mr. Tomlinson, to whom they offer terms to be bought off; and the third, in the person of an artful trombone, lurks and dodges round the corner, waiting for some traitor-tradesman to reveal the place and hour of breakfast, for a bribe.

Other instruments casually referred to are the Pan's pipes, which in one place is also called a mouth-organ (Sketches by Boz, Scenes, 20), the flageolet, and the triangle. It is difficult to classify the walking-stick on which Mr. Jennings Rudolph played tunes before he went behind the parlour door and gave his celebrated imitations of actors, edgetools, and animals (Sketches by Boz, Characters, 8).

(11) Forster, Life of Charles Dickens.

(12) This is rather a modern development.

(13) Near King's Cross Station (G.N.R.).

Next Month: Chapter V: Church Music

James T. Lightwood's Charles Dickens and Music is available as a free e-book at Project Gutenberg

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024