may 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. Following last month’s installment of Chapter I, Chapter III references the various and sundry instruments that appear not inconsequentially in Dickens’s works.


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.’




We find several references to the flute, and Dickens contrives to get much innocent fun out of it. First comes Mr. Mell, who used to carry his instrument about with him and who, in response to his mother's invitation to 'have a blow at it' while David Copperfield was having his breakfast, made, said David, 'the most dismal sounds I have ever heard produced by any means, natural or artificial.' After he had finished he unscrewed his flute into three pieces, and deposited them underneath the skirts of his coat.

Dickens' schoolmasters seem to have been partial to the flute. Mr. Squeers [Nicholas Nickleby], it is true, was not a flautist, but Mr. Feeder, B.A. [Dombey and Son] was, or rather he was going to be. When little Paul Dombey visited his tutor's room he saw 'a flute which Mr. Feeder couldn't play yet, but was going to make a point of learning, he said, hanging up over the fireplace.'

Unfinished painting by Robert William Buss shows Dickens in his study at his country home in Kent surrounded by his literary offspring. Little Knell, his favorite is perched on his knee; Paul Dombey appears just above his right hand, and Sam Weller in the upper left corner. Buss copied some of the etchings of Dicken's illustrator, Hablot K. Browne, known as ‘Phiz.’

He also had a beautiful little curly second-hand 'key bugle,' which was also on the list of things to be accomplished on some future occasion, in fact he has unlimited confidence in the power and influence of music. Here is his advice to the love-stricken Mr. Toots, whom he recommends to

learn the guitar, or at least the flute; for women like music when you are paying your addresses to 'em, and he has found the advantage of it himself.

The flute was the instrument that Mr. Richard Swiveller took to when he heard that Sophy Wackles was lost to him for ever,

thinking that it was a good, sound, dismal occupation, not only in unison with his own sad thoughts, but calculated to awaken a fellow feeling in the bosoms of his neighbours.

So he got out his flute, arranged the light and a small oblong music-book to the best advantage, and began to play 'most mournfully.'

The air was 'Away with Melancholy,' a composition which, when it is played very slowly on the flute, in bed, with the further disadvantage of being performed by a gentleman but imperfectly acquainted with the instrument, who repeats one note a great many times before he can find the next, has not a lively effect.

So Mr. Swiveller spent half the night or more over this pleasing exercise, merely stopping now and then to take breath and soliloquize about the Marchioness; and it was only after he 'had nearly maddened the people of the house, and at both the next doors, and over the way,' that he shut up the book and went to sleep. The result of this was that the next morning he got a notice to quit from his landlady, who had been in waiting on the stairs for that purpose since the dawn of day.

Jean-Pierre Rampal plays Debussy’s ‘The Little Shepherd’ for the Muppets.

Jack Redburn, too [Master Humphrey’s Clock], seems to have found consolation in this instrument, spending his wet Sundays in 'blowing a very slow tune on the flute.'

There is one, and only one, recorded instance of this very meek instrument suddenly asserting itself by going on strike, and that is in the sketch entitled Private Theatres [Sketches by Boz, ‘Scenes’], where the amateurs take so long to dress for their parts that 'the flute says he'll be blowed if he plays any more.'

We must on no account forget the serenade with which the gentlemen boarders proposed to honour the Miss Pecksniffs. The performance was both vocal and instrumental, and the description of the flute-player is delightful.

It was very affecting, very. Nothing more dismal could have been desired by the most fastidious taste.... The youngest gentleman blew his melancholy into a flute. He didn't blow much out of it, but that was all the better.

After a description of the singing we have more about the flute.

The flute of the youngest gentleman was wild and fitful. It came and went in gusts, like the wind. For a long time together he seemed to have left off, and when it was quite settled by Mrs. Todgers and the young ladies that, overcome by his feelings, he had retired in tears, he unexpectedly turned up again at the very top of the tune, gasping for breath. He was a tremendous performer. There was no knowing where to have him; and exactly when you thought he was doing nothing at all, then was he doing the very thing that ought to astonish you most.

Yet another performer is the domestic young gentleman [Collected Papers] who holds skeins of silk for the ladies to wind, and who then

brings down his flute in compliance with a request from the youngest Miss Gray, and plays divers tunes out of a very small book till supper-time.

Francis Poulenc and Jean-Pierre Rampal play the second movement of Poulenc's flute sonata.

When Nancy went to the prison to look for Oliver Twist, she found nobody in durance vile except a man who had been taken up for playing the flute, and who was bewailing the loss of the same, which had been confiscated for the use of the county.

The gentleman who played the violoncello at Mrs. Gattleton's party has already been referred to, and it only remains to mention Mr. Evans, who 'had such lovely whiskers' and who played the flute on the same occasion, to bring the list of players to an end.

We meet with a remarkable musician in Dombey and Son in the person of Harriet Carker's visitor, a scientific one, according to the description:

A certain skilful action of his fingers as he hummed some bars, and beat time on the seat beside him, seemed to denote the musician; and the extraordinary satisfaction he derived from humming something very slow and long, which had no recognizable tune, seemed to denote that he was a scientific one.

André Rieu, Humming Chorus from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

A less capable performer was Sampson Brass, who hummed

in a voice that was anything but musical certain vocal snatches which appeared to have reference to the union between Church and State, inasmuch as they were compounded of the Evening Hymn and 'God Save the King.'

Musicians of various degrees abound in the Sketches [Ed. note: Sketches by Boz, 1835-6]. Here is Mr. Wisbottle, whistling 'The Light Guitar' at five o'clock in the morning, to the intense disgust of Mr. John Evenson, a fellow boarder at Mrs. Tibbs'. Subsequently he came down to breakfast in blue slippers and a shawl dressing-gown, whistling 'Di piacer.' Mr. Evenson can no longer control his feelings, and threatens to start the triangle if his enemy will not stop his early matutinal music. A suggested name for this whistler is the 'humming-top,' from his habit of describing semi-circles on the piano stool, and 'humming most melodiously.' There are a number of characters who indulge in the humming habit either to cover their confusion, or as a sign of light-heartedness and contentment. Prominent amongst these are Pecksniff [Ed. note: Martin Chuzzlewit], who, like Morfin [Ed. note: Dombey and Son], hums melodiously, and Micawber [David Copperfield], who can both sing and hum. Nor must we omit to mention Miss Petowker [Nicholas Nickleby] who 'hummed a tune' as her contribution to the entertainment at Mrs. Kenwigs' party. Many of the characters resort to humming to conceal their temporary discomfiture, and perhaps no one ever hummed under more harassing circumstances than when Mr. Pecksniff had to go to the door to let in some very unwelcome guests, who had already knocked several times. But he was a past master in the art of dissimulation. He is particularly anxious to conceal from his visitors the fact that Jonas Chuzzlewit is in the house. So he says to the latter--

'This may be a professional call. Indeed I am pretty sure it is. Thank you.' Then Mr. Pecksniff, gently warbling a rustic stave, put on his garden hat, seized a spade, and opened the street door; calmly appearing on the threshold as if he thought he had, from his vineyard, heard a modest rap, but was not quite certain.

Then he tells his visitors 'I do a little bit of Adam still.' He certainly had a good deal of the old Adam in him.

The clarionet is associated with the fortunes of Mr. Frederick Dorrit, who played the instrument at the theatre where his elder niece was a dancer, and where Little Dorrit sought an engagement. After the rehearsal was over she and her sister went to take him home.

He had been in that place six nights a week for many years, but had never been observed to raise his eyes above his music-book.... The carpenters had a joke that he was dead without being aware of it.

At the theatre he had no part in what was going on except the part written for the clarionet. In his young days his house had been the resort of singers and players. When the fortunes of the family changed his clarionet was taken away from him, on the ground that it was a 'low instrument.' It was subsequently restored to him, but he never played it again.

Of quite a different stamp was one of the characters in Going into Society, who played the clarionet in a band at a Wild Beast Show, and played it all wrong. He was somewhat eccentric in dress, as he had on 'a white Roman shirt and a bishop's mitre covered with leopard skin.' We are told nothing about him, except that he refused to know his old friends. In his story of the Seven Poor Travellers Dickens found the clarionet-player of the Rochester Waits so communicative that he accompanied the party across an open green called the Vines,

and assisted--in the French sense--at the performance of two waltzes, two polkas, and three Irish melodies.

A notable bassoon player was Mr. Bagnet [Bleak House], who had a voice somewhat resembling his instrument. The ex-artilleryman kept a little music shop in a street near the Elephant and Castle. There were

a few fiddles in the window, and some Pan's pipes and a tambourine, and a triangle, and certain elongated scraps of music.

It was to this shop that Bucket the detective came under the pretence of wanting a second-hand 'wiolinceller.’ In the course of conversation it turns out that Master Bagnet (otherwise 'Woolwich') 'plays the fife beautiful,' and he performs some popular airs for the benefit of his audience. Mr. Bucket also claims to have played the fife himself when a boy, 'not in a scientific way, but by ear.'

Two references to the bagpipes deserve notice. One is in David Copperfield, where the novelist refers to his own early experiences as a shorthand reporter. He has no high opinion of the speeches he used to take down.

One joyful night, therefore, I noted down the music of the parliamentary bagpipes for the last time, and I have never heard it since; though I still recognize the old drone in the newspapers.

‘Amazing Grace,’ performed by the Royal Dragoon Guards, from the group’s Spirit of the Glen album.

In Our Mutual Friend, we read of Charley Hexam's fellow pupils keeping themselves awake

by maintaining a monotonous droning noise, as if they were performing, out of time and tune, on a ruder sort of bagpipe.

The peculiar subdued noise caused by a lot of children in a school is certainly suggestive of the instrument.

Little is said about the trombone. We are told, in reference to the party at Dr. Strong's [David Copperfield], that the good Doctor knew as much about playing cards as he did about 'playing the trombone.' In 'Our School' [Reprinted Pieces] we are told a good deal about the usher who 'made out the bills, mended the pens, and did all sorts of things.'

He was rather musical, and on some remote quarter-day had bought an old trombone; but a bit of it was lost, and it made the most extraordinary sounds when he sometimes tried to play it of an evening.

In a similarly dismembered state was the flute which Dickens once saw in a broker's shop. It was 'complete with the exception of the middle joint.'

This naturally calls to mind the story of the choir librarian who was putting away the vocal parts of a certain funeral anthem. After searching in vain for two missing numbers he was obliged to label the parcel

'His body is buried in peace.' Two parts missing.

The references to the organ are both numerous and interesting, and it is pretty evident that this instrument had a great attraction for Dickens. The gentle Tom Pinch [Martin Chuzzlewit], whom Gissing calls 'a gentleman who derives his patent of gentility direct from God Almighty,' first claims our attention. He used to play the organ at the village church 'for nothing.' It was a simple instrument, 'the sweetest little organ you ever heard,' provided with wind by the action of the musician's feet, and thus Tom was independent of a blower, though he was so beloved that

there was not a man or boy in all the village and away to the turnpike (tollman included) but would have blown away for him till he was black in the face.

What a delight it must have been to him to avail himself of the opportunity to play the organ in the cathedral when he went to meet Martin!

As the grand tones resounded through the church they seemed, to Tom, to find an echo in the depth of every ancient tomb, no less than in the deep mystery of his own heart.

And he would have gone on playing till midnight 'but for a very earthy verger,' who insisted on locking up the cathedral and turning him out.

‘All Creatures of Our God and King,’ played on the pipe organ by Alena Hall at the University of Utah Libby Gardner Concert Hall

On one occasion, while he was practising at the church, the miserable Pecksniff entered the building and, hiding behind a pew, heard the conversation between Tom and Mary that led to the former being dismissed from the architect's office, so he had to leave his beloved organ, and mightily did the poor fellow miss it when he went to London! Being an early riser, he had been accustomed to practise every morning, and now he was reduced to taking long walks about London, a poor substitute indeed!

Nor was the organ the only instrument that he could play, for we read how he would spend half his nights poring over the 'jingling anatomy of that inscrutable old harpsichord in the back parlour,' and amongst the household treasures that he took to London were his music and an old fiddle.

The picture which forms our frontispiece shows Tom Pinch playing his favourite instrument. At the sale of the original drawings executed by 'Phiz' for Martin Chuzzlewit this frontispiece, which is an epitome of the salient characters and scenes in the novel, was sold for £35.

We read in Christmas Stories that

Silas Jorgan
Played the organ,

but we are not told the name of the artist who at the concert at the Eagle (Sketches by Boz) accompanied a comic song on the organ--and such an organ!

Miss J'mima Ivins's friend's young man whispered it had cost 'four hundred pound,' which Mr. Samuel Wilkins said was 'not dear neither.'

Fats Waller on organ, ‘Lonesome Road,’ recorded in London, August 28, 1938

The singer was probably either Howell or Glindon. Dickens appears to have visited the Eagle Tavern in 1835 or 1836. It was then a notable place of entertainment consisting of gardens with an orchestra, and the 'Grecian Saloon,' which was furnished with an organ and a 'self-acting piano.' Here concerts were given every evening, which in Lent took a sacred turn, and consisted of selections from Handel and Mozart. In 1837 the organ was removed, and a new one erected by Parsons.

The Eagle gained a wide reputation through its being introduced into a once popular song.

Up and down the City Road,
  In and out the Eagle,
That's the way the money goes,
  Pop goes the weasel.

This verse was subsequently modified (for nursery purposes) thus:

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
  Half a pound of treacle,
That's the way the money goes, (9)
  Pop goes the weasel.

Many explanations have been given of 'weasel.' Some say it was a purse made of weasel skin; others that it was a tailor's flat-iron which used to be pawned (or 'popped') to procure the needful for admission to the tavern. A third (and more intelligible) suggestion is that the line is simply a catch phrase, without any meaning.

There is a notable reference to the organ in Little Dorrit. Arthur Clennam goes to call on old Frederick Dorrit, the clarionet player, and is directed to the house where he lived. 'There were so many lodgers in this house that the door-post seemed to be as full of bell handles as a cathedral organ is of stops,' and Clennam hesitates for a time, 'doubtful which might be the clarionet stop.'

Further on in the same novel we are told that it was the organ that Mrs. Finching was desirous of learning.

I have said ever since I began to recover the blow of Mr. F's death that I would learn the organ of which I am extremely fond but of which I am ashamed to say I do not yet know a note.

The following fine description of the tones of an organ occurs in The Chimes:

The organ sounded faintly in the church below. Swelling by degrees the melody ascended to the roof, and filled the choir and nave. Expanding more and more, it rose up, up; up, up; higher, higher, higher up; awakening agitated hearts within the burly piles of oak, the hollow bells, the iron-bound doors, the stairs of solid stone; until the tower walls were insufficient to contain it, and it soared into the sky.

 ‘The Happy Organ,’ by David Cortez Clowney, aka Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez, was the first instrumental #1 single on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and the first pop hit to feature the electronic organ. Recorded for the indie Clock label in 1956, it was not released until 1959. The red-hot guitar solo is by Wild Jimmy Spruill.

The effect of this on Trotty Veck was very different from that which another organ had on the benevolent old lady we read of in Our Paris.She subscribed £20 towards a new instrument for the parish church, and was so overcome when she first heard it that she had to be carried out by the pew-opener.

There are various references to the organs in the City churches, and probably the description of one of them given in Dombey and Son would suit most instruments of the period.

The organ rumbled and rolled as if it had got the colic, for want of a congregation to keep the wind and damp out.

In real life the barrel-organ was a frequent source of annoyance to Dickens, who found its ceaseless strains very trying when he was busy writing, and who had as much trouble in evicting the grinders as David Copperfield's aunt had with the donkeys.

However, he takes a very mild revenge on this deservedly maligned instrument in his works, and the references are, as usual, of a humorous character. A barrel-organ formed a part of the procession to celebrate the election of Mr. Tulrumble 10  as Mayor of Mudfog, but the player put on the wrong stop, and played one tune while the band played another.

This instrument had an extraordinary effect on Major Tpschoffki, familiarly and more easily known as 'Chops,' the dwarf, 'spirited but not proud,' who was desirous of 'Going into Society' (Christmas Stories), and who had got it into his head that he was entitled to property:

His ideas respectin' his property never come upon him so strong as when he sat upon a barrel-organ, and had the handle turned. Arter the wibration had run through him a little time he would screech out, 'Toby, I feel my property coming-grind away! I'm counting my guineas by thousands, Toby-grind away! Toby, I shall be a man of fortun! I feel the Mint a-jingling in me, Toby, and I'm swelling out into the Bank of England.' Such is the influence of music on a poetic mind.

Beautifully crafted barrel organs return to Amsterdam’s city center during the Draaiorgel Festival

Dickens found the streets in New York very different from those in London, and specially remarks how quiet they were-no itinerant musicians or showmen of any kind. He could only remember hearing one barrel-organ with a dancing-monkey. 'Beyond that, nothing lively, no, not so much as a white mouse in a twirling cage.'

We must not forget that he has two references to pipe organs in his American Notes. When he visited the Blind School at Boston he heard a voluntary played on the organ by one of the pupils, while at St. Louis he was informed that the Jesuit College was to be supplied with an organ sent from Belgium.

The barrel-organ brings to mind Jerry and his troupe of dancing-dogs [Old Curiosity Shop], especially the unfortunate animal who had lost a halfpenny during the day, and consequently had to go without his supper. In fact, his master made the punishment fit the crime; for, having set the stop, he made the dog play the organ while the rest had their evening meal.

When the knives and forks rattled very much, or any of his fellows got an unusually large piece of fat, he accompanied the music with a short howl; but he immediately checked it on his master looking round and applied himself with increased diligence to the Old Hundredth.

In Dombey and Son there is a very apt comparison of Mr. Feeder, B.A., to this instrument. He was Doctor Blimber's assistant master, and was entrusted with the education of little Paul.

Mr. Feeder, B.A. ... was a kind of human barrel-organ with a little list of tunes at which he was continually working, over and over again, without any variation. He might have been fitted up with a change of barrels, perhaps, in early life, if his destiny had been favourable, but it had not been.

So he had only one barrel, his sole occupation being to 'bewilder the young ideas of Dr. Blimber's young gentlemen.' Sometimes he had his Virgil stop on, and at other times his Herodotus stop. In trying to keep up the comparison, however, Dickens makes a curious mistake. In the above quotation Feeder is assigned one barrel only, while in Chapter XLI we are told that he had 'his other barrels on a shelf behind him.'

We find another comparison in Little Dorrit, when the long-suffering Pancks turns round on Casby, his employer, and exposes his hypocrisy. Pancks, who has had much difficulty in getting his master's rents from the tenants, makes up his mind to leave him; and before doing so he tells the whole truth about Casby to the inhabitants of Bleeding Heart Yard. 'Here's the Stop,' said Pancks, 'that sets the tune to be ground. And there is but one tune, and its name is "Grind! Grind! Grind!"'

Although the guitar was a fashionable instrument sixty years ago, there are but few references to it. This was the instrument that enabled the three Miss Briggses, each of them performers, to eclipse the glory of the Miss Tauntons, who could only manage a harp. On the eventful day of 'The Steam Excursion' [Sketches by Boz] the three sisters brought their instruments, carefully packed up in dark green cases,

which were carefully stowed away in the bottom of the boat, accompanied by two immense portfolios of music, which it would take at least a week's incessant playing to get through.

At a subsequent stage of the proceedings they were asked to play, and after replacing a broken string, and a vast deal of screwing and tightening, they gave 'a new Spanish composition, for three voices and three guitars,' and secured an encore, thus completely overwhelming their rivals. In the account of the French Watering-Place (R.P.) we read about a guitar on the pier, 'to which a boy or woman sings without any voice little songs without any tune.'

Andrés Segovia plays Bach’s Gavotte 1 and 2.

On one of his night excursions in the guise of an 'Uncommercial Traveller' Dickens discovered a stranded Spaniard, named Antonio. In response to a general invitation 'the swarthy youth' takes up his cracked guitar and gives them the 'feeblest ghost of a tune,' while the inmates of the miserable den kept time with their heads.

Dora used to delight David Copperfield by singing enchanting ballads in the French language and accompanying herself 'on a glorified instrument, resembling a guitar,' though subsequent references show it was that instrument and none other.

We read in Little Dorrit that Young John Chivery wore 'pantaloons so highly decorated with side stripes, that each leg was a three-stringed lute.' This appears to be the only reference to this instrument, and a lute of three strings is the novelist's own conception, the usual number being about nine.

(9) Or, 'Mix it up and make it nice.'

(10) The Public Life of Mr. Tulrumble, 1837.


Next Month: Chapter IV: Various Instruments (continued)

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

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