Roman Catholicism

So far, Roman Catholicism has not been mentioned except as a passing reference in connection with the Oxford Movement. Before mid-century no publisher saw much potential for sales of songs espousing Roman Catholic sentiment, however attractive the music, and despite the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 . Of course, the tradition of comic monks and friars as seen in London's Black Friar Pub continued to resonate in nineteenth-century song: for example, 'The Syren and the Friar' (1842), 'The Monks Were Jolly Boys' (1862), 'Friar Cupid' (1884); and for the whole century a perennial favourite was 'The Friar of Orders Grey', from O'Keefe and Reeve's opera 'Merry Sherwood' (1796). Sometimes a means could be found to draw attention away from Roman Catholic sentiment by emphasizing that the text came from a Romantic literary source. Schubert's 'Ave Maria' was published by Wessel & Co. of London in the early 1840s as 'Ellen's Hymn! Ave Maria!' from Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake. Today, ironically, the fact that Schubert set a German translation of Ellen's 'Hymn to the Virgin' from Canto III of that work is almost unknown.20 Another way Roman Catholicism might find favour in the drawing rooms of the 1840s was if it arrived in the form of a prayer or aria from a Romantic opera; hence, 'Holy Mother, Guide His Footsteps', from Wallace's Montana (1845), was accepted as a delightful and inoffensive duet. In the 1850s, with the drift towards Catholicism of many Tractarians, the climate was sufficiently changed for settings of the actual Ave Maria prayer rather than the outpourings of a fictional character to prove capable of attracting large sales. Such a one was Virginia Gabriel's 'Ave Maria' of 1857, though Boosey sought to boost sales figures by issuing it as 'Nightfall at Sea' with secular words by A. Matthison in the mid-1860s. The famous 'Ave Maria' melody by Gounod, composed to the accompaniment of a Bach prelude, also belongs to the 1850s; it was published in London in 1859. However, even when the sacred song was a| well-established species of drawing-room ballad in the 1870s, the content was still strongly Protestant. James Molloy, one of the best-selling ballad composers of this period, and a Roman Catholic, very obviously steers clear of religious subject matter in his output.

In the 1880s the ballad of Roman Catholic character gains an unshakable footing in the drawing room, thanks to the efforts of Theodore Auguste Marie Joseph Piccolomini (1835-1902). Piccolomini, who, incidentally, was born in Dublin, had his first real success in 1884 with a song of broad religious sentiment, 'Saved by a Child' (words by 'Nemo').21 In 1889 he made his religious convictions plain in what became his most celebrated song, 'Ora Pro Nobis' (words by A. Horspool). In a previous ballad, 'The Toilers' (1888), for which he had provided [118/119] his own words, he had had the idea of making the refrain a prayer. There he quoted part of the Lord's Prayer; but in 'Ora Pro Nobis', the words of the title, which form the refrain, are part of a uniquely Catholic prayer, the Ave Maria. The combination of dramatic gran scena treatment and lyrical effusiveness had also featured in some of his earlier ballads, but the touching tale of an orphan girl who dies at her mother's graveside contrived to make this one irresistible. There is a difference, although it may be only of degree, between ballads of this nature, designed largely for the sentimental self-indulgence of a drawing-room audience, and ballads such as John Blockley's setting of Longfellow's 'The Reaper and the Flowers' (1855) where the intention seems to be to provide comfort for those who have lost children of their own. The character of the angel is worth noting in this respect, too. In both Britain and America, where urbanization took a similar toll of young lives, there developed an image of the angel as a quite specific kind of being. Many sheet-music covers of songs about dying show a pretty, white-robed girl with large feathery wings, who may be playing a harp, or carrying a child to heaven. That these comforting creatures were invariably feminine in the nineteenth century, thereby reflecting gender roles in the earthly home, was as true of nonconformist angels as of Roman Catholic angels ('Queen of Angels' is the title of a 'Vesper Song' composed by Piccolomini to words by 'Nemo' in 1897).


Finally, some words need to be added concerning the special religious festival of Christmas. The Victorian period certainly saw the construction of a new meaning and ritual around Christmas, and many of the changes in celebrating Christmas may be related to the need to organize and control the leisure activity of a large urban population. The slow build-up to the festival, however, and the vast display of conspicuous consumption are of more recent date. New publications of old carols began to appear in the 1840s and were soon being aimed at the family; the ideology of the family was reinforced at Christmas by the example of the Holy Family. Songs of Christmas for Family Choirs, selected and adapted by a Clergyman of the Church of England was published in London in 1847. Henry John Gauntlett then published some new carols, in Christmas Carols, Old and New (1850); his most well-known carol is 'Once in Royal David's City', a setting of verse by Mrs C. F. Alexander. In the same way that one of the early varieties of sacred song for the drawing room developed from the hymn a related kind developed from the carol. One of the first to win widespread favour was Brinley Richards' 'Christmas Chimes' (words by R.B.), published by A. Hammond & Co. in 1854, and reaching its twelfth edition before being reissued by Chappell in the late 1860s. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Christmas theme, like any other sacred theme, was just one more option open to songwriters, as the diverse musical strands of the drawing-room ballad moved towards a uniformity of idiom under the influence of Boosey's Ballad Concerts (see Chapter 7). One of the most celebrated of the ballads from this period to deal with Christmas time was 'The Star of Bethlehem' (1887), words by Frederic Weatherly, music by Stephen Adams.22 [119/120]

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Last modified 13 June 2012