Bourgeois domestic music branched out in three new directions in the 1840s and '50s: songs by (or partly by) women were added to those by 'respectable' entertainers like Bayly and Russell; songs from the blackface minstrel shows were added to those taken from the English opera; and a new kind of sacred song supplemented the hymns sung on Sundays. These three developments are covered in the next three chapters. Women songwriters are treated first because they attracted a peak of attention in the 1860s (when they were being marketed as something of a novelty), whereas the minstrels were still going strong in the 1880s, and the sacred song proved to be one of the most durable forms of drawing-room ballad. There is another reason, too, for placing women composers after a chapter on the early amateur music market: a composer like Maria Lindsay can be seen to be consciously tailoring her music to amateur domestic rather than professional public performance. Moreover, her songs contain features common in amateur composition, such as incessant two-bar phrasing, and the simple melodic framework which is adapted to the differing demands (especially those pertaining to metre and stress) of individual verses.
Before discussing the rise of the woman composer, it would be valuable to examine briefly the social position of the middle-class woman in the nineteenth century. The Victorian 'perfect lady' was innocent and chaste before marriage and a devoted wife and caring mother after marriage. Her education took place within the family, and the range of subjects she could study was limited by the fear of making her opinionated and therefore less submissive to her future husband's views. Literary, artistic, and musical skills were thought appropriate to female study. The mechanics of the subjection of women were to be found in the ideologies of purity, chastity, and the family. Female sexuality was repressed by the ideology of purity and found sublimation in religion, motherhood, and the spiritual side of love. Middle-class men had to achieve financial security before marriage and so tended to marry late; the ideology of chastity served to remove the threat to family values of illegitimate children. The virginity of middle-class women was, ironically, protected by the large numbers of prostitutes available. In tacit acknowledgment of this, the state brought forward no serious legislation against prostitution until the necessity arose of preventing the spread of venereal disease among the armed forces (prompting the Contagious Disease Acts of 1865-69). The ideology of the family ensured that the primary role of women was a breeding children; as a consequence, there developed a whole range of beliefs about gender behaviour which made women of all classes victims of sexism.
A middle-class woman's roles, then, were all family roles: she began as daughter and progressed in turn to being a wife and mother. Each role had its duties and obligations, thoroughly documented in Sarah Ellis's books, The Mothers of England (1843), The Wives of England (1844) and The Daughters of England (1845). A woman's status depended on her father's economic position before marriage and her husband's thereafter. Prospective husbands were influenced by the former of these conditions:
They say, 'She's pretty, but, alas!'
With hand extended, thus they flout:
'She has no cash!' and by they pass: —
Ye gods! what are the men about?
(from 'Not Married Yet', words unattributed, music by Henry Russell)
For a middle-class woman, being a caring mother did not imply that she devoted her time to looking after children; they would be put into the charge of nannies and governesses. There would be little work to do about the house, since that was attended to by servants. Charity work for the local church was common among those who wished to be active, but it was not admired if it became too zealous. If a middle-class woman failed to marry, it was usually a disaster: the best that might be hoped for was to become 'auntie' in a brother's house, or a governess. Unmarried working-class women supported themselves by going into factories, shops, domestic service, or becoming seamstresses. Elderly unmarried women of either class rarely received sympathetic treatment. The severest opprobrium, however, was reserved for the 'fallen woman', for example, an adulteress or prostitute; she posed the most outrageous threat to family values. When Holman Hunt, in The Awakening Conscience (1854), painted a fallen woman whose conscience is stirred by the divine power of music, many were appalled at what they considered to be Holman Hunt's poor taste. Even the possibility of redemption for such creatures was resented.
Questions concerning the rights of women were regarded during the Napoleonic Wars as akin to Jacobinism, though a minority kept alive the thoughts of people like Mary Wollstonecraft. The issue was revived after the war in radical publications and was reaffirmed by Shelley's circle. The most radical women were workers in the northern textile districts, where demand for their labour had effected a change in their economic status (see Thompson 1968: 454). The debate about the rights of women was dominated in the 1860s by the arguments of Mill and Ruskin. Mill furnished a rational analysis of the subjection of women and called for emancipation. Ruskin countered with the ideology of chivalry: a woman has virtues unobtainable by men and can therefore 'rule' a man's conscience. Victorian chivalry was a hegemonic compromise which maintained patriarchal control and contained nineteenth-century feminism by emphasizing difference rather than inferiority.
In the 1880s the 'new woman' emerged, demanding an end to double standards in sexual morality and asking to be given an active participatory role in society. The January 1884 Westminster Review noted with an air of revelation in 1884, 'wifehood and [61/62] motherhood are incidental parts, which may or may not enter into the life of each woman' (153). During this decade enormous demonstrations were being held in cities and large towns by the women's suffrage movement. Many Tories were in favour of extending the franchise to women 'inhabitant occupiers' in the hope that property-owning women would swing the political pendulum to the right (a woman living with her husband was not legally an inhabitant occupier). The Movement for the Higher Education of Women also began in the 1880s. The 'new woman' of this period is satirized in Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida (1884). Gilbert's attitude to feminism may be dismissive, but his attitude to women is never simple. He is often accused, for example, of cruelty towards his elderly, unmarried female characters, an accusation which could be a largely male reaction born of self-serving male protectiveness (in the way Ruskin's chivalry was self-serving). Jane Stedman makes an alternative claim that in Gilbert's hands 'the middle-aged comic spinster took on an energy and independence which dramatists before and after him gave only to the high-spirited heroines' ('From dame to woman', in Vicinus 1980: 37).
For women to take to musical composition in any numbers, three conditions needed to be satisfied: they had to have the opportunity to develop the relevant musical skills, the opportunity to have their music performed, and examples of successful women composers to help them achieve. Middle-class women had leisure time they could spend on music. The economic stability of their position, which safeguarded a life of genteel idleness by enabling them to delegate chores to servants, had already encouraged them to indulge in more private forms of creative activity, such as writing novels. The Westminster Review, raising its eyebrows in 1856, said,
We had imagined that destitute women turned novelists, as they turned governesses, because they had no other 'ladylike' means of getting their bread . . But no! . . It is clear that they write in elegant boudoirs, with violet-coloured ink and a ruby pen. [October 1856: 443-44]
Enthusiasm for writing verse had been scornfully referred to some years earlier, in a song called 'The Clever Woman', composed by the celebrated burlesque composer, Jonathan Blewitt, with words by the Hon. Grantley Fitzhardinge Berkeley:
She gets some rich victim to pay for her pleasures,
And learned revisers are waiting the same,
To alter her prose and to finish her measures,
And give to her poetry all but their name.
Leisure time for women to compose was not sufficient in itself, since, unlike prose or verse, music exists only as sound. Therefore, there was an additional requirement to have the composition heard. There were many problems to overcome, however, in order to obtain access to the male-dominated musical profession. A typical example of a composer stifled by the lack of this second kind of opportunity was Alice Mary Smith (1839-84). The daughter of a London lace merchant, she showed great aptitude for music, and her father arranged for her to study with Sterndale Bennett and G. A. Macfarren. She attracted interested attention when the Musical Society of London included a performance of a string [62/63] quartet by her in 1861. She was accorded exceptional honours: she was elected as Female Professional Associate of the Philharmonic Society in 1867 (the year she married a QC who supported her musical activity); and she became an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music in 1884. Her output included such large-scale works as symphonies, cantatas, and a clarinet concerto. Yet, in spite of her honours and achievements, no publisher was interested in anything other than her songs and piano music. Thus, whereas Bennett's and Macfarren's orchestral works were rushed into print and available for performances far and wide, Smith stagnated with her manuscript copies in London. The only far-reaching admiration she acquired was for her well-constructed duet 'Maying' (words from The Saint's Tragedy, by Kingsley), published in 1870. Where women were prepared to serve clearly identifiable economic interests, publication was possible; 'Maying' was tailored to the ballad market and proved such a success that the copyright sold for £663 the year before Smith died (DNB XXI: 32). Because publishers were unwilling to take risks with orchestral works by women, and because women had restricted access to tuition in compositional skills (they were rarely taught orchestration, for example), the ballad was an obvious choice for their creative efforts. These facts need to be weighed when considering the sexual stereotyping of musical forms; but they also point to contradictions in 'essentialist' arguments that female cultural activity has a character of its own independent of social and economic circumstances. This extends from forms to moods: as soon as one finds something one may consider typically masculine, like imperialist bombast, one finds a woman who is equal to anything men can do (for example, Frances Allitsen).
Women learned music as an accomplishment, not as a profession. Mill remarked, in The Subjection of Women, that since women were taught music only for the purpose of executing it, not composing it, it was logical that in respect of composition (and composition alone) men were superior to women. Music often took pride of place among the range of leisure activities (such as sewing, sketching, and reading) which were available to middle-class girls. Lessons in singing were favoured because they yielded 'the showiest of all a young woman's accomplishments' (Dunbar 89). Training in the science of music rather than just the execution of music only began to move within more general reach of women when Conservatoires and Academies of Music started to offer scientific grounding in music to boys as well as girls in the 1870s. In spring 1870 Sullivan delivered a course of lectures at South Kensington Museum in connection with a scheme entitled 'Instruction in Science and Art for Women'. Nevertheless, the constant charge of the 1880s was that women lacked an inventive faculty, the proof being that although they were almost all taught music, there was a dearth of female composers. The Englishwoman's Review of 15 October 1888 argued in reply to such criticism,
the mechanical and superficial acquirement, which consumed so many hours of every girl's school-life, was not only unadapted to bring out the higher faculties, but possibly tended to stupefy them. [446-47]
In 1888, the year the above was written, women were continuing to prove themselves: a comic opera, Carina, by Julia Wolf was greeted with enthusiasm at [63/64] the Opera Comique in London; a woman won first prize in counterpoint at the Paris Conservatoire; and women were coming to the fore in Germany and Italy. Women were fighting for the right to take university degrees in music. As early as 1856, Elizabeth Stirling had passed the 'exercise' for the Mus. Bac. at Oxford but was refused the degree. She was for over twenty years the organist at St Andrew's, Undershaft, a post she won in open competition. In 1878 Cambridge allowed women to take their music examinations and, if successful, receive a certificate which stated that they had passed but 'for various reasons' the degree could not be conferred upon them (Cambridge first awarded degrees in music to women in 1927). In 1885 Oxford allowed women to go part of the way towards a degree in music but were not to confer degrees in music upon women until 1921. The first music graduate of Victoria University (now the University of Manchester) was, however, a woman! She was Marian Millar who, in 1894, became the first woman to obtain a degree in music in England. It may be wondered why universities in the 1880s took women students at all, when they felt unable to award them degrees. Perhaps it is significant that each woman paid around £80 a year in fees, not including the cost other private tuition. By the end of the century there was wider acknowledgement of the creative musical potential of women. The chairman, winding up a discussion on 'Woman as a Musician' at the annual conference of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (Grand Hotel, Scarborough, 2 January 1900), said he 'quite believed the part that women had played in the past had not been because they had not the genius, but because that genius had not been stimulated by their early training'.8 Within a few years Ethel Smyth would be hailed as the first woman composer to establish herself on an equal footing with men, particularly after the performance other opera The Wreckers in Germany in 1906.
Prior to the twentieth century, women composers were rarely given a place in history, though they were steadily growing in numbers from the seventeenth century onwards, when such notable figures as Barbara Strozzi (1619-44?), Mary Harvey (1629-1704) and Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet dc La Guerre (1664?-1727) were active. Thus, there was no 'Great Tradition' and there were no obvious role models for nineteenth-century women. Women usually made a reputation as performers, since this served 'the linked economic and erotic interests of dominant culture'.9 The most glamorized performer being the singer, it is interesting to note that the vocal arts alone have a 'Great Tradition' of women which overshadows that of men. Ambitious Victorian sopranos not only had the stimulus of the sensational London appearances made by Jenny Lind (the 'Swedish Nightingale') in 1847 and 1848-49 to help them achieve, but also the knowledge that home-grown sopranos like Elizabeth Linley and Nancy Storace had acquired international reputations in the previous century.
Women first entered the ballad market through the door of literature. Women writers had been establishing themselves as novelists, like Jane Austen (1775- 1817), or dramatists, like Elizabeth Inchbald (1756-1821), or poets, like Felicia Hemans (1794-1835). The latter, née Browne, was the daughter of a Liverpool merchant. She demonstrated a precocious talent for poetry, writing verse in Byronic vein at first, but always with due regard to moral propriety. Her poems [64/65] won a respected place in middle-class homes, where it was felt that 'mothers may safely place them in the hands of their children, certain that nothing but moral good can be obtained from them'.10 Her importance to the history of the drawing-room ballad lies in her having written the words to a collection of songs entitled Peninsular Melodies, published by Goulding & D'Almaine, London. Following Britain's liberating efforts in the Peninsular War, there was a vogue for Spanish melody which lasted into the mid-1850s. Apart from Spanish subject matter, everything about Hemans' verse was contemporary and English; and this sets her apart, as a model to English women lyricists, from earlier women who had written song-texts in dialect like Susanna Blamire (who will be discussed in the next chapter). Sometimes, even the subject matter of a Hemans Peninsular Melody is not obviously Spanish (for example, 'Mother, O! Sing Me to Rest'). Therefore, following the success of these songs, it was a small step for composers of ballads to want to set her shorter poems to music. Indeed, one of the most famous of drawing-room ballads is a late Victorian setting of her poem 'The Better Land' by Cowen, a poem which had already acquired popularity as a song earlier in the century in an unattributed setting published by Z. T. Purday.
Another precocious female talent, Eliza Cook (1818-89), the daughter of a Southwark tradesman, followed in Hemans' footsteps. Like the latter, 'No vicious thought intrudes itself into her writings',11 and she, too, acquired great popularity among the middle class: '. . . her poems hit the taste of that class, while a certain musical flow of the rhythm attracted the attention of the com- posers of the day, and many were set to music by Glover and other popular song writers'(539). In her early career, her poems were frequently set to music by Henry Russell. Her reputation was at its height in the early 1850s, when Eliza Cook's Journal, a periodical she founded in 1849, was a favourite among women who sought modest social and political reform. The absence of fashion-plates and gossip vouched for its serious nature. The moral fervour of Cook's poetry may have dated towards the end other life, but she had proved well before then that women could rival men in providing verse tor drawing-room ballads. She did, occasionally, write both words and music herself, as in 'Dead Leaves' (1852).
The importance of Hemans and Cook is seen in Davidson's Universal Melodist, the first large collection of 'popular, standard, and original songs'. The first volume of 1853 contains 800 songs, dominated 90 per cent by men. The female side is most strongly represented by Cook, Hemans, and a selection of Mary Leman Rede's new texts to Moore's Irish Melodies. Women composers are very thin on the ground, although their numbers doubled in the second volume, published in 1854. Nevertheless, women composers barely account for 5 per cent of the entire collection of 1630 songs.
Another figure important to the gradual emergence of women into the ballad market makes her appearance in volume one of the above collection; her name is Caroline Norton (1808-77). She is shown there following Hemans' example, supplying texts to two Peninsular melodies; but in the same year as that volume she had an outstanding success with a 'Spanish' ballad composed and written by herself. 'Juanita', published by Chappell, became the first ballad by a woman [65/66] composer to achieve massive sales (see Turner and Miall 27-30). Perhaps the Peninsular melody the market had been waiting for was just what 'Juanita' provided, a decidedly English ballad with an exotic hint of Spain in both words and music. A pseudo-Spanish musical turn decorates the name Juanita, and the postlude contains an imitation of the 'hammered-on' notes common in guitar music; otherwise, the refrain bears a striking resemblance to Handel's 'Lascia ch'io pianga', from Rinaldo. Caroline Norton was a granddaughter of the playwright Sheridan. She had to endure a long and stormy relationship when she married the Tory MP for Guildford, the Hon. George Norton; it included a sensational trial when, in an attempt to be rid of Caroline and to damage the Whig government, he brought a prosecution against the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, for 'criminal conversation' with his wife. Although the case was thrown out of court, her reputation never fully recovered: 'Through its revelations, and more especially through the advance publicity and speculation, Caroline had lost the indefinable aura of spotless inviolability at that time prized above all things for a woman' (Acland 93). Moreover, the Hon. George Norton was not averse, it seems, to beating his wife, causing her to seek frequent refuge with her mother, even though she was then denied access to her children. These adversities may have acted as a spur to her creative activities, if only for the money she was able to earn and the relative independence that money bought. In this connection it is surely no coincidence that Hemans was separated from her husband and that Eliza Cook never married. However, as a result of George Norton's hiding her children, Caroline's career was diverted from the arts to writing pamphlets and becoming the prime mover behind the Infant Custody Bill (passed in 1839).
Reunited with her children, she lived as an independent writer until, in 1853, George was inspired to sue her for debt, thus laying legal claim to any money she earned from writing or songs; 1853, it will be remembered, was the year of Juanita. Caroline was again diverted into writing and agitating in support of the Divorce Bill and the Married Women's Property Bill. Some other songs clearly reflect her own concerns, for example, 'The Mother's Lament' (1840). Others reflect them obliquely: 'The Arab's Farewell to His Favourite Steed' (music by John Blockley, published c. 1865) dwells upon the painful theme of separation and perhaps transfers some of the grief she felt at parting from her children to the Arab parting from his beloved horse.
Caroline Norton's importance to the history of the drawing-room ballad, however, is that she set an example for other women to emulate in producing a small body of contemporary songs of which she was both author and composer. In so doing, she not only paved the way for Claribel but also improved the status of women solely interested in composing the music for 'popular songs', something carried further by Maria Lindsay. In the second half of the 1850s, Miss M. Lindsay, as she chose to be known (sometimes giving her married name, Mrs. J. Worthington Bliss, in parentheses), established herself as the first commercially successful woman composer. Her publisher, Robert Cocks & Co., signed her up on an exclusive contract; in the 1860s she was second only to Franz Abt as the most popular composer in their song catalogue. She was still popular enough in 1900 for Wickins and Co. to publish an Album of Miss M. Lindsay's Songs. [66/67]
It is difficult to see now why her songs became such favourites: her accompaniments rarely venture beyond banal figurations of rocking or broken chords, and her melodic lines are undistinguished. It may be argued that her appeal lay in setting to music of an unobtrusive quality the verse of the most admired contemporary poets, such as Tennyson and Longfellow. It is obvious, too, from the preceding chapter, that a major attraction other songs was their simplicity and consequent suitability for domestic music-making. Her songs also won approval for being of a high moral order. Her first best-seller, composed in 1854, admirably exemplified this trait: it was a setting of Longfellow's 'Excelsior', the subject of which is the striving after higher things, and the nobility attending even failure in that quest. The song is a lightly varied strophic treatment of seven stanzas, containing some clumsy accentuation (musical accents contradicting verbal accents), and accompanied by broken-chord patterns of a monotonous and predictable regularity.
Balfe's later duet version of 'Excelsior' is distinguished by his ability to evoke a variety of moods, his inventiveness in setting the oft repeated title word, his sense of what is musically dramatic, and his skill in constructing a broad musical shape which increases the suspense of the narrative by avoiding the static circular feel of a strophic setting.
Lindsay occasionally makes a gesture of sympathy with the verse she is setting: for example, in 'Home They Brought Her Warrior Dead' (composed to Tennyson's verse in 1858), she responds to the wife's weeping with an urgent rhythmic agitation of her usual banal figuration. See the musical example on page 68.
Lindsay's songs leave most of the questions of interpretation of the mood of the poem and its drama to the individual singer. The emotional intensity other songs depends heavily on the expressive power of the singer's voice. Sometimes her melodies are a basic skeleton of notes which can be fleshed out in different ways to suit different lines of the poem. 'The Bridge' (words by Longfellow), published in 1856, demonstrates this approach [performance by the author]. At other times, she writes a clear-cut tune, as [67/68] ment being published as late as 1911 by J. Curwen & Sons).
Another woman ballad composer who began to make her reputation in the 1850s was Dolores, or Elizabeth Dickson (1819—78). She, like Lindsay, began by setting Longfellow poems in 1854; she achieved a modest success with 'The Bridge', published in that year by Charles Jefferys (London). Dolores also tends to rely on various permutations of broken-chord patterns for her accompaniments. In her case, however, they are often unpredictable in shape and rhythm. Her song 'The Land of Long Ago' offers a good example.
This example dates from 1873, but her setting of Tennyson's 'The Brook', published in 1857, shows the same individuality with its delicate use of grace notes to suggest the rippling water.[68/69]
Even when lapsing into conventional figuration, Dolores can save the day with an appealing melody, as she does in 'Wings'. This was published in 1861 but remained very popular throughout the whole decade, as is shown by the fact that three different piano arrangements of the song found their way on to the market.
The person who did most to convince people that women could compose ballads which would bear close comparison with anything similar by men was Virginia Gabriel (1825—77). She was born in Banstead, Surrey, the daughter of a major-general. She studied piano with the distinguished teachers Pixis, Dohler, and Thalberg. This was not so unusual, since professional women pianists were now becoming accepted (mainly thanks to Lucy Anderson and Clara Schumann); but Gabriel also contrived to gain a proper grounding in compo- sition from Molique and Mercadante. All the same, she soon encountered the same obstacles to success as those mentioned earlier in relation to Alice Smith. Her operetta Widows Bewitched ran for several weeks, performed by the Bijou Operetta Company at St George's Hall in 1867, but no wide-ranging interest [69/70] followed. Three years later, as a well-known name, she had to pay to have her cantata Dreamland printed privately. Cantatas and oratorios, the major musical forms of British concert life, and the forms which gave composers real stature, were a male preserve. Publishers were falling over each other, however, in competing for the rights to print Gabriel's ballads. A well-defined area in the ballad market had opened up to women composers in the 1860s. At the close of that decade, Boosey & Co. were making a specific point of advertising songs either sung or composed by women in their lists of'popular songs'.
Gabriel was driven to writing ballads in order to achieve any reputation as a composer. In her early career she was fond of composing in the Italian style (probably under Mercadante's influence), as in her canzonetta 'Se mi perdi', published by C. Londsdale of London in 1854. But when she wrote 'The Skipper and His Boy' for the celebrated ballad singer Charlotte Sainton-Dolby in about 1860, she was given clear proof of the acclaim which she might receive by concentrating on this genre. It was her first big success: Brinley Richards made a piano transcription in 1861, and the song itself was in its third edition in 1865. Composing ballads did not mean 'selling out' by tailoring her music to a perceived market: in 1865 she merely adapted to words by Arthur Matthison an 'Ave Maria' she had composed in 1857 and produced the successful ballad 'Nightfall at Sea'. Gabriel's compositional training constantly shows in her ballads. Sometimes it is evident in the form: 'When Sparrows Build' (published by Metzler & Co., c. 1870) is a modified sonata-form such as was often found in the slow movements of contemporary symphonies. Sometimes it is evident in the harmony: 'Alone' (published by Boosey & Co., undated) shows her harmonic skill and adroit use of minor inflexions to create a sensitive response to the words. [71/72]
Sometimes it is evident in the rhythm: 'Only' (published by Duff & Stewart, 1871) has uncommon rhythmic verve for a drawing-room ballad.
It is not just a matter of vigorous accompaniment; the rhythmic exhilaration pervades the melody too: note the singer's tiny but effective break before 'nothing more'.The extrovert style is undoubtedly related to its having been written for a male singer (something unusual for women composers to do at this time). The song shows her continuing interest in the bel canto style. The words (unattributed) have been carefully written to allow 'weak' phrase endings, a feature of Italian song deriving from the natural stresses of the Italian language. The melody concludes with a strikingly Verdian cadence.
Gabriel's influence was widespread in the 1860s, and some other procedures later became better known in association with the names of Sullivan and Cowen; for instance, the device of changing key from minor to tonic major coupled simultaneously to a direction to deliver the music with heightened expression.
The example on page 73 is from 'Ruby' (published by Metzler & Co., c. 1865). Gabriel, herself, may have derived the idea from Schubert or Italian opera, though examples which closely resemble the given extract from 'Ruby' are rare ('yearning' sections in Italian arias tend to be in the relative, rather than tonic, major).
The opening up of the ballad market to women composers in the 1860s probably owed most to the exceptional commercial success of Claribel's ballads. Charlotte Alington Barnard, née Pye (1830-69) may have taken the pseudonym Claribel from a poem of that name by a fellow native of Lincolnshire, Tennyson.[72/73] Unlike other women composers who seem to have thrived in the absence of male partners (and in this respect it is noteworthy that Virginia Gabriel was already well established before marrying George March in 1874), Claribel apparently only began to write songs after her marriage to the Rev. Charles Barnard. Her marriage does not appear to have been a close one, however, and her true feelings may have always been attached to the barrister to whom she was engaged for a year before giving in to her father's demands to call it off. It is surely not entirely coincidental that Claribel had some other greatest successes with jilt songs, like 'Oh, Mother! Take the Wheel Away' (Performance by present author) and 'Won't You Tell Me Why, Robin?'
Claribel was enabled to turn to composition by her removal, after her marriage, from Louth to London. There she received a little instruction from the piano virtuoso W. H. Holmes and took singing lessons from some of the finest women singers of the day. The most influential of these must have been Charlotte Sainton-Dolby (1821—85), not only because other skill as a contralto, but also because she was interested in composition herself. She had enjoyed a modest success with her ballad 'Lady, I Think of Thee' which was published by Leader & Cock in 1856, the year before Claribel arrived in London. Sainton-Dolby had the advantage of being able to promote her own songs at concerts and soirees, and she extended this facility to Claribel.
Claribel nearly always provided her own words to her ballads; in this she no doubt benefited from the advice and encouragement of her close friend and cousin, Jean Ingelow (1820-97). Ingelow, who had also moved to London from Lincolnshire, was one of several women poets building reputations in the 1860s; others included Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. Adelaide Procter (1825—64), whose poem 'A Lost Chord' (Performance by present author) was later to become one of the most famous of all drawing-room ballads in the hands of Sullivan, was already a well-known figure in the London Portfolio Society. Claribel occasionally set Ingelow's verse, and Ingelow's poetry soon became a storehouse for ballad [73/74] composers; sometimes, as in the case of 'O Fair Dove! O Fond Dove!' and 'When Sparrows Build', spawning several versions.
Claribel's songwriting career was eventually halted by a combination of ill health and the disaster of her sudden loss of respectability. Her father, Henry Pye, absconded as a bankrupt in 1868, having made fraudulent use of public funds (he was, amongst other things, County Treasurer of Lincoln). Her own financial loss as a result of this was £30,000; but worse, she was 'no longer the popular song-writer Claribel, at whose house the leading poets of the day gathered to drink tea, and talk. She was the daughter of Henry Pye, swindler'.15 She left for the continent, the usual step in such circumstances, but died in January 1869 shortly after returning.
Claribel's first success was with 'Janet's Choice', written for Sainton-Dolby in 1859. It is a typical ballad of its time, consisting of a sixteen-bar verse and an eight-bar refrain. The tune is attractively memorable throughout: there is never a feeling that Claribel saves her best melodic ideas for the refrains other songs. In this respect, nothing has changed since Bishop's 'Home, Sweet Home!', and so the situation continued until the heyday of the Boosey Ballad Concerts, when the refrain develops from a standard eight bars (commonly derived from previous material) to the largest and most musically important section. In Claribel's day verse and refrain form was by no means the norm; in fact, Claribel did much to make it the norm, since she used it more than other composers at this time.
Writing her own words, she had the option of using this form whenever she desired. Strophic settings were still the favourite: a frequent procedure was to extend the basic sixteen-bar tune to twenty bars by repeating the last line (both words and music). Claribel adopts this method in 'Five o' Clock in the Morning' (1862), subtly deflecting the tune from an anticipated close in bar 16. See the musical example on page 74.
Claribel's sustained commercial success is indicated by her being one of the first ballad composers to make a royalty arrangement with her publisher, rather than selling her copyrights for a fixed sum. Her importance to Boosey's song catalogue is evident both from the space she occupies and Boosey's care to try to accommodate a song with a wide range, like 'Maggie's Secret' (1863), to the amateur voice by offering it in three different keys instead of the customary two.
Claribel's natural melodic flair had as one of its chief attractions the mixture of the predictable and the unpredictable. 'Mountain Mabel' (1864), for example, is a strophic song in the familiar twenty-bar span, but although the harmonic movement of the closing bars comes just as expected, the shape of the melody avoids the obvious.
'Mountain Mabel' shows Claribel widening her harmonic vocabulary and developing confidence inhandling dissonance; yet, formally, as remarked above, [75/76] it follows a conventional pattern. 'Come Back to Erin' (1866), written after she had taken some more lessons in composition, has greater breadth and subtlety in its design. The structure is ternary: the middle section consists of a minor variation of the melody used in the outer sections. Thus the song has a unity lacking in her previous attempt at a broad ternary structure, her waltz song of 1864, 'Take Back the Heart' (composed to words by the Hon. Mrs G. R. Gifford).
Claribel's reputation spread to North America, where her songs, if anything, exceeded the popularity accorded them in Britain. Both the last-mentioned songs were particular favourites. On her death the New York publisher B. W. Hitchcock introduced several other songs into his 'half dime series of music for the million', thereby making them even more widely known. Even in 1883, fourteen years after her death, she is still one of the best represented composers in Thomas Hunter's Song Folio, an American collection of vocal music by 'favourite composers'.
Claribel's elegantly crafted melody and melancholy charm is typified by her song 'Oh, Mother! Take the Wheel Away'.
Oh, mother, take the wheel away, and put it out of sight,
For I am heavy hearted, and I cannot spin tonight:
Come nearer, nearer yet I have a story for your ear,
So come and sit beside me, come and listen, mother dear;
You heard the village bells, tonight, his wedding bells they were;
And Mabel is his happy wife, and I am lonely here;
A year ago tonight, I mind, he sought me for his bride,
And who so glad at heart as I, that happy Easter tide? [
But Mabel came among us, and her face was fair to see,
What wonder was it, mother, that he thought no more of me?
When first he said fair words to her, I know she did not hear,
But in the end she listen'd, could she help it, mother dear?
And afterwards we met, and we were friendly all the same:
For ne'er a word I said to them of anger, or of blame,
Till both believed I did not care, and maybe they were right,
But mother, take the wheel away, I cannot spin tonight. [full text and music in Turner and Miall 51-53; performance by present author]
Of thirty-two bars of melody, half that number begin with what is technically known as an appoggiatura, a note dissonant with the harmony which is made concordant by falling on to the harmony note one step below in pitch. The effect of this constant contrast of tension and falling release is to create a kind of musical sighing, which is here suggestive of the jilted woman's disappointment. At 'I am lonely here' (and the equivalent place in the next stanza), the melodic phrase ends on a discord, a procedure of some novelty at this time and furthering the yearning mood by its prolongation of musical tension. If each line of the song is given a letter name to indicate melodic repetition, then the unusual pattern AABBCDEA results (though the climax is reached at a conventional point). The evenly measured rhythmic movement is less likely to be a sign of banality than a simple convenience of notation which offers the possibility of interpretive flexibility on the singer's part. The accompaniment can only be described as basic, [76/77] but enough variety is present to maintain interest. Claribel's songs stand or fall by the strength of their tunes: one of the keys to her popularity must have been the ease with which it was possible to transmit her tunes orally; songs like 'Come Back to Erin' were not long confined to the drawing rooms of the musically literate.
The text of 'Oh, Mother! Take the Wheel Away' is both a simple narrative and a lesson in correct behaviour to the young middle-class woman. In a time of emotional turmoil she should confide in her mother. Hysterics are out of the question; she must exercise disciplined restraint, although she may be forgiven for not being able to concentrate on other things the day her former sweetheart marries. Jealousy is irrational: if Mabel is prettier, then it is only natural for the man to prefer her. Malicious feelings about the rival should be quashed; how could Mabel help listening to the 'fair words' being spoken to her? Finally the young woman should react to being jilted by keeping up appearances and assuming the quiet dignity that Millais portrays in The Wedding Card (1854). The song presents an ideal of middle-class social mores, though the scene is rural and the girl may be spinning to earn money. Claribel is fond of rural life in her songs, and equally fond of using it to articulate bourgeois values. As mentioned in Chapter 1, the idyllic rustic cottage was already a myth when it was eulogized in 'Home, Sweet Home!'
Last modified 12 June 2012