[The following text comes from Professor Scott's Lecture-Recital at "Serious Pleasures": Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference, University of Iowa, April 1-4, 2004. This online version includes his performance of addtional songs mentioned, but not performed, at the conference. Sound files are indicated by links that take the following form: (performance). GPL]

decorated initial 'M' y focus is on music for the middle-class home that aligns itself with one of the fundamental Victorian values, that of improvement. It was the possession of this improving or edifying quality that allowed music to be described, in a favourite Victorian phrase, as "rational amusement." I'm examining a range of issues regarding the songs that were found suitable, their various types, their moral tone, and their role in teaching lessons that improve both mind and spirit. Then, I will conclude with more general matters concerning the perceived value of music. Therefore, the conference theme of serious pleasures fits my topic, if the term "serious" is taken to refer rather to the socially-constituted values of the songs than to the presence of "serious" intrinsic musical processes or structures within those songs. I'm also discussing briefly some instrumental (that is, piano) pieces. I trust that all this will bear witness to the unimpeachable wholesomeness and impeccable good taste with which my name is ever linked in the politest social circles.

I'm selecting a variety of songs suited to "at home" functions in America and Britain as case studies, but since my theme is "improvement" and my time limited I must pass over certain kinds of songs: for example, imitation Scottish and Irish songs, blackface minstrel songs, and comic songs (which were never very funny) and love songs (which were rarely passionate). It's more than I can bear, however, to neglect "Come into the Garden, Maud," so I must find a plausible reason for including that.

So, what themes were found suitable for the purpose of improvement? There are songs that remind us of our own mortality, or place our human lives in a grander scheme of things, or contrast the secular and the divine. These, it should be stressed, do not always have to have an overtly sacred theme. There were other songs that used children as a theme, perhaps celebrating the love of parents for children, or touching on infant death, or using the presumed innocence of children as a means of teaching adults a moral lesson. In addition, there were songs that dealt with friendship, with pride in one's country, and with courage, whether in battle or in facing the grim realization that one had been jilted in love.

The quality that makes the nineteenth-century popular ballad distinct from those that came before and after springs from the desire to teach a moral lesson, or educate people about appropriate social behaviour, or to edify and uplift them spiritually and drive them on to do good deeds. In short, American and British ballad writers and composers were often concerned to place sentimentality in the service of other aims, and these other aims were social, moral, religious, and political rather than aesthetic. Perhaps the first song that solidly established the kind of sentiment to be emulated by all songwriters who saw the middle-class home as their market, was "Home, Sweet Home!" of 1823 (performance). It was, interestingly, a collaboration between an American, John Howard Payne and an Englishman, Henry Bishop. In that, it also foreshadowed the transatlantic traffic in this type of song that grew with every decade of the century. The song featured in the opera Clari, or The Maid of Milan, and has an Italianate character.

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Woodman, Spare That Tree! [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

This quality persisted in many of the songs composed by Henry Russell. One such was "Woodman, Spare That Tree!" of 1837 (performance) another Anglo-American creation, the words being by George Morris. A few seconds of listening will reveal that this is not a million miles from Bellini ("Casta diva," for example).

This song brings us face to face more directly than does "Home, Sweet Home!" with what some find the biggest single obstacle to taking nineteenth-century ballads seriously: it is what is perceived as exaggerated sentimentality. Here is a narrative concerning someone whose emotional ties to a particular old oak are likely to seem excessive even to the most ardent tree-hugging hippy. However, Henry Russell is quite clear on this point: "sickening sentiment is born of a sickening mind," he insists (1895: 253). His own songs, in contrast, exemplify a healthy moral tone.

I'm now going to perform a variety of song types and piano music that would have been found in an average middle-class home in the second half of the century. I've chosen songs that are available in the two collections by Michael Turner and Antony Miall (1974 and 1975), since those books are found in many of the larger libraries and can therefore be consulted by those who wish to explore further. Further information can also be found in my own book, The Singing Bourgeois (1989, R/2001).

"Three Fishers Went Sailing" (words by Rev. Charles Kingsley, music by John Hullah, 1857

I begin with two songs that contemplate human mortality, the first of which is "Three Fishers Went Sailing" (performance). John Pyke Hullah (1812-84) was for thirty years professor of vocal music at King's College, London, and for the last ten years of his life was Musical Inspector of Training Schools for the whole of the UK. He was a major influence on British government policy toward music in education, and it was largely through his efforts that music was taken seriously as a subject for boys and girls in schools. His main disappointment was that the fixed doh system he advocated (where the note "C" is always doh) was ignored in favour of the easier Tonic Sol-fa method (where the keynote is always doh). That was no doubt inevitable under a "payment by results" regime of educational funding, since children could demonstrate an ability to sight-read music much more quickly using Tonic Sol-fa.

The words of the song are by the Rev. Charles Kingsley. Its catchphrase "Men must work and women must weep" is part of a Victorian "separate spheres" ideology that was hardly ubiquitous among the working class. Women worked down the mines, for example, alongside the men in the pit villages of the North East. In this ballad, the wives of the poor fishermen have very little of an active role to play in day-to-day life: they watch their menfolk sail away; they trim the lamps in the lighthouse; and they wring their hands when the bodies are washed up on the beach in the morning.

If the song fails to convince today, it is because it is so rooted in a bygone social worldview, not because the events it narrates are implausible or because we are not convinced that the author cares about his subject matter. There is also a sense that we are being preached at by a rather glum vicar. The parallel structure of the stanzas suggests a link to oral ballad traditions, and the musical setting is one approaching a folk air (underlined by the 6/8 meter). However, restraint does not always work in its favor: its gentle but persistent rhythm suggests a banality uncolored by irony at the deaths of the men, and the tragic dénouement is thus more prone to be received as bathos rather than pathos.

"The Lost Chord" (words by Adelaide Procter, music by Arthur Sullivan, 1877)

Antoinette Sterling cover of sheet music

Fig. 1 Lost Chord title-page. Fig. 2 Antoinette Sterling.

[Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Adelaide Procter's poem is not really about the mystery of whither a particular chord has disappeared; it is concerned with the mystery of life, and is intended to offer comfort in the contemplation of death – hence, it was of special significance to Sullivan at his dying brother's bedside. The source explaining the circumstances of its composition in 1877 is found in a monograph by Charles Willeby (1893):

One night, the end was not very far off then, while his sick brother had for a time fallen into a peaceful sleep, and he was sitting as usual by the bedside, he chanced to come across some verses of Adelaide Procter's with which he had five years previously been much struck. He had then tried to set them to music, but without satisfaction to himself. Now in the stillness of the night he read them over again, and almost as he did so, he conceived their musical equivalent. [Lawrence 1899: 116-17]

No one has doubted the sincerity of Sullivan's composition (performance); it was not written for sale, and its melody and accompaniment are scarcely typical of popular ballads of its period; yet, its commercial success exceeded that of all other British and American songs until the 1890s. The singer it became most associated with was the American alto, Antoinette Sterling.

Sullivan's setting is structurally sophisticated in its treatment of Procter's verses, and offers a contrast to the simple strophic setting of Kingsley's verse that we've just heard. This demonstrates the variety of forms to be found in drawing-room ballads before there were moves toward greater homogeneity in the 1880s, when the song structured along the lines of a clearly delineated verse and chorus began to win the day. For the most part, the song steers clear of the predictable: there is no imitation of the "angel's psalm," or rhythmic agitation at "fever'd spirit," or harp-like chords at the mention of heaven.

There are some delightful surprises, such as the sudden coloring of the harmony with the old church Mixolydian mode as the singer recounts the striking of the mysterious chord. Sullivan shows a thorough understanding of the possibilities of the piano, ranging widely across its compass and making powerful dynamic and textural contrasts. He also does a fine job of imitating an organ style in the introduction. Sullivan's compositional skill where words are concerned is evident in the way he treats the quatrains of Procter's poem, linking some in pairs in a broad span of music, omitting others, creating a subtle musical structure that avoids an obviously sectional character, despite the poem's hymn-like form.

"Oh Mother! Take the Wheel Away" (words and music by Claribel, c. 1865).

Claribel was the pseudonym of Mrs Charlotte Alington Barnard (1830-69), who was one of the most successful popular song writers of the 1860s, although she died at the young age of 39 in the last year of that decade. Her songs were perfectly attuned to parlour performance in subject matter and in the lack of heavy demands on either singer or pianist. Few of her songs are still known, although her "Come Back to Erin" is sometimes heard. That is an example of the pseudo-Irish song, a genre popular in the home from the 1840s onwards.

There is an evaluation of Claribel's oeuvre in James Brown's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians of 1886, which damns her with faint praise. It reads as follows:

It is a mistake to suppose that the popularity of these effusions was due to bad taste on the part of the public, for the truth of the matter is that the people prefer songs which contain an element of humanity, however distorted, and of necessity must accept the efforts of those who will deign to write to their level. Great composers, as a rule, do not strive to elevate the taste of the people by first writing music easy of comprehension and afterwards raising the tone of their efforts, but uniformly confine themselves to the production of works calculated to please the learned. The songs of Mrs. Barnard lay no claim to be considered works of art, but they are certainly healthy and fairly interesting. [Brown 1970: 51]

This is an indication of the ever-widening schism between the popular and the "artistic" in the later nineteenth century that was to lead to "mass culture" theory and the modernist polarization of art and entertainment. For us, now, her songs provide more insights into the lives and dreams of young nineteenth-century women than most songs that enjoy the status of Great Art — and, for that reason, they prove extremely interesting and, it might be added, affecting.

"Oh Mother! Take the Wheel Away" (performance) is a lesson in appropriate behavior for a jilted middle-class girl on the day her sweetheart marries another. Today it produces an ambivalent reaction: it is sad enough to bring us close to tears, but it is so foreign to our social world that it also prompts laughter. The heroine suffers with such restrained dignity, taking these disappointing events "on the chin" as it were; yet, she is just a little too perfect in her martyrdom. Although this song seems so much a part of its time, it is interesting to note that there is an ancient Sappho fragment in which a girl tells her mother she cannot mind her spinning wheel because of the pangs of love (see Murray, Bailey, et al. 1930: 176).

The Fairy Wedding Waltz (Joseph W. Turner, 1875)

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The Fairy Wedding Waltz [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

I've not been able to find any evidence to show that spinning was a regular activity for middle-class girls, though it certainly was for working-class girls who were put to the looms in their thousands in the mills of Lancashire. It is far more likely that, under the sad circumstances described in the last song, a girl would be telling her mother she couldn't play the pianoforte that evening. That would be especially likely in the case of the next item, since it mentions a wedding in its title. This is Turner's "Fairy Wedding Waltz" (performance), which contains some of the fastest scale passages found in piano pieces of this time. Fortunately they can be accommodated using a technique (the back-of-the-nail glissando) that was later to be embraced with much enthusiasm by Jerry Lee Lewis. This piece illustrates that, when displays of piano technique were demanded in musical soirées, seeming difficulty was at a premium.

"Come into the Garden, Maud" (words by Alfred Tennyson, music by Michael Balfe, 1857).

The Irish composer Michael Balfe (1808-70) made his setting of words from Tennyson's Maud shortly after it appeared (performance). It seems that the publisher John Boosey sent the poetry directly to Balfe, asking him to compose a new song for the celebrated tenor Sims Reeves (Boosey 1931: 17). Tennyson's monodrama has a narrator whose vivid imagination is not always suitable for the wholesome confines of the drawing room, and Balfe tactfully revises the last stanza of this particular part of the poem (titled "A Night-Song of Love") to avoid the lines:

My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead;
Would start and tremble under her feet,
And blossom in purple and red.

Unfortunately, Balfe's excitable conclusion and choice of repeated words has not always been found a convincing solution. The form of the song is unusual, being that of the old roundelay, in which contrasting and unrelated sections break up the repeats of a refrain.

My excuse for including "Come into the Garden, Maud" is that it helps us to put in context the adverse reaction to poetic love songs, such as that found in Felix McGlennon's 'That Is Love' (1889). McGlennon, an Irish composer, did his very best to raise the moral tone of the music hall in songs like this and the much better-known "Comrades" (1891), before abandoning propriety with his lyrics to "And Her Golden Hair Was Hanging Down Her Back" (Monroe Rosenfeld). It is unusual for a music-hall song to lay claim to the moral high ground, but "That Is Love" helps us to understand why love songs were not so highly-regarded by those whose appetite for moral tone exceeded all else — though another reason for their unpopularity in the parlour was no doubt the irresistible opportunity they offered singers for doing a little flirting. McGlennon is having no truck with "the dalliance of youth and maid," his mind is set on loftier examples of love, the first of these being, unsurprisingly, the love of mother and child.

See a mother gazing on her baby boy,
With ecstatic eyes and heart that fills with joy,
He to her is purest gold without alloy,
For him how she prays to Heav'n above.
How she guides his footsteps through this vale of strife,
Watches o'er his bedside when infection's rife,
Risking for her baby boy her health, her life,
That is love, that is love!

"Anchored" (words by Samuel K. Cowan, music by Michael Watson, 1883)

The music of "Anchored" (performance) is by William Michael Watson (1840-d.?), who was a composer of songs and piano music, born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The author of the words wishes to advertise the fact that he holds the degree of MA on some published copies of this song.

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Anchored [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

It is a dramatic narrative ballad containing contrasting sections in a manner that has its origin in certain operatic scenas. In the nineteenth century composers of any kind of descriptive music were able to deploy musical devices that, as a consequence of having become familiar from opera and other stage works, had established various extra-musical connotations. Thus, in this song, there are a variety of musical signs at the composer's disposal, and he eagerly makes use of them. The jaunty 'rum-ti-tum' of the 6/8 metre has associations of pastoral innocence and merry peasants and emphasizes the youthful optimism of the sailor lad journeying home. There is a dramatic swerve to the minor and percussive chords at "Sudden the light'nings flashed," suggesting a violent change in mood and the presence of menace. Rolled chords then signify angelic harps at "But bright was the starry light," and the twinkling of the stars is represented in the high triplets at "And a soft smile came from the stars." Is it any wonder that the Times newspaper announced, "The copyright of 'Anchored' realised £1212.15s — the largest price, we believe, that has ever been given for a song" (quoted on the front cover of The "Strand" Musical Portfolio of Copyright Songs & Music, No. 5, London: Newnes, 1910).

Familiarity with religious iconography may have alerted many of its nineteenth-century audience to the outcome of the narrative. Carved anchors were not uncommon on mariners' gravestones as a symbol of faith and the hope of resurrection: "Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast" (St Paul, Hebrews, 6:19). A ship's anchor was one of the attributes of St Nicholas (Hall 1979: 15). It is enough to make a Victorian suspect there could be a twist in the destiny of the young lad longing to be safe in his father's home.

Another ballad of this descriptive type is Willoughby Weiss's setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith" (performance), in which conventional musical devices are found for the blacksmith's heavy sledge, the sexton's bell, the children hurrying hurrying home from school, the blacksmith's visit to the church, his thoughts of his wife in heaven, his sorrow, and his simple but sturdy determination to personify the Protestant work ethic (symbolized by decisive and unadorned unisons in the accompaniment).

The Battle March of Delhi (John Pridham, 1857)

The Battle March of Delhi

Explanations of sections of The Battle March of Delhi

Having seen an example of musical signs at work in a song, we now encounter an abundance of them in this "descriptive fantasia" (performance). John Pridham, a schoolteacher in Taunton, Devon, based his piece on The Battle of Sobraon by Schubert. Adolphe Schubert that is, not Franz.

The section labeled "Indian Air (at a distance)" may suggest to us that the missionaries have already arrived . It is the hymn "There Is a Happy Land," written by Edinburgh head teacher Andrew Young in 1838, but purportedly based on an Indian melody played to him by the mother of one of his pupils (Mable 1951: 202). In connection with this hymn, Adair Fitzgerald narrates an anecdote about William Makepeace Thackeray, in which the novelist encounters a "band of gutter children sitting on the pavement" in a London slum district. He draws near and discovers that they are singing this hymn. As he gazes at "the ragged choristers and their squalid surroundings," and sees "their pale faces lit up with a thought which brought both forgetfulness and hope," he bursts into tears (1898: 201-2). The story is attributed to Professor Mason, but no source is given, and Mable (1951: 203-4) attributes the same anecdote to the Rev. J. C. Carrick in an article appearing in Life and Work (1890). There is no mention in either source of what he did next, but a typical next step, if ballads about ragged children and orphans are anything to go by, would be to give them something useless like a flower, or to wander off wiping away the tears and reflecting upon the moral lessons children are able to teach us. Descriptive comments of events during the lifting of the siege of Delhi are given on the sheet music.

"The Volunteer Organist" (words by W. B. Glenroy [pseudonym of William Gray], music by Henry Lamb [pseudonym of Henry Spaulding], 1893)

It is as this point that I must apologize for my neglect of temperance songs. In excuse, I might argue that some of these (such as the Rev. Ufford's "Throw Out the Life-line!" (performance) frequently sounded too haranguing even for many in the nineteenth century who otherwise prided themselves on their respectability. Where alcohol was concerned, the watchword tended to be moderation not prohibition: the advice given to in "I Come from the Beautiful Rhine" (performance) is "drink, but measure it." The most affecting type of temperance song overcame the resistance to being harangued about the evils of alcohol by putting its message in the mouths of children, examples being "Come Home, Father" and "Father's a Drunkard and Mother is Dead."

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The Volunteer Organist [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Since I've no time to cover the temperance song repertory, I have to make do with the astonishment generated in the song "The Volunteer Organist" (performance) by the discovery that the old man who staggers down the aisle is not actually the drunk the congregation suppose him to be — or perhaps, there is a hint that he was once a drunkard and has now reformed, his trial still somehow showing through in the way he plays the organ. The Old Hundredth ("All People That on Earth Do Dwell") is quoted, as it had been in Weiss's "Village Blacksmith;" we assume that this is the hymn the volunteer plays. It is a hymn full of significance, brought over to America with the Pilgrim Fathers. There is a contrast between the austere harmonies of the psalm tune and the fashionable chromatic harmonies of New York's commercial songwriting district.

The author and composer were in partnership as the music publishing company Spaulding and Gray. It is an early Tin Pan Alley song of 1893, and contains an example of what was to become a familiar Tin Pan Alley cadence (heard in the falling semitones at the end of the piano introduction). Perhaps, the intention is to emphasize the no-nonsense, old time religion of the aged organist by framing his performance in music of an up-to-date, modern style.

Turner and Miall call it "a fine example of good bad art" (1975: 156). It is interesting to ponder that phrase and ask what makes "good bad art;" is it something along the lines of "Ooh, you are awful, but I like you," or is it memorably bad in contrast to forgettably bad, or is it that it half works for us, but we cannot take it seriously? There are other songs that might be described as "good bad" like "That Is Love," but others that escape this label, like "Annabelle Lee" (performance).


The "Volunteer Organist" showed that music has remarkable power and may even substitute for autobiography. Another message of the song is that no matter how disreputable someone may look, a modicum of musical skill is enough to guarantee his impeccable character (please note!). For corroboration of this high estimation of the moral value of music, we can peruse Arthur Sullivan's address to members of the Midland Institute, delivered in Birmingham, England, in 1888. Music, he claims, "is absolutely free from the power of suggesting anything immoral," and continues:

Music can suggest no improper thought, and herein may be claimed its superiority over painting and sculpture, both of which may, and, indeed, do at times, depict and suggest impurity. This blemish, however, does not enter into music; sounds alone (apart from articulate words, spectacle, or descriptive programme) must, from their indefinite nature, be innocent. Let us thank God that we have one elevating and ennobling influence in the world which can never, never lose its purity and beauty. [Sullivan's complete address, "About Music," is reprinted in Lawrence 1899: 261-87; this excerpt is taken from p. 285]

Here, Sullivan offers a reason why music was found such a powerful ally in the moral struggle.

The moral tone, whether we regard it now as healthy or not, is what makes the Victorian ballad differ from the songs that came after. The early twentieth-century ballad tends to shy away from the moral didacticism found in the previous century's ballads. This does not suddenly happen, of course. Although the Kipling poem "Mandalay" is earlier, in American composer Oley Speaks' setting of several verses in 1907, published as the song "On the Road to Mandalay" (performance) we are aware that the spirit is of a new age: the music strongly supports the singer's desire to escape to a place "where there ain't no ten commandments."

In the later ballad, emotion is frequently indulged in for its own sake — as, for example, in "Somewhere a Voice Is Calling" (Newton/Tate, 1911; (performance). In the nineteenth-century ballad, kids are not just cute in their misery. Compare the girl in "Give Me a Ticket to Heaven" with the boy in "Put My Little Shoes Away" who, as death approaches, seizes the opportunity to give his parents a lesson in unselfishness and the value of recycling by asking them to hang on to his little shoes because they'll fit the baby when he's bigger.

There is a transitional period during the two closing decades, when the variety of ballad types and ballad structures decreases. The diversity illustrated by songs like "The Lost Chord" and "Come into the Garden, Maud" gives way to more predictable shapes of post-1880 ballads like "Tatters" (performance), "Auntie," and "The Holy City," in which irregularities are accommodated to a more obvious overall verse and refrain form. The move in the direction of what Adorno was to condemn as "standardization" was accelerated by the song sheet production of what in the 1890s came to be known as Tin Pan Alley in New York.

The importance of a moral tone to the American and British bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century was a powerful incitement for the rejection of a moral dimension by many modernists of the twentieth century, especially when the production of art for bourgeois consumption became strongly associated with notions of pandering to the market place and with personal insincerity or a lack of artistic truthfulness. Thus, it became typical for twentieth century high-status art to parade its complete lack of any kind of moral dimension — somewhat paradoxically — as a virtue. The license to shock without conscience became the prerogative of the modern artist. Ironically, one aspect of Victorianism continued — the idea that art is good for you. In fact, it is that which justifies the shocks you are made to suffer; art was still serious even if it was no longer a pleasure. For some years, the only artistic medium that has raised and debated moral issues with some of the fervor found in the nineteenth century is that of the TV soap opera. Yet, perhaps this indicates that the cultural changes since the nineteenth century have not been as momentous as we might imagine; for there is a parallel to made: these TV soaps are, after all, produced as "serious pleasures" for consumption in the home.


Where do we find songs in more recent decades that bear a kinship to those of the nineteenth-century parlour? The answer is, in country music. Many of the songs of Dolly Parton, especially of her early period, are close to the Victorian ethos. "Coat of many Colors" teaches a moral lesson about motherly love and the riches of the imagination. "Jolene" can be seen as an updated "jilt song." "My Tennessee Mountain Home" praises the home with a Victorian enthusiasm. "Me and Little Andy" and "Jody's Afraid of the Dark" are close cousins of Victorian songs of dying children, like "Close the Shutters, Willie's Dead."


Russell, Henry. 1895. Cheer, Boys, Cheer! London: John Macqueen.

Turner, Michael R. and Antony Miall, eds. 1974. The Parlour Song Book: A Casquet of Vocal Gems. London: Pan.

Turner, Michael R. and Antony Miall, eds. 1975. Just a Song at Twilight: The Second Parlour Song Book. London: Michael Joseph.

Scott, Derek B. 2001. The Singing Bourgeois: Songs of the Victorian Drawing Room and Parlour [1989]. 2d. ed. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Willeby, Charles. 1893. Masters of Contemporary Music. Osgood & McIlvaine: London.

Lawrence, Arthur. 1899. Sir Arthur Sullivan: Life-Story, Letters, and Reminiscences. London: James Bowden.

Brown, James D. 1970. Biographical Dictionary of Musicians [Paisley: Alexander Gardner, 1886]. Reprinted Hildesheim: Georg Olms.

Gilbert Murray, Cyril Bailey, et al., eds, 1930. The Oxford Book of Greek Verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Boosey, William. 1931. Fifty Years of Music. London: Ernest Benn.

James Hall. 1979. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art [1974]. Rev. ed. London: John Murray.

Mable, Norman. 1951. Popular Hymns and Their Writers. Rev. ed. London: Independent Press.

Fitzgerald, S. J. Adair. 1898. Stories of Famous Songs. London: John C. Nimmo, 1898), 201-2;

Last modified 26 September 2007