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Over-emoting with the Victorians: you have to laugh.

March 10, 2013

Laura’s leaving England soon. Now, if she should happen to read these lines she need not be concerned that this is about to be a gushing or effusive wringing of hands: this is not the place. I mention the fact because, in keeping with the principles* of this blog, the music suggested by what’s going on around me is at its heart, and Laura’s imminent departure is one of those things going on.

So, I mention her again, and it is only a short step from there to The Gothic Archies’ Smile! No One Cares How You Feel. Laura introduced me to that a while back and I will associate her with it from now on. It isn’t necessarily the best song with the word “Smile” in the title, but it may be the bluntest. Whether or not it was the writer’s intention to do so, it made me laugh. And in these modern times, songs about smiling and laughter are meant to be ironic, aren’t they? I don’t think they are supposed actually to make you, er, smile or laugh. Take Lily Allen’s Smile, or The Killers Smile Like You Mean It and you’ll see what I mean. Latter-day sophistication dictated that sometime after Morecambe and Wise invited us to Bring Me Sunshine in your smile (not an original for them, I know) we stopped taking such things literally.

Roll back nearly a century, and you’ll reach a music-hall song called The Laughing Policeman – undoubtedly a song about laughing intended to provoke laughter. Try it, and see what happens. According to the fount of all knowledge, the song has its origins in the late Victorian era, when they really knew how to do in-your-face comedy and folk knew when to guffaw. If a TV sitcom recording were attended by English Victorians, there would be no need for a warm-up artist or for the person on the sidelines holding up a card to ensure a sufficiency of  spontaneous tittering.

In fact, so ready were Victorians (by reputation, anyway) to emote in all directions that they had a stack of songs, plays and poems written for the purpose. In a single evening, round the parlour pianoforte or at the music hall, a willing audience could be reduced to raucous laughter, moved to tears (The Picture with its Face Turned to the Wall), stirred to patriotism (The Deathless Army**), inspired to religious fervour (The Lost Chord) or roused to anger by the right song. The result? Lots of pretty and predictable tunes, but – frankly – a dearth of truly great ones. Victorian England, I’m afraid to say, was not a great place for musical development.

Those songs are largely mushy, sentimental, melodramatic and shallow. Nevertheless I have a weakness for them, and know the words to what may be an embarrassing number. parlour musicIndeed it is a family weakness, and although Mum and Dad do not have a parlour, they do have a have music room where any combination of family members is likely to be found attempting to recreate what amounts to Victorian karaoke.

Recordings of many of them are hard to find – I struggled to locate even the two links above – because they are not really very memorable. But they were the pop songs of the time, and there is a direct parallel between them and the mass of ordinary, formulaic music that swamps the airwaves. But among them there are a few gems.

On a bigger scale, operas and operettas appealed to the same mawkish inclinations, and suffered thereby from the same superficiality. They, too, have their counterparts: in forgettable mediocre 20th century stage and screen musicals. Even the best of Gilbert and Sullivan is most aptly described in terms such as “charming” or “delightful”, suggesting something short of the emotional charge you associate with Beethoven or Schubert. It was a source of great frustration to Sir Arthur Sullivan – who, coincidentally, wrote The Lost Chord – that he could never really shake off the reputation as a light composer. He wanted to be known for his more serious works, and there is some decent stuff among it – such as his Festival Te Deumbut not enough to get him onto an A-List of 19th century composers.

This is all very much in my mind, having been to see Mum and Dad yesterday. To give me something to listen to in the car on the way back, Dad selected a CD of an 1840s opera by Michael William Balfe – The Bohemian Girl. It was a bullseye for the times. Much like a modern musical it has one stand-out and beautiful aria – a true rose amongst thorns: I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls. That took on a life of its own and regularly appeared as part of Dame Joan Sutherland’s recital repertoire, reviving and guaranteeing its popularity late into the 20th century.

How did I get on to that? I’ve almost talked myself into wishing Laura a Victorian-style tear-stained farewell, which was not the idea at all. “Cheers, and good luck.” – That’s much more 21st Century.

And finally, if you were worried about where that Lost Chord had got to, worry no more. Jimmy Durante Found It – and this did make me laugh.

*Yes – principles. Had you not noticed?

** Don’t believe the pictures in the link – this is not a WWI song.


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  1. Anne-Marie Hetherington permalink

    Several issues need addressing here, dear boy. Firstly, I think you need to reconsider the use of the word principles to describe the motley collection of rules by which you compose this blog. Secondly, have you consider the recordings of Robert Tear and Benjamin Luxon when searching for Victorian song. I am fairly sure it is one of their records that introduced us to ‘Excelsior’.

  2. Indeed – who can forget “the banner with the strange device? It’s on The Dicky Bird and the Owl. Were you of the party when we went to see Luxon and Tear do an evening of parlour songs?
    The rules to this blog are not a “motley collection”, though I admit they are a work in progress.

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