This is not the first book in the Open University Press's Popular Music in Britain series to challenge assumptions about a particular body of music. At issue, here, is the myth constructed around 'Victorian parlour song', a term almost always used as if it denoted a clear-cut genre characterized by stereotyped musical and literary features. In fact, there was a remarkable variety of musical forms and styles of song acceptable in the Victorian middle-class home. Some of these, indeed, were firmly established well before Victoria came to the throne, such as the 'refined' traditional air and the English operatic air - though nothing now seems to immediately evoke an atmosphere considered more quintessentially Victorian than 'The Last Rose of Summer' (from a volume of Moore's Irish Melodies published in 1813) or 'Home, Sweet Home!' (from Bishop's English opera Clari of 1823). Religious nonconformists were brazenly eclectic in commandeering whatever musical features could be made to function in their interests and favoured a strong, tuneful idiom which also frequently found its way into the parlour. Later, the music of the blackface minstrel show and the 'respectable' type of music-hall song were added to the drawing-room repertoire. The desire to categorize a particular portion of all this as 'Victorian parlour song' by reference to an arbitrary selection of musical and literary criteria has created a 'parlour song' consensus in its own way as misleading as the 'folksong' consensus attacked by Dave Harker.1 It is to avoid such categorization that I call this book The Singing Bourgeois.

The 'parlour song' consensus, it should be stressed, is not something that has been as systematically constructed by key mediators in the same manner as the 'folksong' consensus but results rather from a sloppy use of terminology (for example, using the term 'parlour song' sociologically but actually trying to define it musicologically). There again, some writers use the term with the intention not of referring to the whole range of songs sung in the middle-class home, but of pinpointing those songs aimed directly at the domestic market. Yet, this is unhelpful because the real target of the sheet-music publication of almost all Victorian song is the middle-class home.

Even when some of the diverse ingredients of bourgeois song began to solidify under the influence of the Ballad Concerts promoted by the music publisher Boosey, it remains difficult to formulate an empirical definition of what constitutes the typical Boosey ballad. Here is an attempt from The New Grove Dictionary of [viii/ix] Music and Musicians: 'The texts were sentimental verses about love, gardens, and birds, the music simple strophic settings marked by easy melody, stereotyped accompaniments, and maudlin harmonic progressions.'2 One of the three 'typical' examples chosen to illustrate this, Sullivan's 'The Lost Chord', is not about love, gardens, or birds; it is not a simple strophic setting; it is melodically awkward in parts rather than easy (see Chapter 7); and its piano accompaniment is unusual in having been contrived to suggest a church organ. Whether its harmony is maudlin or not is a question which needs to be considered in relation to 'presentist' value judgements discussed below. It is evident that a 'parlour song' or 'drawing-room ballad' is going to be more easily defined sociologically as a song designed or appropriated for bourgeois domestic consumption.

In the nineteenth century the description 'parlour song' is extremely rare, although 'drawing-room ballad' is often encountered (and with increasing frequency after the establishment of Boosey's Ballad Concerts in 1867). In the first half of the century the description 'popular song' was very common; lik( 'favourite' and 'celebrated' it was used by publishers to suggest widespread demand. A guarantee of quality followed, because a song could be popular in a commercial sense only by attracting sufficient numbers of musically literate bourgeois consumers. Naturally the bourgeoisie thought the songs they enjoyed were of unquestionable merit and took comfort in the knowledge that, if a song was described on its sheet music as 'popular', it automatically implied that it was regularly performed in 'respectable' homes.3

In the succeeding pages I choose to employ the term 'drawing-room ballad' rather than 'popular song' in order to avoid possible confusion about the class orientation of this material. I must stress, however, that I use it as a generic and not a specific term until we reach the 1870s; from then on there was, indeed, a move towards a standardization of songs which were accorded this label (there is more on this subject in Chapters 6 and 7). I would like to argue that used generically 'drawing-room ballad' helps to locate a cohesive body of song of a class-aligned nature. The tightly controlled, written-out structures of songs produced for the drawing room are singularly adaptive to bourgeois individualist ideology; the performer implicit in these structures is an interpretative servant of the songwriter. This is not to say that bourgeois songs cannot be appropriated by the working class, who โ€” as will be seen in Chapter 9 - have the possibility of constructing new meanings in the way they 'consume' them. Conversely, the bourgeoisie are able to appropriate working-class musical practices and through the effort of mediation assimilate oppositional elements. Apart from the easy judgements that have been made in categorizing bourgeois domestic song, our understanding of this music has been hampered by the contempt now heaped upon it from some quarters. The expression 'presentism' has been coined to describe a critical vision which implies that our present values are objective rather than historically conditioned. 'Informed' critics of the nineteenth century were equally convinced of their objectivity in describing Restoration comedy as the result of an embarrassing lapse of artistic standards. The status of an artistic genre is better regarded as 'whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes.4 The modernists musicologist's scorn for bourgeois domestic song arises from its failure to meet the criteria of the Western 'art music' tradition, in which an assumption is made that art progresses under its own laws independently of the material basis of the society within which it is produced.5 The movement of art is therefore interpreted as a succession of styles, each led and perfected by creative geniuses. Modernist theory accepts with equanimity the absence for centuries of 'important' female composition, and even that an entire country may be without any real music- before Smetana, for example, 'there had been no genuine Czech music.' (296). From this perspective, which still so often sets the terms of the debate, a figure as important to British musical life in the nineteenth century as Sullivan can be dismissed in half a sentence,7 having failed to illustrate a purely musical-historical movement.

An alternative theoretical framework exists, in which the nineteenth-century bourgeois songwriters can be seen as inextricably bound to and providing a cultural response to the society of which they form a part. Song production can be located in terms of its function and use, its relationship to class dominance and hegemonic struggle. The bourgeois 'popular song' was the first product which showed how music might be profitably incorporated into a system of capitalist enterprise. It is in the production, promotion, and marketing of the sheet music to these songs (and the pianos to accompany them) that we witness the birth of the modern music industry. As already noted, for whatever apparent reason a song was originally written (say, for an English opera), it was possible for it to be tailored to the requirements of amateur music-making in the middle-class home.

Class is a problematic term which warrants a few words of explanation. Class is only discernible in a relationship: when I use the term 'middle class' or 'bourgeoisie' I refer in the eighteenth century to merchants, artisans, and shopkeepers; in the nineteenth century I refer to the capital half of the capital/labour relationship. It is important to remember that class is a process; the middle class is constantly changing and adapting. It can be argued that the term'middle class' immediately hypostasizes this process. The description'bourgeoisie' is preferred by many writers on the Victorian period to avoid the seeming contradiction of a dominant class being given a label which carries a suggestion of a fixed hierarchical position beneath the aristocracy.

Along with coercion, a class manifests its supremacy by exercising hegemony, a key political term employed by Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks to describe 'intellectual and moral leadership'.8 The dominant culture in a society is hegemonic: it aims to win its position of ascendancy through consent rather than in ise itself by force. Hegemony is a process of struggle which often calls for coiiipromise: for example, in the later nineteenth century membership of a trade union was finally accorded respectability. The state apparatus is invaluable in establishing hegemony; the dominant culture is mediated through institutions such as schools, in, for instance, the choice of songs for teaching purposes (a topic touched on in Chapter 9). It might be thought that the diversity of ideology found in bourgeois songs (drinking v temperance, belligerence v. compassion) argues strongly against the theory of hegemony. Gramsci, however, argues that bourgeois hegemony necessitates an alliance of fractions, a 'historical bloc'; it [xi/xii] therefore follows that the dominant culture is not homogeneous but subject to (and able to tolerate) conflicting strands within me hegemonic alliance. Since the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 the middle class had held a share of power, but the middle class did not become the hegemonic class until the nineteenth century, after a long period of struggle marked by important victories in 1832 (the passing of the Reform Bill) and 1846 (Repeal of the Corn Laws). There should not, then, be any surprise to find the eighteenth-century middle class enjoying the satire in Gay's The Beggar's Opera directed at a government which was in part middle class. The power bloc which allows stable class rule is only achieved through struggle between various contending classes and fractions; only one class within the alliance may exercise hegemony, but the dominant culture (although in itself hegemonic) will contain evidence of the conflicts within that alliance. Notice that a key Victorian term respectable has a hegemonic function: it connotes adherence to a code of what is socially acceptable and thus seeks to impose a behavioural conformity which sanctions the existing social structures. The terms 'polite' and 'wholesome' are used in a similar fashion, to lay down the correctness of certain social values.

I should now explain what I mean by 'dominant culture', and clarify the standpoint from which I view the relationship of art to the society within which it is produced. One of the sources of Gramsci's theory of hegemony was a statement by Marx: 'The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.'9 In feudal society paying homage to one's lord seemed natural, just as consumerism seems natural in a society based on generalized commodity production. A quotation from Marx's 'Preface' to his Critique of Political Economy sheds further light on the subject: 'It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.'10 A little earlier in the same work Marx introduces the notion of economic base and ideological superstructure, a model which gave rise to a type of Marxist theory now commonly referred to as 'vulgar Marxism', 'reflectionism', or 'economic determinism' This asserted the primacy of the economic base and reduced the complex relationship between that and the world of ideas to one of rigid determinism. The seductiveness of reflectionist thinking can be illustrated by the argument that playing the piano was considered such an essential accomplishment for well-bred Victorian girls because the major commodities of the music industry were pianos and sheet music (and today musical literacy is no longer valued because records are a more important commodity than sheet music). An argument like this, of course, begs many questions, including why playing the piano was more important for girls than boys. Evidence that economic determinism was already gaining theoretical ground in the late nineteenth century is shown by Engels' desire to emphasize that the economic element is not the sole determining factor.11 Recent Marxists have been at pains to stress the dialectic between social existence and social consciousness rather than fall back on the mechanical metaphor of base and superstructure.

The culturalists and structuralists of the 1970s, with their contending paradigms, were at least agreed in attributing relative autonomy to the artist (albeit for [xi/xii] different reasons). Culturalists stressed that social existence, including cultural experience, influences and conditions consciousness rather than determines consciousness, allowing an active role for human agency. Structuralists underlined the importance of differing pre-existing systems of signification present in each field of creativity โ€” if ideological signs determine consciousness then it is always with the understanding that those signs mean different things to different social groups. My own approach is oriented towards culturalism in so far as I seek to examine these songs in relation to the class ouuook of the Victorian bourgeoisie. The concept of the 'hegemonic bloc' I also find helpful in contributing to an understanding and explanation of the internal conflicts within the bourgeoisie (who ought not to be viewed as monolithic). Overall I adopt what may be called the 'popular culture' perspective as opposed to the 'mass culture' perspective. The latter tends to focus on the depraving effects of the 'culture industry', whereas the hallmark of the 'popular culture' perspective is that meaning is made in the consumption โ€” here is a space for relative autonomy and hegemonic negotiation. The 'popular culture' perspective does, of course, pose a challenge to the uncritical acceptance of'high culture'. I should add, in concluding this section, that there is no easy one-to-one relationship between art and social history: for example, it is possible to find melancholy songs in times of economic buoyancy (or when a war is going well) and optimistic or romantic songs in times of depression.

The historical specificity of this book now needs explaining. I start in the eighteenth century in discussing the foundations of bourgeois domestic song styles not because there is any kind of absolute beginning there, but because the performance of the politically combative Beggar's Opera seems a more significant cultural moment than, say, the publication of Yonge's Musica Transalpine, (a collection illustrating the importance of bourgeois taste in the late sixteenth century). I close the survey around the year 1898 when the drawing-room ballad of the Boosey type was wilting in the face of the challenge from Tin Pan Alley as the United States of America moved to dominate the commercial music industry That year, too, musical comedy from the United States was exciting interest after the sensational London premiere of Kerker's The Belle of New York. Furthermore, dissemination of music was soon to be transformed: the pianola had arrived in 1897 and the English Gramophone Company set up business the following year.

In the first chapter I have tried to locate the roots of that distinctive character which lends a homogeneity to nineteenth-century bourgeois song-types. There is some inevitable cramming in my attempt to condense within a single chapter everything in the eighteenth century which I thought relevant. Chapter 2 examines the early amateur music market, and Chapter 3 follows this up by concentrating on the opportunity taken by women, who were so crucial to this market, to write songs themselves. Chapter 4 considers the manner in which the ethnic cultures of Celts and Afro-Americans were subject to assimilation by the English and North American bourgeoisie (symptomatic of this was the creation of two new 'American' instruments, the five-string banjo and the 'concert D' uilleann pipes). Chapter 5 has a religious theme; it deals chronologically with the range of sacred music which became available and discusses the emergence of the 'sacred song' as a branch of the drawing-room repertoire. All these chapters are concerned mainly with pre-1870 developments.

After 1870 a period of rapid growth begins which sees the development of a more organized music industry, so Chapter 6 returns to the subject of the music market during these years and the changes being brought about by the increasing professionalization of music. Chapter 7 tries to demonstrate the extent of formula following during the post-1870 ballad boom. For that purpose it has been necessary to include detailed analyses in order to show how my conclusions have been obtained (a Glossary of Musical Terms is at the rear of the book). A problem I feel I have not resolved in this chapter is how to explain artistic distinction without romantic mystification. The next two chapters are on subjects which range over the entire period: Chapter 8 looks at bourgeois song in the context of the growth of English nationalism and the continuity/discontinuity debate concerning British imperialism; Chapter 9 deals in brief with bourgeois song and hegemony (a whole book could be written on the subject). At various points the reader is referred to additional relevant material via the footnotes. In the final chapter I give an account of the dilemma facing ballad composers as a result of the challenge from the United States and the simultaneous feeling of exhaustion which had overtaken the British ballad.

In the main, given fair representation of song types and influential composers, my selection of songs for the purpose of analysis has been directly related to their degree of commercial success, in the belief that the producer/consumer relationship is clearest where the mutual rewards are apparently highest. Nevertheless, failure is also important, since it helps to define the tolerances of the genre when pulled in the direction of either of the polar extremes of novelty or familiarity. In Chapter 7 I discuss a failure like Adams and Weatherly's The Light of the World because it shows that the application of a familiar formula does not guarantee success, thus offering further confirmation of the relative autonomy of the consumer.

The contemporary relevance of a study of nineteenth-century bourgeois domestic song extends beyond the insight it provides on the workings of the commercial music industry and on the continuing resonances of this music which may be felt in twentieth-century gospel and country music. To the nineteenth- century bourgeoisie it was never simply a question of how best to produce and consume a particular musical product, but how to put into practice the belief that music-making was of benefit to everyone's development as a human being. Any future society which thinks practical musicianship to be life enhancing will have to address the same question. There was a genuine, if ideologically motivated, attempt in the mid-nineteenth century to promote the musica practice, that Barthes regards as having almost disappeared from high culture.12 Of course, drawing-room ballads were never popular in any truly democratic sense; Victorian domestic music was class based and reinforced bourgeois ideology (particularly that of the family). All the same, there was a search for a kind of music which would permit maximum participation. In recent times punk rock may be seen as a determined though brief attempt to develop a proletarian democratic style [xiii/xiv] derived from the 'garage band'.13 Vastly different in almost every respect as the music of the Sex Pistols was from that of Stephen Foster, they each represented the ultimate simplicity and directness in their respective genres and thus helped to demonstrate the enormous potential for diversity of expression those qualities may contain.


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Last modified 11 June 2012