As Dickens wandered the streets of London, observing the lives of the poor, the lowlifes, the wastrels and the dispossessed, collecting characters that would later people his novels, he would have heard the wails of ballad-sellers and raucous songs from the taverns and inns. At home, he would have enjoyed parlour music by Mendelssohn (one of his musical heroes, whom he would later meet at a dinner party) and Chopin, or his sister Fanny practising her scales at the piano.
In a small but informative exhibition at the Royal Academy of Music, the music that formed the soundtrack to Dickens' life is explored in a series of attractive showcases organised as chapters of a book. From opera to popular song, drawing room piano pieces to street ballads, Dickens and Music delves into the writer’s musical life, and his connections to the Royal Academy of Music itself.
Dickens’s musical connections are well-documented: the great-great grandson of a harpsichord and piano maker, he married the daughter of a music critic, and also had contact with musical celebrities of his day, including singer Jenny Lind, the young Arthur Sullivan, and violinist Joseph Joachim. His sister Fanny entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1823 to study piano and singing. He relished the excitement of live music, and his books are replete with references to music and musicians (for example, the sinister and manipulative John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a professional musician, and there are descriptions of dancing and music-making all over his novels). Dickens was a champion of the performing arts, and he even penned an opera, The Village Coquettes, to music written by John Hullah, one of Fanny’s fellow students at the Academy.
The displays include theatre handbills and programmes, excerpts from the London Illustrated News, books of music, such as Tom Moore’s Irish Melodies, which feature in a number of Dickens’ novels (Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop), and sheet music of popular songs such as ‘The Cats’ Meat Man’ and ‘Little Nell’. The growth and consumption of the parlour piano, and cheaper printing processes meant music was more widely available to play and enjoy at home
One section of the exhibition – ‘Music for Hard Times’ - shows how music was used in Victorian England to help working men and the poor, something very close to Dickens’ heart, with singing classes organised by John Hullah, where participants were taught hand signs for the Solfege scale (Curwen's Hand Signs).
The exhibition also examines musical re-imaginings of Dickens’ writings, the most famous being Oliver!, as well a lesser-known opera of A Tale of Two Cities written for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Listening examples include the music of Dickens’ time, and music inspired by his works (by Arnold Bax and John Dankworth, amongst others).
This delightful little exhibition forms part of the ‘Dickens 2012’ commemoration of the writer’s bicentenary, and brings to life another fascinating aspect of his life. A lively programme of related events (talks and concerts) runs concurrently at the Royal Academy of Music.