Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - Music in the Drawing-Room

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life5.gif (46277 bytes)MUSIC, on occupying the drawing-room, at once established a monopoly - declared itself the sole amusement. The portfolio, brilliant with the designs of six young ladies - ranging from the one eye and pair of lips out of drawing, to the highly-finished Turk, with excessively "foldy" turban - was closed never to re-open, or confined to the inspection of lucky friends, who might chance to call in the morning. The round-game table, with its chattering, its laughter, and that species of excitement which a run of ill-luck might easily warm up into a "pretty quarrel," was banished, with all its apparatus of fish and their pools. In the last case insult is added to injury, for people are not contented with the destruction of "Pope Joan" and "Speculation," but talk complacently of their own advance in civilization, because they sit vapidly listening (or pretending to listen) to some unmeaning song, whereas of old they were actually amused by the ruder recreation. With whist a sort of compromise was effected, but greatly to the disadvantage of the card side of the question. Here and there a solitary table is allowed to stand, that it may act as a sort of safety-valve, to carry off heavy old ladies and "slow" young gentlemen. The whist-table is no post of honour; it is rather an accomplishment than otherwise not to know [-33-] a spade from a club, and no small dexterity in the art of recruiting is required to muster a whist party of four. Generally the attempt proves a failure, and the unopened pack and undisturbed counters stand as monuments of. the unsuccessful endeavour.
    The banishment of the portfolio is not to be regretted. The portfolio was a "bore." It was generally filled by purchasing a tolerably good two shilling "study," and making some execrable copies thereof. The accomplished exhibitress shrank not from comparisons, but generally displayed at once the original and the imitation, so that you had a full opportunity of appreciating the scratchiness of her shading and the deviations of her outline. The fair engraving smiled softly but ironically upon you by the aide of the grim copy; and, when expected to praise the latter, the presence of strong facts fearfully weakened your power of flattery.
    For the round game, which is now crammed into Christmas Day, together with forfeits, &c., being only recognised as a festal foolery, we indulge in a sigh. At any rate, it gave everybody something to do, and there was a chance of winning enough to cover a pair of gloves and a turnpike home; and there is always a pleasure in becoming suddenly strong in "small money."
    But it is useless to draw distinctions. One common flood has overwhelmed all the old evening amusements. And this vast deluge, which has annihilated so much, goes by the modest name of "a little music."
    Mind, we are not talking about "soirées musicales," or any festivities at which anything professional is introduced; but, by "little music," we mean that peculiar exhibition by unprofessional "accomplished indivi-[-34-]duals," the signal for whose operations is the retirement of the tea-tray. The musical parties, properly so called, are specialities, like scientific convaresazioni, or parties to hear somebody's five-act tragedy read, or literary oyster-suppers; and do not come within the definition of general drawing-room usages.
    As a revolution usually devours its own children, so did "little music," having dethroned Pam, and cut off crayon heads, begin to annihilate musical instruments. Those who attend concerts and read historical novels may be aware that there is an instrument called a harp, very pleasant to look upon, but usually very dismal to hear. Anciently, an instrument of this description stood in drawing-room corners, and one young lady in a large family was heard occasionally to play upon it. There used also to be young gentlemen, with romantic hair and white waistcoats, who would employ the flute, either for solo or accompaniment. Nay, some would even venture into the middle of the room, and sing to a Spanish guitar. These instruments appeared in the first flush of victory, and were only members of "little music's" provisional government. Soon they were sent off to share the fate of the other exiles, as "little music" declared imperatively that the voice and the piano should be the only organs. The harp thus became a splendid Mythus; the flute was confined to the lodgings of single gentlemen, and was regarded by their neighbours as a nuisance, somewhat less than the cornet-a-piston; and the guitar could only be rescued by those humourists who went at the decidedly "funny," and modifying it into the banjo, used it to accompany Ethiopian melodies. This, however, is but an exceptional existence. 
    [-35-] The voice and the piano, then, are alone regnant. "Little music" may be divided into vocal and instrumental - the former executed by the voice with the piano, the latter by the piano without the voice. The unaccompanied song is an Anglo-Saxon atrocity, and is at best confined to the humorous gentleman who dares to produce the banjo, and may do anything he pleases - even tricks with cards. Once it existed under the form of the "song after supper," but it was compelled to abandon that form for the very cogent reason that supper itself (save at dances) has been demolished.
    Vocal and instrumental "little music" are subject to different laws. Any one who likes may sit down unbidden at the piano, and play waltzes and polkas ad libitum, without being invited by a single soul. The same party may rush to the revolving stool at any interval between a couple of songs, and fill up the gap by a display of his (more probably her) brilliant execution. On the other hand, to sing uninvited would be a hideous breach of decorum - a sort of invasion which society would have a right to resist. The abuses to which this partial law might lead are in some measure corrected by the circumstance that no one is expected to listen to the player, while the singer has a right to hope for an audience of at least three in a large party; exclusive of the enthusiast who turns over leaves, and asks everybody how he likes Alboni.
    The social morceaux, which belong to "little music," are peculiar. All those songs which you see in Regent Street music-shops, often adorned with very pretty sentimental lithographs, and rejoicing in such titles as "Mary Anne," "Love Always," (with a counter-song [-36-] dedicated to the composer, called "Do not love at all,") "The Troubadour was a gallant Youth," "Hasten back from the Crusades," all these are the celebrities of "little music." They belong to no opera; they have been sung at almost no concert, save by the single vocalist whose name appears on the title page, and who gave them a fillip by one single performance. They descend to no barrel-organ - they are whistled by no butcher's boy; they are never parodied in burlesques; the name of the composer does not strike you as remarkably familiar - he may, perchance, be a letter of the Greek alphabet. He who passed his life at public places would think that these works were buried in the deepest obscurity. Not at all. Seek them in the drawing-room, and you shall find them honourably enveloped in smart cases, and you shall even hear them declared "sweet." They are usually sung by young ladies in a voice so soft as to be almost inaudible three yards from the piano; and on. the whole, we may say that they are more popular with the performer than the listener.
    "Little music" produces various effects upon the company assembled during its performance. There is the fanatic (already alluded to), who turns over the leaves, and smiles blandly on every occasion. He is himself a vocalist; has no objection to sing second, if a duet, which somebody knows, should turn up; and insinuates that he has a stall at the Opera, without stating the fact so broadly as to commit himself. Then there are the two or three young ladies who have a perfect knowledge of each other's resources, who press the unwilling, and have a perfect recollection that they have frequently heard songs in the morning from those [-37-] obstinate souls, who, in the evening, protest that they have never sung in their lives. Deeply are these ladies versed in the contents of numerous portfolios, and they in fact constitute the body by which the sentence of "pretty," "ugly," " nice," "frightful," &c., is passed on the pictured compositions, which form the stock-in- trade of little music. These parties compose the whole permanent audience of the exhibition, since nothing short of something decidedly comic, or astoundingly bacchanalian, will fix the attention of an entire company. The effect of the music on the rest is singular enough. Some persons of a taciturn disposition, and with a strong innate dislike to strangers, drop their nature at the first note of a song, and begin to talk as loud as they can about politics. Others, who would never look at a line of verse, or deign to bestow a stray glance at an engraving under any other circumstances, will, at the saline signal, creep to the table strewed with annuals, and allow themselves to be absorbed by pictures and poetry. There are many folks with whom literature, politics, and the fine arts are never popular, but when they serve as means for distracting the mind from "little music." The most honest of the non- listeners is he who looks out for an easy chair in some remote corner of the room, seats himself in it, luxuriantly folds his arms, and goes to sleep like a man, neither courting nor shunning observation.
    This man alone will be reproached with having no taste for music. At him mammas will look scornfully, young ladies will laugh undisguisedly, and the leaf-turning fanatic will smile compassionately, defending him with the observation that he is "one of the old school." For, mind, the whole body of non-listeners, [-38-] with this one exception, all the hard talkers and students of annuals, are, to a man, loud in professing admiration for "Music in the Drawing-room," and are strong in their contempt for the ancient round game.


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