From the Library: A Victorian Entertainment

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by Elrik Merlin on Thursday, 23 October, 2008

In today’s programme, Elrik Merlin presents a variety of music from the Victorian and Edwardian eras – in fact as late as about 1918 – from the parlour to the theatre and dance-hall.

Included in the mix is an extensive collection of Victorian and Edwardian ballads, which often exhibit a fascinating colloquy of almost comic pathos alongside the impact of the technology of the time – Give Me a Ticket to Heaven (Denham Harrison, 1903) being one example, in which a little girl asks at the railway station for a ticket to heaven, to keep her father company whom she believes has been killed in a railway accident (in fact, he turns out to be merely badly injured). Others in a similar vein include Don’t Go Down the Mine, Dad!, about a little boy’s dream of his father being killed in an underground fire (as a result, Dad doesn’t go down the mine that day and is thus not killed in the ensuing fire); and I Want to Telephone Mother Dear (mother is “somewhere in the sky so high” of course). Some are still very moving; others quite overly sentimental today; and others still are humorous as intended.

The high level of artistry inherent in the songwriting is undeniable; however you are conscious that, at times, the intent of that artistry is simply to pull mercilessly on the heartstrings of the audience, so much so that it can almost seem manipulative. We still hear this today, in country songs like Tim McGraw’s Don’t Take The Girl (1994: described here) and some Victorian ballads are the direct antecedents of songs like these.

Musicologist Professor Derek Scott of the University of Leeds provides a useful analysis of the Victorian parlour song, including some of the numbers you will hear today. Interestingly, in closing, he too notes the similarity of some parlour songs to country ballads:
”…[Dolly Parton’s] Me and Little Andy and Jody’s Afraid of the Dark”, he notes, “are close cousins of Victorian songs of dying children, like Close the Shutters, Willie’s Dead.”

Several of these ballads are performed by Benjamin Luxon and his colleagues; others by the husband and wife team of William Bolcom (piano) and Joan Morris (mezzo-soprano), who are quick to pick out the humour inherent in some of the songs (such as Some Little Bug Is Going To Find You, Burt/Atwell, 1915). We have also included an unusual little offering from the couple, though it is well out of period, in the form of a song by Mr Bolcom himself, inspired by his experiences playing piano at women’s clubs in his youth, and sung by Ms Morris. It is hilarious.

You will probably have heard several of these songs: but in particular, listen out for the introductions, either spoken or sung, which are seldom heard today. This is in fact the “verse”, and it is the “refrain”, or chorus, that we remember – and hear – today.

We’ll also hear some good old Gilbert & Sullivan, including overtures and excerpts from some of the light operas, and some other pieces that are less well-known such as Sullivan’s music for Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Here again, we could not resist throwing in a googly: see if you can spot it.

We’ve also included a nice selection of Strauss waltzes and some other dance music of the era, plus a few mechanical musical instrument renditions of songs of the period, to complete what is quite an extensive show, consisting entirely of modern recordings.

From the Library is produced by Radio Riel in conjunction with the Caledon Library in Second Life. Today’s programme was produced by Elrik Merlin.

For more information on the Caledon Library, current exhibits and the work of Second Life reference libraries in general, please visit the Caledon Library Web site, or one of their locations in-world.

To listen to the programme off-world right now, for example in Winamp or iTunes, click here. You can listen to the programme in-world at — the ideal URL for you to plug into your home parcel media address — or simply visit any Caledon Library branch in-world and press Play on your embedded music player.


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