Imagine a time when music echoed through the grand halls of wealthy homes and boomed through the windows and doorways of the bustling city streets. The Victorian era was a period of contrasts, especially in music. For the wealthy, music was a symbol of status and refinement, often enjoyed in lavish drawing rooms and grand concert halls. In contrast, the poor experienced music as a communal, spirited affair, full of energy and life, resonating through the streets and pubs.
It was during the Victorian age that magnificent venues like Crystal Palace were erected, and music halls became the venue of choice for working class people to have fun.
Instruments Used In Victorian Times
The Victorian era was a symphony of instruments, each playing its unique role in the musical landscape of the time. The piano, a symbol of sophistication, dominated the drawing rooms in houses of the elite. Serving as a centrepiece for social gatherings and personal enjoyment. Brass instruments like trumpets, tubas, and cornets added their bold sounds to military bands and public parades, while woodwinds such as flutes and clarinets brought a softer, more lyrical quality to orchestras and small ensembles.
String instruments, included:
- Double bass,
These were the soul of orchestral music, providing a wide range of atmospheric and emotional expressions. The harp, with its angelic tones, was a favourite in salons and private concerts. Percussion instruments, though less prominent, were essential in keeping rhythm and adding dramatic effects in bands and orchestras.
The harmonium and pipe organ were pillars of church music, filling sacred spaces with their resonant and majestic sounds. Smaller, more portable instruments like concertinas and accordions were popular among the working class, often used in folk music and street performances.
The Victorian era was a melting pot of musical styles. Romantic melodies of parlour songs and ballads were adored in upper-class homes, while the working class found joy in the lively tunes of folk music. Opera and classical music, epitomized by the works of composers like Verdi and Wagner, were the favourites among the elite. Music hall performances, featuring a mix of songs, comedy, and dance, were the heart of entertainment for the general populace.
Venues and Audiences
Music in Victorian times was omnipresent. Grand concert halls and opera houses, such as the Royal Opera House and the Crystal Palace, catered to the upper classes with their lavish productions. Perhaps the most famous example – The Royal Albert Hall – named after Prince Albert, was opened by Queen Victoria in 1871. Music halls, public houses, and even street corners became the stages for the working class, where performers and audiences alike found a common ground in music.
Performers and Occasions
Professional musicians, composers, and singers thrived in this era, with figures like Sir Arthur Sullivan and Clara Schumann achieving fame. Amateur music-making was also a significant part of Victorian culture, with families gathering around the piano or participating in local musical events. Special occasions like fairs, public celebrations, and even political rallies often featured music as a central element.
Victorian Carol Singing
In the heart of the Victorian era, carol singing emerged as a cherished tradition, embodying the spirit of Christmas and community. The revival of old English carols, along with the creation of new ones, marked a resurgence in the popularity of these joyous songs.
Carolers, often groups of amateurs from local communities, would gather to spread cheer and the festive spirit. They ranged from church choirs to informal groups of friends and family. The tradition was not limited to the elite; it was a communal activity. Enjoyed by people from various social strata in celebration of the holiday spirit.
Carol singing typically took place in public spaces like town squares, streets, and outside churches, as well as in more private settings such as homes and community halls. Singing these spirited Christmas songs was warm and entertaining, but more importantly, it was engrained with a sense of charity and goodwill. Carolers often sang to raise funds for the less fortunate, making it a practice that reinforced the Victorian values of philanthropy and community support.
The act of singing carols door-to-door, known as ‘wassailing,’ was particularly popular, symbolizing a gesture of wishing health and prosperity to the households. The warmth and joy of carol singing during this era laid the foundations for many of the Christmas traditions we cherish today.
Why Folk Music Was So Popular
Folk music, with its simple melodies and relatable themes, resonated deeply with the common people of Victorian England. These ‘songs of the people’ were a means of expression and storytelling. Often reflecting the joys and struggles of everyday life. The accessibility of folk music, requiring minimal musical training and only a few instruments (if any at all) made it a popular choice for communal gatherings and celebrations.
Famous Victorian Musicians
The Victorian era was graced by many talented musicians who left a lasting impact on the world of music. Names like Sir Arthur Sullivan, known for his comic operas in collaboration with W.S. Gilbert, and the pianist and composer Clara Schumann, one of the few prominent female musicians of the time, were among the luminaries of this period.
Famous Victorian Composers
The era was rich in musical genius. Composers like Edward Elgar, whose ‘Enigma Variations’ and ‘Pomp and Circumstance Marches’ remain popular. Arthur Sullivan, famous for his light operatic works, left an indelible mark on the music world too.
Here’s a table showcasing some of the most well known Victorian era composers:
|Charles Villiers Stanford
|Stephen Adams (Michael Maybrick)
|Michael W. Balfe
|Carrie Jacobs Bond
|Claribel (Charlotte Alington Barnard)
|Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen
(Note: The table includes a mix of British and a few notable American composers who were contemporaries in the Victorian era, reflecting the transatlantic influence in music during that period.)
Famous Victorian Songs
Songs like ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and ‘Home, Sweet Home’ were widely popular, echoing the sentiments of pride and longing prevalent in that era. Other notable songs include ‘The Lost Chord’ by Arthur Sullivan, ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,’ and ‘Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two).’
Music and Social Class in the Victorian Era
Music in Victorian Britain was a reflection of social class divisions. The upper class enjoyed opera and classical concerts, featuring works by composers like Wagner and Verdi, in lavish venues. In contrast, the working class found joy in music halls and folk songs, which were more accessible and relatable to their daily lives.
Victorian Music Halls
Right at the heart of the Victorian era, the music hall emerged as a vibrant cultural phenomenon. These buildings transformed the landscape of entertainment in Britain. Evolving from 18th-century coffee houses and taverns, these halls became dedicated venues for an array of performances. The music hall represented a new form of variety and entertainment. Breaking away from the traditional, formal theatres of the time.
By the 1850s, music halls like the famed Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth were offering a new kind of social scene. Less formal than the grand venues of the rich and wealthy, these venues were unique. Allowing audiences to eat, drink, and smoke while enjoying diverse acts, from comic singers to acrobatic performances. The music hall was a place where the emerging urban working class, fuelled by the Industrial Revolution, could unwind and partake in affordable entertainment.
The atmosphere in these halls was lively and sometimes rowdy, reflecting the spirit of the working-class audience. Performers like Sam Cowell and Marie Lloyd became stars, captivating crowds with their talent and charisma. Despite being frowned upon by the middle classes for their perceived vulgarity, music halls flourished, especially in London. By 1875, the city alone had around 375 music halls, indicating their immense popularity and cultural significance.