Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Friday, October 25, 2013

Musical Notes by Pamela Sherwood

Welcome to History Undressed, Pamela Sherwood! She's written a fascinating pieces for us today on Victorian music. Enjoy!

Musical Notes

by Pamela Sherwood

I’ve always loved stories in which music--whether classical, traditional, or contemporary--plays a major role.  So when the time came to write my second historical romance, A Song at Twilight, I had no hesitation about making my heroine--established as musically talented in my first book--a professional singer, and having her love story play out against the glamorous backdrop of the Victorian music world.

The Savoy
While researching my setting, I was amazed to learn how prevalent music was as entertainment in Victorian society. For the upper classes, the opera---usually a Verdi or Wagner production--remained a popular place to see and be seen, while the wildly popular Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, staged at the Savoy Theatre, appealed to all strata of society. For the working and lower classes, there were music halls, burlesques, and even performances at the local pubs.

Almost every social occasion, from the simplest to the grandest, was marked by music. Bands and orchestras were routinely hired to play at balls and dances. Society hostesses engaged professional singers or talented amateurs to perform at their soirees. And learning how to play an instrument--most often the piano--was considered a necessary part of a young middle- or upper-class lady’s education, and schoolchildren of all classes were taught to sing. Choirs and oratorio societies flourished, as did the sheet music trade, and most towns could boast at least one brass band.

Nellie Melba
More fascinating discoveries came to light when, while trying to plot a believable career arc for my heroine, I looked into the lives of two famous singers of the time, Jenny Lind (1820-1887) and Nellie Melba (1861-1931).  I knew only bits and pieces about Lind: that she’d been nicknamed the “Swedish Nightingale,” that Hans Christian Andersen had nursed an unrequited passion for her, and that she’d toured America as an act promoted heavily by P. T. Barnum (whose advance publicity made Lind a star even before she arrived in America, creating a phenomenon known as “Lind mania”). What I didn’t know was that Lind’s career had almost ended before it had begun when she suffered vocal damage at 18 as a young opera singer and had to be carefully retrained by the famed singer Manuel Garcia, who taught her a much sounder technique. Nor did I know that she’d had close relationships--possibly love affairs--with Felix Mendelssohn and Frédéric Chopin. Or that, after two successful years on the London operatic stage, she announced her early retirement from opera at 29, for reasons that remain a mystery to this day.

Jenny Lind
Lind still continued to sing at concert halls in Europe and, later, America. She negotiated a high price for the concerts she gave while touring with Barnum in 1850, donating most of the proceeds to her favorite charities, which included the endowment of free schools in her native Sweden. In 1852, she married the German composer and pianist Otto Goldschmidt. The couple settled in England and had three children. Lind continued to give concerts, though she retired as a performer in 1883.  Appointed professor of singing at the Royal College of Music (founded in 1882), she instructed her pupils not only in vocal studies but diction, deportment, piano, and at least one foreign language.

Melba’s life was no less colorful. Australian by birth, she studied music in Melbourne and achieved some modest success at amateur concerts. After a brief unsuccessful marriage to an abusive husband, she moved to Europe with the intent of pursuing a singing career. Failing to catch on in London, she went to Paris, where she found a dedicated teacher and advocate in Mathilde Marchesi and ultimately professional success. In 1889, after a triumphant performance in Romeo et Juliette, Melba was acknowledged as a star in London as well. During the 1890s, she established herself as the foremost lyric soprano at Covent Garden.

Melba toast
International success also proved within Melba’s grasp when she sang at the Metropolitan Opera in New York during the 1893-1894 season. Despite New Yorkers’ snobbery against professional singers, Melba’s talent and determination eventually earned her the same phenomenal success in America that she enjoyed in London and Paris. So celebrated was Melba that Auguste Escoffier, the great French chief created no less than four dishes in her honor: Peach Melba, a concoction of peaches, vanilla ice cream, and raspberry sauce; Melba sauce, made from pureed raspberries and currants; Melba Toast, thinly sliced dry toast, often topped with cheese or paté; and Melba Garniture, tomatoes stuffed with chicken, truffles, and mushrooms in a velouté sauce.

In later years, Melba embarked on a series of highly profitable tours of her native Australia and taught at the Melbourne Conservatorium, passing on many of her techniques to promising young singers. During the First World War she devoted herself to fund-raising for various war charities, and was created a Dame of the British Empire for her efforts. She officially retired from Covent Garden in 1926, but continued to perform until her death in 1931.

Whew! Compared to Lind and Melba, my heroine’s life--despite a doomed early romance--is quite tame! However, Sophie’s career trajectory is not dissimilar: like both of her historical counterparts, she benefits from supportive teachers who help her voice to develop properly. And who guide her steps as she makes the transition from gifted amateur to seasoned professional, first touring concert halls, then accepting a role that suits her (in this case, Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro) for her operatic debut.  And like Lind and Melba, Sophie commits wholeheartedly to her music, understanding the dedication that a singer’s work requires, even as love comes knocking at her door, in hopes of a second chance . . .

Thank you for hosting me today at History Undressed!

Leave a comment for your chance to win one print copy of  A Song at Twilight!  (US or Canada only).


Late in England’s Victorian age, the world is changing–new freedoms, new ideas, and perhaps a chance for an old love to be new again…

A love too strong to let go …

Aspiring singer Sophie Tresilian had the world at her feet–fame, fortune, and true love–until the man of her dreams broke her heart. Now she’s the toast of Europe, desired by countless men but unwilling to commit to any of them. Then Robin Pendarvis walks back into her life …

Four years ago, Robin had hoped to make Sophie his bride, but secrets from his past forced him to let her go. Seeing her again revives all the old pain–and all the old passion. It might be against every rule, but somehow, some way, he will bring them together again…


Pamela Sherwood grew up in a family of teachers and taught college-level literature and writing courses for several years before turning to writing full time. She holds a doctorate in English literature, specializing in the Romantic and Victorian periods, eras that continue to fascinate her and provide her with countless opportunities for virtual time travel. She lives in Southern California where she continues to write the kind of books she loves to read.


Micky said...

Sounds like a good book. I enjoyed your blog post.


joye said...

Interesting post about music and the composers.
Your book sounds really good and i have added it to my TBR list.

Pamela Sherwood said...

Micky, glad you enjoyed the post. I had fun researching and writing it!

Joye, the importance of music to the Victorians really intrigued me. Hope you enjoy the book!