Sounding Victorian: Swinburne, Tennyson, salons and the musical play of childhood

Digital project brings together research from Queen Mary, Saint Louis University, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, the University of Illinois, Indiana University East, and the University of Cambridge

As I began my research last year into the relationship between the poetry of Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909) and the operas of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), I became aware that the British Library held a number of musical settings of Swinburne’s verse. Very little research had been done on his affinity with Victorian and Edwardian composers – despite being thought of as one of the most musical of poets – and so, with this in mind, I started to look through whatever was available. The first items, some of the earliest musical settings from the 1860s (Swinburne’s first, notorious collection, Poems and Ballads, was published in 1866), excited my interest. I called up more, and soon these few pieces of music had turned into well over a hundred and much of it displayed a range and quality that far surpassed my expectations.


The resulting catalogue (which is still growing, song by song) now potentially charts a different reception history for Swinburne’s verse (well into the 1920s and beyond). It suggests not only an extraordinary artistic enthusiasm for Swinburne’s poems as music but also has implications for an analysis of Swinburne’s wider cultural impact. The material is rich and varied, from simple domestic piano and voice settings to unaccompanied part-songs, theatre songs, incidental music (for Swinburne’s plays), cantatas and orchestral extravaganzas. There are very well-known names amongst the catalogue, such as Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry, and Arthur Sullivan. But there are also many little-known figures who deserve far greater attention, such as Adela Maddison (1862-1929), who adapted Swinburne eight times, including an elemental and boundary-shaking version of his ‘Triumph of Time’ (available on my website here).


So that the music can be heard, I have been transcribing pieces from the original scores into notation software. In doing so, the effect has been revelatory. There is a sense, as a piece takes shape, of bringing back the dead. A good example is this rendition of ‘The Hounds of Spring’ from the 1906 production of Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon (1865) at the Crystal Palace or this version (apparently the Victorian equivalent of a ‘hit song’) of ‘The Oblation’, by the bizarre Theophilus Marzials, who (it is claimed) also wrote some of the worst poetry ever published.


My work is now to become part of the new Sounding Victorian consortium – an initiative of Phyllis Weliver of Saint Louis University – which will be a group of digital projects that create an experiential way of exploring archives that document sound (music and literature) in nineteenth-century Britain. My own website will change and form Sounding Swinburne and sit alongside Sounding the Salon (which will investigate the Victorian salon as an alternative musical space, with historically-informed performances and archival texts), Sounding Childhood (studying the sound of children’s play through recreational songs, religious pieces and hymns), and the well-known Sounding Tennyson. This site currently showcases sonic and textual versions of Tennyson’s poetry, including the first recordings of Emily Tennyson’s piano and vocal settings of ‘Break, Break, Break’, made in the drawing room at the Tennysons’ restored home, Farringford, using Queen Victoria’s piano.


All the groups under the Sounding Victorian banner will eventually use the ind ustry standard for machine-readable music (Music Encoding Initiative). Sounding Tennyson is already the first project worldwide to add sound to an International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), a standard that will also be extended to all members of the consortium. As the Sounding Victorian website states, each of the projects will be freely available, allow for concordance searching, bring together items found from scattered archives, alongside short, scholarly essays to situate the material, and bybuilding digital tools, help students, scholars and the public engage with the material, whether or not they read music.


It is, to say the least, an exciting time for my research. If you have a moment, please take a look at the current page for the Sounding Victorian site, which will give a strong sense of what the project will offer, both within its interdisciplinary field, and as an example of the potential of digital humanities.


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Michael Craske

I am a PhD student and Teaching Associate, who is researching Swinburne, Wagner, and T. S. Eliot. Before returning to higher education, I spent far too much time in media relations in the diplomatic world, working on and in the Middle East.