The First Listening Experience Database: Vernon Lee and Music and Its Lovers

As the old Fiesole Road winds out of the outskirts of the city of Florence, it slowly climbs uphill between dry stone walls and olive groves. Nowadays you would hardly know it was there unless you had reason to seek it out, since almost all the traffic, including the shuttle bus from St Mark’s square in Florence towards the central piazza of Fiesole on the escarpment five miles to the north, takes the far straighter and more convenient motor road constructed in the first decade of the twentieth century. In E.M. Forster’s time trams were just coming in, but the old pedestrian path was still the main way of reaching the village. In A Room With A View, Forster describes how the Revd. Mr Eager, one-time curate in Brixton, presently Anglican chaplain to the English community in Florence, conducts a party of British visitors, whom he prefers not to think of as ‘tourists’, on an afternoon expedition to view the valley of the Arno from the top of the slope. They are travelling by horse and cart, and the vainglorious vicar is addressing the youthful heroine, Lucy Honeychurch:

Now, the English colony at Florence, Miss Honeychurch – and it is of considerable size, though, of course, not all equally – a few are here for trade, for example. But the greater part are students. Lady Helen Laverstock is at present busy over Fra Angelico. I mention her name because we are passing her villa on the left. No, you can only see it if you stand – no, do not stand; you will fall. She is very proud of that thick hedge. Inside, perfect seclusion. One might have gone back six hundred years.

And so it was when my wife Catherine and I, after changing planes in Rome, arrived there in the July of 2013. The hedge is still there, and so is the seclusion. Lady Helen Laverstock, of course, is a figment of fiction, but the core of the villa is certainly medieval. We were there because we had heard that the actual occupant of the estate in Forster’s day, an English woman called Violet Paget, known to literature as the novelist Vernon Lee, had, a few years after Forster’s visit, conducted from this house scientific studies into the art of listening. Lee certainly wrote about painting, and published with her companion and mistress, the artist Kit Anstruther-Thomson, several studies of the aesthetics of perception, copies of which we soon found in the library. But she was also a keen amateur harpsichordist, and in 1912 from this address she sent out 150 copies of a questionnaire headed ‘An Inquiry Into Individual Differences With Reference to the Expressive or Emotional Powers of Music’ to all of the dedicated music lovers among her large community of international correspondents, putting such questions as:

Does the hearing of music:
(a) Disturb,
(b) facilitate trains of thought, work or the seeing of works of art?
(c) do you prefer to listen to music or to overhear it while otherwise employed?

As published in her book Music and Its Lovers: An Empirical Study of Emotion and Imaginative Responses to Music in 1932, the answers furnish a sort of anticipatory Listening Experience Database. We learn, for example, that in listening to the Adagio of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata opus 106, her friend M. Ernest “experiences the same emotion which the resigned, strong, sad man would express in a given gesture: what that man would feel in real life.” From this she concludes that her friend is a “hearer” rather than a “listener”, in other words that he is more affected by the associations connected with music rather than the music itself. For Lee “hearers” are people who, if diverted from a musical performance by everyday thoughts, welcome the intrusion, while “listeners” are those who, prizing the musical form above all else, resent all such mental intrusion.

What, I wonder, would she have made of the fact that, in writing this blog post, I was immediately able to call up several performances of that same movement on YouTube? Very little I should imagine, but we wanted to know what she had learned from the science of her own day. So we took the bus into town and sat in the Harold Acton Library overlooking the Arno and perused her collection of musicological books. Here a whole world of early twentieth century musical psychology was opened up to us. We learned about Frank Howes who in his 1926 The Borderland of Music and Psychology - dedicated “to Adrian Boult” - investigated the phenomenon of applause, which he connected to “the herd instinct”. And about the American psychologist Harry Porter Weld, who in 1912 subjected volunteers to recordings of pieces of music in the laboratory and got them to write down their reactions: “I enjoyed the first cadenza”; “I knew that the end was coming.” And about Lionel Dauriac who in his Essai Sur l’Eprit Musical of 1904, asked the following pertinent question: “Do not all who listen to playing or singing, accompany the melody that they are hearing by a sort of internal song?” It is a query I often put to myself, and to my own musical friends. I’ll ponder its significance, for Lee and for us, in my next entry.

Robert and Catherine Fraser’s research in Florence was financially supported by the Open University Faculty of Arts’ Research Committee. Catherine died on January 22, 2014.