The art of improper listening: one eminent Victorian

Ours is a new method, but scarcely a new theme. In Book Nine of his Confessions Saint Augustine has some interesting things to say about the effects of listening in the fifth century CE, especially to the Psalms. For present purposes I want to focus on the late Victorian age. Recent conversations with a music therapist have led me to consider the life and work of one representative of its musical culture in particular: a pioneer, a bon viveur, a linguist and man of the cloth, but also someone who brought subtly to a head debates raging, then as now, around the practice of listening, the evidence we cull for it, and the uses to which it may be put.

The Temperance Hospital, Hampstead, Saturday September 17th, 1891. Across the Sturges Ward, a curtain has just been erected. Behind it are arranged a group of six professional musicians: one soprano, one contralto, one baritone, two violinists and a harpist. Before the curtain stand Drs W.J. Collins and G. Mansfield and the medical student Helen Wilson, a matron, three nurses and an elderly clergyman in a dog collar. Between them huddle several patients. One possesses the bloated appearance symptomatic of dropsy, or as we would say today, of water around the heart, or oedema. Another has his leg in plaster after being crushed in a road accident. Two others are slumped in their chairs in an evident state of severe depression. The musicians launch invisibly into a lullaby, then continue to play for around half an hour. When they have finished, the clerical gentleman asks each of the patients in turn how he is feeling. “One and all”, he later reports in the medical press, “said that the music had soothed them, the patient suffering from dropsy remarking that the pain had kept off while the music was being played and returned when it ceased.”

The musicians are all members of the Guild of Saint Cecilia, founded that very year, and the clergyman, to whom we owe this information, is its moving spirit. Frederick Kill Harford is a scion of a distinguished family of Bristol Quakers whose fortune comes from brass making and banking. In 1785 his grandfather Joseph had converted to the Church of England on being appointed High Sheriff of the County, thus enabling his descendant to enter the ministry of the Established Church; he has now been a Minor Canon of Westminster Abbey for exactly thirty years. Whilst still a schoolboy at Rugby in the years following the inspirational headship of Thomas Arnold, he had won a prize for writing a poem about the River Niger, the source of which was then in dispute. After reading classics at Oxford, he had been appointed Chaplain to the Bishop of Gibraltar, where he had written a poem in heroic couplets praising a band of Christians martyred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He has composed church music, including “Bright Tomorrow”, a duet for soprano and contralto for the marriage in the Abbey in July 1980 of Henry Morton Stanley, explorer of the said River Niger, with a Miss Tennant. He has also composed a congregational setting of the ‘Venite, Exultemus Domino’, and is something of an expert on the origins of the British national anthem, having issued an anthology of translations of its text into Urdu, Sanskrit, Bengali, Gujurati, Telegu, Ancient Egyptian and Assyrian cuneiform. He has himself translated Schiller’s poem Der Taucher from the German, and Canto Five (the Paulo and Francesca canto) of Dante’s Inferno from the Italian. The previous year he locked horns with Charles Villiers Stanford, the word setting of the “Te Deum” in whose Communion Service in B Flat he had castigated in the Musical World. Harford is fastidious and full of curiosity, a strange mixture of snobbery and social concern. His latest fad is for the recent technology of the telephone, down which members of his Guild of musicians are wont to perform to hospital wards in far-flung places.

That Guild - both an experiment and a cure - has been claimed as an early instance of the modern profession of music therapy [1]. Its activities, which lasted five years, raise further questions relevant to both nineteenth and twenty-first centuries about the nature of listening, and relationships between performers and their audiences. Vernon Lee, about whom I wrote in an earlier blog entry, would doubtless have inferred that the afflicted persons to whom Harford’s musicians played that Saturday afternoon were not - strictly speaking - listeners at all, but “hearers”, caught up in their own reactions to the music rather than the music itself. The Austrian music critic and theorist Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904), formalist and champion of Brahms against Wagner, would have called them “pathological listeners”, their aural experiences a dumping ground for physical or mental ailments. Yet many audiences, then and since, have responded to music in just this sort of way, arguably the commonest reaction among lay persons who have testified as to the effect upon them of different kinds of music, from Gregorian chant to Rock and Roll. See the majority of entries to LED.

But what, I wonder, can have been the purpose, on that afternoon in 1891, of concealing the musicians behind a curtain? Can it have been motivated by a simple desire to secure their anonymity? Or can it have represented an unconscious acknowledgment of what in 1966 the musicologist Pierre Schaeffer was to term the “acousmatic” element in all listening experience, the sense in which it exists as an autonomous subject of aesthetic appreciation quite distinct from its physical origin or source? I would like to consider Schaeffer’s ideas in more detail at a later date but, in the meantime, answers on a postcard please.

Canon Harford himself regarded audiences as integral to every musical event. Introducing his setting of the ‘Venite’ in 1889, he cites a letter from the Younger Pliny to the Emperor Trajan stating that primitive Christians invariably sang their canticles “secum invicem”, antiphonally, or perhaps just “among themselves” No dedicated choir back then, and no silent congregation. Which observation returns us to the earliest origins of church music, but also leads us forward to varieties of musical improvisation, in jazz or in the modern practice of music therapy in which patient and therapist improvise freely together. Of which, more next time.

[1] See Tyler, Helen M. "The music therapy profession in modern Britain" in Horden, Peregrine, Music as medicine: The history of music therapy since antiquity (Ashgate, 2000): 375-393, and Tyler, Helen Patey. "Frederick Kill Harford-Dilettante Dabbler or Man of Our Time?" Nordic Journal of Music Therapy 11.1 (2002): 39-42.