Wives and Daughters – Gaskell’s Music

I am re-reading “Wives and Daughters” by Elizabeth Gaskell, and this time around I am struck by her references to music. First published as a serial in 1864 in Cornhill Magazine until 1866 (Although Gaskell died in 1865); the book is describing events in an English town in the 1830s.

I am about half way through it and there have been multiple references to playing the piano; and until now I always thought it to be the harpsichord, but this is the wrong century; then I thought it to be the pianoforte, but I guess this is the wrong class. The pianoforte is the right century but it is a large instrument what probably would not have fitted into most middle class homes in a small English town. What Gaskell refers to was the new and transitional instrument of the piano; “She rarely touched the piano on which Molly practised with daily conscientiousness” (p.217).

I think the piano came in all shapes and sizes and were mainly produced on mainland Europe (Austria being the centre), but a smaller version was being reproduced and was able to fit into the parlour of most pre-Victorian homes. The “Cottage Organ” or the “Cottage Grand” are such terms, aptly describing its environment, small enough to be transported from town to town and to sit in a cottage or a house. There were a few types of “uprights” available as the picture below shows:

         Piccolo                          Semi-Cottage              Cottage                      Cabinetpianos

It would have been  affordable for most middle range income families, such as a doctor as in the book.

grand pianoWhen Molly Gibson stayed at the Squire’s house a different type of piano was mentioned, “She used to try to practise an hour daily on the old grand piano in the solitary
drawing-room” (p.81), this reference shows a change of class, social status resulting in a different instrument being owned, “the old grand piano”. Gone is the simple Cottage Organ, the upright piano that fitted into a small room, now there was space for a larger instrument.

Another reference to music was at the Charity Ball, where reference was given to “the band consisting of two violins, a harp and an occasional clarinet” (p.79). For me it is a strange combination, harp and violin not so strange, but to use a clarinet does not bring to mind a country dance band that we have today.

The world “violin” is mentioned and not the world “fiddle” and a clarinet speaks of a semi-classical influence that was popular within Baroque music of the 18th century. For me the text paints a picture of musical “Classes”, musical cultures crossing over into modernity (of the 1830s) and a reference to the past. Also, having 4 instruments makes up a band, and not a very loud one at that, as the harp is not know for it raucous nature; with the stomping and chatter of a country dance I wonder the instruments were heard at all…something never changes!

Finally, there is a reference to a piece of music called “Monymusk”, the sentence goes “and when monymusk struck up again, not half of the former set of people stood up to finish the dance” (p.285). I have Monymusk in Peacocks Northumbrian Small Pipe notation book of 1800, so it was (and is) a popular tune for dancing too. Also it seems there was (and possibly is) a set dance to this tune? An example of Monymusk is as follows


I have found Gaskell’s book a far more descriptive narrative when it comes to music, compared to Austin’s or the Bronte’s books. References are given to balls and music but not in as much detail as Gaskell’s; also her writings have painted not only a instrumental picture but also an environment of an ever changing social order, in which they were played in.