An Edwardian Music Primer

Lily Elsie

Lily Elsie

A Twitter follower asked a great question about music in the Edwardian era, which alerted me to this gap on Edwardian Promenade. I’ve blogged a lot about ragtime and a little about the opera and musical theatre of the period, but have yet to draw them together–until now. I’m going try my best to stick with 1900s and 1910s England, but a large part of the Edwardian era’s change and growth in music devolved from the first wave of modern “globalization,” where peoples from all walks of life came in contact with one another through technology (ocean liners, telephones, cinema, etc).

Also, as with all things in this period, music consumption could be stratified by class. Opera and classical concerts were listened to by a variety of classes, but during the early 1900s, they both suddenly became “highbrow”–which is where they stand today. The rise of sheet music and a middle class finally uninterested in aping the upper classes created a “middlebrow” musical culture. The music hall became “respectable,” and lower and working-class denizens were exposed to masters of the music hall craft, who moved away from cobbling together old skits and revues.

Gramophone listener in a fictionalized view of the year 2000 By Villemard [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The biggest revolution in Edwardian music was the introduction of the gramophone (or phonograph, depending on country of origin). Of course this was limited to the middle-classes and up, but the wild success of recorded music launched a new–and lucrative–branch of the music industry virtually overnight. A public hungry for recordings of popular and traditional tunes, and opera and theatre stars, reached as far away as India, where they couldn’t get enough of comedic tunes from London’s music halls.

It’s very likely the increase in literacy and education post-1870s Education Act fostered the growth of music literacy, for this was also the epoch of the great orchestra groups like the Royal Philharmonic Society (earned the “Royal” upon its centenary in 1912), Halle Orchestra of Manchester, and the London Symphonic Orchestra. For the Edwardians, music could be heard in diverse places ranging from the Royal Albert Hall, Queen’s Hall, the Crystal Palace, all the way to bandstands in city parks and at seaside resorts, and regimental bands provided even more exposure to popular and patriotic tunes.

Gaiety Theatre. Aldwych, The Strand

Gaiety Theatre. Aldwych, The Strand

Advertisement and the popular press worked in tandem to create superstars of the brightest and most talented of the music world. Victorian-era standbys, like Adelina Patti retained their popularity well into the Edwardian era, but new luminaries tapped into the bombastic publicity emblazoned across newspapers, magazines, omnibuses, playbills, etc to build their reputations. Conductor Thomas Beecham, widely considered one of the most important musical geniuses of the 20th century, nevertheless used his family wealth to enter the opera world, and arrogantly reigned over the English music scene until his death in 1961.

In general, the Edwardian era is most associated with the frothy, glittering, magical music that wafted from the musical comedy–and the Gaiety Theatre and Daly’s under the “Guv’nor” George Edwardes in particular. These comedies usually had the word “Girl” in the title, featured light comic tunes sung by glamorous leading ladies and gentlemen, and anchored by a chorus line of beauties known as Gaiety Girls. Most songs written by Lionel Monckton and Ivan Caryll, whose compositions and lyrics made stars out of Lily Elsie, Gabrielle Ray, Gertie Millar, and other comic actresses.

The most enduring musical comedy was The Merry Widow, an adaptation of Die Lustige Witwe by Franz Lehar, which ultimately ran at Daly’s for a little over two years. Its famous waltz sold over 200,000 copies in sheet music, and it was seen by nearly two million people throughout its first run (King Edward VII was said to have viewed it four times!). The appetite for this kind of spectacle opened the door for American-style revues and American style music (ragtime, blues, and early jass [later jazz]). Book-ending the Edwardian period were the ragtime compositions of Scott Joplin and the rollicking blues & jass of Jelly Roll Morton, though the dominance of black music and black musicians did not emerge until after WWI.

Sissieretta Jones

Sissieretta Jones

Early globalization led to an increasing diversity of musical acts. Minstrel and racial stereotypes still persisted, but Britons (and Americans) of color took control of their own representation and productions in the Edwardian era. England’s own Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, born to an Englishwoman and a Sierra Leonean doctor, gained fame as a composer of modern classical tunes, the most famous being his The Song of Hiawatha, which caused an immediate sensation upon its premiere in 1898. Coleridge-Taylor soon became a point of contact within Britain and America’s black musical circles, who ranged from fellow composers like Will Marion Cook, to choir groups (very popular with all social classes and ethnicities) like the Kingston Choral Union from Jamaica. In India, the gramophone spread English music, but it also spread knowledge of traditional songs of the country’s various ethnic groups. Surprisingly, it was Indian women who led the way, and the first two decades of the 20th century created superstars of Gauhar Jaan, Malka Jaan, Zohra Bai Agrewali, among others.

Ballet Russes Oriental 1913 Costume Design Leon Bakst.

Ballet Russes Oriental 1913 Costume Design Leon Bakst.

The Ballet Russes brought avant garde music–composed by Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy–into the mainstream. Stravinsky, Debussy, and Maurice Ravel, were some of the titans of the new movement in music, which mirrored the growing avant garde art movements like Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Symbolism–all under the umbrella of “Modernism”–and changed the way 20th century listened to classical music.

If I could sum up the topic of music in the Edwardian era in one word, it would be “variety.” The early 1900s didn’t see a complete break with Victorian traditions, but its breadth and depth was indicative of a society that had begun to find its individual footing.

Further Reading:

Black Edwardians by Jeffrey Green
Edwardian Popular Music by Ronald Pearsall
“Music” by Frank Howes in Edwardian England, 1900-1914 ed Simon Nowell-Smith
Gaiety Years: George Edwardes and His Times by Alan Hyman

Other Edwardian Promenade posts

Category: Music
Tagged: Popular Music
Tagged: Music

REVIEW: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

Helen Rappaport pierces the romantic veiling swaddled around the daughters of Nicholas II to present a pleasing, if sobering look at the four lives brutally ended one night in the summer of 1918. I’m not a Romanov buff by any means, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Imperial Family and their lost world (Fox’s Anastasia (1997) is one of my favorite movies). When I downloaded this book to my Kindle, I didn’t know what to expect–the discovery of Anastasia’s remains in 2007 closed the case on the many imposters, and Rappaport certainly wasn’t going to mine rumors about Rasputin, was she?

Thankfully, Rappaport didn’t dwell on either. Instead, she drew a balanced, yet sometimes frustrating portrait of four young women raised at the highest echelons of society by warm, kind-hearted parents who were horrible rulers. The sentimental portrait of Nicholas and Alexandra’s great, abiding love is brought to earth to a startling degree, and the reality of their characters played out amongst their five children. The family of Nicholas II was very close and tight-knit, and the love between them all was intriguing to read in light of the stereotypical image of the stern, emotionally distant Victorian/Edwardian paterfamilias. But in the context of their time–which Rappaport paints very well–their extreme insularity brought their downfall.

There were times when I wanted to reach through the text and shake Empress Alexandra for her neglect and sheltering of her daughters, her obsession with her son and the throne, and her devotion to autocracy. There were times when I wanted to shake Olga, whom Rappaport claims was the most sensitive and astute of the four daughters, especially as Russia drifted towards the Revolution. My frustration was especially piqued when the Grand Duchesses kept getting sick at moments of crisis! I suppose illness was a constant presence in the days before vaccinations, but I couldn’t help but feel that the Romanov sisters were subconsciously susceptible to debilitating illnesses when beneath emotional strain (and it possibly was the only time their mother got out of bed and paid attention to them).

However, there are lots of charming, cheeky moments in this book. Rappaport draws from reminisces and letters they sent to friends over the years to paint as deep a portrait of Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia as one can without lots of primary resources (I was arrg! when reading passages of the sisters burning their diaries and letters in 1917-18). There is some repetition of their characters traits Rappaport presumes from extant sources, but it kept the sisters at the center of the tale even when chapters detailed the obsessive, fearful motherly love Empress Alexandra had for her only son. It was also intriguing to read about Rasputin through their eyes: I still can’t get a bead on him, but their grief when he is murdered in 1916 is palpable nearly one hundred years later.

Rappaport ends The Romanov Sisters as they are heading downstairs to the cellar of the Ipatiev House, for which I am thankful–it would have been difficult to read the gory details after being in their heads for 500+ pages (Rappaport has written about the fortnight leading up to murder in The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg). The mark of a great biography is one that effortlessly weaves the historical, cultural, and socio-political context into the subject’s life, and in The Romanov Sisters, Rappaport does just that.

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Edwardian Hairstyling

Edwardian hairstyling003

Before attempting to dress the hair it should be thoroughly brushed and combed. Many women are satisfied with giving their hair these attentions at night only. This is a mistake, for the ease with which the hair will “ set” becomingly will be greatly increased if its tone and vigour have been stimulated by previous treatment with brush and comb. If the hair is worn loose at night, it will doubtless be slightly tangled, and must be carefully restored to order before the actual hairdressing can begin. If, on the other hand, the hair is wom plaited or tied at night, fresh life will be restored to it by allowing the air to blow through each tress.

Artificial waving is best done before the process of hair-dressing is begun, either by the use of curling pins or by the use of hot tongs. The latter method has many disadvantages, among them being a certain risk to the health of the hair. Constant use of irons tends to make the hair brittle, and their drying action must be counteracted by the use of a good brilliantine or hair lotion. An excellent method of producing a deep wave is to insert the hot tongs (testing them carefully first to ensure that they are not too hot) in such a position that the hollow part of the prong is under the piece of hair to be waved. The tongs are then closed, rolled over slightly, and pulled obliquely alongside of the head. If in a moment they are removed, the tress of hair on which they have operated will be found to have taken a deep wavy impression, giving a graceful waved appearance, not a crimp. This is the effect of drawing the tongs obliquely instead of letting them rest straight in their pressure on the hair.

At the present time a low coiffure which involves a separate dressing of the front and back portions of the hair is very popular. The portion of the hair above the forehead is divided off from the rest. It may then be parted either in the middle or at the side, or left to be arranged in its undivided state. Perhaps the most generally becoming style is that in which, after dividing the hair by a short parting, each portion is carefully French—combed. By this means, by fluffing up the under-surface of the hair, it is given an artificial thickness that otherwise would be absent or could only be supplied by pads. The hair is then rolled back and held in position by means of side-combs. The ends of these rolled-back portions of the hair should then be smoothed down over the back of the head and allowed to mingle with the hair to be dressed in the nape of the neck.

A girl with very long and abundant tresses can dress her hair becomingly by dividing the back portion into three tresses. Each one should be French-combed and rolled, and then each roll pinned lengthways across the back of the head. One roll will be pinned above the other, so that a spiral effect is obtained. The lower rolls of the spiral should be narrow, while those at the top may be really wide. The addition of a wide ribbon or velvet bow on the top of the spirals will be a dainty finish.

For evening wear few hair ornaments are prettier with a low coifl’urethan the bandeau of ribbon, tinsel, or pearls. Roman pearls sewn on black velvet make a charming bandeau for a fair-haired girl. A gold chain can be used with excellent effect, twisted among the tresses of a dark-haired woman. A single flower, a rose or carnation, can be fastened against the coil of hair, and looks exceedingly pretty.

The Lady’s Realm (1906)

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