To celebrate, to commemorate : Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Dickens by Watkins detail

Charles Dickens, ca. 1858, by George Herbert Watkins. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a new exhibition opening on Wednesday 24th October in the display cases in and around the Anderson Room celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth.

When I was thinking about setting up the exhibition, I realised at a very early stage that I would have to make a choice. I could either look at the music that was inspired by Dickens’ work, or I could look at how music affected Dickens and his writing. As far as the exhibition was concerned the former approach was much easier, simply because we have far more material, covering a wide timespan, that fits into this idea. However the blog is a great opportunity for looking at the alternative path that I could have followed.

Dickens was not a particularly talented musician although he had a reasonable tenor voice and was knowledgeable about music. He had several musical connections. George Hogarth, his father-in-law, was a music critic, who worked for some years on The Harmonicon. We have some of his books here including Memoirs of the musical drama and an early history of The Philharmonic Society of LondonThere was music in the Dickens  family too. Dickens’ sister, Fanny, was a member of the Royal Academy of Music, and an early Dickens’ work, written when he was in his early twenties, was the libretto for an opera, The Village Coquettes. The music (sadly we only have the libretto) was composed by John Hullah, a contemporary of Fanny at the Royal Academy.

Charles Dickens’ novels are full of allusions to music. Handel and his Harmonious Blacksmith variations (the final movement of Suite no. 5 in E major, HWV 430) was a particular favourite. It’s famously mentioned in Great Expectations when Herbert Pocket nicknames his new flatmate, Pip, “Handel” on the grounds that they will get on harmoniously together. There are further references to the Harmonious Blacksmith in Dombey and Son.

Tom Pinch (Martin Chuzzlewit) at the organ.
Public domain.

In fact Dickens provides a wealth of information on the sort of music that people were listening to in his day. Patriotic songs were popular with mentions of the Marseillaise (mentioned casually in A Tale of Two Cities) and Hail Columbia (described as ‘Ale Columbia in Martin Chuzzlewit). And Charles Dibdin remained popular with Mr. Micawber who sang several excerpts from Dibdin. Micawber was also keen on Auld lang syne :  “When we came to ‘Here’s a hand, my trusty frere’ we all joined hands round the table; and when we declared we would ‘take a right gude willie waught,’ and hadn’t the least idea what it meant, we were really affected.”

Dickens enjoyed the music of Chopin and Mozart, and Mendelssohn was a particular favourite. As one of the foremost celebrities of his day it’s not surprising that he met many Victorian musical celebrities. He knew Meyerbeer and Jenny Lind, and recalled meeting Daniel Auber “a stolid little elderly man, rather petulant in manner,’ who told Dickens that he had lived for a time at ‘Stock Noonton’ (Stoke Newington). Auber provided the background music for a dinner that Dickens attended, the writer was not impressed : “The knives and forks form a pleasing accompaniment to Auber’s music, and Auber’s music would form a pleasing accompaniment to the dinner, if you could hear anything besides the cymbals.”

For anyone looking for more information on the links between Dickens and music, have a look at James T. Lightwood’s book Charles Dickens and music. There’s also a very useful article by Charles Cudworth, a former Pendlebury librarian, in The Musical Times, June 1970, Dickens and music. And come and have a look at the exhibition – full of music that was inspired by Dickens.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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3 Responses to To celebrate, to commemorate : Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

  1. Janet Snowman says:

    Dear all

    Please see

    Janet Snowman
    Curator of art and iconography
    Royal Academy of Music, London


  2. mj263 says:

    Royal Academy’s exhibition is well worth having a look at. Running until 20th December 2012.


  3. Pingback: A star is born | MusiCB3 Blog

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