In this post I will be taking a look at our collection and objects based around the theme of music in the home. ‘Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the Universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything’- Plato.
Music was part of home from the very beginning. We brought our voices and musical instruments into our homes, adapting and developing them, in order to satisfy our need for music. Until around 1900 music within walls existed only if performed. Music lovers could buy their favourite pieces and songs in the form of sheet music and recite them at home. This mezzotint print from 1780, titled ‘The Musical Charmer’, shows a woman seated in a domestic interior playing a stringed instrument, from a piece of sheet music on the couch.
The portrait of sisters Bell and Dorothy Freeman by Edward Robert Hughes, dated 1889, shows the younger girl, Dorothy, holding a violin. In the 1600s and 1700s it was recommended the violin be played by men; the next century brought change and playing violin slowly became an acceptable accomplishment for young girls like Dorothy to participate in. However, the idea still lingered that the performance would be better if the violin was in a man’s hands. This painting was purchased with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and we are proud to have it in our collection.
In the 1800s practicing music at home was regarded as an accomplishment, and an important part of upper and middle-class female education. This was especially so for young unmarried women, with the music’s purpose of appealing to potential suitors as the musical performance was often played directly to the gaze of male viewers. The Victorian era was famous for musical evenings and social gatherings at home, where music was performed. Increasing affluence and manufacturing developments meant that more people than ever before were able to have a piano in their home. Pianos were becoming less expensive at this time, but were still indicative of a certain wealth and status. A house would not be considered complete without a piano; that could be a grand piano in the drawing room or an upright piano in the parlour. In our collection we have a square piano from the Georgian era, made from solid and veneered mahogany and satinwood with ivory and ebony keys, with banding in various woods, made in London by Christopher Ganer c.1785.
Early keyboard music at home was played on the organ, on the clavichord and harpsichord. Today, when the practice of domestic music is restricted to the piano, it is difficult to imagine a time when three essentially different instruments were commonly used, and when it was not unusual to find in middle-class homes several of these keyboard instruments. The organ was played in private homes, music being performed on portative organs, constructed simply in order to make it as portable as possible. The clavichord was small in size and without legs; it was placed on a table, a chair, or simply across the knees; and it was cheap. The instrument often had an elegant
appearance, the interior of the lid being ornamented with paintings. The tone of the clavichord is very pure and expressive but weak and this intimate nature restricted its use to the home. Because of the feebleness of the sound it was to disappear before the triumphant piano. Still, in homes, the clavichord was popular because of its intimacy and at that time no one thought that such a powerful and loud sound like of a piano would be acceptable in the home.
The harpsichord, as an instrument of a more powerful sound, which could be heard in larger rooms, was played in middle-class homes, at royal courts, in concert halls, in churches and in the theatre. Its deficiency was its inability to provide subtle gradations of sound and would also be defeated by the piano or ‘pianoforte’ which is, as the name suggests, able to ‘speak’ loud and soft. Harpsichords were even converted into pianos, but transforming them was not easy, so many were destroyed especially in order to rob them of their decoration. The old instrument was abandoned for the new one and advertisers of the era asked ‘to trade an excellent harpsichord against a piano’. In France a decisive moment came with the Revolution of 1789; the aristocratic harpsichord was swept away in the tumult and when the new bourgeois society was established, its instrument was no longer the harpsichord, but the piano.
Old keyboard instruments were not standardised in design, as are modern pianos. The builder worked according to the taste and the purse of the client. The harpsichords were often decorated with gilding, sculpture and veneer, inlaid with shell, mother-of-pearl, ivory or ornamented with precious stones. The commonest form of decoration was painting, principally on the underside of the lid. These paintings were frequently done by famous artists. Instrument makers of the 1500s and 1600s in Antwerp were attached to the guild of painters, sculptors and decorators. Flemish makers sometimes strewed the soundboard with flowers, fruit, birds and insects, framed in blue scrolls. Pious texts or philosophical tags completed the ornamentation. Written in Latin, examples were: ‘Music, companion of joy, the cure for sadness’. ‘I make joyous both the eyes and the heart.’ Designs of pianos could be extremely elaborate, like this marquetry decoration of a piano manufactured by Broadwood of London, 1852.
Musical instrument makers were artists, determined to try every sort of material in order to draw forth the sweetest sounds. On them also depended how the instruments would sound as the physical characteristics affect the sound and thereby the emotions of the listeners. In a letter addressed in 1773 to the ‘Journal de musique’, the author wrote of
the harpsichord: ‘The magic of the sounds which it makes today captivates the ear of the listener, charms his heart, enchants and ravishes him… The pleasure which you will enjoy when you listen to this instrument will soon engender another pleasure, not less delightful to the gently nurtured, that of gratitude.’
While music in the 1800s could be heard in homes only if performed on musical instruments, in the 1900s anyone with a radio or record player could hear operas, symphonies and orchestras right in their own living room. Different music from different parts of the world could now also be heard without travelling to these locations and while sitting in homes.
This radiogram was displayed in our West Indian Front Room exhibition, which looked at the nature of the front room as created by African Caribbean settlers in Britain from the 1950s. Sometimes called the ‘Bluespot’, the radiogram reflected the importance of music for many Post War black settlers, who, excluded from pubs and clubs, might entertain themselves at home. Culturally, music also provided a memory of ‘back home’ and a means of light escape. If a christening or wedding party was being held or guests were being entertained, you could hear rock ‘n’ roll, pop, ska, reggae, calypso or soul. Whereas, on a Sunday, it was common to only hear Jim Reeves and country and western and other religious inspired music or even a sermon broadcast on the radio.
This Ferguson Unit Audio Stereo System, in four parts, consisting of a record player, a stereo-tuner amplifier and two speakers, and manufactured by Ferguson & Thorn Electrical Industries in Great Britain in 1968, was donated by Jackie and Norman N. They bought it for their home in Essex where it was used from 1968 to 1989 playing a diverse range of records on the stereo, including classical, jazz, modern and show music as well as children’s music like Camberwick Green. Their children were able to use the stereo easily, and records were played on it at family gatherings such as at Christmas and children’s parties. It was initially in the living room, before being moved into a new sitting/music room where there was no television, but instead a piano and other musical instruments. Jackie and Norman’s children called this room ‘the white room’ due to its off-white long-pile carpet. In 1989 Jackie and Norman replaced their Ferguson stereo system a more up-to-date stereo capable of playing cassette tapes and CDs.
After the invention of radio broadcasting and gramophone records, the technology that enabled listening to music rapidly developed and by the 1990s with just the press of a button you could listen to music recorded onto tape or CD, or the radio in your home.
Is it the right time to take out one of our favourite CDs and play it again to please our soul?
Tijana- Curatorial Volunteer
Ernest Closson, History of the Piano, edited and revised by Robin Golding, 1974