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It may well be that none of the three Bronte sisters were the equal of, say, Jane Austen as a musical exponent; but music undoubtedly played its part in tempering the severity of their life on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. All three sisters, and their brother Branwell also, were very fond of it, the girls' teacher being Abraham Starsfield Sunderland, Organist of Keighley Parish Church in the 1830s. The Bronte piano was a cabinet upright by John Green of Soho Square; while the sisters were living in the Parsonage this was kept in the Rev. Patrick Bronte's study. Emily played it the best; Anne also played and sang a bit, but Charlotte was handicapped in the attempt to emulate them by her shortsightedness. Her devotion to music is not in doubt, though; while in Brussels she is known to have attended at least one concert.

The writings of the Bronte sisters have certainly inspired much varied and interesting music, especially over the last generation or two. Emily was surely the best poet of the three and a selection of compositions setting her verses include: Six Poems of Emily Bronte, for high voice and piano by the South African born John Joubert (born 1927); Lullaby, A lovely Landscape and Storm, all for SSA voices, all by Robert Long; The Holly Tree for solo or unison voices by John Clements; and A Little Whitsuntide Cantata, set for SATB by Anthony Payne. Anne wrote the words of several hymns and one in particular, The Narrow Way, set to music, has achieved popularity and recording.

The best known Bronte novels are, by common consent, Emily's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte's Jane Eyre; both have been transferred to the stage with more or less success, in both cases as a full-scale opera and as a musical. Perhaps the best of these is Bernard Herrmann's opera Wuthering Heights; one musical based on that novel was entitled Heathcliff - another, called by its original title, was by the South African born Bernard Taylor (born 1944) appeared in 1991. Jane Eyre was made into a musical as far back as 1961, the score being provided by Monty Stevens; it ran for just three weeks at Windsor with Diane Todd in the title role but it was revived in 1973. A grand opera version of Jane Eyre, music by Michael Berkeley, achieved success at different venues during 2000. A ballet, The Brontes was commissioned by Northern Ballet Theatre with attractive music by Dominic Muldowney, the tableaux being entitled The Toy Soldiers Fantasy, The Noors, Branwell and Mrs Robinson, Wuthering Heights, Charlotte in Brussels, Pas de Deux (Charlotte and her husband Mr Nicholls) and Epilogue.

The Bronte novels have been adapted effectively for both large and small screens. Wuthering Heights appeared on the large screen in 1939 (music by the great Hollywood composer Alfred Newman); in 1970 (Michel Legrand) and in 1992 (Ryuichi Sakamoto). The earliest talkie of Jane Eyre which has musical credit (1943) had music by Bernard Herrmann again. Its British successor in 1970 was accompanied by a score from that prolific American writer for the screen John Williams. The most recent (again U.S.) Jane Eyre film had music by Alessio Vlad and Claudio Copponi. A film about the Bronte family, entitled Devotion (1943), had music by Erich Korngold, a prolific Hollywood composer in the pre-Williams era.

1997 was a good year for TV adaptations of Bronte novels. Richard Allan Harvey (born 1953) furnished a very shapely score for Jane Eyre and Richard G. Mitchell did the honours for Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In the following year, 1998, Wuthering Heights was adapted for the small screen; Warner Bennett wrote the music.

The Yorkshire moors play a part in the Bronte story and various composers, including Delius in North Country Sketches, Holst (A Moorside Suite for brass band), Arthur Butterworth (in various compositions) and Arthur Wood (ditto) have sought to depict these in general terms, but we shall accord a special mention to Three Haworth Impressions for brass band by Gordon Langford (born 1930) which includes High Withers, the supposed site of Wuthering Heights and the Worth Valley Railway, the means by which many Bronte pilgrims approach Haworth and its now much frequented Parsonage. Langford is English; but some of the composers we mention in this brief study are not: an indication of the worldwide appeal the Brontes have in the present age.

Philip Scowcroft


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