MUSIC IN "THE FORSYTE SAGA"
Music figures considerably in much English literature: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, even in detective stories. In John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga we would expect it to feature less as the Forsyte ethos is basically Philistine; though young John Jolyon dabbles in painting and both June and Soames in their different ways collect pictures. The keenest music lovers among the Forsytes is of course old Jolyon, though his grand-daughter Holly is quite fond of it. As early as Chapter 2 of Part I of The Man of Property we see him visit the opera (the house is not specified but it could well be Covent Garden) where he sees mercifully not one of those new-fangled German pantomimes by that fellow Wagner (the year is 1886) but Beethoven's Fidelio. He feels low and "not even the Prisoner's Chorus nor Florestan's song had the power to dispel the gloom of his loneliness" Further "there was no opera now. That fellow Wagner had ruined everything; no melody left, nor any voices to sing it. Ah! the wonderful singers! Gone!" This was a view shared by many English opera-goers in the 1880s and for many years afterward. Old Jolyon continued to enjoy his opera. In the interlude Indian Summer of a Forsyte he visits with Irene, doubtless among other things, a production of Carmen and only his sudden indisposition prevents their going to Faust. Both these operas were commonplaces in the England of the 1890s and even Meyerbeer whose operas Jolyon "for some occult reason" loved, was not entirely unknown. A mild surprise among his tastes is Gluck - even Orfeo one thinks of as almost totally forgotten between the late 18th century and Kathleen Ferrier's all too brief day - but it is good to be reminded that until the post 1945 Baroque revival Gluck's operas were the earliest to hold a place in the repertoire. Old Jolyon who in 1892 had seen it recently at Covent Garden loved Orfeo "a beautiful opera, not like Meyerbeer, not even quite Mozart, but it in it way perhaps even more lovely; something classical and of the Golden Age about it, chaste and mellow." We are not told whether Old Jolyon's taste extended to British operas, Macfarren, Balfe, Wallace, Benedict or Sullivan's Ivanhoe.
Orfeo is one of the things Irene, the Saga's heroine, plays to him on the piano, long with lashings of Chopin - nocturnes, studies, mazurkas and waltzes - and possibly bits of Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, and Schumann as he liked them too. Irene was not a concert pianist but she eked out a living in the years between her leaving Soames and marrying Young Jolyon by teaching the instrument to mainly Jewish children on her satinwood upright piano. Unfortunately as throughout the Saga we never share any of Irene's thoughts we know little of her tastes in music only what other like Old Jolyon ask her to play. Did she try English music of the period - Sterndale Bennett, Sullivan, Edward Loder, Sidney Smith? We can only speculate.
The Forsyte family could boast a composer. Francie born in 1858 and the daughter of Roger Forsyte, who wrote ballads "with titles like Breathing Sighs and Kiss Me Mother 'ere I Die and Songs for Little People Francie had many real life counterparts like the French-born Guy d'Hardelot, also born in 1858, Frances Allitsen, Florence Aylward, "Claribel" and Amy Woodeforde Finden. Some of them even aspired to more serious music like Francie Forsyte did with her Violin Sonata ("rubbish" but - annoying! the sort of rubbish that wouldn't sell"), but none so far as I know went in for dance music as well, like Francie's Kensington Coil waltz, two bars of which are quoted and described as very original. This doubtless made a change from the general run of dance music of the Victorian era which was often adapted from the light operas of the time.
The Forsytes with the possible exception of Old Jolyon, enjoyed the lighter forms of music. In To Let published and set in 1920, there is no reference to The Beggars Opera which in Frederic Austen's arrangement began that year a remarkable run of 1463 performances at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Soames was "puzzled" by it but his sister Winifred was charmed by the costumes and even by the music. But none of the family were anywhere near as enthusiastic as Old Jolyon for more serious fare and perhaps this Philistinism is a fair reflection of British society as a whole in the Forsyte period (ie. 1886-1926) and indeed since - something with which we as a British Music Society have had to contend.
P L Scowcroft
( The Forsyte Saga is currently being prepared in a
new series by UK's ITV)