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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


WILKIE COLLINS AND MUSIC

Collins (1824-89) was, like Charles Dickens (the two men were good friends despite the 12 year gap in their ages), a past master of the Victorian novel of incident and sensation. In a number of respects 'The Moonstone' is ahead of its time viewed as a novel of detection. Compared with Dickens, little of his output is well known these days and it contains less in the way of sidelights of music. Collins’s musical references are nevertheless of considerable interest.

At least two of Collins’ "baddies" have a passionate interest in music. Miss Gwilt, of the thriller 'Armadale' (1866, set in 1851), which probably has more musical allusion than any other Collins novel, attends a performance of Bellini’s 'Norma' at Naples’ San Carlos Opera House. She is a music teacher and we twice see her playing a Beethoven piano sonata, on one occasion the so-called "Moonlight" and on the other, from the description, the Appassionata, through we are not specifically told. And in chapter VIII of Book I we attend a picnic cruise on the Norfolk broads which ends with music: patriotic songs, including John Braham’s still-popular 'The Death of Nelson', sentimental songs and Thomas Moore’s long popular Irish songs, all sung to the accompaniment of that instrument very popular in the Victorian era, the concertina.

The concertina also figures in 'The Woman in White' (1860, set in 1849-51), when in the Second Epoch III we see its principal villain, the corpulent Italian Count Fosco, singing to its (self-played on the concertina) accompaniment Figaro’s celebrated aria from Rossini’s 'The Barber of Seville'. Fosco admires Rossini and in the Second Epoch VIII he argues, with the aid of more vocal illustrations, again self-accompanied, this time on the piano, that the opera 'Moses in Egypt' is an oratorio to rank with the best English and German examples and that the Overture to 'William Tell' is a symphony in all but name (it does indeed have parallels with Beethoven’s Pastoral). Near the end of the novel, he and his antagonist Walter Hartwright visit, unbeknownst to each other, a performance – presumably at Covent Garden, but we are not told - of Donizetti’s 'Lucrezia Borgia'.

Laura Fairlie, the heroine of 'The Woman in White', plays Mozart on the piano (1st Epoch, VII), which is a symbol of her love for Hartright (Ibid, XIV), but she also plays, on request, "music…of the lightest and liveliest kind" (Ibid, VIII). Rachel Verinder, the heroine of 'The Moonstone' (1868, set in 1848-9) also plays the piano, sometimes improvising (cf Second Period, Third Narrative, Chapter VI), at others performing music (in the opinion of the religious bigot Drusilla Clack) "of the most scandalously profane sort associated with performances on the stage which it curdles my blood to think of" (Second Period, First Narrative, Chapter VIII). Also in Miss Clack’s Narrative we have references to the charity concerts at the Exeter Hall which were so much a feature of the mid-Victorian period. And we have a further glimpse of domestic music-making when two guests sing a popular duet at Rachel’s 18th birthday (First Period, Chapter X).

If we again compare him with Dickens, Collins has inspired little in the way of music: no musical comedies like 'Oliver' or 'Pickwick', no operas and no dance music inspired by characters in his novels. But there have been adaptations for radio, TV or film, of 'The Woman in White' and 'The Moonstone', though not, so far as I recall, of the other great novels of the 1860s, 'No Name' or 'Armadale'. I do not remember who provided the music for the TV versions of 'The Moonstone' in the 1970s and 1990s, nor for that of 'The Woman in White' in the 1980s, but the controversial TV adaptation of 'The Letter' in 1997 had a portentous score by David Ferguson. And the one large screen version so far, also of 'The Woman in White', in 1948, had music by one of the Hollywood all-time greats, Max Steiner.

"As far as radio adaptations go, the very latest one, in November 2001, of The Woman in White, has music by Elizabeth Parker.

Philip Scowcroft


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