The Music of Dickens and his Time

The Music of Dickens and his Time. The Seven Dials Band.
Beautiful Jo Records, BEJOCD-9 (1996).

Reviewed by ALLAN W. ATLAS

A few years ago a documentary film-maker, knowing of my interest in both the concertina and the representation of music in Victorian literature,1 asked me if I would be interested in supervising the musical soundtrack for a documentary about Charles Dickens. I declined the invitation, and provided him with a list of people who, I thought, were more suitable to the task. As it turned out, the project came to naught (for lack of funding). But had I known about this recording then, I would surely have recommended that he get in touch with Beautiful Jo Records, the Seven Dials Band, and Dave Townsend in particular.

Briefly, this is a delightful recording, one that deserves wide circulation among both concertinists and anyone interested in Victorian culture in general. Its twenty tracks offer a collection of songs and tunes that are either cited in one or another of Dickens’s novels or have words by Dickens himself.

Concertinists will obviously be most interested in the four tracks that cast the spotlight on Townsend (who also wrote most of the arrangements): No. 1, ‘The College Hornpipe,’ which Dickens cites in both Dombey and Son and David Copperfield; No. 4, Joseph Warren’s arrangement for English concertina of Sir Henry Bishop’s famous ‘Home, Sweet Home’, which song Dickens knew well by virtue of his having mounted a production in 1833 of Bishop’s opera Clari, or The Maid of Milan (1823, words by the American John Howard Payne), in which the tune appears (we also know that Dickens enjoyed playing the piece on the accordion);2 No. 10, ‘The Fine Old English Gentleman’, a textual parody by Dickens of a well-known popular song (published in The Examiner in August 1843); and No. 18, ‘The Workhouse Boy’, another parody, this one of ‘The Mistletoe Bough’, and cited by Dickens in Bleak House. And it is on tracks 4 and 10 that I will concentrate.

About ‘The Fine Old English Gentleman’ I’ll be brief: it shows Townsend doing what he does as well as any player of the English concertina on the planet: devising full-voiced chordal accompaniments on the instrument (here a tenor-treble).

The rendition of the Warren arrangement of ‘Home, Sweet Home’, on the other hand, raises a number of questions (which are not the same as qualms) about ‘performance practice’. And here I’ll do no more than ask the questions, leaving it up to readers and players to begin thinking about the answers.

First, Warren published his arrangement as the opening number of a series titled Popular Melodies with Variations by 1859 at the latest, and I would speculate that he might have composed it more than a few years (perhaps more than a decade) before that.3 This raises the following question: would Townsend (who substitutes a harp for Warren’s piano accompani-ment, something certainly in keeping with Victorian performance practice)4 have better served the music by playing the piece on a ‘period’ instrument, one that more accurately reflects the way the concertina would have sounded at that time? Indeed, should he have used such an instrument throughout the recording, in order to give us a better sense of just what the Victorian ‘soundscape’ was like? But if the answer is yes, we open up a can of worms. For allowing that Warren might have written his arrangement as early as the 1840s, should we further ask that the piece be performed on an instrument with brass reeds, one with meantone tuning (that is with its E flats and A flats pitched higher than its D sharps and G sharps, respectively), and with an a’ equal to 452.5Hz?5 Should we also insist that Townsend have used an instrument with, say, four-fold bellows and played using four fingers of each hand, since the combination of the two might well have produced at least some differences in terms of articulation and phrasing? And should we insist that all the other musicians have been playing on ‘period’ instruments? As I said, here I will do no more than ask the questions.

Second, Townsend gives us only about half of the piece. Warren’s arrangement consists of the main theme (Bishop’s melody) and three of his own variations on it (Ex. 1, page 54).

Townsend, however, plays only the theme (and without the repeat of the first strain, to which a mid-nineteenth-century musician would eagerly have added some ornamentation), all of variation 2, and the conclusion only of variation 3. Now, I need hardly be told that this recording is not about Warren’s Home, Sweet Home in particular or even the concertina in general. Yet given the paucity of recorded examples of the English concertina’s Victorian repertory,6 could we ask that the concertinist who would record a piece from that repertory give it to us in its entirety? Needless to say, both performer and record producer have every bit as much right to say ‘No!’ and order their priorities as they will, just as the mid-nineteenth-century performer—who had a very different notion about the composer/performer relationship than we do (he/she was far less ‘up-tight’ about things)—would have done.

Finally, although it is certainly Dave Townsend’s presence that will attract concertinists to the CD (just as it is for our reviewing it here), there is no shortage of other wonderful material on it. Two of my favorites: Margaret Knight’s beautiful rendition of ‘Some Folks who have Grown Old’ (she accompanies herself on the harp), from The Village Coquettes (1836), an operetta by Dickens (libretto) and the musician John Hullah, who would become famous for his reforms in music education, and Chris Watson’s performance of ‘The Ivy Green’, on which Dickens collaborated with his brother-in-law; Henry Burnett (words and music, respectively) and which he would use in Pickwick Papers. In addition, we should cite the very informative notes by Tim and Edna Healy.7

In all, Beautiful Jo Records and everyone involved in the production of this valuable CD—and there can be no doubt that Dave Townsend was the driving musical force behind it – deserve a rousing round of applause.


1. Two of my publications in this area deal specifically with the concertina: ‘George Gissing’s Concertina’, Journal of Musicology, 17 (1999), 304-18, and ‘Collins, Count Fosco, and the Concertina’, Wilkie Collins Society Journal, n.s., 2 (1999), 56-60. Thanks to the efforts of Robert Gaskins, both of these are now available online:

Return to Text

2. It is interesting to note that the full title of Warren’s arrangement is Home! Sweet Home! Sicilian Air; the reference to the ‘Sicilian Air’ is a reminder that Bishop (1786-1855) originally published the tune anonymously under the title ‘Sicilian Air’ in an 1821 collection titled National Airs. He used the song a third time in his ‘operatic drama’ Home, Sweet Home, or The Ranz des Vaches of 1829. On the popularity of the song in the nineteenth century—aided by Jenny Lind making it a staple of her repertory in the 1850s—see Nicholas Temperley, ‘Ballroom and Drawing-Room Music’, in The Athlone History of Music in Britain, 5: The Romantic Age, 1800-1914, ed. N. Temperley (London: The Athlone Press, 1981), 125-26, and Derek B. Scott, The Singing Bourgeois: Songs of the Victorian Drawing Room and Parlour,2nd ed. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 11-15; for its popularity in the United States, see Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 179; see also, Nicholas Temperley and Bruce Carr, ‘Bishop, Sir Henry (Rowley)’, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, rev. ed., 29 vols., ed. by John Tyrrell and Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 2001), iii, 125-26.

Dickens himself tells us that he played Bishop’s ‘Home, Sweet Home’ on the accordion in a letter of 22 March 1842 (from Baltimore) to his friend (and biographer) John Foster: ‘You can’t think with what feeling I play Home Sweet Home every night, or how pleasantly sad it makes us’ (conveniently quoted in, among other places, the notes that accompany the CD). On Dickens and music, see Lillian M. Ruff, ‘How Musical was Charles Dickens?’, The Dickensian, 68 (1972), 32-33; James T. Lightwood, Charles Dickens and Music (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1912); Mary Burgen, ‘Heroines at the Piano: Women and Music in Nineteenth-Century Fiction’, in The Lost Chord: Essays on Victorian Music, ed. Nicholas Temperley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 42-67, which, though not devoted exclusively to Dickens, draws upon his works frequently.

Return to Text

3. See the British Library’s online catalogue of printed music:, which dates the entire series of twenty-nine pieces from 1859-1862. My own copy of the piece (plate number: ‘C.W. & Co. 1791.’) was issued only in 1905 or later, since its title page locates Wheatstone & Co. at 15 West Street, Charing Cross Road. In addition, the running ‘footer’ at the bottom of each page refers to the series as ‘Popular Aires’.

Return to Text

4. No less a musician than Hector Berlioz praised the combination of concertina and harp in his Grande traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, rev. ed (Paris, 1855), 287; see Allan W. Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina in Victorian England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 39. Still another Parisian critic who enjoyed the concertina-harp combination was Henri Blanchard, who expresses his opinion in a favorable review of a concert by William (piano), Henry (harp), and Auguste (concertina) Binfield at the Bains de Tivoli in April 1856; the review appears in Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris, xxiii/17 (27 April 1856), 131. Townsend also uses the combination effectively in his recording of the ‘Serenade’ from Bernhard Molique’s Six Characteristic Pieces, Op. 61 (1859), on the CD Concertina Landscape. Serpent Press SER006 (1998), which I reviewed in ‘Concertinas 1998-1999: A (Brief) Essay’, The Free-Reed Journal, 2 (2000), 53-54, where I raise some of the same questions. We might also note that the combination was not limited to the recital hall and drawing room, as witness the remarks in Henry Mayhew’s interview with a fifteen-year old concertina player in this issue’s HISTORICAL DOCUMENT.

Return to Text

5. It was to a’ = 452.5Hz that both the Philharmonic Society Orchestra and the piano manufacturer Broadwood tuned around the middle of the century and from 1852 to 1874, respectively; see Alexander John Ellis, ‘The History of Musical Pitch’, Journal of the Society of the Arts, 28 (1880), 330, 335-36; reprinted in Studies in the History of Musical Pitch: Monographs by Alexander J. Ellis and Arthur Mendel (Buren, 1968), 47, 52-53; see also Arthur Mendel, ‘Pitch in Western Music since 1500: A Re-examination’, Acta musicologica, 50 (1978), 87 (where it is noted that the a’ = 452.5Hz represents the ‘mean’ for the Philharmonic tuning). In addition, a Wheatstone & Co. price list from the mid-1910s lists the a’ = 452.5 (though expressed as ‘C = 540’) as the standard tuning for Wheatstone concertinas; the price list is reproduced online at: .

Return to Text

6. In addition to Townsend’s recording of the Molique ‘Serenade’ (cited in note 2), there are the two fine CDs by Douglas Rogers (on an instrument dating from 1858), The Great Regondi: Original Compositions by the 19th Century’s Unparalleled Guitarist & Concertinist. The Giulio Regondi Guild: Douglas Rogers, concertina; Julie Lustman, piano; David Starobin, guitar. Bridge Records, BCD 9039 (1993) and 9055 (1994).

Return to Text

7. Given the intense musicological research now under way on the representation of music in Victorian literature, it is no doubt time for a new assessment of music in the works of Dickens (see note 2). For a comprehensive glimpse into that new research, see The Idea of Music in Victorian Fiction, ed. Sophie Fuller and Nicky Losseff (Aldershot: Ashgate, forthcoming), which, surprisingly, includes no contributions on Dickens.

Return to Text

View or Download the PDF format file for this page

Enlarged: 1041*757, 61.7 KB

Enlarged: 1101*763, 71.0 KB

Musical Examples