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Carte-de-visite photograph by R. W. Thrupp, Birmingham (after John & Charles Watkins, London). Royal College of Music, London.

Carte-de-visite photograph by R. W. Thrupp, Birmingham (after John & Charles Watkins, London). Royal College of Music, London.

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DICKENS, Charles (b.Portsmouth, 7 February 1812; d.Gad's Hill Place, Kent, 9 June 1870)
A selection of Dickens images from the Museum's collection, the Peter Joslin Collection and the Centre for Performance History, Royal College of Music


There can be no doubt of Charles Dickens's enthusiasm for vocal music. As a boy he would sing popular songs at evening parties in Chatham and one of his earliest works was the libretto for an opera, The Village Coquettes, performed at the St James's Theatre in 1836 with the tenor, John Braham, in the lead. The composer, John Hullah, had been, with Dickens's sister Fanny, among the first students of the Royal Academy of music. Charles Dickens, however, made little progress with either the piano or the violin. We know, however, that he played the accordion, entertaining his fellow passengers with 'Home, Sweet Home' on his first voyage to America in 1842.

There are references to songs scattered through Dickens's novels. Among these are works by Charles Dibdin and George Linley and from Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies. Braham's 'Death of Nelson' and Handel's 'Harmonious Blacksmith' are mentioned more than once. In Great Expectations, Herbert Pocket asks his friend Pip: 'Would you mind Handel for a familiar name? There's a charming piece of music, by Handel, called the "Harmonious Blacksmith"'. '" I should like it very much"' is the reply. Handel's 'Dead March' from Saul is also mentioned in several novels. Opera was among Dickens's favourite entertainments. In the last decade of his life, he enjoyed Gounod's Faust and Gluck's Orphée.

Few of Dickens's characters are professional musicians. One is the cathedral organist John Jasper in Dickens's last, unfinished, novel, Edwin Drood, another, Amy Dorrit's Uncle Frederick, plays the clarionet in the theatre. Among the many amateur performers two of the most important are Dick Swiveller, who sings and plays the flute in The Old Curiosity Shop, and Tom Pinch, the unpaid organist in Martin Chuzzlewit.

Dickens was friendly with a number of musicians, including the violinist Joseph Joachim, the singers Jenny Lind, Clara Novello and Pauline Viardot and the pianist Charles Hallé. He greatly admired the work of the composer Arthur Sullivan and knew Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer.

Leonée Ormond

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Hullah (John): Ballad from the opera The Village Coquettes, to a text by Dickens (first performed St. James's Theatre, London 6 December 1836). London, [1836]. The Ivy Green. Written by Charles Dickens Esqr. London, [1844]. [A setting of a poem from Pickwick Papers.] Weippert (George): The Pickwick Quadrilles.  London, [1837?].

Hawley (Lavinia E.): Little Nell.   London, [c.1865]. Godfrey (Dan):  Little Nell.  Waltz.  London, [1871]. 'Hélène':  Dolly Varden Schottische.  London, [c.1880].

Thompson (Douglas): A Christmas Carol.  London, [1844?]. Anon.:  The Chimes Quadrille.London, [c.1855]. A reissue; first published in 1846. Jullien (Louis Antoine):  Jullien's Chimes Quadrilles.  London, [1845].

Lancelott (F.): The Chimes Quadrille.  London, [1845?]. Jullien (Louis Antoine):  The Cricket Polka. London, [1846?]. Saunders (S.D.): The Cricket on the Hearth Quadrilles.  London, [1846?].

Glover (Stephen):  What are the wild Waves saying?   London, [1848].  [based on an episode in Dombey and Son]. Glover (Stephen):   What are the wild waves saying?  (another edition, printed from type). Linley (George):   Clara.  Ballad, from David Copperfield. London, [1850].

Blockley (John):  Floating Away.  Ballad. London, [1857]. [based on an episode in Little Dorrit] Wilson (William): Tom Tiddler's Polka.   London, [1862]. Coote (Charles) the Younger: Coote's Mugby Junction Galop.  Duet.  London, [1867?].

The Charles Dickens Dinner.  An authentic record of the public banquet given to Mr.Charles Dickens at the Freemasons' Hall, London on Saturday, November 2, 1867, before his departure for the United States.  London, 1867. Dickens's own copy of the American edition of No Thoroughfare (see below).   New York, [1868]. Charles Dickens on Fechter's Acting;  followed by the critical notices extracted from the London journals.  Leeds, [1867?]

Ticket for St Martin's Hall, November-December 1858, including Dickens readings. Lightwood (James T.):  Charles Dickens and Music.  London, 1912.

Popular Music composers were quick to respond to each new work by Dickens - as they were to all topical subjects and events in the Victorian period. More than 100 ballads, dances and salon pieces inspired by the novels and stories are listed in Lightwood's Dickens and Music (1912), including some but not all of the examples shown above.

The three pamphlets relate to an important friendship in Dickens's last years - that with the Anglo-French actor Charles Albert Fechter (1824-1879). Fechter helped to organise the Farewell Banquet preceding Dickens's departure for America in 1867 and the following month appeared at London's New Royal Adelphi Theatre in the first performance of the play No Thoroughfare, based on a short story by Dickens and Wilkie Collins. He had collaborated with Collins in producing this dramatic version, and later repeated his role - that of the villain Obenreizer - in successful productions in Paris (translated by himself and with Dickens as co-producer) and New York. The music for what was in effect a melodrama - with particularly atmospheric accompaniment for Obenreizer - was composed by Edwin Ellis (1844-1878), the Adelphi's Music Director. Dickens's glowing tribute to the actor - here reprinted in an English edition - was published in the Atlantic Monthly for August 1869, five months before Fechter's American debut.