Too Busy to Read Charles Dickens? Then Try the Music

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Tuesday marks the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the most celebrated English novelist of the 19th century. His novels – including classics like "Oliver Twist," "David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations” – have inspired countless readers and writers, not to mention film and TV adaptations that continue to proliferate.

But unlike Shakespeare or Goethe, Dickens’s influence on classical music is less pronounced – at least on first glance.

Further scrutiny shows some often surprising intersections between the music of Dickens’s time and his writing, with its sweeping plots, colorful characters and mellifluous prose (tune in to 105.9 FM and for Dickens-themed selections all day Tuesday). Dickens himself made extensive use of music to illustrate character and create situations. "From an historical point of view these references are of utmost importance," writes James T. Lightwood in his book Charles Dickens and Music, "for they reflect to a nicety the general condition of ordinary musical life in England during the middle of the last century."

Specifically, Dickens wasn’t so interested in peppering his writing with references to the classical pieces of his day but rather depicting music as it was found in an ordinary English home – the songs of the period and the average musical attainments of the lower and middle classes. Consider "The College Hornpipe," a popular dance tune of that era, which Dickens drops into two of his novels: "Dombey and Son" and "David Copperfield," (“To make his example the more impressive, Mr. Micawber drank a glass of punch with an air of great enjoyment and satisfaction, and whistled the College Hornpipe,” reads the passage in the latter novel).

Even an allusion to George Frideric Handel has working-class overtones. In “Great Expectations,” Pip, the main character is fondly given the nickname of Handel by the character Herbert Pocket, in honor of Pip's upbringing as a blacksmith, and in honor of this music. "We are so harmonious -- and you have been a blacksmith," he said.

Dickens’s favorite composers were said to be Mendelssohn, Chopin and Mozart and he reportedly attended opera performances whenever traveling through continental Europe. He got to know the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer and was friendly with Sir Arthur Sullivan. The latter composer recalled in his memoirs roaming around Paris with Dickens, and at one point the two attended a performance of Gluck’s Orfeo. “I went about a good deal with Dickens,” Sullivan wrote. “He rushed about tremendously all the time and I was often with him… His electric vitality was extreme, but it was inspiring and not overpowering.”

Lightwood noted that Dickens’s love of music was not unconditional: while the author often described the music he heard on the squares and streets of London in his writing, he could not bear street noise while writing, and he complained vehemently about church bells and street musicians. Even while traveling in Scotland, his troubles did not cease, as he encountered “a most infernal piper practicing under the window.” Still, Dickens apparently loved to sing, and wrote a few songs and ballads like "The Ivy Green," which appears in "The Pickwick Papers."

As a young man Dickens was involved with the production of one operetta, The Village Coquettes, for which he wrote the words, and John Hullah composed the music. It was produced at St. James Theater in 1836 (the score and parts were later destroyed in a fire). The world of theater clearly appealed to Dickens and as an actor and director he was always particular about the musical arrangements. A playbill of 1833 shows that he directed a private performance of Clari, an opera by Bishop.

Victorian music publishers sought to exploit the sales potential of Dickens's name and released pieces by like The David Copperfield Polkas and the Christmas Carol Quadrilles. The former can be heard in a 1997 recording:

Of course, Dickens’s "A Christmas Carol" has been adapted not only as a play and a film but also in compositions by Norman Dello Joio (for solo voice and for mixed or women's chorus and piano); Benjamin Britten (the 1947 chamber orchestra composition Men of Goodwill: Variations on 'A Christmas Carol) and Thea Musgrave (a 1978 opera). In December 1946, the BBC presented the story as a ballet, with music by Vaughan Williams (On Christmas Night).

One composer who seemed to have a particular affinity with Dickens’s writing was Sir Arnold Bax, whose score for the 1948 film version of "Oliver Twist" captured the colorful life of the eponymous orphan. The score was released in 2003 on a stereo recording for the first time, played by the BBC Philharmonic.