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Reviewed by:
  • Music in Other Words: Victorian Conversations
  • Donna Parsons (bio)
Music in Other Words: Victorian Conversations, by Ruth Solie; pp. 223. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2004, $39.95, £26.95.

During the past 25 years, scholars have focused more attention on appraising the musical lives of the Victorians. Musicologists as well as literary scholars have shown that in nineteenth-century Britain, a place once branded as "the land without music," musical aptitude, ambition, and careers flourished both within and outside of London. Simply [End Page 468] put, the Victorians cultivated music. It permeated every aspect of their lives, through private performances in front of family members and friends, musical at-homes before select audiences, church services, and regular concert attendance. Although England was a great importer of music and musicians from the Continent, the country itself was not devoid of natural talent; rather, it was deficient in its nurturing of native musicians. Lacking needed patronage, access to advanced musical training, and venues in which to perform or have works performed, British musicians were often forced to relegate their musical activities to a secondary or subordinate role. Over time, their contributions to Victorian musical life have been submerged or even forgotten.

Ruth Solie's Music in Other Words: Victorian Conversations allows "the muffled, even subterranean, conversations that tell us so much about what musical experience was like among the Victorians, what music actually meant to them" (2) to take center stage. I find her notion of "subterranean conversations" appealing, as this dialogue reveals subtle and rarely considered aspects of nineteenth-century culture and musical life. Solie's grasp of both music and literature—the disciplines that ground these conversations—is as impressive as her ability to interweave the two is thought provoking.

Although several chapters have appeared in various forms elsewhere, their inclusion in this volume forms a cohesive whole that paints a vivid picture of musical life in the nineteenth century. Solie's discussion ranges from ideological commentary on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (1824) to the proliferation of musical themes in Macmillan's Magazine during George Grove's tenure as editor, the socialization of girls via piano studies and in-home performances, the connection between Schubert and Biedermeier domesticity, the dynamics of cosmopolitanism and canon formation in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876), and the opera box as a trope in American fiction. We must keep in mind—as Solie acknowledges in her "prelude"—that she uses the term "Victorian" geographically to cover Europe and North America and does not apply it as a "style- term" (3). Victorianists might be skeptical as to how a study with such a broad scope could benefit our understanding of nineteenth-century England, but Solie's opening chapter quickly puts such reservations to rest.

Her exploration of nineteenth-century commentary on Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony examines "the ways in which religious, philosophical, and political ideologies are reflected in the interpretation of music during the nineteenth century" (6). The most intriguing aspect of the study is her discussion of the connection reviewers made between the Ninth Symphony and Deronda. Examining the commentary that links Eliot to Beethoven—which she characterizes as typical—Solie provides literary scholars with a new method by which to interpret and understand both the reception of the work and Eliot's stature as a novelist. Citing Edward Dowden's 1877 review of Middlemarch (1871–72) and Deronda as a prime example, Solie observes that he invokes the later works of Beethoven and Turner as a means to contrast the complexity of Eliot's late novels with the simplicity of her earlier ones (34). Dowden reminds readers that they should have matured individually, just as the novels collectively did (33–34). Solie also examines George Bernard Shaw's 1893 review of the Ninth in The Musical World, a piece of criticism that links multiple listenings of the Ninth to multiple readings of Deronda, and implies that the novel may profitably be reread as a means of self-improvement: as with the symphony, each new encounter with the novel yields something more (33). [End Page 469]

Solie also makes further comparisons between the Ninth Symphony and...


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