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Curator's introduction

Under successive acts of Parliament since the late 18th century, all music published in Britain has been deposited formerly at the British Museum and now, at the British Library. The Library’s Music Collections are enormous: some one-and-a-half million items of printed music, ranging from a beautifully printed songbook of 1530 to the latest pop chart hit.

Victorian popular music is a particular strength of the collections. Much of the sheet music has illustrated covers, often of artistic merit or historical interest. From this rich resource, we've chosen songs and piano pieces that evoke a sense of location by virtue of their subject matter, lyrics, cover design, or all three.

Music printing began as early as the 1470s, but it was not until the nineteenth century that demand and technology conspired to raise printed sheet music to the heights of popularity. The demand came from the growing Victorian middle-class, which attended improving public concerts, supported choral societies and had welcomed the new ‘upright’ piano into its homes. The upright form of the concert piano was eminently suitable for the smaller house and soon became the focus of family entertainment – much like the television set of the 20th century.

This enthusiasm for music making in the home was encouraged by the arrival of a cheaper system of printing scores, using moveable type instead of engraved metal plates. About the same time, more attractive pictorial covers and title pages were made possible by another technological innovation. Lithography had been invented in Bavaria by a failed actor, Alois Senefelder, at the end of the 18th century. However, political disruption across Europe hampered its widespread introduction until the 1820s.

Lithography involves the artist painting or drawing on a stone with a greasy ink or crayon. When the stone is wetted, the printing ink adheres to the greasy areas but is repelled by the wet parts. By dispensing with the intermediary of an engraver, lithography allows the artist more direct and lively creative expression. During the 1820s and 1830s, Maxime Gauci produced many charming monochrome vignettes, drawn with crayon, for several British music publishers.

With the spread of colour lithography in the second half of the century, Alfred Concanen became the undisputed king of the sheet-music cover. One of the best-known examples of his work is the cover of ‘The Lights O’ London’, published in 1882. Concanen’s scenes of contemporary street life complete with shops, market traders and newspaper vendors, and his portraits of music-hall performers present a vivid and informative picture of the day.

Coming from the Music Halls and popular theatrical productions, a great many of the songs are sentimental or comic in tone. Caricature and political satire abound. The collection is very much a product of its time: on occasion, portraying an uncomfortably racial and imperialistic view of a world with Great Britain at its centre.

Some songs define a sense of place by their use language: the street cries in ‘Auld Edinburgh Cries’, for example, or the ‘cockney’ accent used to characterise life in London’s East End. The image of the chirpy cockney was largely an invention of the Music Halls, which thrived in London, Northern England and Scotland.

Music Hall was meant for working people and professed to reflect their lives. Yet, at around three or four shillings a song, the cost of printed sheet music meant its biggest market was still to be found in middle-class parlours. Indeed, most of the composers, and some of the entertainers too, came from the middle classes, appropriating the colloquial language of ‘barrow boys’ and the like to build characters for their songs and performances. Albert Chevalier, whose famous songs include ‘My Old Dutch’, was so convincing in his costermonger role that it was widely believed he actually came from the Old Kent Road. In fact, he’d been born ‘up West’ in Notting Hill and sent to a training college where his parents hoped he would enter the Catholic priesthood.

Standing as a bridge between the middle and working classes, the popular music of the Victorian era sheds a wry light on the way both elements of society regarded themselves - and each other.

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