june 2012


A Charles Dickens Bicentennial Moment

Charles Dickens And Music

By James T. Lightwood

Author of Hymn-Tunes and Their Story

(Editor’s note: Continuing our Bicentennial Dickens salute, this month we remain focused on our subject’s relationship to music, both as a musician and as an author, as chronicled in James T. Lightwood’s 1912 study of Charles Dickens And Music, originally published in London by Charles H. Kelly. This month, Chapter V, focusing on church music as it appears in Dickens’s works.


The kind-hearted Tom Pinch, from Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit, at the organ. ‘The references to the organ are both numerous and interesting, and it is pretty evident that this instrument had a great attraction for Dickens.’


Chapter V

Church Music

Dickens has not much to say about church music as such, but the references are interesting, inasmuch as they throw some light upon it during the earlier years of his life. In Our Parish (Sketches by Boz) we read about the old naval officer who

finds fault with the sermon every Sunday, says that the organist ought to be ashamed of himself, and offers to back himself for any amount to sing the psalms better than all the children put together.

This reminds us that during the first half of last century, and indeed later in many places, the church choir as we know it did not exist, and the leading of the singing was entrusted to the children of the charity school under the direction of the clerk, a custom which had existed since the seventeenth century. The chancel was never used for the choir, and the children sat up in the gallery at the west end, on either side of the organ. In a City church that Dickens attended the choir was limited to two girls. The organ was so out of order that he could “hear more of the rusty working of the stops than of any music.” When the service began he was so depressed that, as he says,

I gave but little heed to our dull manner of ambling through the service; to the brisk clerk's manner of encouraging us to try a note or two at psalm time; to the gallery congregation's manner of enjoying a shrill duet, without a notion of time or tune; to the whity-brown man's manner of shutting the minister into the pulpit, and being very particular with the lock of the door, as if he were a dangerous animal.

Elsewhere he found in the choir gallery an “exhausted charity school” of four boys and two girls. The congregations were small, a state of things which at any rate satisfied Mrs. Lirriper, who had a pew at St. Clement Danes and was “partial to the evening service not too crowded.”

In Sunday under Three Heads we have a vivid picture of the state of things at a fashionable church. Carriages roll up, richly dressed people take their places and inspect each other through their glasses.

The organ peals forth, the hired singers commence a short hymn, and the congregation condescendingly rise, stare about them and converse in whispers.

Dickens passes from church to chapel. Here, he says,

the hymn is sung--not by paid singers, but by the whole assembly at the loudest pitch of their voices, unaccompanied by any musical instrument, the words being given out, two lines at a time, by the clerk.

‘More Holiness Give Me,’ written by Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876), performed by the BYU-Idaho Womens Choir, directed by Kathryn Ricks Willis

It cannot be said that, as far as the music is concerned, either of these descriptions is exaggerated when we remember the time at which they were written (1838). Very few chapels in London had organs, or indeed instruments of any kind, and there is no doubt that the congregations, as a rule, did sing at the tops of their voices, a proceeding known under the more euphonious title of “hearty congregational singing.”

He gives a far more favourable account of the music in the village church. In the essay just referred to he mentions the fact that he attended a service in a West of England church where the service “was spoken--not merely read--by a grey-headed minister.”

The psalms were accompanied by a few instrumental performers, who were stationed in a small gallery extending across the church at the lower end; and the voices were led by the clerk, who, it was evident, derived no slight pride and gratification from this portion of the service.

But if the church music in England was not of a very high quality when Dickens wrote the above, it was, according to his own account, far superior to what he heard in certain churches in Italy. When in Rome he visited St. Peter's, where he was quite unimpressed by the music.

I have been infinitely more affected in many English cathedrals when the organ has been playing, and in many English country churches when the congregation have been singing.

On another occasion he attended church at Genoa on a feast day, and he writes thus about the music:

The organ played away lustily, and a full band did the like; while a conductor, in a little gallery opposite the band, hammered away on the desk before him, with a scroll, and a tenor, without any voice, sang. The band played one way, the organ played another, the singer went a third, and the unfortunate conductor banged and banged, and flourished his scroll on some principle of his own; apparently well satisfied with the whole performance. I never did hear such a discordant din.

Parish Clerks

We have but few references to parish clerks in the novels. Mr. Wopsle (Great Expectations)--whom Mr. Andrew Lang calls “one of the best of Dickens' minor characters”--“punished the Amens tremendously,” (14) and when he gave out the psalms--always giving the whole verse--he looked all round the congregation first, as much as to say “You have heard our friend overhead; oblige me with your opinion of this style.” This gentleman subsequently became a “play-actor,” but failed to achieve the success he desired. Solomon Daisy (Barnaby Rudge) is bell-ringer and parish clerk of Chigwell, though we hear nothing of his exploits in these capacities. However, he must have been a familiar figure to the villagers as he stood in his little desk on the Sunday, giving out the psalms and leading the singing, because when in the rifled and dismantled Maypole he appeals to the poor witless old Willet as to whether he did not know him--

'You know us, don't you, Johnny?' said the little clerk, rapping himself on the breast. 'Daisy, you know--Chigwell Church--bell-ringer--little desk on Sundays--eh, Johnny?'

Mr. Willet reflected for a few moments, and then muttered as it were mechanically: 'Let us sing to the praise and glory of--'

'Yes, to be sure,' cried the little man hastily, 'that's it, that's me, Johnny.'

Philip Paul Bliss’s ‘Hallelujah What a Savior,’ performed by Haven from the album A Cappella Hymns

Besides the numerous body of more or less distinguished artists whom the novelist introduces to us and whose achievements are duly set forth in these pages, there are two others whose connexion with Cloisterham gives them a prominent position in our list. One of these is the Rev. Mr. Crisparkle (Edwin Drood), Minor Canon of Cloisterham:

early riser, musical, classical, cheerful, kind, good-natured, social, contented, and boy-like.

What a contrast to the Stiggins and Chadband type! He is a member of the “Alternate Musical Wednesdays” Society, and amongst his lesser duties is that of corrector-in-chief of the un-Dean-like English of the cathedral verger.

It is Mr. Crisparkle's custom to sit up last of the early household, very softly touching his piano and practising his parts in concerted vocal music.

Over a closet in his dining-room, where occasional refreshments were kept,

a portrait of Handel in a flowing wig beamed down at the spectator, with a knowing air of being up to the contents of the closet, and a musical air of intending to combine all its harmonies in one delicious fugue.

The Minor Canon is a warm admirer of Jasper's musical talents, and on one occasion in particular is much impressed with his singing.

I must thank you, Jasper, for the pleasure with which I have heard you to-day. Beautiful! Delightful!

And thus we are introduced to the other musician, whose position at Cloisterham Cathedral is almost as much a mystery as that of Edwin Drood himself. He was the lay precentor or lay clerk, and he was also a good choirmaster. It is unnecessary to criticize or examine too closely the exact position that Jasper held. In answer to a question on this subject, Mr. B. Luard-Selby, the present organist of Rochester Cathedral, writes thus:

We have never had in the choir of Rochester Cathedral such a musical functionary as Dickens describes in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The only person approaching Jasper in the choir is one of the lay clerks who looks after the music, but who of course has nothing to do with setting the music for the month. I don't think Dickens had much idea of church order or of cathedral worship, though he may have gone over the cathedral with a verger on occasions. The music of a cathedral is always in the hands of the precentor, assisted by the organist.

Tennessee Ernie Ford performs Philip Paul Bliss’s ‘Let the Lower Lights Be Burning’

It is Edwin Drood himself who says that Jasper was lay precentor or lay clerk at the cathedral. He had a great reputation as a choir-trainer and teacher of music, but he is already weary of his position and takes little notice of words of eulogy. He was well acquainted with the old melodies, and on one occasion we find him sitting at the piano singing brave songs to Mr. Sapsea.

No kickshaw ditties, favourites with national enemies, but ... genuine George the Third home brewed, exhorting him (as 'my brave boys') to reduce to a smashed condition all other islands but this island, and all continents, peninsulas, isthmuses, promontories, and other geographical forms of land soever, besides sweeping the sea in all directions. In short he rendered it pretty clear that Providence made a distinct mistake in originating so small a nation of hearts of oak, and so many other verminous peoples.

We have a different picture of him on another occasion, as he sits 'chanting choir music in a low and beautiful voice, for two or three hours'-a somewhat unusual exercise even for the most enthusiastic choirmaster. But this was before the strange journey with Durdles, and we can only guess at the weird thoughts which were passing through the musician's mind as he sat in his lonely room.

We have only a brief reference to the choir of Cloisterham Cathedral. Towards the end we read of them "struggling into their nightgowns" before the service, while they subsequently are “as much in a hurry to get their bedgowns off as they were but now to get them on”--and these were almost the last words that came from the Master's pen.


There is an interesting reference to anthems in connexion with the Foundling Hospital (15), an institution which Dickens mentions several times. Mr. Wilding (Christmas Stories--‘No Thoroughfare’), after he had been pumped on by his lawyer in order to clear his head, names the composers of the anthems he had been accustomed to sing at the Foundling.

Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Kent, Purcell, Doctor Arne, Greene, Mendelssohn. I know the choruses to those anthems by heart. Foundling Chapel collection.

Mr. Wilding had a scheme of forming his household retainers and dependents into a singing-class in the warehouse, and a choir in the neighbouring church. Only one member, Joey Ladle, refused to join, for fear he should “muddle the 'armony,’” and his remark that

Handel must have been down in some of them foreign cellars pretty much for to go and say the same thing so many times over

is certainly not lacking in originality.

Hymns and Hymn-Tunes

There are many purists in church music who object to adaptations of any kind, and we do not know what their feelings are on reading the account of the meeting of the Brick Lane Branch of the United Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association. In order to vary the proceedings Mr. Anthony Humm announced that

Brother Mordlin had adapted the beautiful words of 'Who hasn't heard of a Jolly Young Waterman' to the tune of the Old Hundredth, which he would request them to join in singing. (Great applause.) And so the song commenced, the chairman giving out two lines at a time, in proper orthodox fashion.

Josh Turner performs Philip Paul Bliss’s ‘Almost Persuaded’

It was this air that Mr. Jerry's dog, as already related, ground out of the barrel-organ, but, besides this particular melody, we do not find that Dickens mentions any other hymn-tune. The hymns referred to are rather more in number. In The Wreck of the Golden Mary Mrs. Atherfield sang Little Lucy to sleep with the Evening Hymn. There is a veiled reference to Ken's Morning Hymn in Old Curiosity Shop, where Sampson Brass says:

'Here we are, Mr. Richard, rising with the sun to run our little course-our course of duty, sir.'

Dr. Watts makes several appearances, Dickens made the acquaintance of this noted hymnist in early youth (see p. 7), and makes good use of his knowledge. In The Cricket on the Hearth Mrs. Peerybingle asks John if he ever learnt “How doth the little” when he went to school. “Not to quite know it,” John returned. “I was very near it once.” Another of the Doctor's hymns is suggested by the behaviour of the Young Tetterbys (Haunted Man).

The contentions between the Tetterbys' children for the milk and water jug, common to all, which stood upon the table, presented so lamentable an instance of angry passions risen very high indeed, that it was an outrage on the memory of Dr. Watts.

The pages of history abound with instances of misguided amateurs who have amended the hymns (and tunes) of others in order to bring them into their way of thinking, and a prominent place in their ranks must be assigned to Miss Monflathers (Old Curiosity Shop), who managed to parody the good Doctor's meaning to an alarming extent and to insist that

In books, or work or healthful play (16)
is only applicable to genteel children, while all poor people's children, such as Little Nell, should spend their time.

In work, work, work. In work alway,
  Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for ev'ry day
  Some good account at last,

which is far from the good Doctor's meaning.

Dr. Strong, David Copperfield's second schoolmaster, was fond of quoting this great authority on mischief, but Mr. Wickfield suggests that Dr. Watts, had he known mankind well, would also have written “Satan finds some mischief still for busy hands to do.”

Some years ago a question was raised in Notes and Queries as to the identity of the 'No. 4 Collection' of hymns which appeared to afford consolation to Job Trotter. No answer was vouchsafed, the fact being that the title is a pure invention, and no such collection has ever existed. It is scarcely necessary to add that history is silent as to the identity of the hymn-book which Uriah Heep was reading when David Copperfield and others visited him in prison.

Philip Paul Bliss’s ‘Wonderful Words of Life,’ performed by Paul Lee at Lewisham SDA church

We are indebted to Dickens for the introduction to the literary world of Adelaide Procter, many of whose sacred verses have found their way into our hymnals. The novelist wrote an introduction to her Legends and Lyrics, in which he tells the story of how, as editor of Household Words, he accepted verses sent him from time to time by a Miss Mary Berwick, and only discovered, some months later, that his contributor was the daughter of his friend Procter, who was known under the nom de plume of Barry Cornwall.

There seems to be some difficulty in regard to the authorship of the hymn

Hear my prayer, O Heavenly Father,
  Ere I lay me down to sleep;
Bid Thy angels, pure and holy,
  Round my bed their vigil keep.

It has already been pointed out (see Choir, February, 1912) that this hymn appeared in the Christmas number of Household Words for 1856, in a story entitled The Wreck of the Golden Mary. The chief authorities on the works of Dickens claim it as his composition, and include it in his collected works. On the other hand, Miller, in his Our Hymns (1866), states that Miss Harriet Parr informed him that the hymn, and the story of Poor Dick, in which it occurs, were both her own. We may add that when Dr. Allon applied for permission to include it in his new hymn-book Dickens referred him to the authoress.

Dr. Julian takes this as authoritative, and has no hesitation in ascribing the hymn to Miss Parr. On the other hand, Forster records in his Life of Dickens that a clergyman, the Rev. R.H. Davies, had been struck by this hymn when it appeared in Household Words, and wrote to thank him for it. “I beg to thank you,” Dickens answered (Christmas Eve, 1856), “for your very acceptable letter, not the less because I am myself the writer you refer to.” Here Dickens seems to claim the authorship, but it is possible he was referring to something else in the magazine when he wrote these words, and not to the hymn.

(14) Dickens frequently uses the word in this sense. Tom Pinch says, 'I shall punish the Boar's Head tremendously.' It is also interesting to note that Dickens uses the phrase 'I don't think' in its modern slang meaning on at least two occasions. Tom Pinch remarks 'I'm a nice man, I don't think, as John used to say' (Martin Chuzzlewit, 6), and Sam Weller (Pickwick Papers, 38) says to Mr. Winkle “you're a amiably-disposed young man, sir, I don't think.” Mark Tapley uses the expression “a pious fraud” (Martin Chuzzelwit, 13).

(15) 'Pet' (L.D. 2) was a frequent visitor to the Hospital.

(16) From the poem on Industry.

Next Month: Chapter VI: Songs and Some Singers

James T. Lightwood's Charles Dickens and Music is available as a free e-book at Project Gutenberg.

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