William Morris and Music: Craftsman's Art?

By Heywood, Andrew | Musical Times, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview
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William Morris and Music: Craftsman's Art?


Heywood, Andrew, Musical Times


ANDREW HEYWOOD asks How musical was William Morris?'

WILLIAM Morris: Artist, Craftsman, Poet, Designer, Printer, Musician. Musician? - one has only to add the last epithet to an otherwise conventional list of Morris's achievements to show that Morris and music are not usually associated by those familiar with Morris's activities. In comparison with those other pursuits music certainly does not rank very high: Morris did not play or build a musical instrument; he did not research, write or lecture on music as such; and he is not known to have composed, though he did of course occasionally write the words for songs, notably the `Chants for socialists'.

At times, it has further been inferred that Morris was not 'musical' in the usual sense of that term, and even that he disliked music. So far, the potential for reappraisal would not seem too promising.

I aim to show, however, that there is scope for such a reappraisal. Though detailed elaboration would exceed the limits imposed by a modest article, I hope to demonstrate that Morris was musical, that he took an active part in music making during some periods of his life and that he liked and appreciated music. I shall suggest, however, that his musical taste was coloured by his view of Victorian society, its cultural productions in general and its musical endeavours in particular, for which Morris had a strong dislike.

Perhaps more importantly, I shall suggest that Morris influenced the beginnings of what would now be called the revival of interest in `early music'. The practice of early music may be defined as the study of music and performance of past periods (particularly though by no means exclusively that of the pre-classical periods) with a view to realising such music in historically authentic performance style and on the appropriate instruments of the time. Morris, I believe, was influential in two main ways. Firstly, he challenged Victorian evolutionary ideology and its consequent inability to see the past in its own terms, and thus helped to change the intellectual climate which in turn began to make possible a positive re-evaluation of the music of the past. Secondly, his acquaintanceship with George Bernard Shaw and Arnold Dolmetsch, both key figures in the development of changed attitudes to old music, gave Morris a direct influence during the early days of the early music revival which had positive results.

This article can do no more than indicate areas which deserve further elaboration. In particular the Morris/Dolmetsch and Morris/Shaw connections deserve a considerably more detailed examination and this I hope to undertake in a later article. What can hopefully be achieved here, however, is to indicate a significant area of interest for scholars and to make a small contribution to seeing Morris and his importance in the round.

IT SEEMS that before his death there were already stories amongst Morris's friends that he disliked music. Burne-Jones's studio assistant Thomas Rooke recalled in December 1895 a remark by Catterson-Smith: `Morris said the other night, "what I think about music (contemptuously) I shall never tell anyone", but I think I know pretty well what he thinks about it. He likes a tune, anything simple, but as soon as it gets elaborate he hates it.'1 In addition to indicating a negative perception by some of his acquaintances at least, this remark also suggests a degree of sensitivity on the subject by Morris himself. A few months later in May 1896 Morris wrote to Burne-Jones from Kelmscott: `However I have enjoyed the garden very much, & should never be bored by walking about in it. And though you think I don't like music, I assure you that the rooks and blackbirds have been a great consolation to me.'2 Again, this comment suggests an awareness by Morris of Burne-Jones's negative attitude to Morris's ability to appreciate music, but also an implicit denial of the truth of that attitude. One gets occasional glimpses of Morris's apparent lack of interest in music from earlier in his life.

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