Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

'Such a Humble Branch of Our Art': The Victorian Theatre Orchestra

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

'Such a Humble Branch of Our Art': The Victorian Theatre Orchestra

Article excerpt

In 1893, an article appeared in the Musical Times which virtually apologised for its subject matter: 'So universal has the neglect of the theatrical orchestra become, that we daresay many of our readers will be surprised that we should even refer to such a humble branch of our art'. It went on to state that 'in the average theatre the orchestra holds a very inferior position'. (1) Considering the importance of music in the Victorian theatre it seems remarkable that the theatre orchestra should have been held in such low esteem. This article intends to explore the reasons for this denigration, as well as the difficulties faced by personnel in theatre orchestras. Since music was part of nearly every genre presented on the Victorian stage, hard-working orchestras were essential to accompany the innumerable burlettas, ballets, pantomimes, comic operas, musical comedies and melodramas which were the mainstay of the theatre. As well as playing overtures and entr'actes, the orchestra underscored moments of high emotion or tension in plays, both serious and comic. It was also an important component of spectacular productions, such as the Shakespearean revivals of Charles Kean and Henry Irving, as well as of Augustus Harris's pantomimes at Drury Lane. By the turn of the century, musicians could find further opportunities for employment in the orchestras accompanying musical comedy, or at the up-market West End music halls like the Empire, Alhambra or the Palace of Varieties, which featured elaborate ballets and 'Living Picture Shows'.

With melodrama being the dominant dramatic form, its combination of speech with music meant that all theatres needed to employ an orchestra, or at least, an instrumental ensemble. Even in the humblest theatres a few musicians would accompany the play. The so-called 'penny gaffs' often employed 'a couple of fiddlers' whose job included playing outside to attract passers-by. Some of them dispensed with musicians altogether 'by which means the sixpence paid to the fiddler is saved, and that is, in most of these establishments, a very important consideration'. (2) The 'orchestras' of many of the poorer 'minor' theatres appear to have been a rather haphazard collection of available instrumentalists. For instance, in 1855, the German author, Theodore Fontane, visiting the Soho Theatre, noted that 'A few minutes before half-past-seven, a pianist took his seat, accompanied by a bass, a cello and a fiddler on his right and a drum, trumpet and Turkish drum on the left'. (3) In stock touring companies the musical accompaniment could be even more meagre: '... a few crude instrumental devices were often deemed sufficient. There were conventional chords used for the sudden overthrow of villainy, the "hurries" accompanying a realistic struggle, the "ti-ti" music that heralded the entrance of the low comedian'. (4) Touring with a company in the 1880s, Jerome K. Jerome described the orchestra 'in full force' as consisting of 'two fiddles, a bass-viol, cornet, and drum'. (5) A 'fit-up' theatre in which he later appeared used only a piano to represent the orchestra. On one occasion when the company could not afford to hire a piano, the hall proprietor lent his harmonium. (6) Such primitive conditions for musical accompaniment were probably far from unusual in touring 'stock' and 'fit up' companies.

On the other hand, a popular suburban London theatre, such as the Britannia in Hoxton, with its emphasis on mixed bills of comedy, melodrama and pantomime, could afford to employ a medium-sized orchestra. In 1862 it had a band of ten musicians, under the control of a 'Leader'. Instruments included two violins, a violincello, a flute, two cornets, and a trombone. Also employed was a 'Repetiteur' who would accompany rehearsals on his violin. (7) This was the average-sized orchestra for a 'middling', or medium-sized, theatre. In larger, or more prestigious theatres, an orchestra of twenty or more players was not uncommon. …

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