Street Music, Victorian and Modern

One of the highlights of the Woolf conference was Anna Snaith’s plenary talk about street musicians. Anna is working on the Cambridge edition of The Years, a novel full of music, including barrel organs. Anna drew our attention to the sonic atmosphere of Woolf’s London and put it in the context of Victorian campaigns against street musicians.

The head of Bass brewery was an MP and headed up a campaign against street musicians: demanding licenses, trying to rid the streets of the nuisance, etc. A who’s who of Victorian intellectuals signed the petition, claiming that the incessant tune of the barrel organ drove them near to madness. Anna played a few tunes and, I must say, they made the Mr. Softee truck jingle look like the Philharmonic.

Still, as most of the street musicians were immigrants, often Italian, there was an ugly, racist and nativist element to the campaign.

Most interestingly, and this was Snaith’s main point, one of Woolf’s very first ever publications (in 1904, age 22) was a little article defending street musicians as artists, asking people to hear the impulse to music, to art, through all that might irritate them, and hoping for music on every street corner one day.

Anna got me thinking about music in Mrs. Dalloway as another kind of thing to footnote. Certainly, then, when Peter Walsh and Rezia hear the old woman singing ee um fa um so, part of the footnote should point readers to this longer history of Woolf insisting on the artistry of the humble street musicians, working for coins.

All of which has brings us to this morning’s little observation. In the context of Victorian intellectuals crying madness in the face of music, of Woolf drawing upon her own hallucinations to write the mad scene in Regent’s Park, of Woolf defending street musicians, then it seems to be of more than just passing interest that a street musician, playing a penny-whistle, plays a big role in Septimus’ Regent’s Park hallucination:
Music began clanging against the rocks up here… (that music should be visible was a discovery) and became an anthem, an anthem twined round now by a shepherd boy's piping (That's an old man playing a penny whistle by the public-house, he muttered) which, as the boy stood still, came bubbling from his pipe, and then, as he climbed higher, made its exquisite plaint while the traffic passed beneath. This boy's elegy is played among the traffic, thought Septimus. Now he withdraws up into the snows, and roses hang about him--the thick red roses which grow on my bedroom wall, he reminded himself. The music stopped. He has his penny, he reasoned it out, and has gone on to the next public-house. (MD 104)