Archive | February 2016

Because it’s Leap Day, February 29!

In one of the funniest songs in The Pirates of Penzance, the Pirate King explains that young Frederick, having been born on Leap Day, may have been alive for 21 years — yet, if one goes by birthdays, he’s only 5!

After they sing, they have the following discussion:
Frederic. Upon my word, this is most curious – most absurdly whimsical. Five-and-a-quarter! No one would think it to look at me!

Ruth. You are glad now, I’ll be bound, that you spared us. You would never have forgiven yourself when you discovered that you had killed two of your comrades.

Frederic. My comrades?

King. (rises) I’m afraid you don’t appreciate the delicacy of your position: You were apprenticed to us –

Frederic. Until I reached my twenty-first year.

King. No, until you reached your twenty-first birthday (producing document), and, going by birthdays, you are as yet only five-and-a-quarter.

Frederic. You don’t mean to say you are going to hold me to that?

King. No, we merely remind you of the fact, and leave the rest to your sense of duty.

And there you have it — the reason why Pirates’ subtitle is “The Slave of Duty.”


Black History Month: Black Victorians

In honor of Black History month, I’d like to share with you a few notes about Black Victorians – people of color who lived and prospered in England (and in America too) during the 19th century.

Despite the prejudice and discrimination that people of color endured in Victorian England, there were a number of notable and distinguished black men and women in Britain.

220px-Mary_Seacole_DrawingMary Seacole (1805-1881) was born in Kingston, Jamaica, the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican mother who taught her nursing. In 1854 she traveled to England and asked the War Office to send her to Crimea to nurse the wounded soldiers during the war. When they refused, she paid for her own trip there and established the British Hotel to provide a place to nurse sick officers. She also nursed the wounded on the battlefield, sometimes under fire.

“Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert’s chapter on Mrs. Seacole’s book about her experience, Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands, describes her curious progress from West Indian healer to anti-Nightingale on the battlefield. Paravisini-Gebert argues that Seacole “assumes her place in a British society–and history–from which she is initially rejected, by finding in the Crimea a substitute for ‘England,’ a war zone where the expected barriers to someone of her class, race, and colonial origins can be temporarily lifted.”  (from Being Black in Victorian England)


Samuel_Coleridge-TaylorSamuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), was a composer known as the “African Mahler.” His father, Daniel Taylor, was from Sierra Leone. His mother, the London-born Alice Hare, named him in honor of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

He grew up in Croydon and studied violin and composition at the Royal College of Music. He later taught music as a professor at the Crystal Palace School of Music, conducted orchestras and composed music.  He was mentored by Edward Elgar and influential music critic August Jaeger, who thought Taylor was a genius.

His most famous work was “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” which premiered in 1898. He was determined to do for traditional African music what Brahms did for Hungarian music and Antonin Dvorak did for Bohemian music.

Coleridge-Taylor died of pneumonia at age 37, leaving behind his wife Jessie, son Hiawatha, and daughter Gwendolyn (who later took the name Avril and became a conductor-composer in her own right).


Ira_AldridgebyNorthcoteActor Ira Frederick Aldridge (1807 –1867) was born in New York City, but made his career mostly on stage in London and Europe.

After acting in African theater companies in New York, in 1825 he made his London stage debut as Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam, or A Slave’s Revenge, which was based on Aphra Behn’s play Oroonoko. He was also known for playing Othello, and in later years was praised for his performance as King Lear. Aldridge is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.




220px-Sake_Dean_MahomedSake Dean Mohamed (1759-1851) or Sheikh Din Muhammad grew up in India. His father was of the barber caste, and Dean Mohamed learned a great deal about the soaps and shampoo used by the Mughals. He served in the English Bengal Army as a surgeon.

In 1786, age 25, he traveled to Ireland where he wrote and published his book, entitled ‘The Travels of Dean Mahomet’. He became the first Indian to write a book in English. He opened the first Indian take-away restaurant in London, the Hindustani Coffee House, in 1810. Customers could smoke a hookah and try all sorts of curries. Then, in 1814 Dean and his wife moved to Brighton and opened the first commercial bath-house, featuring “The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath (type of Turkish bath), a cure to many diseases.” The bath-house was very popular, and both King George IV and William IV were among his customers.


Pablo_FanquePablo Fanque (1796-1871) was born poor as William Darby in Norwich. He began his career as an equestrian stunt-rider and a rope-walker at Astley’s Amphitheatre and from there rose to become the proprietor of Victorian Britain’s most successful circus.  He was the first non-white circus owner in Britain.

He was celebrated for his skill in manège, the art of training horses to perform certain routines. Thirty years after his 1871 death, the chaplain of the Showman’s Guild said: “In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line, for, although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession. The camaraderie of the ring has but one test – ability.”

He was featured in the lyrics of The Beatles song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.


sarah forbes bonetta 2Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) was orphaned at the age of eight in a brutal massacre in her home country in West Africa. She was kidnapped and given to King Ghezo of Dahomey to be used as a human sacrifice, but was rescued from captivity by a Captain Forbes who told King Ghezo that the girl should be a gift to Queen Victoria.  Sarah’s original name was “Aina” but the Captain named her Sarah, plus Forbes after him and Bonetta after his ship. Impressed by the girl’s intelligence, Queen Victoria made Sarah her goddaughter. She paid for Sarah’s education, and took a great interest in her.

Sarah married Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy Yoruba businessman and philanthropist. They moved back to Africa and raised three children there.





Was Arthur Sullivan black?

sullivan-young-manOne thing I learned in my research was that being “black” during the Victorian Era wasn’t quite the same thing as it may be today –  according to Being Black in Victorian England  many people were called black, but that didn’t necessarily mean that they had African ancestors (they could have been from India or any number of other countries) nor did it mean that the individuals so identified viewed themselves as part of the same community.

So was Sir Arthur Sullivan black?  He was described in a news article as a “little dark brown man” and images of the time show that he had dark curly hair and dark eyes. But in my researches I can’t find any evidence that Sullivan had African ancestors. The only reference I’ve discovered is one unfounded comment on the subject, but I’m not sure that qualifies as reliable.

This much seems certain and verifiable: Sir Arthur Sullivan, one of Victorian Britain’s preeminent composers and musicians, was the son of music teacher Thomas Sullivan and his wife Mary Clementina Coghlan.  Arthur’s father Thomas was born in Cork, the son of an Irish soldier also named Thomas Sullivan.

Arthur’s mother, Clementina, was partly Italian: her grandfather Joseph Righi (later Anglicized to Righy) had come to England from Nice, which was then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. So it seems likely to me that he inherited his dark hair and eye color from her.

The one mention I’ve found appears in Robert Edward Francillon’s book,  Mid-Victorian Memories:

Among the more intimate of their fellow-students at Leipzig, and the most frequent guests at their mother’s hospitable supper-table there — a highly popular institution among a cosmopolitan flock of young people mostly with appetites too big for their pockets— was the future Sir Arthur Sullivan, as notable then for easy charm of manner, and adaptability to all sorts and conditions of persons and circumstances, as when he became no less welcome a guest at royal tables. It may interest some who only saw him in after years to learn that he was golden-curled in his student days, and this in spite of the strong strain of African blood that became increasingly perceptible with increasing age. He was, in fact, an Octoroon, and was accordingly subjected to inconveniences and annoyances during his visit to the United States which permanently embittered him against Americans and American ways. I never saw much of him, for when my then future wife came home after some years in Italy he had already soared into social planes far above ours.

sullivan-colorI’m not sure how a person who wasn’t all that close to Arthur Sullivan and never saw much of him beyond their student days would have known about Sullivan’s ancestry, and I haven’t found any mention of it elsewhere. If there is more evidence, I’d like to know!


Other resources on Black Victorians:









Five Victorian-Set Movies to Enjoy

This time, the movies (except one) travel a little farther afield than dear old England ~ Sicily, Florence, Paris, and New York.


  1. leopardThe Leopard (1963)  Director: Luchino Visconti. The Prince of Salina, a noble aristocrat of impeccable integrity, tries to preserve his family and class amid the tumultuous social upheavals of 1860’s Sicily. Starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale







  1. earringsThe Earrings of Madame de… (1953)  Director: Max Ophüls.  In the Paris of the late 19th century, Louise, wife of a general, sells the earrings her husband gave her as a wedding gift: she needs money to cover her debts. The general secretly buys the earrings again and gives them to his mistress, Lola, leaving to go to Constantinople. Where an Italian diplomat, Baron Donati, buys them. Back to Paris, Donati meets Louise… So now Louise discovers love and becomes much less frivolous. Starring Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica






  1. room-viewA Room with a View (1985) Director: James Ivory.  When Lucy Honeychurch and chaperone Charlotte Bartlett find themselves in Florence with rooms without views, fellow guests Mr Emerson and son George step in to remedy the situation. Meeting the Emersons could change Lucy’s life forever but, once back in England, how will her experiences in Tuscany affect her marriage plans? Starring Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Denholm Elliott






  1. howards-end2 Howard’s End(1992)   Director: James Ivory.  A businessman thwarts his wife’s bequest of an estate to another woman. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave.








  1. age-of-innocenceThe Age of Innocence (1993)  Director: Martin Scorsese. A tale of nineteenth-century New York high society in which a young lawyer falls in love with a woman separated from her husband, while he is engaged to the woman’s cousin. Starring Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder.







So have you seen these movies yet? Which is your favorite?

Victorian Valentines

Valentine image with caption

Valentine image with caption

Across the centuries, humans have loved to celebrate love. From the ancient Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, to the Renaissance vision of courtly love, to Ophelia’s sad mention of Valentine’s Day in Hamlet, February 14 and Valentines have been symbols of romantic love.

In Britain around the 1820s, specially-made papers for sending Valentine’s Day greetings began to be marketed. They became so popular that they were soon being made in factories. Often flat paper sheets printed with colored illustrations and embossed borders, they were designed to be folded up and sealed with wax for mailing.

Elaborate lace quarto: Double-layered, openwork, cameo-embossed lace by the English firm of Joseph Meek, circa 1850. Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury

Elaborate lace quarto: Double-layered, openwork, cameo-embossed lace by the English firm of Joseph Meek, circa 1850. Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury

A very fancy Valentine could be made with real lace and ribbons, with paper lace introduced in the 1830s. Books and pamphlets containing sentimental verses and appropriate messages could be purchased by those wanting help in creating their card.

In 1835, 60,000 Valentine cards were mailed in Britain, despite postage being expensive.

After the introduction of the Penny Post in Britain in 1840, when adhesive stamps costing only a penny made mailing letters easy and inexpensive, sending Valentine’s Day cards became even more popular. And as the century progressed and mail deliveries around London became more frequent, a card sent in London in the early morning might easily be delivered to another London address the same day.

The stationery manufacturers Marcus Ward and Company helped to popularize printed Valentine cards. Specializing in stationery and general publishing, the firm won a medal for their color lithography in the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the 1860s, the firm was well-known for its calendars and greeting cards decorated by the likes of Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane.

Valentine by Kate Greenaway: England, circa 1870. Design from an illustration for the book, Melcomb Manor, a Family Chronicle. Printed by Marcus Ward, London,1875. from Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury

Valentine by Kate Greenaway: England, circa 1870. Design from an illustration for the book, Melcomb Manor, a Family Chronicle. Printed by Marcus Ward, London,1875. from Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury



The Laura Seddon Greeting Card Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University gathers 450 Valentine’s Day cards dating from the early nineteenth century, printed by the major publishers of the day.

Nancy Rosin’s Victorian Treasury contains a wealth of information about the history of valentines and information about the National Valentine Collectors Association.

Here is a lovely collection of Victorian Valentines assembled by The Guardian.

And who wouldn’t relish receiving a Victorian Valentine with a picture of Cupid on roller skates?

For those who like their Valentines snarky, check out these “vinegar Valentines. ”



Sullivan’s Musical Humor

[amazon text=Amazon&cat=local&last=5&wishlist_type=Similar]Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan immediately get Gilbert’s sense of humor and wordplay. He was famous for his wit.

But when it came to the music, Sullivan was every bit as elegant a humorist. Throughout his collaboration with Gilbert, Sullivan added touches of musical humor to their operas – references which Victorian audiences might have picked up on quicker than we do today.

It’s not that recognizing musical references is some kind of lost art; it just depends on how familiar we are with the music that’s being quoted.  Today, we understand allusions to recent songs and musical styles.

For instance, many of us would catch the reference to Elvis Presley’s singing style that was added to this song by the reluctant pirate Frederick in the 1983 movie version of The Pirates of Penzance:

(blurry, but the sound is good, and there are subtitles)

Of course, that Elvis-y warble wasn’t original to the piece! But today it can bring a smile to the faces to moviegoers because we get the reference.

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s day, most of the theater-going public would recognize the musical styles of the composers that Sullivan referred to, and they would have enjoyed his musical quotations and allusions. Here are a few examples:


Trial by Jury

Trial by Jury, a “dramatic cantata” about a jilted bride who sues her faithless lover for breach of promise, takes place entirely in a courtroom.

Near the beginning of the proceedings,  the extremely un-heroic Judge gets a hero’s introduction – which Sullivan wrote as a sarcastic musical reference to George Friedrich Handel. Here is a video of that introduction, followed by the Judge’s hilarious song introducing himself.


Compare that opening march to Handel’s march from Scipione:



Also in Trial by Jury, near the end, the five main characters sing a quintet, A nice dilemma. Here is an example of the song:

In a discussion of Trial by Jury that is preserved at the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, David Lyle, Musical Director of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society in Edinburgh, noted that this quintet “ was intended to be a very tongue in cheek sendup of so many interminable Romantic, Italian opera ensembles, where all action grinds to a halt whilst the entire cast chews the cud for a few minutes and squeezes the last drop of mileage out of about three words. (I also think it’s a highly successful sendup, too.)”

Compare the quintet above with the following song from Bellini’s romantic Italian opera, La Somnambula, in which the heroine basically says, “wow my heart is really beating fast”:


The Sorcerer

The Sorcerer, the first full-length comic opera that the duo produced, was about what happens when a well-intentioned young nobleman hires a sorcerer to put a love potion into the village teapot at his engagement party, so that everyone will experience the delights of being in love. Predictably, all the villagers fall in love with the wrong person. Hijinks ensue, but everything ends happily enough.

In the scene where the sorcerer enchants the teapot, Sullivan subtly echoes Weber’s unearthly music from Der Freischutz (often translated as “The Marksman,” this was the first German romantic opera, based on a folk tale about a huntsman who competes in a marksmanship contest using a rifle with magic bullets).

(This is from a G&S Youth Festival, but they do a great job, I think)

The spooky elements can be heard in the overture from Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber, here performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by von Karajan:




alice-barnettIn Iolanthe, in which the Fairy Queen and her attendant fairies take over the House of Peers in order to reunite two sets of separated lovers, the audiences would have immediately “gotten” the references to Wagner’s Brunnhilde and the Valkyrie.

Visually, the connection was reinforced by the Fairy Queen’s original costume design (see the original Fairy Queen, Alice Barnett, in her chain mail, left).

Musically, the fairies of Iolanthe sing “willawoo”, which is close to the Valkyrie’s cry of “hojotoho!”


(This is just a recording of the song, without images — but it’s the best version I could find)


The Metropolitan Opera’s version of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is wonderful. The set appears to represent currents of air that are being ridden by the Valkyrie. The warrior goddesses are pretty awesome ladies.


The Mikado

Another on of Sullivan’s musical “winks” to the audiences appears in the Mikado’s song, My Object All Sublime, in which he talks about ways to make the punishment fit the crime. In the line about music-hall performers having to listen to “Bach, interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven” you can hear a short Spohr-like clarinet passage weaving right through those words!


Here is Timothy Spall singing the song in the 1999 movie, Topsy Turvy:


Compare that clarinet flourish to Spohr’s clarinet in Das Heimliche Lied:


I hope you enjoyed that little musical tour! Since I am not a musical expert, I’ve had to match up the references I’ve read about  with the most likely original sources.