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Browning's Knowledge of Music

Author(s): Herbert Eveleth Greene

Source: PMLA, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Dec., 1947), pp. 1095-1099
Published by: Modern Language Association
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T HAT Robert Browning, the poet, possessed wide a

learning is evident to a casual reader of his poems. The

is impressed by the range and extent of his learning which
of what is called hole-in-the-corner knowledge, a familiari
the-way topics and incidents that few readers possess. T

the past two decades has begun to give us a good deal of

the nature of Browning's learning, and we are in a fai
estimate how much of the poet's knowledge was syste
ordered, and how much of it was haphazard and based u

up of this or that temporary interest. The letter which is

paper and which is published for the first time below will

this problem in an area in which Browning's training w

Of all the arts Browning loved poetry most steadily; but from time to

time music called from him a rarer enthusiasm than poetry could attain
to. In the Parleying with Charles Avison, written two years before his
death, the poet gave expression to such a burst
I state it thus:

There is no truer truth obtainable

By man than comes of music.

The same enthusiasm is expressed in several of Browning's poems upon

music and musicians, but nowhere so effectively as in Abt Vogler. But
enthusiasm is, of course, no guarantee of training and knowledge, and it
is these latter points to which the present paper is addressed.
Browning, as we know, had a very irregular schooling and attended
London University for only a very short time. His real education was ob-

tained in his home. His father was a gifted amateur in many fields, and
like his distinguished son was a lover of odd learning. It is probable that
Browning's training in music was more systematic than his education in
any other field. His teachers in music, such as "the great John Relfe"
and Nathan, author of the Hebrew Melodies, were more distingiushed
than Browning's other tutors in French and Italian. The training Relfe
and Nathan gave the boy was effective and he remained all his life a
lover of music, capable of playing the piano or the organ, singing, improvising, and in his youth composing. He thought well enough of himself as a musician to instruct his own son, Pen Browning, in the piano.
Nevertheless, the question has often been raised concerning the depth
of Browning's technical knowledge of music. For example, Sir Charles

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1096 Browning's Knowledge of Music

Villiers Stanford, a well qualified judge of such matters, recounted the


There was a most interesting gathering in Coutts Trotter's rooms at Trinity,

when Joachim, Grove, Robert Browning, and Hueffer (destined to be Davison's
successor as critic of the Times) had a warm controversy on the subject of
Beethoven's last Quartets. The member of the party who talked most and
knew least about the subject was, curiously enough, Browning. I remember
remarking sotto voce to my neighbour that his arguments explained to me that
the true reason of the obscurity of many references to music in his poems was

the superficiality and exiguity of his technical knowledge. When Jebb was writing

his masterly Greek translation of "Abt Vogler," he too became well aware of
this weakness, and was able with infinite skill to gloss over the solecisms of the
original. "Sliding by semitones till I sink to the minor," is indeed the refuge of
the destitute amateur improviser.'

Stanford's opinion of Browning's musical competency remains perhaps

the most severe that has been expressed, though he goes on to acquit th
poet of having been guilty of such "blatant blunders" in musical matter
as certain other writers had committed.

At a meeting of the Browning Society of Boston on May 31, 1887, the

Reverend Henry G. Spaulding read a paper entitled "Browning as the
Poet of Music and Musicians." This paper has never been published.
Spaulding was a Unitarian minister in Boston for many years, and was
well known for his scholarly interests. On June 3, 1887 the Boston Evening

Transcript published a long unsigned article on the editorial page called

"Browning and Music," and since the newspaper article was in part the
occasion of Browning's writing the letter which appears below, some of it

deserves to be quoted here. After a reference to the meeting of the Society at which Spaulding had read his paper, and after commenting upon
the ignorance of most English writers in regard to music, the writer of
the article continues:

With Browning the case is different. He belongs to our own time, to a period
when the art of music is developed to tenfold what it was in Shakespeare's day,
and is capable of delicate subtleties undreamt of then. To call Browning a thorough musician would be going too far. Thorough musicians do not grow on every
bush, even within the circle of the profession itself. That he is a man of genuinely
musical instincts, of rather keen musical insight, and of some specific culture,
may safely be assumed. Certainly he knew enough to give music lessons to his
son, and make him a fair pianist for a boy of ten or eleven; exactly how far his
knowledge of harmony, counterpoint, and musical form went were hard to say,
but he probably possessed something more than a smattering of such knowledge.
When he uses musical terms he almost invariably shows that he knows fully
I Pages from an Unwritten Diary (London, 1914), p. 176.

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Herbert E. Greene


what he is about. The following passage from his "A Toccata of Galuppi's" has
been much quoted, and Mr. Spaulding made especial reference to it in his address:

"What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished sigh on sigh,

Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions-'Must we die?'
Those commiserating sevenths-'Life might last! we can but try!' "
The 'plaintive' minor thirds, the suspensions with their resolutions, the 'commiserating' sevenths, all show musical understanding. The diminished sixths,
however, make one stare! Mentioning diminished sixths in this off-hand way is
rather like casually speaking of breakfasting off roc's egg as a matter of every-day
occurrence. We wonder how many real diminished sixths Mr. Browning has met
with in the course of his musical experience. We will wager he never found one in

any composition of Baldassare Galuppi.

The description of the fugue in "Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha" is indeed
remarkable, if perhaps more so from the point of view of the intelligent music
lover than from that of the musician. One does not find in it any fine appreciation
of the fugue-form; but merely a recognition that the form is not musically worthless. The poet evinces no real enthusiasm for the fugue, as such, and his comments
have rather the air of an apology than a rhapsody. His point of view is more than
hinted at in the last stanza but one, where he cries out:

"Hugues! I advise mea poend

(Counterpoint glares like a Gorgon)
Bid One, Two, Three, Four, Five, clear the arena!
Say the word, straight I unstop the full-organ,
Blare out the mode Palestrina."

Browning's notion of exactly what the "mode Palestrina" was seems a little hazy
here, by the way, but it would be needlessly uncharitable to suppose that he did

not know that Palestrina never wrote a note for the organ in his life. Still,
"Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha" is an almost unique instance of a musical form
being made per se the subject of poetic treatment in the English language, and
Browning is undoubtedly the only English poet competent to attempt such a

But where Browning shows himself most truly musical is where he speaks of
music untechnically. In all the varied suggestiveness he finds in great music, and
in the vivid way he embodies in glowing verse the mental picture it calls up in
his poet's brain, he makes it clear that this suggestiveness is a personal matter
between the music and himself-that the composer has little, if anything, to do
with it. He does not try to impute his own fancy to the composer, and one feels
instinctively that, when he listens to music, he listens musically, and not merely
sentimentally. The music he mentions in his poems, too, is almost invariably of a
high order; his sympathies are not with the musical populace but with the aristocracy of the art. In how far what he has written about music can open a door,

otherwise closed, to the musical appreciation of the uninitiated, is a question

about which there may be two opinions. We, for one, doubt very much whether
any one ever got a clearer musical idea of a composition from reading what

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Browning's Knowledge of Music

Browning has written about it. His exegesis lies in a more purely psychical direction. But, surely, what he has written on music can be read with delight by all
music-lovers, and need awaken no contempt in the breast of the most thorough

Shortly after the article appeared, Spaulding wrote to Browning and

enclosed a program of the recent meeting and a copy of the article from

the Transcript. Browning replied within the month and showed considerable appreciation for Spaulding's interest in his poetry. The letter


29 De Vere Gardens, W.
June 30, '87
Dear Mr. Spaulding,
I receive, this morning only, probably in consequence of the change in my
address, your kind letter and pleasant accompaniment of notices which evidence
the sympathy I so greatly value: who would not feel grateful for such proof that
the work of a long life-time meets, even at the eleventh hour, with such generous
recognition from friends I shall never be privileged to see?
On the points mentioned in your letter, and those I notice in the paper from
the "Boston Transcript," I may observe generally that whatever may-be the
profit I gained by the study of music, mine has been a serious one: John Relfe,
my instructor in counterpoint was a thoroughly learned proficient, as his two
works on the subject show sufficiently. The latter "Lucidus Ordo" was a proposal
for substituting a "figured bass" of his own, for the barbarous contrivance in
use at the beginning of the present century. I used to disconcert him (easily done,
and sometimes with unhappy effects) by solving his musical problems "by ear"
and not according to rule. Under other masters I learnt what I once knew of the
method of playing on the Violoncello, Violin, and Piano-forte: and quite enough
of this survives to keep me from slipping when touching on what is connected
with it. As for "singing," the best master of four I have, more or less, practised
with, was Nathan, Author of the Hebrew Melodies: he retained certain traditional
Jewish methods of developing the voice.
As to "Master Hughes (sic)," had he been meant for the glorious Bach it were
a shame to me indeed; I had in my mind one of the dry-as-dust imitators who
would elaborate some such subject as

for a dozen pages together. The "mode Palestrina" has no reference to organplaying; it was the name given by old Italian writers on Composition to a certain

simple and severe style like that of the Master; just as, according to Byron,

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Herbert E. Greene


"the word Miltonic means sublime." As for Galuppi, I had once in my possession
two huge manuscript volumes almost exclusively made up of his "Toccatapieces"-apparently a slighter form of the Sonata to be "touched" lightly off.
The sample by Litolf is a more regular and elaborate thing. The "March" by
Avison is his very own,-and, I rather think, exists in the form of a Trio. Avison

was a considerable man in his day; pupil and friend of Gemignani-who maintained he was equal to Handel! I have the "March" in my Father's notation.
All this will show that I have given much attention to music proper-I believe to the detriment of what people take for "music" in poetry, when I had to
consider that quality. For the first effect of apprehending real musicality was to
make me abjure the sing-song which, in my early days, was taken for it. With
repeated thanks, believe me,
Yours sincerely
Robert Browning.

It remains only to remark that a good deal that Browning states in his

letter has been inferred by later scholars;2 it is well to have the matter
in Browning's own words.
2 See, for example, Griffin and Minchin, Life of Robert Browning (London, 1910), passim;

and DeVane, Browning's Parleyings (New Haven, 1927), Ch. vII, "The Parleying with

Charles Avison," as well as numerous scattered references in Browning's correspondence.

See especially, T. L. Hood, Letters of Robert Browning (New Haven, 1933).
3 Professor Greene was professor of English at The Johns Hopkins University from 1893

to 1925. He died on September 3, 1942. The present paper, in a more extended form,
entitled "An Unpublished Letter by Browning," was read at a meeting of the Modem
Language Association in 1924. The present form of the paper is mainly owing to the edi-

torial work of William Chase Greene, of the Department of Classics of Harvard University,

and William C. DeVane of Yale University.

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