Thursday, 9 August 2018

Emily Jane Brontë and her Music - Review

Richard Wilcocks writes:
It is an understatement to say that John Hennessy has ‘filled a gap’ in studies of Emily Brontë. He has swelled out a new section of an encyclopaedia with this work, which is based on a staggering amount of research in many places in addition to the library at the Parsonage. The appendices alone make up about ten percent of it, including customary indexes and bibliographies along with ‘Notes on Playing the John Green Upright Cabinet Piano’ by Ken Forrest and settings by the author of ‘It is too Late to Call Thee Now’ and ‘No Coward Soul is Mine’. A French pianist, Isabelle Oehmichen, is in there too, musing on ‘particular problems with the playing of the first movement’ of Beethoven’s Appassionata when she had the privilege of sitting at the cabinet piano. Hennessy deals with the extraordinary restoration of this fragile, long-neglected instrument at the beginning of the book, part of a section entitled ‘Musical and Cultural Influences’. It is now one of the first items a visitor encounters upon entering the Parsonage. Financed by a generous American Brontë Society member, Virginia Esson, in 2008, Forrest spent a couple of years researching, removing accumulated detritus and sorting out what could remain and what would have to be replaced before it could be played again.

It represents the sometimes neglected fact that the Brontës lived in a musical household, and that music significantly affected their lives and the subject matter of their literature. A cabinet piano is present at Thornfield in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for example, enabling Adèle to have lessons on it from Jane, who learned how to play at Lowood, which can’t have been simply a place of burnt porridge, stool-standing and hypocritical evangelicals. Branwell played the flute and was rather good with church organs, inviting the thought that he should have taken up music rather than oil painting. Anne Brontë wrote a poem entitled ‘Music on Christmas Morning’ with an opening line which begins, ‘Music I love…’ 


Patrick Brontë believed, with John Wesley, that music should enhance Christian worship. Piano-playing was a lot more than a ladylike accomplishment at the Parsonage, especially for Emily Brontë, which is made clear by Hennessy, covering matters which have been either downplayed by previous commentators or omitted because of lack of available evidence.

He has found plenty of evidence, much of it convincing, some of it to be found scattered around in commentaries over the last century or so and some of it new. Circumstantial evidence is given on many occasions, for example when he focuses on Emily’s nine months in Brussels at the Pensionnat, often treated cursorily because the city, and characters inspired by Constantin Heger, do not crop up in Wuthering Heights. Of course, Emily was terribly homesick, but the time she spent there was, he argues, ‘of considerable importance to her creative development’. He draws attention to her study of French and German there, particularly German, and her early encounters with German Romantic literature through reading Blackwood’s Magazine back in Haworth. 

She probably read macabre, gothic tales by E.T.A Hoffman*, the author who inspired so many writers and musicians, like Tchaikovsky (Nutcracker Suite) and Offenbach (Les Contes d’Hoffman). In Brussels in 1842 and shortly after her return to Haworth, Emily ‘probably came to know something of Beethoven, at least some of) his music, and very possibly be influenced by it’. Hennessy has documented the scores connected with her, and speculates on the sonatas which she may have played at the Parsonage. Did she contribute to the deterioration of a cabinet piano which could not hold up against Romantic frenzy?

It is certainly an enticing idea that Beethoven, and his sonatas like the Apassionata (No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57) was a significant influence on Wuthering Heights. Hennessy spends plenty of time on the history and character of the composer, and of course his music, linking him to Emily and investigating possibilities. Interestingly, he compares the initial reactions of critics to first performances with what critics said about Wuthering Heights when it first appeared. One pundit in Leipzig, writing about the finale of the second symphony, described it as ‘a gross enormity, an immense wounded snake, unwilling to die, but writhing in its last agonies, and bleeding to death’. The Scottish writer Peter Bayne described Wuthering Heights as ‘unquestionably and irredeemably monstrous’, part of ‘the horror school of fiction’.

Both Ludwig and Emily knew how to make people feel unnerved and uncomfortable, one of the reasons that they both live on triumphantly. ‘Nature’ and the outdoors was the motive force for both, as for other Romantics. Their treatments of it are similar, provoking a kind of bracing discomfort in the listener, or a reader. Beethoven’s sixth symphony is misleadingly entitled (by himself) as Pastoral, but it is not just about ‘prettified shepherds’ (as Berlioz commented) just as Wuthering Heights is not just about a romantic relationship set in beautiful heritage landscapes, as most film-makers used to think. Hennessy sets out his analysis of the connection between the two at length in the first part of the book, his discourse culminating in the chapter ‘Emily Brontë’s Musicality’, in which he looks scores in general and references to musical performance in the Brontës’ works. The bulk of the book, ‘Music Scores Owned by the Brontë Family’ is then made up of the unprecedentedly detailed attention he gives to a large number of scores. 

Nothing seems to escape him, including small finger marks and ink spots. He is in the top league of musical detectives.

Deutsche Leser! Kannst du Hoffmans Einfluss auf Wuthering Heights sehen?

Emily Jane Brontë and her Music
 by John Hennessy (2018), York, WK Publishing.