Music and the Writing of Historical Fiction
When people write about the relationship between music and writing, much of the discussion tends to be concerned with the former’s impact upon productivity, but what I will focus upon here, will be something a little more nuanced: the manner in which music can help the writer reach back into another time.
Firstly, however, I would like to make a few observations regarding my own thoughts regarding music’s general usefulness to the process of writing itself. If I have slept well and am at my most alert, listening to music whilst writing can serve as an enjoyable stimulus, but when I am feeling tired, or as if my head were stuffed with little more than cotton wool, music becomes a positive hindrance to composition. Mental fatigue, more so than physical, renders music a distraction and an impediment to the marshalling of thought, and putting together words on paper, or on screen. If I am tired and wish to write, listening to music is therefore best avoided. Music may serve as either a stimulus, or an impediment, to composition, depending upon how alert I happen to be at the time.
For the author of historical fiction, music presents another means of peering into the past, and attempting to more fully immerse ourselves in a lost world. However, as with our use of other sources in the form of the written word, buildings and monuments, the visual arts and the material culture of everyday life, the further back we go, the more difficult it is to reconstruct the auditory world of our forebears. Today, thanks to radio, television and, perhaps most importantly, the internet, we possess access to a hitherto unimaginable quantity and variety of music.
If we are writing a piece set during the period of directly recorded sound, which commenced with the invention of Edison’s phonograph in 1877, then it is relatively straightforward to identify and locate pieces online, although not a great deal is available from the age of the wax cylinder. From the 1910s onwards, the amount of material greatly expands. Before then, we have to rely on musical notation and more recent performances and recordings of this music, to capture what people of an earlier age heard. This allows us to access at least a sample of what was played and sung during the early modern period, but the music associated with Church and court is better represented in the record, particularly from early in this period, than what was heard in the taverns or at village gatherings.
|Detail from Purcell's Chacony in G Minor for Strings c. 1680|
Once we venture back into the early mediaeval period and beyond, matters musical grow very dark indeed, and as for the actual tunes and melodies that were heard in the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, or, indeed, in ancient Britain, we remain ignorant. That said, you can listen to a rather haunting recording of a melody deciphered from a cuneiform tablet found in the city of Ugarit, Syria, in the 1950s. This hymn to the Hurrian goddess of the orchards – Nikkal – was composed for the lyre over 3,400 years ago.
With respect to the influence of music upon my own writing, I found it useful to listen to compilations of songs from the 1910s and the 1920s to prime my mood for the writing of the period ghost story, ‘Old Crotchet,’ set in 1920s Somerset. This, however, being upon the cusp of living memory hardly qualifies, in my opinion, as history. What has proved to be more challenging, and indeed, interesting, has been tracking down music that would have been familiar to folk of the middling sort, and lower, during the 17th century, as part of the research for my forthcoming novel ‘Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return,’ and published novella ‘The Cleft Owl,’ which span the late 1670s to mid-1680s.
Of particular use has been reference to the pieces contained in ‘Playford’s Dancing Master,’ originally published in 1651, and in a number of subsequent editions until around 1728.
A YouTube search will find not only recordings of many of Playford’s tunes, but also accompanying videos of re-enactors performing historical dances. The Estonian early dance ensemble Saltatriculi include a number of these in their repertoire, such as ‘Moll Peatley (The New Way),’ and ‘Parson’s Farewell,’. Without seeing such dances, I would have had no idea as to how they would have been performed.
The Bodleian Library’s outstanding collection of digitised broadside ballads, dating from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, is freely available online, and provides a wealth of information relating to popular preoccupations and attitudes over the centuries. The broadside ballad pictured here, dealing with the reuniting with his lover of a boatswain taken into slavery in Algiers, was published at some point between 1671 and 1704. As you can see from this example, these publications frequently featured only lyrics, and would refer to well-known tunes to which they could be set.
In sum, seeking out and listening to the music associated with a particular period and section of society, as well as reading the lyrics of popular songs, helps to flesh out the writer’s picture of the past. We can never seek to recapture, and convey, the taste and texture of any part of history in a truly authentic form, as we lack direct experience of it, but in listening to the music and voices of the past, we can step a little closer to that goal.
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