Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Sound of Music: The Importance of Music in Victorian Homes

Listening to music within the home was something that was deeply cherished among Victorians of all social classes. In a world that was limited to objects such as music boxes to reproduce sounds in the home, live music was especially appealing. Many forms of outside entertainment were sought after, but attending these events could prove inconvenient given New England's challenging weather and limited transportation options. Naturally, it made sense to bring the entertainment into one's home, thereby giving rise to the presence of a music room within many upper-class Victorian houses. At the Gibson House, the music room is the most lavish room and was a place where the Gibson family regularly entertained guests and friends.  

Mason & Hamlin Symmetrigrand Piano, 1908
Gibson House Museum (2006.08)
The piano became an especially fashionable musical instrument to possess, either an upright or a baby grand, depending on the wealth of the family. Since at the time many popular songs were made available in sheet music form, amateur musicians could play to their guests and family. There is quite an extensive collection of sheet music at the Gibson House Museum, collected over the years by the family. Along with individual pieces, there are bound albums containing a number of miscellaneous works, such as polka music and waltzes. The majority of the music is from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries (18791934), and was largely published in Boston. (The name Oliver Ditson & Co. appears often, indicating it was, perhaps, the family’s company of choice when purchasing new music.) The Gibson family’s music collection contains many pieces by well-known classical composers, including works like Fugue in G Minor (The Little) by J. S. Bach and Danse Polonaise by Xaver Schwarwenka, which you can listen to here and here.

The Gibson House sheet music collection includes one song that Charlie Gibson composed himself, entitled Dreams. He wrote the words and music in 1922 for the well-known baritone Emilio de Gogorza. According to some notes that Charlie wrote about the Gibson House music room in 1938, de Gogorza came to the house while Dreams was being written and sang it, offering his suggestions for edits. Charlie also noted that his piece had been sung at concerts in Boston and broadcast on a New England radio network. We have records of his attempts to get the piece published by Oliver Ditson & Co., which unfortunately were not successful.
During the period 1800–1914, it became common to hold chamber music recitals in upper-class homes. It was typical for both children and adults to play musical instruments, and most families considered music part of a well-rounded education. (This was particularly true for young women, who were expected to be capable of demonstrating their skills when potential suitors and other guests visited the home.) In the case of the Gibson family, Charles Sr. played the flute, Rosamond and each of the couples three children played the piano, and Charlie also played the violin.

Music Room, Gibson House Museum
Photo courtesy John D. Woolf
As the music room was an important part of the home, great care was taken to decorate it to enhance the enjoyment of the listeners. Chairs were usually very comfortable, and decorations such as plaster casts of musical composers and pictures and books related to the arts added to the ambience. In the Victorian home, where typical wall colors were reds, greens, or blues, subtler hues were considered more suitable for this artistic room. Walls would often be covered in fabrics such as grass cloth, Japanese cottons, velvet, linens, and sometimes tapestries.

The Gibson family put extensive thought and effort into the decoration of their music room, which is filled with cultural delights, ranging from an English replica scale model of the royal carriage commemorating King George VI to a Japanese lacquer apothecary cabinet. Chinese palace vases and cane chairs sit by the fireplace, and Chinese rugs are scattered across the floor. Having such a room in their home was important to the Gibson family, as a way to show their guests exactly how worldly and cultured they could afford to be. 

-          Olivia Spratt, Curatorial Intern (Spring 2018)

To Learn More: