Mesmeric Modulations

Two 19th-century novels reveal contrasting attitudes to music and its place in Jewish culture

Music resounds through 19th-century fiction, high and low, as a measure of the ineffable, the spiritual and the deep. Sherlock Holmes’s musicality is a sure sign of his superior and mysterious intelligence. His friend Watson’s slight philistinism in relation to Holmes’s “scraping upon the violin” becomes a clear marker of his role in the stories as what Americans call “a regular guy”.

Less formulaically, and with a greater degree of thematic integration, George Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), is suffused with music as a symbol of a deeper current in life, significantly intertwined with its treatment of Jewish culture, politics and spirituality. Daniel Deronda, raised as an English gentleman, discovers that he is Jewish and marries the outcast Mirah Cohen. This is the countermovement in the novel to Gwendolen Harleth’s failed experiment in marrying the sadistic Mallinger Grandcourt for power. Yet in choosing Mirah, Deronda also chooses a singer. In discovering his real mother, he finds her to have been a singer too, and a great one. Gwendolen’s musical talent, displayed in the early chapters, is found to be superficial, a matter of appearances rather than true musicality. It is Klesmer, the superlative musician, who makes this judgment and whose proud if ever so slightly comic words in another scene confirm music as a central metaphor in the novel. “I was sure he had too much talent to be a mere musician,” declares Mr Bult, “an esteemed party man,” to Klesmer:

“Ah, sir, you are under some mistake there,” said Klesmer, firing up. “No man has too much talent to be a musician. Most men have too little…We help to rule the nations and make the age as much as any other public men. We count ourselves on level benches with legislators.”

After a break of a year or so, I’m starting to have singing lessons again (unique among musicians, most singers have teachers throughout their working lives). So I thought it would be fun to read the most famous book of all about a singer and a singing teacher, George du Maurier’s Trilby, first published as a serial in 1893. If George Eliot’s prose is just occasionally overloaded by the effort to project intellectual respectability (I’ve just started rereading Deronda) in the face of a rather scandalous life, du Maurier’s book is a confection of the most appalling heartiness, its prose bespattered with exclamation marks – I swear there was a page on which every sentence ended with one! – and choc-a-bloc with toe-curling sentimentality. La Dame aux Camélias meets Three Men in a Boat, without the brilliance of either. While much of the book concerns itself with evoking the Bohemian milieu of three aspiring British painters in mid-century Paris – their parties, their dinners, their habits, their artistic talents and failings – it is the artist’s model Trilby, a beautiful, captivating Irish girl, who gives her name to the book and gives it a focus. The great painter of the three, nicknamed Little Billee, falls hopelessly in love with her, his mother intervenes and dissuades Trilby from marrying her son.

What lifts the book rather dubiously above this unpromising romance, and made it into one of the great phenomena of publishing history – a smash in America, a stage play, the origin of the Trilby hat – was the invention of a sinister mesmeric musician, Svengali. Svengali’s name has entered the language, a villain to rank with Count Dracula in the popular imagination. His magnetic powers make of Trilby-comically tone-deaf at the start of the novel – the greatest singer of the age, courted by the great and admired to distraction by the musical elite. Svengali’s death during one of her performances leaves her bereft of her talent, a laughing stock, emptied out and destined to die.

It is an extraordinary invention, one with which du Maurier regaled his friend Henry James (always at a loss for plots) on one of their Hampstead walks. James noted it down as a possible plot for a novel of his own. How different that would have been; though the possession of one human being by another, the vampiric urge, is the melodrama that lies at the heart of as subtle a novel as A Portrait of a Lady.

With Daniel Deronda in mind, it’s extraordinary to what extent Trilby, written nearly 20 years later, is an anti-Deronda. Eliot’s sympathetic tapestry of musical and Jewish culture becomes in Trilby a hideous anti-Semitic fantasy, Svengali perhaps the most egregious example of the demonic Jew in English literature. The book has no clear programme and, at one level, it pays a heady tribute to the art of music. Little Billee, hearing Svengali play, “was conscious, while it lasted, that he saw deeper into the beauty, the sadness of things, the very heart of them, and their pathetic evanescence, as with a new, inner eye – even into eternity itself, beyond the veil – a vague cosmic vision that faded when the music was over, but left an unfading reminiscence of its having been, and a passionate desire to express the like some day through the plastic medium of his own beautiful art”. Yet it is the magic of music that is repeatedly stressed, both in the account of Trilby’s exquisite bel canto – “every separate note was a highly finished gem of sound, linked to the next by a magic bond” – and in the insistence on the power of music: “It is irresistible; it forces itself on you.” And magic is ultimately the province of the sinister oriental, Svengali, “a magician”, the hypnotist, the entrancer.

What remains interesting for a musician today, and for a singer in particular, is Trilby‘s relationship to Victorian efforts to understand what Herbert Spencer called “The Origin and Function of Music” (an article he wrote in 1857). For Spencer (and we see his account reflected in du Maurier’s evocations of Trilby’s art), singing originated in reflex actions of the larynx, varied vocal responses to emotion which, received by a listener, elicited sympathy. “These various modifications of voice became not only a language through which we understand the emotions of others, but also the means of exciting our sympathy with such emotions.” It is the intricate brocade of music woven from the primitive, instinctive response of our distant ancestors.

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