Forster music

(Lots of scanning involved in this post. Too much work! But a labor of love.)

As I said in my last post, I went on an E.M. Forster binge this summer — all the novels I hadn’t read, plus his essays and short stories, and his terrific, quirky, completely honest book about the novel as an art form.

And among other things — the quiet way he turns a phrase, to say exactly what he means — I found him wonderful on music. I’ve already talked about the famous passage from Howard’s End about Beethoven’s Fifth, in which people (all but one of them quite young) go to a concert, hear the piece, and react to it:

Beethoven chose to make all right in the end [one of the characters thinks]. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. [This is about the moment in the last movement where, amid triumph, the more sinister music of the previous movement returns, only to be banished once more by triumph.] He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

But this is only one musical moment of many. Forster loved music, and returned to it, in novels and essays, over and over. Among much else, he gives us anecdotal evidence that younger people had no trouble with classical music 100 years ago. In The Longest Journey, he has Cambridge undergraduates noodling the prelude to Das Rheingold on a piano during a party, or else letting their hesitant attempts at Beethoven piano sonatas waft through open windows out over the campus.

Though that’s shop talk, in this blog. Let’s just savor Foster’s great feeling for music, and the way he gets to the heart of its meaning, as he does when the young heroine of A Room With a View plays the piano:

The grandchildren asked her to play…She played Schumann. ‘Now some Beethoven,’ called Cecil, when the querulous beauty of the music had died. She shook her head and played Schumann again. The melody rose, unprofitably magical. It broke; it was resumed broken, not marching once from the cradle to the grave. The sadness of the incomplete — the sadness that is often Life, but should never be Art — throbbed in its dejected phrases, and made the nerves of the audience throb.

Or else this, from Aspects of the Novel, where, better than I ever could, he evokes what we get from symphonic classical pieces:

When [a] symphony is over we feel that the notes and tunes composing it have been liberated, they have found in the rhythm of the whole their individual freedom. Cannot the novel be like that? Is not there something of it in War and Peace? … Such an untidy book. Yet, as we read it, do not great chords begin to sound behind us, and when we have ,finished does not every item — even the catalogue of strategies — lead a larger existence than was possible at the time?

But my favorite Forster music writing comes in his very first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread. Three British people, one of them quite staid, are in a small town in Italy. They go to the opera. The performance is…well, let Forster tell it himself. I guess this is shop talk again, another installment of my campaign to show that classical music hasn’t always been very classical. But forget about that, if you like. Just read. It’s delicious. (And don’t worry about the encounter of Philip and Gino, toward the end. To really understand what’s happening there, you’d have to read the book. But for now, just think that the operatic chaos helps two people to find each other.)

Philip had tried for a box, but all the best were taken; it was rather a grand performance, and he had to be content with stalls. Harriet was fretful and insular. Miss Abbott was pleasant, and insisted on praising everything; her only regret was that she had no pretty clothes with her….

Harriet, meanwhile, had been coughing ominously at the drop-scene, which presently rose on the grounds of Ravenswood, and the chorus of Scotch retainers burst into cry. The audience accompanied with tappings and drummings, swaying in the melody like corn in the wind.’ Harriet, though she did not care for music, knew how to listen to it. She uttered an acid ‘Shish!’

(Click below to continue. You won’t regret it.]

`Shut it,’ whispered her brother.

‘We must make a stand from the beginning. They’re talking.’

‘It is tiresome,’ murmured Miss Abbott; ‘but perhaps it isn’t for us to interfere.’

Harriet shook her head and shished again. The people were quiet, not because it is wrong to talk during a chorus, but because it is natural to be civil to a visitor. For a little time she kept the whole house in order, and could smile at her brother complacently.

Her success annoyed him. He had grasped the principle of opera in Italy – it aims not at illusion but at entertainment – and he did not want this great evening party to turn into a prayer-meeting. But soon the boxes began to fill, and Harriet’s power was over. Families greeted each other across the auditorium. People in the pit hailed their brothers and sons in the chorus, and told them how well they were singing. When Lucia appeared by the fountain there was loud applause, and cries of ‘Welcome to Monteriano!’

‘Ridiculous babies!’ said Harriet, settling down in her stall.

`Why, it is the famous hot lady of the Apennines,’ cried Philip; ‘the one who had never, never before — ‘

‘Ugh! Don’t. She will be very vulgar. And I’m sure it’s even worse here than in the tunnel. I wish we’d never — ‘

Lucia began to sing, and there was a moment’s silence. She was stout and ugly; but her voice was still beautiful, and as she sang the theatre murmured like a hive of happy bees. All through the coloratura she was accompanied by sighs, and its top note was drowned in a shout of universal joy.

So the opera proceeded. The singers drew inspiration from the audience, and the two great sextets were rendered not unworthily. Miss Abbott fell into the spirit of the thing. She, too, chatted and laughed and applauded and encored, and rejoiced in the existence of beauty. As for Philip, he forgot himself as well as his mission. He was not even an enthusiastic visitor. For he had been in this place always. It was his home.

Harriet, like M. Bovary on a more famous occasion, was trying to follow the plot. Occasionally she nudged her companions, and asked them what had become of Walter Scott. She looked round grimly. The audience sounded drunk, and even Caroline, who never took a drop, was swaying oddly. Violent waves of excitement, all arising from very little, went sweeping round the theatre. The climax was reached in the mad scene. Lucia, clad in white, as befitted her malady, suddenly gathered up her streaming hair and bowed her acknowledgements to the audience. Then from the back of the stage – she feigned not to see it – there advanced a kind of bamboo clothes-horse, stuck all over with bouquets. It was very ugly, and most of the flowers in it were false. Lucia knew this, and so did the audience; and they all knew that the clothes-horse was a piece of stage property, brought in to make the performance go year after year. None the less did it unloose the great deeps. With a scream of amazement and joy she embraced the animal, pulled out one or two practicable blossoms, pressed them to her lips, and flung them into her admirers. They flung them back, with loud melodious cries, and a little boy in one of the stage-boxes snatched up his sister’s carnations and offered them. `Che carino!'” exclaimed the singer. She darted at the little boy and kissed him. Now the noise became tremendous. ‘Silence! Silence!’ shouted many old gentlemen behind. ‘Let the divine creature continue!’

But the young men in the adjacent box were imploring Lucia to extend her civility to them. She refused, with a humorous expressive gesture. One of them hurled a bouquet at her. She spurned it with her foot. Then, encouraged by the roars of the audience, she picked it up and tossed it to them. Harriet was always unfortunate. The bouquet struck her full in the chest, and a little billet-doux fell out of it into her lap.

`Call this classical?’ she cried, rising from her seat. ‘It’s not even respectable! Philip! Take me out at once.’

`Whose is it?’ shouted her brother, holding up the bouquet in one hand and the billet-doux in the other. ‘Whose is it?’

The house exploded, and one of the boxes was violently agitated, as if someone was being hauled to the front. Harriet moved down the gangway, and compelled Miss Abbott to follow her. Philip, still laughing and calling ‘Whose is it?’ brought up the rear. He was drunk with excitement. The heat, the fatigue and the enjoyment had mounted into his head.

`To the left!’ the people cried. ‘The innamorato is to the left.’

He deserted his ladies and plunged towards the box. A young man was flung stomach downwards across the balustrade. Philip handed him up the bouquet and the note. Then his own hands were seized affectionately. It all seemed quite natural.

`Why have you not written?’ cried the young man. ‘Why do you take me by surprise?’

`Oh, I’ve written,’ said Philip hilariously. ‘I left a note this afternoon.’

`Silence! Silence!’ cried the audience, who were beginning to have enough. let the divine creature continue.’ Miss Abbott and Harriet had disappeared.

`No! No!’ cried the young man. ‘You don’t escape me now.’ For Philip was trying feebly to disengage his hands. Amiable youths bent out of the box and invited him to enter it.

`Gino’s friends are ours -‘

`Friends?’ cried Gino. ‘A relative! A brother! Fra Filippo, who has come all the way from England and never written.’

‘I left a message.’

The audience began to hiss.

`Come in to us.’

`Thank you – ladies – there is not time – ‘

The next moment he was swinging by his arms. The moment after he shot over the balustrade into the box. Then the conductor, seeing that the incident was over, raised his baton. The house was hushed, and Lucia di Lammermoor resumed her song of madness and death.

Philip had whispered introductions to the pleasant people who had pulled him in – tradesmen’s sons perhaps they were, or medical students, or solicitors’ clerks, or sons of other dentists. There is no knowing who is who in Italy. The guest of the evening was a private soldier. He shared the honour now with Philip. The two had to stand side by side in the front, and exchange compliments, whilst Gino presided, courteous, but delightfully familiar. Philip would have a spasm of horror at the muddle he had made. But the spasm would pass, and again he would be enchanted by the kind, cheerful voices, the laughter that was never vapid, and the light caress of the arm across his back.

He could not get away till the play was nearly finished, and Edgardo was singing amongst the tombs of his ancestors. His new friends hoped to see him at the Garibaldi tomorrow evening. He promised; then he remembered that if they kept to Harriet’s plan he would have left Monteriano. ‘At ten o’clock, then,’ he said to Gino. ‘I want to speak to you alone. At ten.’

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  1. says

    Thanks for this post, a great change of pace and a definite treat!

    An English professor of mine and I once talked about adding musical “hyperlinks” to Forster’s texts; I was so floored by his writing of music, whereas she admired the passages but was not struck by them the same way I was. We guessed this was because she did not know the music, so we thought what fun–and how rewarding–it would be to just cue the music at each of these references. Perhaps somebody with some time one their hands will read this and make it a reality online.

    I particularly love this image, perfect and hilarious, in A Room with A View, when George, Freddy and Mr. Beebe go swimming. Forster writes, “The three gentlemen rotated in the pool breast high, after the fashion of the nymphs in Gotterdammerung.”

    Love the hyperlink idea, though it would be tricky for the Schumann moment, since we don’t know what piece that was. But that would be part of the fun — and the art — of it, to pick something that fits what F. wrote.

    When I read the Gotterdammerung reference in the novel, I thought I’d learned something about how that scene was staged in F’s time.

    Did you notice an oddity in the Lucia description? He talks about the two great sextets. And of course the sextet in Lucia is the most famous piece in the opera, but there’s only one of it. I wonder what F. meant. Maybe the sextet was regularlyl encored, as it is in the famous live performance recording, with Callas and Karajan .

  2. says

    What a great post. More than just referencing music so frequently, there is something truly symphonic about his writing as time goes on, no more so than in A PASSAGE TO INDIA. Exposition in the Mosque, with two opposing thematic areas set out, Development in the Caves, where these themes are developed (and come to a point of crisis) and then Recapitulation in the Temple, where the oppositions appear balanced.


    If you haven’t read it, I think you might like Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel.” Especially the chapter on rhythm and pattern, where he considers things in the novel that function like music.