In 1876 American writer Justin McCarthy observed, “We have now in London pre-Raphaelite painters, pre-Raphaelite poets, pre-Raphaelite novelists, pre-Raphaelite young ladies, pre-Raphaelite hair, eyes, complexion, dress, decorations, window curtains, chairs, tables, knives forks and coal-scuttles. We have pre-Raphaelite anatomy, we have pre-Raphaelite music.”
It seems the Victorians have truly begun to infiltrate the contemporary music world. From classical to cutting-edge, there are several musical ensembles performing today that are named for notable characters from the Victorian era.
Take, for example, the Rossetti String Quartet. Currently in-residence in Kansas, the quartet - two violins, viola and cello - have been praised as a “vital force among chamber music ensembles,” renowned for its sensual sound and extensive range of colors. In their promotional material, they explain the name this way: “Co-founded in 1996, the Rossetti String Quartet is named after 19th century Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose artistic ideals about the use of color, poetry, and naturalism are embodied in the Quartet’s musicianship.” They have performed internationally, and a review in the Washington Post declared “The Rossetti’s tone had a sensual finish, and its phrasing practically palpitated with ardor and mystery.” Not unlike the artist-poet himself, one might say.
Then in England we have another classical group, The Ruskin Ensemble, founded in Sheffield and named after the eminent critic John Ruskin (no explanation offered). They are known for their themed programs, sometimes performing in period dress, and have appeared at the Brighton Fringe Festival.
Now we come to the most recent entry, Pre-Raphaelites. No “The”; just “Pre-Raphaelites.” Listed in music sites as Indie/Pop/Rock, Pre-Raphaelites’ instrumentation features a glockenspiel and ukelele among the more common guitars and drums.
One last musical reference: writer/lecturer Dinah Roe was surprised to discover a reference to D. G. Rossetti in a 1976 issue of Playboy Magazine. When interviewer Cameron Crowe asked David Bowie about the inspiration for the eye-catching English cover art for The Man Who Sold the World (1971), David Bowie replied: ‘Funnily enough, and you’ll never believe me, it was a parody of Gabriel Rossetti. Slightly askew, obviously.’
Edward Arthur Fellowes Prynne... there are two sides to this artist. On one hand he was an accomplished traditional portrait artist whose work was commissioned by notable lawyers, MPs and even His Royal Highness, The Duke of Edinburgh, for a portrait which was presented to Queen Victoria. On the other hand, his bold psychedelic canvases take us on visionary journeys through biblical stories or arresting moralising scenes of symbolic figures. Despite success in his own lifetime, Prynne’s beautiful work is largely unknown today. Join Sarah Hardy for an in-depth retrospective of Prynne’s life and work in this online lecture.
Excerpts from his interview with the New York Tribune, upon his arrival in the US in 1902
“Let me first state what you have probably observed, if you have been in Europe,” he said. “and what you have read about, anyway. London, Paris, Vienna, Venice, but most particularly London, have their peculiar odors, which one whose nose is sensitive to smells soon learns to know, and forever after associates with the cities, never for an instant confusing one with the other. The smell of London is particularly pungent, and rather unpleasant, due, I suppose, to the smoke.”
“But I can assure you that New York has its own characteristic smell, just as much as London or Paris or Venice. As my steamer came up the bay, out of the weeks run in the Atlantic, my nostrils suddenly filled with an entirely new smell. It was like nothing I had ever smelled before - at least it was not the same thing that I had smelled. I took a deep inhalation and cried: Ah! a new sensation! Here is New York; I smell it; I shall always know it now!”
“What is this smell like?” the New Yorker asked.
“Well, said Sir Philip, I can’t describe it. It is not at all unpleasant, rather the opposite. It approximates a perfume, in fact. It is more like the smell of Paris than anything else I know - due to the clear atmosphere of both cities, the absence of smoke, I presume. Nor can one detect the the odor of cooking, which must play a part in the final composition of this perfume that emanates from and saturates every part of your great, hiving city.”
“Yes,” said the artist, “every town has its characteristic smell, as well as its conduct. I am going to Boston soon. I will watch for the New England smell.”
From the PRSUS newsletter / Number 47 / Fall 2017