Christina Rossetti In Music

Christina Rossetti in Music Project

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Christina Rossetti in Music

The Significance of Musical Settings

For the past 150 years, composers have been setting Christina Rossetti’s poetry to music, producing a substantial and ever-expanding body of musical compositions whose role in interpreting Rossetti’s works and developing and sustaining her reputation deserves to be more closely examined. There are currently over 1000 such musical settings, and these musical adaptations maintain a real-world presence: they are consistently included in concert repertory for soloists and choirs, in catalogs of published music, in hymnals and music conservatory syllabi, and they have been presented in commercial recordings, composers’ websites, and on stage in theatre and dance. Today, many people who would rarely pick up a book of poetry very often are familiar with Christina Rossetti through the medium of music, for example, as the author of the lyrics of a familiar Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” 

Current scholarship

Portrait of Christina Rossetti

Meanwhile, within Rossetti studies musical interpretation and the body of compositions that it has generated is only beginning to take shape as a worthwhile field of investigation. Key works in Rossetti studies occasionally have mentioned musical settings, but there has been little sustained attention. J.P. Anderson’s bibliography of all Rossetti’s writings in Mackenzie Bell’s 1898 biography of Rossetti does include a section of “Musical Settings,” but it does not attempt a complete listing: Anderson names three works and then merely gestures toward “Numerous settings by Mary Grant Carmichael and other composers” (p. 345). William Michael Rossetti likewise mentions some musical settings in his notes to his sister’s Poetical Works (1904). However, most modern scholarship has simply not been attuned to the topic of musical settings: for instance, Jan Marsh’s 1994 biography and Antony H. Harrison’s 4-volume edition of Rossetti’s letters (1997-2004), both essential and excellent scholarly resources, include no index entry for musical works, and thereby decline to bring musical adaptations into focus as a coherent topic and line of inquiry. There have recently been two welcome corrections to this past trend: Alison Chapman and Joanna Meacock’s Rossetti Family Chronology (2007), which helpfully includes “musical settings” as subheadings within the entries for both Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti; and Maura Ives’s Christina Rossetti, A Descriptive Bibliography (2011), which includes a substantial list of works under “Hymnals and Poems Set to Music.”

There are currently several partial lists of musical settings of Christina Rossetti’s poems both in print and on the web. Brian Gooch and David Thatcher’s 1979 catalogue Musical Settings of Early- and Mid-Victorian Literature includes an impressive 748 entries under Christina Rossetti; but for Rossetti scholars, the subject recently advanced significantly and acquired new visibility in 2011 with Maura Ives’s Christina Rossetti, A Descriptive Bibliography, which catalogues many previously undocumented musical settings and offers the first-ever listing of Rossetti’s appearances in 19th-century hymnals. Ives lists fifteen appearances in hymnals and 172 musical settings; however, her bibliography covers only the period before 1900. Meanwhile, there are many hundreds of musical settings after that date waiting to be located, catalogued and studied. As Ives asserts, musical settings deserve a place in any author’s bibliography, for such settings provide valuable information about the author’s reputation, influence, popularity and reception (“The Place of Musical Settings in Author Bibliographies, with Examples from Christina Rossetti,” p. 8). Online library catalogues are also a valuable resource, particularly the multi-institution catalogue WorldCat. Also useful are Emily Ezust’s website The LeiderNet Archive, which currently lists hundreds of Rossetti settings and provides transcribed lyrics for most songs, including translations; Hymnary.org, which focuses on hymns based on Rossetti poems; and the IMSLP: Petrucci Music Library, which includes musical scores of a few dozen Rossetti musical settings, most in the public domain.

There is currently no complete or regularly updated listing of musical settings of Rossetti’s poems, and the Christina Rossetti in Music website is designed to fill this gap. The Christina Rossetti in Music website aims to advance and promote this interdisciplinary field in Rossetti studies by creating a research resource that gathers and makes available information about these musical adaptations and to include musical scores or sound recordings for further study whenever possible. The constantly growing body of musical compositions based on Rossetti’s work warrants scholarly attention comparable to that devoted to visual artists’ interpretations of Rossetti’s work in Lorraine Janzen Kooistra’s ground-breaking study Christina Rossetti and Illustration, and musical settings demand an analogously interdisciplinary critical methodology.

Victorian Musical Scene

Interdisciplinarity

Future Opportunities

Sources:

Anderson, J.P. “Bibliography.” Christina Rossetti: A Biographical and Critical Study, by Mackenzie Bell. Boston, Roberts Brothers, 1898, pp. 339-50.

Chapman, Alison and Joanna Meacock. A Rossetti Family Chronology. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

The LiederNet Archive. Emily Ezust, www.lieder.net/lieder/index.html.

Gooch, Bryan N.S. and David S. Thatcher. Musical Settings of Early and Mid-Victorian Literature: A Catalogue. New York, Garland, 1979.

Hymnary.org. Harry Plantinga. hymnary.org.

IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project): Petrucci Music Library. Project Petrucci.LLC. imslp.org/wiki/Main_Page.

Ives, Maura. Christina Rossetti: A Descriptive Bibliography. New Castle, DE, Oak Knoll, 2011.

---. “The Place of Musical Settings in Author Bibliographies, with Examples from Christina Rossetti.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 108, no. 1, March 2014, pp. 5-39.  JSTOR, doi: 10.1086/680832.

Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. Christina Rossetti and Illustration: A Publishing History. Athens OH, Ohio UP, 2002.

Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography. London, Jonathan Cape, 1994.

Rossetti, Christina. The Letters of Christina Rossetti. Edited by Antony H. Harrison, Charlottesville, UP of Virginia, 1997-2004. 4 vols.

Rossetti, William Michael, editor. The Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti. London, Macmillan, 1904.

WorldCat.org. OCLC Online Computer Library Center. 2008. www.worldcat.org/default.jsp.