Lawrence and Music
Les Emmans

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong.
D.H. Lawrence. 'Piano'

Musical Background

There is no doubt that music played an extremely important role in D.H. Lawrence's life. He was an enthusiastic listener to all kinds of music, but in particular he seemed to have been totally in his element throughout his life acting as leader of practical musicmaking with his family and friends. Although he never mastered an instrument he had considerable natural musical ability, and though not possessing a particularly good voice could sing accurately and with great style. He had a prodigious memory for songs, hymns, opera arias and music of an amazing variety, and accounts of his life are full of references to his musical interests and activities. As is usual with Lawrence, he wove these events and interests into his writings.

Music at Home

In seeking to account for Lawrence's musical abilities it is perhaps natural to look to his mother. Although she 'sang sweetly', she does not appear to have been particularly musical and could not play the piano provided for the family by her sister Lettie who had married a German and settled in Nottingham. Lawrence's sister Ada was a capable pianist and his sister Emily could play a few hymns. Both were taught by Miss Wright - the music teacher mentioned in The Lost Girl. Mr E.C. Carlin, a boyhood friend of Lawrence's, refers to Miss Wright but coyly avoids using names. 'Well, I shall have to be careful here or I might get into trouble if I mention names, but it is a wonderful book The Lost Girl. I knew this girl and I knew the parents and also the music teacher that's mentioned in the book.' Although Miss Wright may have taught Lawrence other subjects, he does not appear to have had piano lessons from her. However, Ada records that he shut himself in the front room one day and practised scales and exercises on the piano for half an hour or more. Then his patience gave out and he never attempted to play again. He could already read music well, and it seems that he expected to master the piano technique as effortlessly as he wrote and painted. Probably using his sister's tutor book, he soon realised that the 'beastly scales' were designed to develop the muscular skills, require hours of patient application and cannot he bypassed - even by a genius!

Lawrence's greatgrandfather, John Newton of Sneinton, his mother's grandfather, enjoyed a modest success as a composer of church music. His tune 'Sovereignty' to Samuel Davies's hymn 'Great God of Wonders' appeared in the Methodist Hymn Book of 1904. He wrote a number of hymn tunes and anthems that were published by local subscription but none are now in general use. He should not be confused with John Newton the 18th century writer of 'Amazing Grace'. In spite of this musical connection on his mother's side it is more likely that Lawrence’s practical musical skills were inherited from his father. Arthur Lawrence is often portrayed as little more than a drunken lout - probably as a result of the character Lawrence gives to Walter Morel in Sons and Lovers, yet there are many indications he was possessed of some 'style' and a very accomplished singer when he wooed and won Lydia Beardsall at dances in Nottingham. As a boy Arthur Lawrence had been a chorister at Brinsley Parish Church, a squat, grimy little building set back from the road and not far from the colliery. In his 1926 letter to Rolf Gardiner Lawrence seems to mention with some pride that his father sang in the Newstead Abbey Choir. This is not as grand as it sounds, the Abbey being a ruin. Services would have been held in a small chapel in a substantial residential stately home which incorporates the ruin and is now part of a public park. Services would have been held for the resident family and the estate workers. The choir would have been recruited from workers' families in the surrounding area. Arthur's acknowledged singing talents would have made him particularly welcome. Walter Morel is described as whistling in a lively and musical way – nearly always hymns  and, with a 'beautiful singing voice', having sung solos as a boy in 'Southwell Cathedral'. Southwell Minster was not made a Cathedral Church until 1884, well after Arthur Lawrence would have ceased to be a choirboy, and it is unlikely that he would have sung as a boy in the Minster during the 1850s when it was little more than a 'run down parish church'. As is often the case with Lawrence, fact provides the starting point for fiction, but in this insight into Walter Morel's character, he is probably acknowledging his own father's skills. 'Peg' Needham confirms that her grandfather was a fine singer but did not take part in the family musicmaking. Ada recollects his mending family shoes and singing at the top of his voice.'

Music at School

 Lawrence's natural gift for singing in tune would have been greatly enhanced by the music lessons at the Beauvale Board School where he would almost certainly have been taught the tonic solfa system, a method of music teaching widely used in infant and junior school at that time. This system is remarkable in its ability to establish a sense of pitch consciousness and would account for Lawrence's amazing ability to teach his family and friends 'parts' in quite complicated music without any aid from a piano or other instrument. J.D.

Music at College

Chambers in his broadcast 'Memories of D.H.Lawrence as a boy’, reports that Lawrence taught the Chambers children to sing parts from tonic solfa. It is likely that Lawrence received little or no music training while he was a pupil at the Nottingham High School, but it is clear that music played quite an important part in his studies for the Teacher's Certificate at the University College of Nottingham. Records show that he gained a grade B in music. Amos Henderson was Professor in Education, and Director of Music for the Training College. He also presided over the students' hostel at Mapperley Hall and played a major role in Student Association affairs, including the organisation of concerts. There seems little doubt but that this enthusiastic man would have encouraged Lawrence's interest in music.

The small music department with a staff of three, including Henderson, offered a limited range of classes in music. 'Public Lectures' included such subjects as 'Voice Production' and 'Choral Music', which might well have attracted Lawrence's attention. He would no doubt have been instructed in the teaching of music during the 'Science of Teaching' classes and probably learnt many of the songs which he sang throughout his life, from the songbook A Golden Treasury of Song, which Jessie Chambers reports as being used at the college. There were regular Student Association concerts and Lawrence attended them and may have sung in the choir. The programmes consisted largely of Victorian and Edwardian songs and partsongs. It was to listen to a rehearsal for one of these concerts that Lawrence persuaded one of the Chambers brothers to cycle the 12 miles from Haggs Farm to Nottingham.

Music at Chapel

Lawrence's earliest musical experiences would have been at the 'Cong', the Congregational Church at Eastwood. “He used to go to the Congregational, and he went to Sunday School there.... that was in Charles Wesley Butler's day.” All the young Lawrence family belonged to the Band of Hope, singing temperance songs such as “There's a serpent in the glass, dash it down!” Lawrence acquired a considerable repertoire of nonconformist hymns and religious songs at this time.

In Sunday School they sang the Gospel Songs of the American evangelists Moody and Sankey together with the lively choruses of the Salvation Army. However, it was the “healthy hymns” in The Bristol Hymn Book that more than any others inspired Lawrence to write his wellknown essay “Hymns in a Man's Life.” Writing towards the end of his life, Lawrence acknowledged the 'deep penetration' of 'wonder' these manifestations of popular religious poetic tradition instilled in him. Although in his later life he often sang, sometimes in a mocking way, evangelical songs and choruses, it was the 'battle cry of a stout soul' bereft of 'personal emotionalism' which he valued in the spirit of those militant hymns which he sang with most enthusiasm in his last years.

Music with Sister Ada

At home the young Lawrence spent many hours sitting beside his sister Ada at the piano, encouraging her to play and to master the difficult passages. He bought her piano music by Chopin, Tchaikowsky and Brahms, and song books and opera selections. These would have been typical of the music to be found in any piano stool of the period and would have given Lawrence a sound introduction to 'classical' music. He and Ada often sang duets by Mendelssohn and others, but only for themselves in the intimate privacy of the front parlour

Music with the Chambers Family.

Lawrence soon began to take a lead in music making among his friends. “ We went Christmas singing one Christmas from their house, with wraps round our beads so no one would recognise us, and Bert was the leader then.” The singing sessions at Haggs Farm with the Chambers family are well documented, and one incident is used in Sons and Lovers where Paul Morel teaches Edgar a new song while the horses are groomed. Lawrence gives Paul 'a very indifferent baritone voice, but a good ear.' It seems to be generally accepted that Lawrence had a thin, highpitched singing voice which he could use with great musical and dramatic effect. Harry T. Moore suggests that an attack of pneumonia at the age of 16 may have affected Lawrence's vocal chords. The pitch of his voice could not have been affected, as this would have required the vocal chords to have been shortened, which is unlikely. The more probable outcome of the illness would have been hoarseness of voice, but this does not seem to have occurred. Songs at Haggs Farm included 'Friars of Orders Grey', an operaticlike comic song and 'The Larboard Watch', a rousing duet, both included with solfa notation in The Nation's Music, an impressively illustrated Edwardian songbook. They also sang 'Two Grenadiers', a duet probably learnt by Lawrence for a concert given at Nottingham University College by the men students on 29th February 1908.

The Chambers family signature tune was 'There is a Tavern in the Town', number 107 in the Oxford Song Book. Lawrence seems to have learnt a considerable number of its 128 titles by heart and sang them and taught them to the family at home and to friends wherever he travelled. The majority of numbers are traditional British folk songs such as 'Widdicombe Fair' and 'Richard of Taunton Green' the latter often performed by Lawrence in full Somerset dialect with great style. Another great favourite was the ‘Elephant Battery’, a song full of obscure tongue-twisting references to the Indian Army. Its banalities disappear the faster it is sung and Lawrence performed it at a very great pace.

Apart from many musical evenings at Haggs Farm, with Ada playing the piano 'with its faded green silk front', regular musical evenings took place at the various Lawrence homes in Eastwood, usually 'after chapel'. Sometimes George Neville, who disgusted Lawrence by begetting an illegitimate child after a Methodist Revival meeting, would play the piano. They sang '...just the ordinary music hall songs on those occasions, but Jessie Chambers recounts that they also performed much heavier fare such as 'The Heavens are Telling', '0 Rest in the Lord' and a Lawrence favourite, the 'Hymn to Music', all requiring quite a good measure of skill in partsinging.

Music at Eastwood

In his early 20s, while teaching at the British School in Eastwood, Lawrence arranged holidays for the family at the seaside on the Lincolnshire coast and at Shanklin, Isle of Wight. Seaside musical entertainment at that time would have included performances by 'Nigger Minstrels'. The mention of 'Coons' at Mablethorpe, which Miriarn thought 'insufferably stupid' in Sons and Lovers, no doubt refers to 'Chocolate Coloured Coons', another name for the white singing groups with blackened faces who sang sentimental and patronising ditties like 'Massa's in de Cold Cold Ground'.

Music at Nottingham

During his time at Nottingham University College, Lawrence attended performances of opera and musical comedy. There were five professional opera companies regularly visiting Nottingham, providing a surprisingly comprehensive range of all the major popular operatic works, including Tanhauser and II Trovatore, both recalled by Jessie Chambers, who went with him. Although they attended the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, it is interesting to note that these tuneful and popular operas do not seem to have made a favourable impression on Lawrence, at least judging by their omission from his singing repertoire. Perhaps it is because they occupy an uncommitted, cynically iconoclastic middle ground between the earthy simplicity of the songs and hymns and the 'art' music of the 'Grand' operas, all so favoured by Lawrence.

His teacher's course at Nottingham completed, Lawrence ruminated on his lack of success in getting a job. 'My peace is gone, my heart is sore' he wrote to Louise Burrows, quoting Schubert's great song 'Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel.' His appointment as a teacher at Davidson Road School, Croydon, brought him new friends and new musical opportunities. In letters to Louise Burrows he gives accounts of concerts and mentions with admiration the piano playing of Laura McCArtney and Antoinnetta Miller, also visits to the Italian Opera. His opinion of the piano music of Debussy seemed to vary: 'I love Debussy' (17th Dec 1911); 'Damn Debussy and his averted face'. (1st April 1911). He disapproved of Wagner '... and his bellowings at fate and death', but loved Italian Opera '... it's so reckless.' He told of trips to Purley for tea and music. ‘I do love somebody to play the piano well to me’' (6th April 1911).

Visiting the Opera in London

One of his new friends, Helen Corke, shared his interest in music. 'Once we went to a performance of Strauss's Electra at the Opera House, and climbed the endless stairs and sat on the stone parapet of the gallery slopes. The savagery of the opera filled me with horrified bewilderment, but Lawrence laughed sardonically.' The poem 'After the Opera` probably relates to this occasion. An interesting insight into the relationship between Lawrence and Helen Corke is recounted by his brother George: 'I remember going with him to an organ recital of Goss Custard at St Margaret's, and Helen Corke. She was a tartar, she was, and she made some caustic remarks about this type of heavenly music. 1 don't profess to understand highclass music, so I turned round to her and said "I don't know what you're talking about. I don't understand you, all 1 know is that this music appeals to every emotion in my body and I'm thoroughly enjoying myself". And Bert said "There, you bloody little cat, that settles you Organ recitals, which often included 'transcriptions' of popular orchestral works, were very popular. Goss Custard, organist at Liverpool Cathedral, was one of a group of eminent recitalists who performed on the concert organs in public buildings and in the larger churches and chapels throughout the country. Lawrence was interested in church buildings as well as church music. Ada recalled, 'Bert, who liked old buildings, said we must look round the church (Alfreton near Eastwood). I played the organ, and we sang.' And Peg Needham: 'That was my favourite cathedral (Southwell) just because he'd shown it to me all in detail.' St Margaret's Wesminster, the scene of Helen Corke's denouement, is a notable building with a fine organ.

Music in Croydon

Once settled in Croydon, Lawrence was soon involved in songs round the piano. 'Once or twice we were invited to a friend's house for a musical evening. Lawrence enjoyed singing old songs at the piano to our hostesses' accompaniment. During his stay in the London area, Lawrence took every opportunity to indulge his musical interests, and these experiences were transmuted into his writings, as in the short story ‘Witch A la Mode’ the beginning of which is an impression of just such an evening (musical), [though] the development is quite imaginary.'

Music in Cornwall

Illness in 1911 caused Lawrence to give up teaching and to return to Eastwood, where he stayed with his sister Emily at Queen's Square. It was during this time that he met Frieda. She shared his interest in music. Montague Weekley, her son, recalled, 'I do remember that she liked sitting at the piano for hours on end, singing to her own accompaniment.` For the next few years until Frieda's divorce in 1914, the couple travelled between England, Germany and Italy. They were married in London during 1915, stayed briefly at Greatham, Sussex and Hampstead, then settled in Cornwall at Tregarthern Cottage. There they befriended the Hocking family, who sometimes joined them in their musicmaking. Stanley Hocking recalled that Lawrence said "Don't forget to bring your accordian. We'll have a little singsong."' Well, sure enough we had this little singsong and we sang all sorts of things and Frieda sang some of her German folk songs until we'd practically run out of them you see, and Lawrence said, "Can she play anything more, Stanley, are they all played that you know?" "Well, I don't know Mr Lawrence,"I said, 1 think I can play one more," so I played the Merry Widow Waltz and at that Lawrence's face fell in a moment, and he said to me quickly, "Please don't play that Stanley, I can't stand it!" "Good heavens," I said, "Mr Lawrence, why not?!". "Because it reminds me", he said, "of days gone by and people gone by and everything that's sad." I always remember him saying that so 1 didn't play the accordian any more.`

Music at Mountain Cottage

At this time the Lawrences were under surveillance for suspected spying and, it being wartime, they were eventually forced to leave the area. “Well,them be spies, and they ought to be kicked out.” And so the story and the little tongues wagged and got round you see. Poor Lawrence` They returned briefly to London, then moved to Mountain Cottage in Derbyshire, a small isolated cottage rented for them by sister Ada. This time is remembered by Lawrence's niece 'Peg'. 'I do remember singing round the piano. We had the Oxford Song Book, and we used to go right through them. We had our favourite songs of course, and round our Auntie's (Ada) piano at Ripley ... my memory is of Ada playing at her house and Frieda at Mountain Cottage.'

World Travel and Music

With the end of the war in 1918, Lawrence and Frieda commenced on a period of travel embracing Italy, Sicily, Ceylon and Australia. Settling for brief periods, they eventually arrived in New Mexico in September 1922. In Ceylon they befriended the Brewsters, an American family. At the Brewster's home beside the Lake of Kandy, Lawrence and Frieda often sang as they sat on the verandah in the afterglow of sunset. Achsah Brewster remembers their singing 'The Cherry Tree Carol', a carol which greatly pleased Lawrence, especially the last verse in which the father of the baby' (God) bends down the branch of the cherry tree for the Virgin Mary to pluck a fruit, thus proving her innocence and allaying Joseph's fears. This seemed to have special significance for Lawrence.'

A noisy bird was labelled 'Bell of Hell' by Lawrence, prompting him to sing 'The Bells of Hell go Tingalingaling', a Salvation Army song remembered from his youth. He had the musician's habit of making puns and humour out of song titles, and naturally enough allocated the folkballad Leezie Lindsay to the 'Tin Lizzie' the Model T Ford car used by the two Danish painters who stayed with the Lawrences during their sojourn at the Del Monte Ranch, New Mexico. Lawrence taught them the favourite songs from the Oxford Song Book, finding 'The Elephant Battery' particularly suitable for horse riding. Native songs were exchanged, and they found a common link in the student song 'Gaudeamus Igitur.' Moving on to the remoteness of a little ranch at Taos, Lawrence listened to the Indians '... singing in their strange, haunting voices to the sinking sun.' He remembered and sang their music in far away Switzerland.

Ill and restless, Lawrence wanted to return to Europe, eventually settling at the Villa Mirenda near Florence. About this time he wrote the play David and tried his hand at musical composition for the songs contained in it. He sent the music to Robert Atkins, who produced the play with the 300 Club and Stage Society at the Regent Theatre London in May 1927. Lawrence describes the music as 'simple', needing only a pipe, tambourine and a tomtom drum for accompaniment. There are eight short sections of unison music written in a clear conventional musical manuscript, occasionally showing signs of lack of knowledge of musical conventions. The first is a short chant to the words'Lu1ualilu1ulu', and is very reminiscent of the music for the entry of the Mikardo in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera. The other numbers are built mostly on a short motif reminiscent of the tune to 'Amazing Grace'. His melodies span over a wider musical range than a more experienced composer would consider expedient, and there is an impression that he rather forced the words to fit a tune he had in his head. He obviously showed an interest in composition but, as with his piano playing, he did not have the time or inclination to develop the necessary skills.

During all his travels Lawrence kept continual contact with his family and friends through a stream of letters, postcards and occasional presents. One such present was a book of French children's songs, 'Sonnez Les Matines  Chansons de Jeu et Rondes Enfantues', which he sent to his niece Peg via Mrs Richard Aldington who bought it on his instructions in Paris during 1926. Lawrence was keen to encourage Peg's French studies and had earlier taught her to sing 'II Pleut, Bergere.'

In a letter to his mother-in-law he complains about the lack of music around the Villa Mirenda, and thinks of the music in the Kurpark at BadenBaden. But inside the villa musicmaking was vigorous when the Brewsters joined him in singing round the fire with '... amazing cadenzas and coloratura passages,' no doubt from wellremembered operas, plus the usual favourite songs. Lawrence noted down the music, '... humming out the tunes and putting them down note by note.' An example of this activity is to be found on the back page of Peg Needham's copy of the Oxford Song Book which belonged to her mother Emily. Lawrence probably wrote this out for her during his last visit to England in 1926. It is very neat.

On.a train journey to the Alps with the Brewsters, Lawrence sang again the Moody and Sankey and Salvation Army songs of his Sunday School days, dramatically throwing out '... an imaginary lasso to the drowning souls, hauling them in strenuously' for 'Throw out the Lifeline.' Settling in Switzerland in a chalet at Gseig, Lawrence roused himself from his illness for one more great singsong with his friends and family about him. His sister Emily and her daughter Peg were holidaying with him and the Brewsters joined with them for the party. 'As for my memories of Kesselmatte and our supper party  it was a typical Swiss chalet with quite a climb up the grassy meadows. The chalet had a pervasive smell of cows.' (Harwood Brewster). 'At night the Brewsters, Boshi the Indian (friend of the Brewsters) came up for a farewell dinner party. We had such fun. After dinner we sang all sorts of things English folk songs hymns  Italian ones  German ones two Sanskrit chants by the Indian examples of Mexican Indian ones by uncle. We had a lovely time.' (Peg Needham).

The Last Days

Frieda wrote 'I am reminded of Lawrence singing: 'Listen to My Tale of Woe', 'Widdicombe Fair', '0 No John', 'Goddesses Three', 'Cockles and Mussels', 'Clementine', and so many more! Not to mention German, French and Italian songs.In those days one of the party pieces was the Indian Love Lyrics ... and he chose "Less than the dust", and ... kind of characterised it as he sang it ... made it sound ridiculous ... and he really took off the song and he sang it with exaggerated emphasis and said (to Boshi) "That's what the English think of Indians" Boshi couldn't believe it" (Peg Needham). Exhausted after the party Lawrence stayed in bed the next morning and amazingly managed to write 'Hymns in a Man's Life ’We'd sung some of the old hymns at this singsong round the table, and it must have made him think about the old days and the old hymns and he wrote that essay.'

His health was now the main consideration, so he travelled to Bavaria for treatment. Visiting concerts, he remembered the past. '... a pensive look on his face as if he was gathering up old memories evoked by the music.' But the singing had stopped, and his battle for life was nearly over. He died in 1930, hopelessly seeking medical help at Vence in France.

In all his restless travels, vainly seeking his personal Utopia, Lawrence never failed to find satisfaction in music. Those wonderful feelings of physical well-being, elation and joy which come with fullthroated participation in song were his ceaseless delight. That this was so speaks out from all accounts of him, and links us with the very soul of the man, vibrant and so full of life.


The following sources, published and unpublished, have been consulted in the preparation of this article:

Ada Lawrence ed. G. Stuart Gelder: The Early Life of D.H. Lawrence.

Jessie Chambers: D.H. Lawrence: a Personal Record.

Khud Merrild: A Poet and Two Painters.

Harry T, Moore: A D..H. Lawrence Miscellany.

Frieda Lawrence: Not I, But the Wind.

Norman Page (ed.): D.H. Lawrence: Interviews and Recollections.

Interviews by David E. Gerard with E.C. Carlin, Mrs Hadditch, George Lawrence, Montague Weekley and Stanley Hocking.

Interview by the author with Peggy Needham.

Letters to Peggy Needharn.

Letter from R.M. Beaumont (Honorary Librarian, Southwell Minster) to the author.

Stephen Best: 'A Talent for Harmony' Sneinton Magazine. No. 16, Spring 1985.

Helen Corke: D.H.Lawrence as I Knew Him (University of Nottingham 1960.)

Headings have been added in this version of “Lawrence and Music”
 for ease of reading on the web.

[Home] [ESSAY] [Contact]