Lear Vamping

Tennyson was always very satisfied with Lear’s arrangements of his poems and did not refrain from praising them in public though, as Angus Davidson notes in his 1938 biography, Edward Lear: Landscape Painter and Nonsense Poet (1812-1888) (London: John Murray), p. 87 Find in worldcat, “severer critics did not quite approve.” He then reports an episode which took place at a musical party at the painter John Everett Millais’s house in Cromwell Place; his uncited source is the painter’s son, John Guille Millais (The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. 2 vols. Vol. 2. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1899, pp. 141-2 Find in worldcat) in a chapter devoted to his father’s relationship with Tennyson:

But to Millais Tennyson was always somewhat of an enigma. For at least forty years he was so short-sighted that any book he wished to read must be held almost close to his eye, and yet the scenery of his poems and all natural objects he refers to are so exquisitely and so minutely depicted that one could hardly believe that he had never seen tem. His taste for music was most varied. Though, as we know, he delighted in the works of the great composers, he would now and then seemingly enjoy music that was scarcely classical. An instance of this occurred at a musical party one evening in Cromwell Place. Edward Lear, a charming man and author of the well-known Book of Nonsense, could hardly be called a musician, but being good at “vamping” he sat down to the piano and hummed rather than sang two of Tennyson’s songs to tunes of his own composing. It was a clever performance; but the really musical people there were quite surprised at the eulogistic terms in which tennyson spoke of the compositions. I cannot help thinking, however, that it was regard for the man rather than the music which caused this unexpected outburst of praise.

As to the effects of Lear’s performances on the less musically sophisticated, the following episode, also in Davidson, pp. 95-6, provides a humorous instance:

Before leaving England he [Lear] and Lushington went for a few days to the Tennysons’ at Farringford. Everyone was in good spirits and the visit a great success: at a small party one evening Lear sang his Tennyson songs with all his usual verve, so that his hearers were delighted and deeply moved, and Mrs. Tennyson wrote to him afterwards: ‘I am afraid you will not believe me when I tell you what a hero of romance you are at Afton. How Miss Cotton was found all pale after a sleepless night, how her companion came and poured into my ear a mighty river of thanks and praises and admiration of all sorts.’

The episode is dated October 1855 by Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer. Rev. and enl. ed. Stroud: Sutton, 2004, p. 112 Find in worldcat.

Lear himself, however, was not immune from the effects of his own musical exploits, as the Earl of Cromer (Evelyn Baring) writes in the “Introduction” to Queery Leary Nonsense Find in worldcat:

His laughter was, indeed, akin to tears. I have known him. sit down to the piano and sob whilst he played and sang: “Tears, Idle Tears,” which he had himself set to music, and the next morning send me the subjoined sketch;

Lear at the Piano

accompanied by the following literary production, in which he poked fun at his favourite poet and devoted friend:

“Nluv, fluv bluv, ffluv biours,
Faith nunfaith kneer beekwl powers
Unfaith naught zwant a faith in all.”

Listen to Robert Tear’s performance of Edward Lear’s arrangement of Tennyson’s Tears, Idle Tears.

Previous post on Lear’s music.
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