Shakespeare famously wrote: 'If music be the food of love, play on'. Music and love have long been companions, and the history of romantic songs and ballads stretches all the way from antiquity to the chart-toppers of the present day.
Before the advent of the gramophone, radio or Spotify, the piano was the primary means of domestic music making in Britain. In the nineteenth century, publishers produced a huge range of sheet music to cater for this domestic market – from dances, ballads and arrangements of operatic arias to music hall anthems, songs from popular plays and poems set to music.
Much like today, love songs were always popular. A new exhibition of sheet music covers from the Royal College of Music Museum offers a tantalising glimpse into the musical world of Victorian and Edwardian romance.
Sheet music covers were designed to catch the attention of buyers. Elaborate designs and stylish typography turned music into a fashionable commodity that could be proudly displayed in the drawing room. These covers became such a trend that, by the middle of the century, musical purists despaired that their vulgarity threatened to compromise the dignity of the music itself. Perhaps their fears were not unfounded – in some cases, the artists who designed these covers were paid four times as much as the composers!
Scrolling through the Royal College of Music Museum’s exhibition of romantic designs reveals how changes in printing technology made it possible to produce increasingly detailed and colourful designs as the decades unfolded. It is also possible to track changing ideals of beauty, too – from the meek, mid-Victorian maidens with downcast eyes to the exposed ankles and direct smiles of Edwardian beauties.
It is unlikely that the songs represented by these designs will be familiar to many today. They were popular romantic ballads that have been lost to time. We might get a few glimpses behind the titles pages, though, as the following examples demonstrate.
Visit the Royal College of Music Museum's exhibition 'For the Love of Music' on Google Arts & Culture here.