Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Anne of Green Gables and the Lost Art of Recitation

by Marian Wilson Kimber

In the much-loved Anne of Green Gables, the students of Miss Stacey “get up a concert.” The “concert” in the 1908 novel by L. M. Montgomery consists of more than just music—it also features spoken poetry. The poetry is especially exciting for the young heroine, Anne Shirley, who plans to “groan heartrendingly” in her recitation. “It’s really hard to get up a good artistic groan,” she confides. Later in the novel, a more accomplished Anne recites at a hotel concert. Hearing a professional elocutionist momentarily undermines her confidence, but she recovers, “her clear, sweet voice reaching to the farthest corner of the room without a tremor or break.”

Anne Shirley, played by Megan Follows, recites at the hotel concert 
in the 1985 television mini-series version of Anne of Green Gables

Today the spoken word is not usually found in concerts; however, the fictional settings for Anne’s poetic effusions were typical in Montgomery’s era. As surviving programs from the long nineteenth century attest, period audiences found nothing unusual in the appearance of speech between musical compositions. In a more oratorical age, children were educated through vocal repetition and adults entertained one another by reading aloud. Elocution lessons were widely available in schools and music conservatories. Major cities had elocution schools, some of which developed into colleges, for example, Emerson College and Curry College in Boston, and Chicago’s Columbia College. While a few graduates became theatrical professionals, most had careers as platform soloists or teachers. In Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon, Ilse Burnley, an aspiring performer herself, defines elocutionist as “a woman who recites at concerts.” Female elocutionists came to dominate the profession, making up three-quarters of the attendees at the first meeting of the National Association of Elocutionists in New York City in 1893.

The sheer number of cultural events at which speech and music alternated makes them virtually impossible to summarize: graduations, patriotic celebrations, oratory contests, and holiday and religious events. Chamber groups known as “concert companies” regularly included a “reader” in their ensembles. Orchestras featured an actress performing a solo rendition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, accompanied by Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the play. Musical selections were an expected part of literary settings such as the meetings of women’s clubs common to the Progressive era. In “musical and literary entertainments,” music was interspersed with everything from the poetry of Longfellow and Tennyson to comedic monologues such as “Aunt Doleful’s Visit.” Audiences enjoyed the variety, and elocutionists became known for their interpretations of a particular poem, in the same way that a singer might shape an individual rendition of a song.

Flier for the Oriole Concert Company, ca. 1910,
featuring reader Hazel Kepford (upper left),
along with a violinist, cellist, and pianist. **

Likewise, listeners found that “accompanied recitations” made some performances distinctive, for music enhanced the emotional impact of spoken text on listeners, just as film scores do today. Performers added music as a quiet background for a poem or inserted a popular song mentioned in the text. Songs could also be recited to their accompaniments instead of sung. “Melodramas,” pieces consisting of speech and music, were produced by many composers, both well known (Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Edvard Grieg) and less familiar (Stanley Hawley, Rosseter G. Cole, Max Heinrich, Phyllis Fergus, Frieda Peyke, and many others).

Ultimately, the popularity of elocution faded when radio and movies brought music and speech to audiences in a new way. Elocution’s fall from our cultural memory stems in part from modernist rejection of its stylized performance practices and undeniable sentimental excesses. However, when the anti-Victorian reaction against elocution swung into full force after World War I, it was also a reaction against its professionalization of women. The habitually derogatory remarks about elocutionists were complaints about the period’s “elocution ladies.” The word “elocution” now called up visions of antiquated, amateurish performances by women and children. When the aging opera singer David Bispham turned to reciting, he was criticized for his “musical and literary entertainment such as is still given in the lecture room of the Keokuk [Iowa] Congregational Church, the proceeds of which are usually expended on a new church carpet.”

Yet for decades, elocution was a significant part of concerts. In our own time, when some audience members find the ritualistic silences surrounding the pieces on classical concerts stultifying, and not even conductors venture to speak to their audiences, perhaps we should reconsider a practice that once permeated our cultural life.
** Image Courtesy of Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa Digital Library

Marian Wilson Kimber is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Iowa. She is currently writing a book entitled, Feminine Entertainments: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word. Find out more about the history of elocution on her tumblr, Elocutionary Arts.  

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