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Charles Dickens is the most celebrated English novelist of the 19th century. His books – including such classics as ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘David Copperfield’ and ‘Great Expectations’ – have inspired countless film and TV adaptations with great scores. But Dickens also has other connections with classical music.
In 1836, Dickens himself wrote the libretto for an operetta, titled ‘The Village Coquettes’. The composer John Pyke Hullah wrote the music. Hullah was an aspiring composer and student at the Royal Academy of Music where Dickens' sister Fanny was one of the first students admitted and an accomplished pianist and singer.
Dickens often referred to popular songs in his novels, as they were heard in a domestic setting. A well-known dance tune of the day, ‘The College Hornpipe’ is mentioned in both, ‘Dombey and Son’ and ‘David Copperfield.’
Charles Dickens was a good friend of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s. Together they saw Gluck’s opera ‘Orfeo’ while in Paris. ‘He rushed about tremendously all the time and I was often with him,’ Sullivan said of Dickens. ‘His electric vitality was extreme, but it was inspiring and not overpowering.’
Appointed Master of the King’s Music in 1942, Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was not a fan of Dickens' ‘Oliver Twist’. Nevertheless, he pulled out all the stops towards the end of his life to create a marvelous score for David Lean’s atmospheric 1948 film adaptation, which starred Alec Guiness as Fagin.
Dickens’s sentimental Christmas tale inspired a 1914 operetta by the Scottish composer Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Its overture starts with a kettle coming to the boil, the first line of the story being, ‘The kettle began it!’.
In ‘Great Expectations’, Herbert Pocket gives Pip the nickname of Handel, in reference to his upbringing as a blacksmith – and Handel’s work, ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’. Pictured are Alec Guiness as Pocket and John Mills as Pip in the 1946 David Lean film adaptation of 'Great Expectations'.
Dickens reportedly enjoyed the music of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Mozart. He would often attend opera performances whenever traveling in Europe.
The writer also enjoyed singing and wrote a few songs and ballads himself. These include ‘The Ivy Green,’ which also appears in ‘The Pickwick Papers.’ Pictured is Harry Secombe who played Pickwick in another musical version - a 1963 show with music by Cyril Ornadel and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse.
‘A Christmas Carol’ has inspired countless musical versions including a Benjamin Britten chamber piece, ‘Men of Goodwill: Variations on A Christmas Carol’. It was also turned into a ballet with music by Vaughan Williams, known as ‘On Christmas Night’. Richard Addinsell, composer of the 'Warsaw Concerto' provided the score for the classic 1951 film version in which Alastair Sim was the definitive Scrooge.
Oscar-winning British movie composer Rachel Portman has made quite a name for herself scoring film adaptations of Dickens' novels. She provided evocative music for both 'Nicholas Nickleby' (2002) - pictured - and Roman Polanski's 'Oliver Twist' (2005).