WW2 Army Flight Nurses – 1 May 2022

The First in a series of Blogs about the 31 Medical Air Evacuation
Transport Squadrons activated during WW2
to provide inflight nursing care to sick and wounded soldiers,
tended by Army flight nurses and enlisted technicians.
The focus is on the flight nurses.


The Quasi–Military Aerial Nurse Corps of America


Lauretta M. Schimmoler, a pilot from Ohio who in the 1930s founded the Aerial Nurse Corps of America (ANCOA), never intended the organization’s members to limit their work to civilian aviation activities. In Schimmoler’s mind, the military soon would need the services of trained flight nurses, and she would be ready with an initial cadre of women prepared for flight nurse duty. To that end she structured ANCOA along military lines.

Lauretta Schimmoler, circa 1932
(Bucyrus, OH Historical Society)

ANCOA was organized according to military command structure, with national headquarters in Burbank, CA, and 3 wings subdivided into 9 divisions throughout the US, each division corresponding to corps area boundaries found in the US Army. The divisions were subdivided into companies. But the military analogy went even further. ANCOA members were assigned honorary rank commensurate with their position: the national commander held the rank of colonel, a lieutenant colonel commanded a wing, a major commanded a division, and a captain commanded a company. Most of the nurses held the rank of first or second lieutenant, or cadet, which was the lowest grade for a registered nurse. 1 Like their military counterparts, those ANCOA nurses who met the qualifications took an oath of office “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and the Aerial Nurse Corps of America against all their enemies whomsoever” and “to bear true faith and allegiance to the same”. 2 Should a member put too much stock in her quasi–military status, she need only remember the organization’s Ten Commandments that stressed such character traits as honor, loyalty, promptness, dependability, respect, integrity, and remaining true to one’s religion to restore her sense of perspective. 3

Because Schimmoler planned to work in conjunction with the American Red Cross (ARC), ANCOA nurses were required to be a member of their state nurses association and of the First Reserve of the ARC, which provided the pool of applicants from which military nurses were drawn.

ANCOA nurses served on “active duty” for 3 years during which time they agreed to perform nursing duties in any airworthy aircraft. Unlike military nursing, however, work as an ANCOA nurse was not full time but rather was limited to part–time volunteer participation in evening classes and weekend activities that included providing first aid for national air races and smaller air events. Occasionally ANCOA nurses would accompany a patient on a flight to provide nursing care en route. Members held other jobs as nurses and paid for the privilege of being part of ANCOA with a $5 enrollment fee and monthly dues of 50 cents. 4 They were required to attend 2–hour classes and lectures 1 night each week divided into medical subjects the first year, aeronautical subjects the second year, and theoretical subjects the third year.

All members had to pass an examination of the ANCOA Regulations Manual within the first 6 months of membership, after which the new nurses were placed on the active–duty roster, promoted from cadet to second lieutenant, and were authorized to wear the blue–grey ANCOA uniform with its overseas cap and military–like insignia. 5

Lauretta Schimmoler (far left) and original ANCOA
members, National Air Races, Los Angeles,
1936 (USAF Photo)

World War II broke out before Schimmoler could “sell” ANCOA to the military, which by then had formulated its own plan for a flight nurse program that employed Army nurses as members of the 31 Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadrons (MAETS) – renamed Medical Air Evacuation Squadrons (MAES) on 19 July 1944 – activated during the war. 6 But many ANCOA nurses traded their quasi–military status for that of an officer in the US Army, some of whom served with distinction as flight nurses.


For more about ANCOA, see Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in Word War II, Chapter 1. For more about Lauretta Schimmoler and ANCOA, see Blogs posted in 8 parts, beginning 1 Oct 2018.



  1. Aerial Nurse Corps of America, Regulations Manual (Los Angeles, Burbank, CA: Schimmoler, 1940).
  2. “Aerial Nurse Corps”, brochure, n.d., 4.
  3. “Ten Commandments of an Aerial Nurse”, Aerial Nurse Corps of America Memorandum, 20 Jun 1938.
  4. “Aerial Nurse Corps”, brochure, n.d., 4.
  5. Aerial Nurse Corps, Regulations Manual, 2–4; Leora B. Stroup, “A New Service in an Old Cause”, Trained Nurse and Hospital Review 105 (Sep 1940): 187–88.
  6. A revised Table of Organization 8–447 issued on 19 July 1944 re–designated the Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron as the Medical Air Evacuation Squadron. I use the MAETS acronym when writing about squadron activities occurring up to 19 July 1944, after which I use the MAES acronym.



British Women Organists – 30 Oct 2021

Tales of Sound and Seduction:
Organists in Nineteenth-Century British Novels

Part 2

Unlike its sister keyboard instrument the piano, the organ has not been the focus of research on music making in nineteenth-century British novels. This blog considers the role of the organ, its performers, and their music in three novels – Lady Audley’s Secret (Braddon 1862) and Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree (Hardy 1871, 1872) – for what the authors’ choice of instrument and repertoire – and even gender of the performer – can tell us about contemporary society off as well as on the books’ pages. (See Blog of 10 October 2021 for Part 1 of this topic and Book Editions Consulted.)

To seduce, in its broadest sense, need not be limited to the act of leading a person astray, whether for sexual or other purposes, but can also mean to allure, attract, beguile, entice, fascinate and tempt, to name but a few synonyms. The link between seduction and music was well known in arts and sciences in nineteenth-century England. Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, for example, with servant Leporello’s ‘Catalog Aria’ of all the women his master has seduced, was first performed in London in 1817.  And Franz Anton Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism or mesmerism, which used music as a healing agent, crossed the channel to England in 1843. 1 That same year Punch satirically noted Mesmer disciple John Elliotson playing the phrenological organs of an entranced patient like a pianist, comparing the young lady to a finger-organ on which the mesmeriser-organist plays a fantasia on the themes of La ci darem la mano – significantly, the duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina, another attempted sexual conquest. 2

What, then, of the organist ‘seduction’ scenes in the novels of Braddon and Hardy? What non-musical meanings lie within those ivory keys?

Neither author was an organist, but both had musical backgrounds – Braddon was a proficient pianist as a child and Hardy was a fiddler at country-dances and weddings. Hardy’s cousin Teresa played the harmonium for church, and his sister Mary was a church organist whom her brother tapped for information. 3 In a letter of 1863, for example, Hardy wrote to her, ‘Tell me about the organ and how the Sundays go – I am uncommonly interested.’ 4

*     *     *     *     *

To Herbert Klein, writing about Lady Audley’s Secret, the obedient and morally upright Clara Talboys, who is the principal foil to the morally deficient and ultimately mad Lady Audley, never transgresses the conventional boundaries of her sex. 5 But Klein overlooks some of Clara’s less conventional attributes, such as strength of character and decidedness of action described by some authors as masculine, and an appearance that Robert Audley describes as ‘very handsome’ – indeed, Robert is attracted to Clara’s resemblance to her brother. Even as an accomplished musician Clara has taken an unconventional route by becoming an organist. According to Nicole Fisk, ‘Clara’s visions of happiness seem to depend on breaking free of, or triumphing over, patriarchal rule,’ exemplified in Clara’s tyrannical father, and she has done this in part through her choice of musical instrument and repertoire, which she employs however unintentionally, to lure Robert into the church with her playing. 6

As Robert Audley enters a rural churchyard, he hears ‘the slow harmonies of a dreamy melody that sounded like an extempore composition of an accomplished player’. [Ch. 28: 261] ‘The music still rolled on. The organist had wandered into a melody of Mendelssohn’s, a strain whose dreamy sadness went straight to Robert’s heart.’ [Ch. 28: 262] Curious to see this new organist ‘who can afford to bury his talents at Audley, and play Mendelssohn’s finest fugues for a stipend of sixteen pounds a year’, Robert waits spellbound for the organist to descend from the organ loft. [Ch. 28: 263] Much to his surprise, the organist is Clara Talboys. That Robert mistook Clara’s playing for that of a man is noteworthy, but not surprising, for in nineteenth-century England, improvisations and fugues were considered masculine music, and the organ was considered a masculine instrument, reinforced by the use of masculine imagery as in Alfred Tennyson’s verse:

The great organ almost burst his pipes,
Groaning for power, and rolling through the court
A long melodious thunder to the sound
Of solemn psalms, and silver litanies. 7

William Wordsworth drew on equally masculine associations for the organ:

While the tubed engine feels the inspiring blast,
And has begun—its clouds of sound to cast
Forth towards empyreal Heaven,
As if the fretted roof were riven. 8

The sexual connotations of an organ almost bursting his pipes and a tubed engine feeling the inspiring blast are clearly indicative of a male, not a female, instrument.

The location of the organ in the patriarchal world of the church secured its masculine association, as did its very size, shape and sound. Although varying in size, the organ’s console was augmented by an array of phallic pipes, some of which were of massive dimensions. Even the sound of the organ determined its gender. Capable of playing the most delicate of tones, the organ was characterized more by its loud, full sonorities. So, for Clara to take command of this male instrument and its masculine repertoire was clearly to transgress conventional female musical boundaries.

Indeed, musically, Braddon has described a role reversal, with the active, manipulative female player attuned to the masculine strains of a fugue and the passive, compliant male affected by the melody’s dreamy sadness. Braddon’s decision to make Clara an organist and to include the scene at Audley church in her book supports the characterization of a female capable of taking on male traits that would avenge her brother. As a pianist, she would not have differed from Lady Audley, who was also a musician, but as an organist, she was the pursuer, not the pursued, in the cause of justice. To Phyllis Weliver, the shared names bring to mind Clara and Robert Schumann, another couple whose roles were reversed when proceeds from Clara’s concerts, which she organized herself, provided essential family income. 9 Like the fictional Clara Talboys, Clara Schumann could be commanding and demanding – traits expected of a nineteenth-century man, not of a woman.

*     *     *     *     *

Desperate Remedies is another tale of ‘mystery, entanglement, surprise and moral obliquity’, with the sinister steward Aeneas Manston the male equivalent of Lady Audley. 10 As in Braddon’s sensational novel, blackmail, murder and romance are featured prominently in the plot, and one of the characters is an organist. Hardy’s choice of instrument is more straightforward, however, given that it is played by a man, apparently intent on seducing, or at least captivating, a young woman.

In the wake of an approaching storm, Manston lures Cytherea Greye into his house, where she is surprised to see a pipe organ.  Allegedly to pass the time and amuse them both, Manston begins extemporising a harmony that ‘meandered through every variety of expression of which the instrument was capable’. Cytherea soon feels uneasy and frightened, and not only because of the increasing intensity of the storm.

He now played more powerfully. Cytherea had never heard music in the completeness of full orchestral power, and the tones of the organ, which reverberated with considerable effect in the comparatively small space of the room, heightened by the elemental strife of light and sound outside, moved her to a degree out of proportion to the actual power of the mere notes, practised as was the hand that produced them. The varying strains – now loud, now soft; simple, complicated, weird, touching, grand, boisterous, subdued; each phrase distinct, yet modulating into the next with a graceful and easy flow – shook and bent her to themselves, as a gushing brook shakes and bends a shadow cast across its surface. The power of the music did not show itself so much by attracting her attention to the subject of the piece, as by taking up and developing as its libretto the poem of her own life and soul, shifting her deeds and intentions from the hands of her judgment and holding them in its own.

She was swayed into emotional opinions concerning the strange man before her; new impulses of thought came with new harmonies, and entered into her with a gnawing thrill. …

He turned his eyes and saw her emotion, which greatly increased the ideal element in her expressive face. She was in a state in which woman’s instinct to conceal has lost its power over her impulse to tell; and he saw it. …

After a few more minutes the sky begins to clear. ‘Cytherea drew a long breath of relief, and prepared to go away. She was full of a distressing sense that her detention in the old manor-house, and the acquaintanceship it had set on foot, was not a thing she wished. … O, how is it that man has so fascinated me?’ was all she could think. [VII Ch. 4: 148–157]

Like John Jasper, Manston uses his hands and his eyes to seduce his victim, and like Rosa Bud, Cytherea is caught up in the intensity of his attention on her. In both cases the sound of the instrument – Jasper’s repetitive sounding of the key note and Manston’s powerful meandering through all the tones – holds the women spell-bound. But Manston has more instrumental resources on which to draw that, coupled with the sound of the storm, create what Cytherea considers a general unearthly weirdness surrounding her. [VII Ch. 4]

The storm ends before the seduction – which Irving Howe considers an attempted rape – progresses any further, but that early musical acquaintance with Manston foreshadows Cytherea’s eventual unfortunate marriage to this criminal. 11 In this case a man, not a woman, organist, shows socially transgressive behavior on the bench, and Hardy’s choice of instrument and type of music played strengthens the masculine imagery associated with sexual seduction. Only by locking herself in a separate room on her wedding night is Cytherea spared further victimization at the hands of her evil husband.

*     *     *     *     *

I conclude with a happier tale of sound and seduction at the organ. In Under the Greenwood Tree, the reader is led to believe that unlike Clara Talboys, Fancy Day does not really want to play the organ in Mellstock Church and thus replace the instrumental gallery choir but was pressured into it. But Fancy later tells Dick Dewey, ‘I have always felt that I should like to play in a church, but I never wished to turn you and your choir out, and I never even said that I could play until I was asked.’ [III Summer Ch. 2: 98]

As Parson Maybold explains to a delegation from the choir, ‘a player has been brought under – I may say pressed upon – my notice several times by one of the churchwardens. And as the organ I brought with me is here waiting’ (pointing to a cabinet-organ standing in his study), ‘there is no reason for longer delay.’ [II Spring Ch. 4: 65] The churchwarden is none other than Farmer Shinar, who competes with the vicar and Dick for Fancy’s attention. ‘I see that violins are good, and that an organ is good,’ Maybold told the choir members, ‘and when we introduce the organ, it will not be that fiddles were bad, but that an organ was better.’ [II Spring Ch. 4: 68] But Michael Mail, who plays second violin in the choir, sees the situation differently: ‘Then the music is second to the woman, the other churchwarden is second to Shinar, the pa’[r]son is second to the churchwardens, and God A’[l]mighty is nowhere at all.’ [II Spring Ch. 5: 70]

The choir members, who harbor no animosity toward Fancy, request only that they be allowed to go out respectably ‘glorious with a bit of a flourish at Christmas, … and not dwindle away at some nameless paltry second-Sunday-after or Sunday-next-before something, that’s got no name of his own.’ [II Spring Ch. 4: 66] Then they will make way for the next generation. [II Spring Ch. 5: 67] Parson Maybold, who thinks the request of no importance, gives them until Michaelmas at the end of September.

The organ is first played for services at the time of the autumn Harvest Thanksgiving. [IV Autumn Ch. 5] It is not so much that Fancy is organist or even what she plays that suggests socially unconventional behavior, but rather the priority she gives to her appearance over the music or the setting, and the unholy feelings engendered in at least three of the novel’s main characters when Fancy is on the organ bench – Dick Dewey is away at a funeral that Sunday.

Fueled in part by jealousy because Dick had danced with another woman at a party to which she had not been invited, Fancy is in a tizzy, because she wants to look her best and social convention dictates that she carry her schoolmarm look into her role as church organist as well. ‘And through keeping this miserable school I mustn’t wear my hair in curls! But I will; I don’t care if I leave the school and go home, I will wear my curls! ‘ she declares. [III Summer Ch. 3: 103]

Thus it is not surprising that on the first Sunday that Fancy is to play for the church service, we are told,

If ever a woman looked a divinity, Fancy Day appeared one that morning as she floated down those school steps, in a form of a nebulous collection of colours inkling to blue. With an audacity unparalleled in the whole history of village-schoolmistresses at this date she had actually donned a hat and feather and lowered her hitherto plainly looped-up hair, which now fell about her shoulders in a profusion of curls. [IV Autumn Ch. 5: 132]

When Fancy takes her place on the organ stool in full view of the vicar in his pulpit and the congregation in their pews, her appearance elicits mixed reactions. The lovesick Mr Maybold is not at all angry about her appearance – Fancy’s proximity is a strange delight to him, and ‘he gloried in her musical success that morning in a spirit quite beyond a mere cleric’s glory at the inauguration of a new order of things’. [IV Autumn Ch. 5: 134] Indeed, he loved her during that sermon-time as he had never loved a woman before. [IV Autumn Ch 5]

But members of the congregation are not equally impressed. ‘”Good heavens – disgraceful! Curls and a hat and feathers!” said the daughters of the small gentry, who had either only curly hair without a hat and feather, or a hat and feather without curly hair. “A bonnet for church always!” said sober matrons. [IV Autumn Ch. 5: 172]

Hardy tells us,

After a few timid notes and uncertain touches her playing became markedly correct, and towards the end full and free. But, whether from prejudice or unbiased judgment, the venerable body of [choir] musicians could not help thinking that the simpler notes they had been wont to bring forth were more in keeping with the simplicity of their old church than the crowded chords and interludes it was her pleasure to produce. [IV Autumn Ch. 5: 134]

*     *     *     *     *

it is not so much what Fancy was playing but rather the impression she made in church that suggests socially unconventional – even transgressive – behavior. But Fancy does not hold the monopoly on indecorum. Mrs Penny, wife of a choir member, fancies she’d seen Mr Maybold ‘look across at Miss Day in a warmer way than Christianity required’. [II Spring Ch. 2: 56] Turner argues that to Fancy, ‘music was a form of sexual display, which duly made the vicar fall in love with her’. 12 We can only guess at Farmer Shinar’s thoughts about Fancy during the service; Hardy does not mention him in that context.

Unlike Clara Talboys, Fancy is described by Dick Dewey as decidedly feminine: ‘An easy bend of neck and graceful set of head, full and wavy bundles of dark-brown hair, light fall of little feet, pretty devices on the skirt of the dress, clear deep eyes; in short, a bunch of sweets: it was Fancy!’ [III Summer Ch. 1: 93]  When Hardy wrote Under the Greenwood Tree, the Oxford Movement and Cambridge-based Ecclesiological Movement, through which the Anglican religious revival found its musical voice, were still influencing churches throughout England. Concomitant with changes made in worship was a continued adherence to the teachings of Saint Paul about women, namely, that they should be seen but not heard in church. That rural churches relied heavily on women organists was a fact documented in newspapers and music journals. But that did not give them free license to flaunt their femininity in plain view of the congregation. As late as 1895, a female correspondent to the Church Musician, who asked what she should wear while playing the organ in church, was told to wear ‘Her ordinary quiet, ladylike costume, of course, attracting as little attention as possible.’ 13

As Dick Dewy discovers after much serious meditation, Fancy is better known for her ability to turn heads than for her ability as a musician. Dick now understands that ‘she was, if not a flirt, a woman who had no end of admirers; a girl most certainly too anxious about her frocks; a girl, whose feelings, though warm, were not deep; a girl who cared a great deal too much about how she appeared in the eyes of other men’. [IV Autumn Ch. 1: 113]

At the wrong place and time, such behavior could be transgressive, especially when it seduces others into an unholy frame of mind during a church service. That her male admirers are willing captives of her charm does not condone such behavior socially for any of those involved.

Is Fancy aware of the effect her organ playing might have on those assembled at Mellstock Church? Of course, given her excessive attention to hair and clothing prior to her musical debut. Is her seduction through sound and sensation intentional? That is a harder question to answer.

*     *     *     *     *

Sound and seduction in tales of organists in nineteenth-century British novels were made even more effective by the introduction of a third element into the story plot: these organists have at least one secret that influences their music making. For Clara, it is the masculine iron will and determination that lie beneath the decorous feminine behavior displayed at home in the presence of her father. For Aeneas Manston it is the wife hidden away in another town whose existence does not influence his attempt to seduce and ultimately marry an innocent young woman. And for Fancy Day it is – well – still a secret. After their wedding, Dick asks Fancy, ‘We’ll have no secrets from each other, darling, will we ever? – no secret at all.’ Fancy, with feminine guile, replies, ‘None from to-day.’ [Italics mine] She then hears a bird singing. ‘O, ‘tis the nightingale,’ murmured she, and thought of a secret she should never tell.’ [V Conclusion Ch. 2: 159]


1  Phyllis Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction 1860–1900: Representations of Music, Science and Gender in the Leisured Home (Ashgate, 2000; Routledge, 2016), 65.
2  ‘A New Musical Instrument’ Punch 5 (Jul–Dec 1843): 168.
3  F.B. Pinion, A Hardy Companion: A guide to the works of Thomas Hardy and their background (Macmillan and St Martin’s, 1968), 21.
4  Richard Purdy and Michael Millgate, eds, The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, vol. 1 1840–1892 (Clarendon, 1978), 4.
5  Herbert G. Klein, ‘Strong Women and Feeble Men: Upsetting Gender Stereotypes in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret’, Atenea 28 (1) (1 Jun 2008): 161–74.
6  Nicole P. Fisk, ‘Lady Audley as Sacrifice: Curing Female Disadvantage in Lady Audley’s Secret’, Victorian Newsletter No. 105 (Spring 2004): 25.
7  From ‘The Princess’ (1847). According to son Hallam Tennyson, the verse depicts the effect that the organ in Trinity College Cambridge, Tennyson’s alma mater, had on his father. See Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, By His Son, vol. 2 (Macmillan, 1897), 152; and Alfred Tennyson, ed. Adam Roberts (Oxford University Press, 2000), 141.
8  From ‘Ode – The Morning of the Day Appointed for a General Thanksgiving, January 18, 1816’ after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars.
9  Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 113; Nancy B. Reich, ‘Women as Musicians: A Question of Class’, in Ruth A. Solie, Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship (University of California Press, 1993), 143.
10 ‘A Particular Reality’, Review of Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy, The Guardian, 14 May 1889, available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/mar/01/fromthearchives.thomashardy.
11 Irving Howe, Thomas Hardy (Macmillan, 1967), 34.
12 Paul Turner, The Life of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography (Blackwell, 1998), 29.
13 ‘A lady asks’, Church Musician 5 (1895): 2.

British Women Organists – 10 Oct 2021

Tales of Sound and Seduction:
Organists in Nineteenth-Century British Novels

Part 1

Unlike its sister keyboard instrument the piano, the organ has not been the focus of research on music making in nineteenth-century British novels. A reader need only delve into the pages of a William Thackeray or Jane Austen novel or their latter-day scholarly exegeses to uncover layers of social meaning associated with the purchase of, performance on and prattling about the piano or its forerunner the pianoforte. Its ubiquitous presence in the home – as an instrument of courtship as well as of music – serves as the linchpin about which the various character relationships revolve and evolve. In Vanity Fair (Thackeray 1848), for example, the striking contrast between the genteel but recently impoverished Amelia Sedley and the rich West Indian heiress Rhoda Swartz, both love interests of George Osborne, is drawn at the piano. In Emma (Austen 1815) the anonymous gift of a small piano to the musically talented Jane Fairfax, Eliza Bennet’s realization of her limitations as a pianist and sister Mary’s blindness to her own musical shortcomings all serve to propel the plot to its ultimate denouement. But the discourse engendered by the ivory keys is not limited to the piano. The organ, too, speaks volumes to readers attuned to its pipes and pistons about music and society in nineteenth-century Britain and about the fictional characters who play upon it. Just as the piano stool was the contested site of debates about conformity to and noncompliance with cultural norms for some authors, the organ bench served a similar purpose in the novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Thomas Hardy.

This blog considers the role of the organ, its performers and their music in three novels – Lady Audley’s Secret (Braddon 1862) and Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree (Hardy 1871, 1872) – for what the authors’ choice of instrument and repertoire – and even gender of the performer – can tell us about contemporary society off as well as on the books’ pages. As in Thackeray’s two pianistic rivals, Braddon’s Clara Talboys and Hardy’s Fancy Day offer a study of contrasts in how female characters – both organists in this case – approached their music making and the ends their behaviour achieved. I maintain that in each of the three novels, organ playing was an act of both sound and seduction, admirably illustrated in organist Aeneas Manston’s seduction of Cytherea Greye in Desperate Remedies. Though not necessarily sexual in nature, these seductive episodes on the organ bench all reveal tantalizing elements of transgression both within and outside the church setting, causing the scholarly reader to view the role of organists in nineteenth-century British novels in a novel way.

*     *     *     *     *

The presence of organs and organists in nineteenth-century British novels is not as rare as one might think, though in most cases the instrument and its player are mentioned only in passing to set a tone of sound and sensation. Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch (Eliot 1874) is glad that Mr Casaubon, the clergyman to whom she is engaged, is not fond of the piano, for she has little regard for domestic music. She does enjoy the grander forms of music, worthy to accompany solemn celebrations, however, and recalls: ‘When we were coming home from Lausanne, my uncle took us to hear the great organ at Freiberg, and it made me sob.’ [Ch. 7: 91]

When in Vanity Fair (Thackeray 1848) Lady Steyne hears Becky Sharp play and sing religious songs of Mozart at the piano, it brings back fond memories of her childhood forty years ago in her convent garden. ‘The chapel organ had pealed the same tones; the organist, the sister whom she loved best of the community, had taught them to her in those early happy days. She was a girl once more, and the brief period of her happiness bloomed out again for an hour.’ [Ch. 49: 554]

Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Hardy 1891) returns to church one Sunday morning, pregnant and shamed after being seduced by Alec Stokes, who had falsely taken the name of D’Urberville. She formerly had liked ’to hear the chanting – such as it was – and the old Psalms, and to join in the Morning Hymn. That innate love of melody, which she had inherited from her ballad-singing mother, gave the simplest music a power over her which could well nigh drag her heart out of her bosom at times.’ [Ch. 13: 84] But the chants provide little comfort now – even one of her favourites, the double chant “Langdon”.‘ [Ch. 33: 84] Tess eventually is noticed in her seat under the gallery, and the whispering begins. ‘She knew what their whispers were about, grew sick at heart, and felt that she could come to church no more.’ [Ch. 13: 85]

The tone set by the organ could be one of gloom or of gladness. In The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens 1870) when all became gray, murky and sepulchral during evensong in Cloisterham Cathedral,

the cracked monotonous mutter went on like a dying voice, until the organ and the choir burst forth, and drowned it in a sea of music. Then, the sea fell, and the dying voice made another feeble effort, and then the sea rose high, and beat its life out, and lashed the roof, and surged among the arches, and pierced the heights of the great tower; and then the sea was dry, and all was still. [Ch. 9: 89]

When the eponymous Jude the Obscure (Hardy 1895) is dying, alone in his room in Christminster, the powerful notes of the Remembrance Day concert at the college outside his window reach his ears, ‘and it was about this time that his cough began again and awakened him’. He begs repeatedly for water, but ‘No water came, and the organ notes, faint as a bee’s hum, rolled in as before.’ [VI Ch. 11: 320]

The same organ notes, faint as a bee’s hum, issuing forth from Cloisterham Cathedral bring the Reverend Canon Septimus Crisparkle (Edwin Drood), sitting at breakfast in Minor Canon Corner, a blessed air of tranquility more than absolute silence would have done [Ch. 6] and work magic on the food provisions in his dining-room closet, with its portrait of Handel beaming down upon it, ‘until those venerable bees had made sublimated honey of everything in store; … which seemed to have undergone a saccharine transfiguration‘. [Ch. 10: 96]

In two cases the author uses the sound of the instrument as a tangible reflection of the mood of the character doing the playing. Both Dick Dewey in Under the Greenwood Tree and the eponymous Jude the Obscure play – or at least play at – the harmonium.

Dick arrives at Fancy Day’s sitting room around two o’clock with the thought of going ‘nutting’ with her, but Fancy is in the lengthy process of altering a dress with scissors, needle and thread. In his three hours of waiting, Dick examines all the furniture, sounds a few notes on the harmonium, looks inside all of Fancy’s books, studies everything in the scullery, watches the cabbages and potatoes in her garden grow, ruins his walking stick by peeling off the rind and returns to the harmonium, from which he now ‘produced hideous discords’. [IV Autumn Ch. 1]

Jude, who initially intended to become an ordained minister through self-study but lowered his sights to become a licensed preacher instead, shows more focus when he ‘hired a harmonium, set it up in his lodging, and practised chants thereon, single and double.’ [III Ch. 1]

We do not know if Lucy Morris in Eustace Diamonds (Trollope 1870) actually played the organ, only that she took lessons – which could have been on piano instead – from the organist of Bobsborough Cathedral. Lady Fawn had expressed willingness to take Lucy into her house as governess on the condition that she teach music up to a certain point. ‘Then it’s all over,’ Lucy says to her uncle, dean of the cathedral. ‘It’s not over at all,’ he replies. ‘You’ve got four months. Our organist is about as good a teacher as there is in England. You are clever and quick, and he shall teach you.’ [Ch. 3: 23]

Likewise, John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood is identified as choirmaster of Cloisterham Cathedral, not as its organist, though he likely plays the organ as well. We know he is a pianist and in that role tries to win over Rosa Bud, with whom he is secretly in love, from her fiancé Edwin Drood, when he accompanies her singing. His methods are musically seductive:

It was a consequence of his playing the accompaniment without notes, and of her being a heedless little creature, very apt to go wrong, that he followed her lips most attentively, with his eyes as well as hands; carefully and softly hinting the key-note from time to time. … [Ch. 7: 65]

The song went on. … As Jasper watched the pretty lips, and ever and again hinted the one note, as though it were a low whisper from himself, the voice became less steady, until all at once the singer broke into a burst of tears, and shrieked out, with her hands over her eyes: ‘I can’t bear this! I am frightened! Take me away!’ [Ch. 7: 64]

But in three novels Aeneas Manston, Clara Talboys and Fancy Day all play the organ, and their roles as organist deserve closer examination. It is to these novels that I now turn, giving first a brief summary of each.

*     *     *     *     *

When in Lady Audley’s Secret Helen Talboys reinvents herself as Lucy Graham who marries Sir Michael Audley, she leaves her husband George behind as presumed dead in Australia. George, who is very much alive, returns to England to a less than cordial homecoming when his wife tries to murder him and thinks she has succeeded. As nephew Robert Audley, a barrister, unravels the untimely disappearance of his friend, he meets George’s organist sister Clara, who urges him forward in his quest and whom he later marries. George, who escaped the attempted drowning, reappears after Lady Audley has been confined to an insane asylum on the Continent.

Cytherea Greye, lady’s companion to Miss Aldclyffe in Desperate Remedies, first meets the steward Aeneas Manston when he tries to seduce her with his organ playing at his home. The scheming Aldclyffe wants to see Cytherea, child of the man she loved but couldn’t marry, united with Manston, her child by a man she didn’t love or marry. Because her true love Edward Springrove is engaged to his cousin, Cytherea is pressured to wed Manston against her better judgment, only to learn that he is already married. Manston is found guilty of murdering his first wife and is hanged. Cytherea reunites with Edward, who has since been jilted by his cousin.

In Under the Greenwod Tree Dick Dewey, a member of the Mellstock Church gallery choir – a band of sting instruments – falls in love with the village’s new schoolmistress Fancy Day. The new vicar Parson Maybold’s request that Fancy play the new cabinet organ he has brought with him to the church for services spells the end of the choir, but not the end of Dewey’s courtship. Dewey must compete with Parson Maybold and the churchwarden Farmer Shiner for Fancy’s hand but is victorious. Fancy and Dick eventually overcome the objection of her father and marry.

Book Editions Consulted:

Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) Oxford University Press, 1987

Charles Dickens
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) Pantheon, 1980

George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)
Middlemarch (1871–1872) Knopf, Random House, 1991

Thomas Hardy
Desperate Remedies (1872) St Martin’s, 1960
Jude the Obscure (1895) Knopf, Random House, 1992
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) Knopf, 1991
Under the Greenwood Tree (1872). Macmillan and St Martin’s Press, 1966

William Thackeray
Vanity Fair (1848)  Dodd, Mead, 1943.

Anthony Trollope
Eustace Diamonds (1870) Knopf, Random Hose, 1992

To be continued

British Women Organists – 22 Aug 2021

Organ Benches and Bicycle Seats:
Pedalists in Victorian England

Part 2 Bicycle Seats

As the nineteenth century progressed, English women benefited from increasingly liberal social attitudes about their education, physical exercise and meaningful employment outside the home. For example, fashions in vogue that squeezed women in with tightly laced corsets and weighed them down with heavy petticoats gradually gave way to less restrictive clothing to accommodate a more physically active lifestyle. John Steward Mill, a strong advocate for equal opportunities for women in all areas, including music, had admonished society for its myopic view in 1869. It was presumptuous of anyone to decide what women could or could not do, based on the unnatural state to which society had confined them, Mill believed. Left to choose their direction as freely as men, women likely would show little or no difference in their capabilities from that of men. 1

The bicycle validated Mill’s claim. Writing about cycling in the 1890s, David Rubenstein notes that the introduction of the safety bicycle in 1889 with its chain-driven rear wheel and pneumatic tires set England rolling and started the bicycle craze. 2 By 1895 popularity had become passion. Everyone – male and female – who could afford a bicycle and was physically able took to England’s streets and byways. The revolution of bicycle wheels in a sense effected a social revolution.

And no more so than in the lives of women riders for whom the bicycle opened up a new world with three immediate benefits, which Rubenstein discusses. First came improved health and physique from participation in this active recreation. Second was the blow that bicycles dealt to the system of chaperonage as young women on cycles were able to outride their chaperons, giving them more social freedom. And third, the act of so many women cycling symbolised the defeat of conservative opinions. 3 For women — who took to cycling even more avidly than men – the bicycle represented a new sense of independence and self-reliance and challenged the restraints of convention, in however a limited way. 4

The bicycle craze had repercussions in the world of music. Composers took advantage of the bicycle’s immense popularity, and inventors were quick to exploit the link between cycling and music. In an 1881 review of The Bicycle Sonata for pianoforte, the Musical Times doubted that a B-flat major chord could really suggest ‘Mind the ditch’ or a sixteenth-note arpeggio, a collision. 5 One wonders whether the winner of a twenty-guinea prize offered by Puck for the best musical setting of a National Cycling Song or the composer of the part song The Cyclists fared any better. 6 Musical bicycles were the latest novelty to catch the attention of the Musical Times. The Melocipede offered waltzes as traveling music, while the Troubadour bicycle performed popular airs for its rider and bystanders alike. 7

The effect of the bicycle on women’s patronage of music was of some concern to the musical press. The anticipated absence of this important source of support led the Musical Times to quip in 1896, ‘A Ladies’ Committee has been formed in connection with the approaching Bristol Festival. Are there enough ladies free from the “bike” craze to guarantee a quorum?’ 8 Furthermore, the same journal heard that London’s 1896 spring concert season had suffered from the ‘cult of the cycle’, because it lured away concertgoers, nine-tenths of them women. 9

Inevitably, bicycling impinged on the time women spent at the keyboard. The bicycle’s lure away from the piano grievously troubled the Musical Times, which, in 1896, identified the bicycle as ‘a new and most formidable enemy of the pianoforte’ because of the thousands of young women who now spent their leisure hours on the bicycle seat instead of on the music stool. 10

The bicycle was no enemy to women organists, however. In fact, their performance on the pedals of this ‘iron bird’ may have aided their acceptance as organ recitalists and organ pedalists. Writing of women as musicians in 1885, the Monthly Musical Record had commented:

When we become accustomed to a thing it soon ceases to excite either wonder or satire. It is but a short time ago that people laughed at the idea of a lady violinist. There is the organ also. At one time it was considered unladylike to play it. But there must surely be less to remark upon in a lady playing the organ than in turning the levers of a tricycle, as we may see them doing constantly in the streets. 11

It was not only that women were becoming stronger, thanks to their increased participation in active recreation, but also that organs were becoming less taxing to play, thanks to the introduction of innovative labour-saving devices, that worked to the advantage of women organists. Yet concern about the potentially harmful effects of organ playing – especially pedaling – on woman’s delicate constitution lingered in the minds of some men despite growing evidence to the contrary. In 1863 a male correspondent to the Musical Standard with the pseudonym Pedals doubted that female organists had the necessary strength to play the ‘Hailstone Chorus’ from Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt on a large organ without breaking down ‘from sheer exhaustion, long before the final chord’. 12

Thirty years later a correspondent who signed herself Lady Organist was told in The Girl’s Own Paper, a popular weekly magazine published by the Religious Tract Society: ‘Organ-playing is not considered advisable for women. Strong, unmarried, middle-aged women may play the foot-keys without suffering from the unsuitable strain on the back and loins; but it is a risk if the instrument be a large one.’ 13 Correspondents Iresene, Cecil Burn and Rob Roy – all likely pseudonyms – each had been given similar answers in the magazine in the 1880s. It appeared that only spinsters should play the organ.

The activity may have looked strenuous, but the magazine’s answer must not have satisfied its readers to whom physical activity was becoming more common, for they continued to ask the same question. In 1896 on a page of ‘Replies to Often-asked Questions’, the answer given by The Girl’s Own Paper to ‘Is Organ-playing bad for Girls?’ signaled a victory for new female recruits to the organ bench in Victorian England: ‘Organ playing is not injurious to either sex, indeed it is a healthy though fatiguing occupation. It exercises the muscles of the hands and renders them delicate and precise. The movements of the legs in working the pedals are natural ones, being almost identical to those of walking.’ 14

Or perhaps as natural as riding a bicycle.


1     John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women [1869] (London: Dent, 1896), 273.
2     David Rubenstein, ‘Cycling in the 1890s’, Victorian Studies 21 (1977): 48–49.
3     Ibid., 61–62.
4     Ibid., 59.
5     Review of The Bicycle Sonata, composed by Stanislaus Elliott, Musical Times 22 (1 Aug 1881): 424–25.
6     ‘Twenty Guinea Prize’, Musical Times 31 (1 Jul 1890): 433; ‘The Cyclists’, Musical Times 37 (1 Oct 1896): 711.
7     ‘According to a Baltimore company’, Musical Times 29 (1 Jan 1888): 20; ‘The “Troubadour” bicycle’, Musical Times 37 (1 Aug 1896): 527.
8     ‘A Ladies’ Committee’, Musical Times 37 (1 Aug 1896): 527.
9     ‘The Spring Concert season’, Musical Times 37 (1 Aug 1896): 525.
10   ‘The Pianoforte and Its Enemies’, Musical Times 37 (1 May 1896): 309.
11   Joseph Verey, ‘Women as Musicians’, Monthly Musical Record 15 (1885): 196.
12   Pedals, ‘Pedals’ Reply’, Musical Standard o.s. 1 (15 May 1863): 287.
13   ‘Lady Organist’, The Girl’s Own Paper 15 (4 Nov 1893): 80.
14   ‘Replies to Often-asked Questions’, The Girl’s Own Paper 17 (5 May 1896): 512.


British Women Organists – 1 Aug 2021

Organ Benches and Bicycle Seats:
Pedalists in Victorian England

Part 1 Organ Benches

In a 1927 retrospective account of organs and organists, Charles Pearce, then Vice President of the Royal College of Organists, wrote that ‘The evolution of pedal playing in England was as slow as the progress of the pedal organ itself. Old fashioned organists were such skilful left hand players that it took time to convince them of any necessity for playing with their feet.’ 1 Samuel Wesley was apparently among those organists who needed convincing, because he is reported to have conceded that ‘pedals might be of service to those who could not use their fingers’. 2

Fifteen years after Wesley’s death some organists still relied on their hands, not their feet, when playing. The story is told of Sir George Smart, who, when asked as one of the musical judges to try one of the pedal organs on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, replied contemptuously, ‘My dear Sir, I have never in my life played upon a gridiron.’ 3 And this from the organist who had played for two coronations.

William T. Best, long-time organist of Saint George’s Hall, Liverpool, headed Pearce’s list of ‘brilliant pedalists’, with Frederick Archer, Alexandre Guilmant, John Stainer and William Hoyte rounding out the top five. 4 Missing from Pearce’s list was Felix Mendelssohn, who, in his organ recitals in England, was known to execute ‘a storm of pedal passages with transcendent skill and energy’ in his performance of the Bach Fugue in A Minor. 5

Nor do any women organists appear among the ranks of brilliant pedalists, although, if reviews of recitals are an indication, some of these women performers deserved to be on Pearce’s list. For example, in an account of organ recitals in nineteenth-century England, an anonymous author recalled that Elizabeth Stirling, who was best known for her part song ‘All among the Barley’, was ‘all among the pedals’ in recitals when just a teenager. 6 In August 1837 at age eighteen, Stirling had given her first known recital, at Saint Katherine’s Church, Regent’s Park, London. Her performance, which lasted over two hours, featured eleven of Bach’s major organ works, as well as three pieces by other composers. 7

At the time of Stirling’s debut, organ recitals were heard in England in organ manufactories and in concert locations such as Exeter Hall. Organ solos were heard as part of recitals featuring vocal and instrumental selections. But to play an entire solo recital devoted almost exclusively to the works of Bach was an innovative approach to concert giving. Through the tireless efforts of Samuel Wesley, Benjamin Jacob, Carl Friedrich Horn and other enthusiasts, some of Bach’s organ music had been performed and published in London early in the nineteenth century. But the championing of Bach’s organ music was a bold venture given the status of English organs at the time. Organ pedals, if they existed, were used as assistance to manuals, for pedal points and other sustained notes and at cadences. The development of independent multi-rank pedal divisions did not occur in England until the second quarter of the nineteenth century. And not all organs had pedalboards conducive to performance of Bach’s obbligato pedal lines. 8 Thus organ pedaling was a novelty that did not escape the notice of the musical press – especially when it was performed by the feet of a young woman organist.

Stirling’s mentor Edward Holmes, who reviewed her recital at Saint Katherine’s for the Atlas, focused on the young organist’s command of the music of Bach and the pedals. He noted that her system of pedal playing, ‘which we believe is peculiar to herself, enables her to preserve a graceful and quiet seat at the instrument.’ Holmes added that ‘it might well be a matter of surprise that throughout the performance there was scarcely an error, or slip worthy [of] notice’. 9 His surprise at Stirling’s nearly flawless pedaling suggests a standard new to England by which an organist’s skill would be judged.

When Stirling played her second recital a few months later, at Saint Sepulchre Church Holborn, and played ten of Bach’s major organ works, the reviewer for the Musical World reprinted the program as ‘the first decided exhibition of a lady pedal player’. 10 Reviewers were particularly impressed by her management of pedal sequences that ‘however harassing and difficult, are executed by her with the utmost certainty and without the slightest apparent effort’. 11

Stirling returned to Saint Sepulchre in July 1838 for yet another recital featuring the music of Bach. In its review of the recital the Musical World expressed surprise at seeing the trios of Bach attempted, ‘and by a lady’. The review continued: ‘Mr Wesley lived to enjoy the fruits of his zeal for Bach and his writings in the rise of a perfect army of pedal players, and the legitimate performance of the trios by one of his pupils.’ 12 It was perhaps because Stirling had used Wesley’s edition of the trio sonatas that the reviewer forged the link between the veteran Wesley and the new recruit, Stirling. Use of the military analogy was apt, because organ pedaling was thought – by men – to require a great deal of physical stamina.

Stirling was not the only woman organ recitalist in Victorian England, though she was the only one whose recitals were publicised in the first half of the century. Between 1850 and 1896 at least thirty-three women organists are mentioned by name in music journals and newspapers in recitals in churches, schools, institutes and exhibitions. Their acceptance in this role, however, was not free of pundits who cast doubts on women’s fitness – social, medical and musical – to master the complexities of the organ and its pedals.

An example is found in two recitals, both reviewed in the Musical Standard, in which organist Theresa Beney performed Bach’s Toccata in F Major. The tone of the first review was positive. Still of the belief in 1879 that ‘an organ recital by a lady is somewhat of a novelty’, the critic congratulated the courage of Beney, who was apparently a bit nervous, and noted that her execution of the Toccata ‘proves that good pedal-playing is not out of the range of a well-taught lady’. 13 Beney, who studied at the National Training School for Music, was a pupil of J. Frederick Bridge, organist of Westminster Abbey.

A repeat performance of the piece by Beney in 1883 prompted the reviewer, addressing the skeptics, to note that ‘the aptitude for a lady for pedal playing was admirably illustrated’. This may have swayed some of the journal’s readers, but the critic himself was not yet fully convinced. He began positively:

Although one does not like the notion of a lady struggling with a big organ and engaged in work so trying and requiring such courage and watchful power as recital playing, save in rare instances, it must be acknowledged that ladies can play the organ, and as pedalists are exceedingly neat and sure-footed, possibly by reason of incessant practice measuring distances by their feet without being able, as men are in walking and pedal-playing, to watch their pedal movements. 14

An underlying bias against women organists then surfaced, though the critic implied that his view was not widely held and might be an unpopular one: ‘On the other hand, the power and grandeur of a large organ would seem to be best handled by the sterner strength of the “lords of creation,” to say nothing of questions of mental power, which the writer will not venture upon, lest his opinions bring him into hot water.’ 15

He likely was alluding to society’s long-held belief in the innate intellectual and physical inferiority of women compared to men, based in part on smaller size of brain and body. When women began to demand equal opportunities of education and employment in the second half of the nineteenth century, this belief provided the justification that men sought to curtail women’s activity outside the home. Basically, men argued that to expend what was understood at the time as the body’s finite amount of energy on these ‘needless’ pursuits would rob women of the vital energy needed to keep their reproductive organs functioning properly. Women who failed to pay attention to their special ‘periodicity’ would become ill and unable to bear children – or so men claimed.

The ‘lords of creation’ – to use the critic’s words – had for the most part managed to keep women off the organ bench by perpetuating the notion that women’s place was in the home and out of the public eye. But Victorian sources detailing woman’s role in society – conduct books, advice manuals, periodicals and even fiction – were more prescriptive than descriptive. Female organists are a case in point.

Beginning in 1895 another woman organist, Emily Edroff, who was associated with the London Organ School first as a student and then as a professor, was dazzling her audiences with performances of Widor’s Toccata form the Fifth Symphony. Her ability as a pedalist was not mentioned in recital reviews, however. What had changed?


1.    Charles Pearce, The Evolution of the Pedal Organ and Matters Connected Therewith (London: Office of ‘Musical Opinion’, 1927), 57.
2     ‘In resuming our consideration’, Musical World 13 (21 May 1840): 315.
3     Pearce, Evolution of the Pedal Organ, 57.
4     Ibid., 68.
5     ‘Mendelssohn as an Organist’, Musical World 7 (15 Sep 1837): 79.
6     ‘The Organ Recital: A Contribution Towards Its History’, Musical Times 40 (1 Sep 1899): 602.
7     Edward Holmes, ‘Organ Performance at St. Katherine’s Church, Regent’s Park’, Atlas 12 (20 Aug 1837): 538.
8     James Boeringer, Organ Britannica: Organs of Great Britain 1660–1860, vol. 1 (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1983), 45.
9     Holmes, ‘Organ Performance at St. Katherine’s’, 538.
10   ‘Concerto Organ Performance’, Musical World 9 (26 Jul 1838): 209.
11   ‘Organ Performance at St. Sepulchre’s’, Musical World 7 (31 Oct 1837): 79; Henry Chorley, ‘Our Weekly Gossip’, Athenaeum, no. 521 (21 Oct 1837): 771.
12   ‘Concerto Organ Performance’, 208.
13   ‘Lancaster Hall, Notting Hill’, Musical Standard 3rd ser., 19 (27 Nov 1880): 344.
14   ‘Bow and Bromley Institute’, Musical Standard 4th ser., 24 (7 Apr 1883): 215.
15   Ibid.

To be continued

British Women Organists – 10 Jul 2021

Women Organists in Victorian Fiction
Part 2

Women had been serving as organists in England’s churches – though not in its cathedrals and royal and collegiate chapels – since the end of the eighteenth century, but their role was not entirely free of controversy. Husbands of two organists forbade their wives to play in church once they were married, and another woman organist was kept in her post despite numerous letters of complaint about her playing, perhaps because, as vestry minutes suggest, no one else was found to replace her. 12

Women occupied the benches of City of London churches early in the nineteenth century as well. But with the codification of woman’s role in Victorian society and of the role that music should play in their lives, the employment of women organists for church positions became a highly contentious issue. Correspondents to music journals questioned the propriety of women sharing space with God and men in church chancels and organ lofts, especially when the positions they might assume in organ playing were ‘extremely indelicate, if not indecent’. 13 Such claims, the Musical World suggested, masked the real reason for correspondents’ objections: Organists far outnumbered churches, and by eliminating women from competition, men would have a better chance of securing organist positions. 14

Yet women organists were in great demand in rural areas and in churches where no men could be had for the meagre salary offered, a fact confirmed in 1857 when the Church of England Quarterly Review commented that ‘Few churches now are without an organ, and the wives and sisters of the clergy form an excellent staff of organists, where there are no funds to procure professional help.’ 15

The situation had not changed by 1886 when The Girl’s Own Paper urged its readers with musical talent and leisure to qualify themselves as amateur organists for churches in agricultural and suburban parishes unable to pay for the services of a professional organist. 16 The theme was reinforced in several stories printed in the same magazine between 1880 and 1895 with amateur church organists as their heroines. 17

Conduct literature in the form of advice books helped define woman’s gendered role in British society. To Robert Shoemaker, periodicals probably were more influential than advice books in defining gender ideology during the period 1650 to 1850, ‘because they were less overtly prescriptive and were more widely read’. 18 Given that the novel has been called the fictional version of the conduct book, novels serialised in periodicals – and even short stories – could have the same influence on their readers. 19 Shoemaker notes that novels and periodicals largely portrayed women in domestic contexts, but that ‘women were increasingly portrayed as having the capacity and willpower to play a significant public role. Yet it was through the exercise of moral and domestic virtues that female characters exerted influence over the wider society’. 20

Addressing the role played by Victorian periodicals in the dissemination of gender ideologies, Hilary Fraser and her coauthors note that every periodical had its formal house style – its dominant discourse or voice – in which it presented the topics found within its pages. Influenced by the moral codes and mores of the time, this discourse both shaped and restrained, ‘much as women’s clothing of the period shaped and constrained their bodies’. 21 The voice of The Girl’s Own Paper was conservative, given its publisher The Religious Tract Society, an evangelical and anti-Catholic organization in sympathy with Anglican and nonconformist churches in England, as shown in the magazine’s portrayal of fictional women organists. 22

These women were all in their mid to late teens, except for Grace Erith, who, having taught as a music governess, may have been a bit older. All turned to work as a village church organist when in the straits of refined middle-class poverty brought on by a family member’s illness or old age. All of the heroines were amateur organists with varied musical training. Ivy Gardiner and Ritchie Marphell likely were taught by their fathers, and Beatrice Vaughan, by her uncle. May Goldworthy, who played both organ and harmonium, took lessons locally in her Welsh neighbourhood. Organ was not Grace’s primary instrument, and Nessie Cartright’s and Ellice Cresswell’s preparation for their organist positions is not known. But these women would have learned piano as an accomplishment in order to have the necessary keyboard skills. For most of these women organists the work was temporary but paid at least a nominal salary. May did not hold a regular church job but played for services when requested. Nessie later was offered and apparently accepted a permanent organist post until, like the other heroines, marriage ended her monetary hardship.

Filial duty, not music, was the underlying theme in these stories, and romance was more prominent than organ playing in their plots. We are told little about the music these organists played, for example, though we know that Ivy played the same music as her father with equal skill, that May played Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, that Ellice played a symphony of Beethoven, that Grace played an air of Handel’s and that Nessie played the ‘Noel! Noel!’ All would have played hymns as well.

Each heroine’s situation offered an object lesson in life that reinforced middle-class Victorian values. When in financial need, women should earn money by suitable work rather than accept charity, however well intended. An an organist position undertaken to the glory of God and for the benefit of one’s neighbourhood was an honourable occupation for women in these circumstances. Ivy also took on her father’s pupils, but likely on piano, not on organ, and May taught voice lessons for a short time. But marriage took priority over musical talent in most cases and would shift wage earning appropriately onto the husband so that the wife no longer had cause for remunerative employment.

Away from the world of fiction, The Girl’s Own Paper promoted amateur organ playing among its readers by offering articles on how to play the organ and the harmonium; reviewing organ music in its ‘Notices of New Music’; and including organ pieces among the music scores, mostly for piano and voice, in its weekly issues. In his article, John Stainer, then organist at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and a professor at the National Training School for Music, admitted that ‘There is something very fascinating in listening to the rich tones of a fine church organ, and probably there are but few girls who have not, at some time or other, longed to know how to perform on this “king of instruments.”’ He then guided the magazine’s readers through the perils of reaching an imaginary organ loft in order to introduce them to the technicalities of playing the organ. Stainer’s advice was supportive: ‘The answer to the question, “How am I to play the organ?” might be answered in two words, namely, “do it”. This is, in fact, the only answer that can be given.’ 23 That Stainer’s older sister Ann was an organist likely influenced his thinking on the matter. In an equally technical article, King Hall urged readers disheartened by the difficulties of learning to play the harmonium to persevere. 24

The magazine’s organists were aided in their selection of repertoire by reviews of works for organ and by printed music for harmonium or American organ, both home instruments, included in its pages. Perhaps with amateur church organists in mind, reviews assessed pieces’ level of difficulty and usefulness as voluntaries. Ten short pieces printed in The Girl’s Own Paper between 1888 and 1898 were composed for harmonium or American organ, for manuals only – no pedals – and would not have overtaxed the keyboard skills of an accomplished player. With titles such as ‘Elegy’, ‘Meditation’, ‘March’, and ‘Supplication’, the music likely was performed in the home. Only two titles, ‘Chorale’ and ‘Prelude’, suggested use in church.

That The Girl’s Own Paper had organists among its readers is evident from the Answers to Correspondents column in each issue. Only answers, not questions, were printed, but readers apparently asked for advice about transferring keyboard skills from piano to organ, selecting organ primers and repertoire and obtaining organ lessons. Other correspondents may have been concerned about potential health hazards associated with playing the organ, which suggests that the ongoing debate about women’s physical fitness for higher education and gainful employment had repercussions in the field of music as well. Between 1881 and 1894, correspondents Irene, Cecil Burn, Rob Roy and Lady Organist were all told that organ pedaling would put strain on the back and could cause physical injury. The activity looked strenuous, but the magazine’s answer must not have satisfied its readers, who continued to ask the same question.

In 1896 on a page of ‘Replies to Often-asked Questions’, the magazine’s answer to ‘Is Organ-playing bad for Girls?’ reflected a change for the better in its thinking on the matter: ‘Organ playing is not injurious to either sex, indeed it is a healthy though fatiguing occupation. It exercises the muscles of the hands and renders them delicate and precise. The movements of the legs in working the pedals are natural ones, being almost identical to those of walking.’ 26

If one may use fiction in The Girl’s Own Paper, as well as the nonfiction articles and Answers to Correspondents found in the magazine, as reflective of contemporary thinking, the musical messages conveyed to readers were mixed. It was fine for a young woman of talent to learn to play the organ and to practice on large instruments in church lofts. But to perform on these same instruments was another matter. Their organ playing was linked with small parish churches – presumably with smaller instruments – where their services were needed to fill the gap between professional men, and this is an important point. Although a public space, the church was a staunchly patriarchal institution, hence differing little from a woman’s private home environment in that regard. Likewise, all church organists were expected to defer to the clergy in matters of music – in fact, some churchwardens preferred women organists because of their tractability – again reinforcing the pater familias. 27

Although the number of women church organists in Victorian England can be numbered not by the handful but by the hundreds, only one of them was mentioned by name in the pages of The Girl’s Own Paper. In 1895, in a serialised article on ‘The Girl’s Outlook; or, What Is There to Talk About?’, the life of Elizabeth Stirling, an organ recitalist, church musician and composer who had died earlier that year after a professional career spanning over forty years, was a topic of discussion among three female friends. 27

Readers of the magazine were not expected to set their sights too high, that is, to aspire to professional status as an organist where only an amateur was expected. As one author explained, one’s gift for music ‘need not be of the highest order, as even a small portion of the gift can be improved with care, and fostered into usefulness’. 28 Their choice of instrument might take them outside the spatial parameters within which a woman’s music making normally took place, but this was not to be considered free license for women organists to transcend the societal parameters that applied to their music making, no matter where it occurred – they were not to usurp the traditionally male privilege of serving as a church’s organist. This message was subtly, yet consistently reinforced in The Girl’s Own Paper, which included organists among its readers, in fictional stories, in factual articles and in Answers to Correspondents.

I close with an example from one of these organists. In 1891, Annie FIndburgh asked the editor of The Girl’s Own Paper what was the ‘usual salary for an organist’. She was told that salary, which could range from £29 upwards, was based not on the amount of work done, but rather on the wealth and generosity of a congregation or parish, and in answer to what must have been another question, was told: ‘We never heard of a home being supplied.’ The editor continued: ‘You have formed very grand ideas about the worth of such an appointment.’ 29 Perhaps the editor’s admonishment was, on a different level, an apt commentary on the worth of those female organists who, with some notable exceptions, desired more than Victorian society was willing to accede to them. Should they be unclear about their assigned place on or off the organ bench, England’s women organists needed only turn to the stories they would find in The Girl’s Own Paper and follow the examples set by their fictional counterparts – Grace, Ivy, Ritchie, Beatrice, Madeline, May, Nessie and Ellice – from whom they would learn that usefulness without usurpation was the key to their employment as organists in Victorian England.

For Part 1, see the Blog posted on 20 June 2021.


12  ‘List of Marriages for the Year 1753’, Gentleman’s Magazine o.s. 23 (1753): 248; Herbert F.B. Compston, The Magdalen Hospital: The Story of a Great Charity (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917), 163; Saint Andrew Undershaft London Vestry Minutes Commencing 1759 to 1807, Guildhall Library, MS 4118/3, 177–285.
13  Pedal, ‘No Lady Need Apply’, Musical World 35 (12 Sep 1857): 585.
14  ‘Really, some of our organists’, Musical World 35 (12 Sep 1857): 588.
15  ‘Church Music’, Church of England Quarterly Review, n.s., no. 14 (1857): 465.
16  Victoria Grosvenor, ‘The Amateur Church Organist’, The Girl’s Own Paper 8 (2 Oct 1886): 4–5.
17  Stories serialised in The Girl’s Own Paper: Anne Beale, ‘Queen o’ the May’, 2 (1880 – 81): 9 Oct–2 May; idem, ‘May Goldworthy’, 3 (1881–82): 1–29 Jul; Eglanton Thorne [Emily Elizabeth Charlton], ‘Midst Granite Hills’, 12 (1890–91): 1–29 Aug; A. Mabel Culverwell, ‘Music Hath Charms’, 12 (1890 – 91): 6–20 Dec; ‘The Organist’s Daughter’, 14 (1892 – 93): 4 – 18 Mar; Ada M. Trotter, ‘Marsh Marigolds’, 16 (1894–95): 6 Oct–23 Mar; Grace Stebbing, ‘Noël’, ‘Christmas Roses’ Extra Christmas Number, 1881, 17–23; M.M. Pollard, ‘The Organist’s Niece’, ‘Snowdrifts’ Extra Christmas Number, 1884, 3–12; Louisa E. Dobree, ‘Acquired Abroad’, ‘Snowdrifts’ Extra Christmas Number, 1884, 56–58.
18  Robert Shoemaker, Gender in English Society, 1650–1850 (London and New York: Longman, 1998), 31011.
19  Ibid., 36.
20  Ibid., 31011.
21  Hilary Fraser, Stephanie Green and Judith Johnston, Gender and the Victorian Periodical (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 79, 90, 82.
22  Joseph McAleer, Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain 1914–1950 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), 206.
23  John Stainer, ‘How to Play the Organ’, The Girl’s Own Paper 1 (22 May 1880): 328.
24  King Hall, ‘How to Play the Harmonium’, The Girl’s Own Paper 1 (24 Jul 1880): 328.
25  ‘Replies to Often-asked Questions’, The Girl’s Own Paper 17 (9 May 1896): 512.
26  A Metropolitan Churchwarden, ‘No Lady Need Apply’, Musical World 35 (1857): 585.
30  James and Nanette Mason, ‘The Girl’s Outlook; or, What Is There to Talk About?’ The Girl’s Own Paper 16 (29 Jun 1895): 610–11.
31  Grosvenor, ‘The Amateur Church Organist’, 4.
29  Answers to Correspondents: ‘Annie FIndburgh’, The Girl’s Own Paper 13 (3 Oct 1891): 16.


British Women Organists – 20 Jun 2021

Women Organists in Victorian Fiction
Part 1

The image of music in fiction, especially involving women musicians, offers a rich area of discourse for scholars of Victorian literature. Mary Burgan, Paula Gillett, Phyllis Weliver and contributors to a collection of essays edited by Sophie Fuller and Nicky Losseff, for example, all have investigated how women’s music making is portrayed in Victorian novels, but from different perspectives. 1 For Weliver the discrepancies between fiction’s portrayal of musical women and actual trends in music making reveal how literature dialogued with real life, either encouraging or condemning music’s traditional place in women’s lives. Burgan and Jodi Lustig focus on the piano and what it signifies for the young women who play it. Burgan has found that over the course of the nineteenth-century, the piano served as a social prop, a symbol of confinement and an instrument of rebellion in women’s lives. Lustig considers how the piano in one Victorian novel signifies its antithesis in another. She explains: ‘The instrument comes to represent a set of conventions, codes and ideologies which Victorian culture reifies, and proves the consummate site for authors to stage, contest, and shape their construction.’ 2 In her work on highly contested perceptions of female musicians in late-nineteenth-century English culture, Gillett includes fiction about singers and violinists among the fruitful sources by which to understand women’s participation in late Victorian musical culture.

The musical lives of fictional women pianists, singers and violinists have been examined for the complexity of meanings their music making conveyed, but women organists have not been subjected to comparable scrutiny, in part because they are fewer in number. But Weliver has found a rare example of a woman organist at the keyboard in Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. As Robert Audley enters a rural churchyard, he hears ‘the slow harmonies of a dreamy melody that sounded like an extemporare composition of an accomplished player’. Curious to see this new organist ‘who can afford to bury his talents at Audley, and play Mendelssohn’s finest fugues for a stipend of sixteen pounds a year’, Robert waits for the organist to descend from the organ loft. Much to his surprise, the he is a she – Clara Talboys. 3 That the male character mistakes the woman organist for a man is noteworthy. As Weliver poses, mid-Victorian female organists might be signs of sexual transgression and danger. The organ loft was considered a man’s domain, and, as explained by William Crotch in 1831, fugues were thought of as masculine music, a concept perpetuated in the Victorian code of sexual aesthetics. 4

In another notable exception, Fancy Day in Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy is an organist. As Dick Dewy, a member of the Mellstock parish choir who has fallen in love with her, discovers after much serious meditation, Fancy is better known for her ability to turn heads than for her ability as a musician. The new vicar, Mr Maybold, had brought an organ to the Mellstock parish church to replace the gallery choir and chose Fancy, who was the new schoolmistress, as his organist. But Dick now understood that ‘she was, if not a flirt, a woman who had no end of admirers; a girl most certainly too anxious about her frocks; a girl, whose feelings, though warm, were not deep; a girl who cared a great deal too much about how she appeared in the eyes of other men’. Thus it is not surprising that on the first Sunday that Fancy was to play for the church service, we are told, ‘If ever a woman looked a divinity, Fancy Day appeared one that morning as she floated down those school steps, in a form of nebulous collection of colours inkling to blue. With an audacity unparalleled in the whole history of village-schoolmistresses at this date – partly owing, no doubt, to papa’s respectable accumulation of cash, which rendered her profession not altogether one of necessity – she had actually donned a hat and feather and lowered her hitherto plainly looped-up hair, which now fell about her shoulders in a profusion of curls.’ 5

When Fancy took her place on the organ stool in full view of the vicar in his pulpit and the congregation in their pews, her appearance elicited mixed reactions. The lovesick Mr Maybold was not at all angry about her appearance. Fancy’s proximity was a strange delight to him, and ‘he gloried in her musical success that morning in a spirit quite beyond a mere cleric’s glory at the inauguration of a new order of things’. But members of the congregation were not equally impressed. ‘“Good heavens – disgraceful! Curls and a hat and feathers!” said the daughters of the small gentry, who had either only curly hair without a hat and feather, or a hat and feather without curly hair. “A bonnet for church always!” said sober matrons.’ 6

While not commonly found in novels, women organists are heroines in shorter works of Victorian fiction, such as in stories printed in The Girl’s Own Paper. Published by the Religious Tract Society beginning in 1880, The Girl’s Own Paper differed from other magazines. This popular weekly included the organ among its articles on how to sing and to play musical instruments, and included organists among female characters in its fiction. The other instruments were piano, harp, harmonium, concertina, violin guitar, banjo and zither. But unlike their sister instrumentalists, organists by necessity practiced and performed in public spaces. Given the Victorian belief that a woman’s music making belonged within the home circle, advocacy of organ playing by women could be problematic. In its role as literary guardian of morality, The Girl’s Own Paper sought to guide its readers between competing demands of desire for at least a modicum of musical independence and of duty to comply with societal injunctions about music making. 7 Just how the magazine achieved an acceptable solution to this musical dilemma in the case of female organists, and the musical messages it conveyed to its readers, are the topics of my next blog.


1  Mary Burgan, ‘Heroines at the Piano: Women and Music in Nineteenth-Century Fiction’, in The Lost Chord: Essays on Victorian Music, ed. Nicholas Temperley, 42–67 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); Paula Gillett, Musical Women in England, 1870–1914: ‘Encroaching on All Man’s Privileges’ (New York: St Martin’s, 2000); Phyllis Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860 – 1900: Representations of Music, Science and Gender in the Leisured Home (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000); Sophie Fuller and Nicky Losseff, eds, The Idea of Music in Victorian Fiction (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004).
2   Jodi Lustig, ‘The Piano’s Progress: The Piano in Play in the Victorian Novel’, in Fuller and Losseff, The Idea of Music, 84.
3  Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret [1862], ed. David Kilton (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 255–57.
4  William Crotch, ‘Substance of Several Courses of Lectures on Music, read in the University of Oxford and in the Metropolis (London), chs. 1–3’, in Music and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth and Early-Nineteenth Centuries, ed. Peter le Huray and James Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 431–32, 435.
5  Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree [1872] (Macmillan: London, Melbourne and Toronto, and New York: St Martin’s, 1966), 146, 170.
6  Ibid., 173, 172.
7  See Judith Barger, Music in The Girl’s Own Paper: An Annotated Catalogue, 1880–1910 (London and New York: Routledge, 2017).

To be continued

British Women Organists – 30 May 2021

Playing Upon Versus Playing With the Organ: The Reception
of the Organ Recital in Victorian England
Part 2

Elizabeth Stirling certainly was not the only organist to play at the 1862 International Exhibition whose choice of music raised some eyebrows among fellow organists. A correspondent signed ‘An Organist in the North’ complained to the Musical World in August 1862 of having heard organ music quite unsuited to the character of the instrument at the International Exhibition. His list included operatic overtures and scenas, Scotch airs and ‘pieces of a similar character, which no lover of organ music could for a moment defend’. The correspondent concluded, ‘If we are to have organ performances and adaptations, let us have something compatible, and let us have at least one-half organ music in each programme.’ 13 At that time, music from opera fell within the popular tradition and was not considered appropriate organ repertoire by those of the classical music tradition.

Elizabeth Stirling (1819 – 1895)

A letter from correspondent Solidity to the Musical Standard aired a similar grievance. He asked, ‘Can you or any other readers, explain why some of our gentlemen organists misuse their opportunities at the organ in the exhibition, by selecting for performance pianoforte music (or at all events arrangements totally unfitted for the instrument.’ Solidity was ready to banish organists who performed operatic compositions and whose programmes lacked any pretension to organ music ‘to play on a no-pedal pipe, or no-pedal organ, for a month as purgatory’. 14

Yet another letter writer who signed himself A Manchester Organist responded to An Organist in the North with the horror story of a polka seen in the programme of a celebrated organist. He continued: ‘If it is a matter of public taste, and if the state of public taste is really so bad, it is high time that something should be done to improve it.’ 15

A correspondent who signed himself A Lover of Organ Music wrote to praise organists who performed the classical music for which the organ was best suited. He offered a recital programme of organist William Bexfield as the ideal, which included a Handel overture and chorus, preludes and fugues of Bach and Mendelssohn, a Mozart Andante and extemporaneous variations on ‘God Save the Queen’. 16

Clearly, correspondents did not object to all music arranged for organ, but only to arrangements of popular music. Many organists, Stirling among them, found a suitable middle ground in well-written arrangements of ‘serious’ music not originally for the organ. Best prepared his own ‘Arrangements for the Scores of the Great Masters for the Organ’, published by Novello and reviewed in the Musical World in 1856 as ‘able and appropriate’. 17 As for other arrangements, such as operatic overtures and popular tunes, played on the organ, the correspondent signed A Lover of Organ Music declared emphatically, ‘Things of this description are as bad as they can be, instead of the organ being played upon, it is played with!’ 18

The letter writer An Organist surely must have thought Stirling was playing with, not upon, Willis’s organ when, in September 1862 at the International Exhibition, she again included in a recital, by desire, ‘”All among the Barley” arranged as a waltz (!!)’. Three other works – ‘an offertoire by Wely; a Fugue of J.S. Bach’s; and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus ‘ – completed Stirling’s programme. 19

‘A WALTZ ON THE ORGAN!’ correspondent An Organist decried, prompting a spate of letters targeting the recitalist’s choice of repertoire. A letter writer who signed himself A Churchman sought to clarify the correspondent’s objection to Stirling’s waltz arrangement by evoking the music of Mendelssohn as his standard when he wrote:

‘An Organist’ refers to Miss Stirling’s ‘Waltz’ from the ‘Barley’ part song. That is to put as a question of that lady’s taste in playing such. In the Handel week, Miss Stirling played at Exeter Hall Mendelssohn’s organ accompaniment to ‘Israel in Egypt’. Think of some of Mendelssohn’s organ music; for I assume the objection is, that the waltz is too quick for the organ, not the accusation as to harmony. 20

But A Churchman obviously had missed the point. Correspondent An Organist wrote to the Musical Standard to correct the impression that ‘my objection to a Waltz on an organ arises from the tempo – that is not the fact’. His letter rekindled the controversy: I am well aware that much of Mendelssohn’s organ music is in quick time, but any one can at once perceive the suitability of the music to the instrument. This is not the case as regards a waltz, and never will be while it retains its ‘rum tum tum in the bass, and a jiggy melody in the treble.’ 21

The concluding remarks of the correspondent signed ‘An Organist’ were an affront to Stirling’s musicianship: ‘That organist can have but very little love or regard for “The King of Instruments,” and must be totally oblivious of what is due to its majestic tones, who can willingly use it for the exposition of such trash, as is ‘reeled off’ from a ‘Grinder,’ or any instrument of a similar kind.’ 22

It was correspondent Pedals, not An Organist, however, who had the last word when he wrote: ‘Of “waltzes” on organs, I speak with sorrow and heartfelt regret; for indeed, I feel that it is hardly possible for organ playing to reach a lower depth than that, or for the grandest of all instruments to be prostituted to a baser use.’ 23

The complaints about Stirling having played a waltz on the organ seem somewhat unfair, given that the programs as printed in The Times specified that the piece was included by desire. Although The Times did not indicate by whose desire a part song arranged as a waltz was requested for an organ programme, one can surmise that persons who had enjoyed singing or hearing Stirling’s popular part song would have reacted favourably to hearing the familiar melody as part of her organ recital. If published accounts of performances of Stirling’s part songs are indicative, the ‘ever welcome’ ‘All among the Barley’ was her most frequently sung vocal piece. 24 To organ aficionados, however, the organ performance of the part song as a waltz would have been a travesty.

To understand why choice of organ repertoire elicited such strong reactions among readers of the Musical Standard, one must perhaps look beyond the organists themselves to the overarching purpose their recitals were intended to serve at the Crystal Palace, the International Exhibition and other large-scale exhibitions opening periodically in nineteenth-century London. Describing the use of the Gray and Davison Handel Festival organ built and installed in the Crystal Palace in 1857, Michael Musgrave explains that, like the Palace military band from which it sometimes drew its repertoire, the organ ‘both welcomed and accompanied visitors, and, as with a religious service, it could harmonize with the atmosphere – even help to create it through choice from the very wide repertory that was coming to characterize the use of the modern orchestral instrument’. 25 The organ recital became a means of articulating events.

Just as an organ performance by Frederic Archer in 1872 at London’s Alexandra Palace ‘excited but feeble interest’, because ‘the entertainment was only intended to fill up a gap between the time of the horse races’, one also must place the organ recitals at the International Exhibition in context. 26 The organs on display were located not in concert rooms but in large open spaces. Recitals would have attracted dedicated listeners and passers-by alike among their audiences. Finding music to satisfy this diverse gathering of individuals, often en route to competing events, was not easily achieved, especially given the high moral purpose to which some held the International Exhibition itself.

The Reverend Anthony Thorold, rector of Saint Giles in the Fields, spoke for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge when he advised readers to use the International Exhibition for edification and spiritual growth, not for idleness and frivolity. Liberally citing Scripture as his authority, with missionary-like fervor Thorold addressed the ultimate salvation of the visitors who, when viewing the Exhibition, should ‘feel that they are in a Christian land’. 27 Given that Thorold was speaking for others who shared his opinions, many would have expected organ recital repertoire to contribute musically to the Exhibition’s high moral purpose. Stirling’s waltz, like the polkas, Scotch airs and popular operatic tunes of her colleagues, did not meet this exalted criterion.

Because of its association with the church, the organ was held to a high standard of repertoire. As a one-person band, it could serve as a musical missionary, much like Louis-Antoine Juliien’s popular Promenade Concerts of the 1840s and 1850s, to bring ‘Music to the People’, the catchphrase of what George Bernard Shaw considered a rather smug Victorian ideal that sought to expose individuals of the usually middle and upper-lower classes to the edifying and uplifting moral effects that music was thought to provide. 28

But unlike Julien’s concerts, in which dance music, especially the quadrille, was ‘a spoonful of sugar’ to sweeten doses of Beethoven and other classical composers, organ recitalists were expected to lure their listeners with music that evoked only the sanctuary, not the street. To do otherwise conjured up the pipe organ’s distant cousins, the barrel organ of the organ grinder and the hurdy gurdy player, whose renditions of popular songs, dances, hymns, marches, and excerpts from opera and oratorio ranged from ‘the tolerable to the unbearable’, to use Richard Middleton’s description. 29

The counterpoint of two of Stirling’s recitals, both of which received criticism – one in 1857 for music too serious, and one in 1862 for music not serious enough – highlights the existence of two distinct factions within the organ world, as within the larger concert society. Each had its own views of what constituted good musical taste. Best may have had a winning formula for his organ recitals at Saint George’s Hall, but the recitals at the exhibitions served a particular purpose that set them at odds with recitals in churches or even in town halls.

That purpose may have been acknowledged eventually, but it did little to end the controversy over the appropriate organ music for the different locations. Organists still were choosing sides long after the International Exhibition had closed. Writing for the Musical Standard in 1885, for example, organist Edward Turpin extolled the virtues of the ‘compact selection of classical and better-class popular music’ heard at the weekly Bow and Bromley organ recitals compared with ‘the rubbish so extensively played’ by organists at the International Exhibition in South Kensington. 30

Just who should be the arbiter in matters of musical taste concerning organ recitals was not addressed directly by contributors to the music journals of Victorian England, but the assumption was that this was not a decision to be left ‘by desire’ to uninformed listeners.


For Part 1, see the Blog posted on 1 May 2021. For more about Elizabeth Stirling, see Elizabeth Stirling and the Musical Life of Female Organists in Nineteenth-Century England (Ashgate 2007). The book currently is out of print but may be found in libraries and purchased from used book sellers.


13  An Organist in the North, ‘Sir, As a contrast’ [correspondence], Musical World 40 (30 Aug 1862): 553.
14  Solidity, ‘Organ Music versus Piano: International Exhibition’ [correspondence], Musical World 40 (6 Sep 1862): 30.
15  A Manchester Organist, ‘Sir, I was much pleased’ [correspondence], Musical World 40 (6 Sep 1862): 569–70.
16  A Lover of Organ Music, ‘Organ Music v. Operatic’ [correspondence], Musical Standard o.s. 1 (1 Oct 1862): 57.
17  Review of W.T. Best ‘Arrangements for the Scores of the Great Masters for the Organ’, Musical World 29 (13 Sep 1851): 586–87.
18  A Lover of Organ Music, ‘Organ Music v. Operatic’, 57.
19  An Organist, ‘Sir, A Waltz on the Organ!’ [correspondence], Musical Standard o.s. 1 (1 Oct 1862): 58; and ‘Miss E. Stirling’, The Times (London), 25 Sep 1862, 1d.
20  An Organist, ‘Sir, A Waltz on the Organ!’, 58; and A Churchman, ‘Sir, I am surprised’ [correspondence], Musical Standard o.s. 1 (15 Oct 1862): 73.
21  An Organist, ‘Sir, I am sure’ [correspondence], Musical Standard o.s. 1 (15 Nov 1862): 105.
22  Ibid.
23  Pedals, ‘Sir, The Lovers of organs’ [correspondence], Musical Standard o.s. 1 (1 Nov 1862): 88.
24  ‘Brighton’, Tonic Sol-fa Reporter, July 1859, 105.
25  Michael Musgrave, The Musical Life of the Crystal Palace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 147.
26  ‘On Saturday last’, Musical Standard n.s. 3 (28 Sep 1872): 203.
27  Anthony W. Thorold, The International Exhibition of 1862 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, n.d.), 17–18.
28  George Bernard Shaw, Shaw on Music; A Selection from the Music Criticism of Bernard Shaw made by Eric Bentley (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1955), 305–307.
29  Richard Middleton, ‘Popular Music of the Lower Classes’, in The Romantic Age, 1800 – 1904, ed. Nicholas Temperley, The Blackwell History of Music, vol. 5 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 79.
30  Edmund H. Turpin, ‘The Bow and Bromley Institute’, Musical Standard 4th ser. 29 (26 Sep 1885): 198.


British Women Organists – 1 May 2021

Playing Upon Versus Playing With the Organ: The Reception
of the Organ Recital in Victorian England
Part 1

I invite you to put yourselves in the shoes of a nineteenth-century Londoner who, on an August afternoon in 1863, is strolling through South Kensington’s International Exhibition, which had opened earlier the previous year. As you approach the building’s northeast transept, the sounds of an organ drift through the air. You gravitate with the crowd toward the source of the music, an imposing instrument on display built by the firm of Forster and Andrews. The recitalist whom the Victorian audience heard on that occasion was Elizabeth Stirling, who, at age forty-three, was a well-known organist in London. As advertised in The Times, she was playing ‘(by desire) her popular part song “All among the barley,” arranged as a waltz.’ 1

Elizabeth Stirling (1819 – 1895)

London’s 1862 International Exhibition, like the 1851 Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, gave England’s organists increased performance opportunities outside the church. Their recitals fueled a debate in the press concerning what music could appropriately be played in this extra-liturgical setting. At the root of the debate was the purpose organ music was expected to fulfil.

Performances by Stirling, who played both at the Crystal Palace in 1857 and at the International Exhibition of 1862, prompted several letters to the editors of England’s music journals. The correspondence offers a means to explore issues surrounding the reception of the organ recital in Victorian England.

A lengthy organ recital by Stirling at the Crystal Palace in October 1857, on a Gray and Davidson instrument, featured three works by Bach, a Handel concerto, a Mendelssohn sonata, an Andante by Wesley and one of her own compositions, the Air with Variations in A Major. 2 Having eagerly arrived at the Crystal Palace to hear Stirling, for whose musical talent she had the highest respect, a correspondent with initials J.J,B. found Stirling subjected to a series of insults. J.J.B. attributed the small and rather unenthusiastic audience to unfavourable weather and the severity of Stirling’s program. But other conduct was not as easily dismissed. To accommodate the Crystal Palace Band concert to follow, Stirling was obliged to begin her recital fifteen minutes earlier than announced. When her program ran longer than expected, the band members allegedly began tuning their instruments in order to bring it to a close. When that ploy failed, they then called ‘Stop – Enough’ and began to hiss, compelling Stirling to end her recital prematurely. 3

Proud that one of her own countrywomen was considered competent to perform in the Crystal palace, J.J.B. was appalled at such treatment of a lady. Her appeal to the editor of the Musical World, who, the correspondent knew, was ‘ever ready to defend the weaker sex, and give them praise and honor where it is due’, elicited two opposite responses. 4 George Grove, Secretary to the Crystal Palace, explained that the cause of the disturbance stemmed from impatient audience members rather than the band, and offered an apology. Given the length of Stirling’s program, he admitted, the band concert should have been scheduled to start thirty minutes later. Grove absolved Stirling of any blame and expressed ‘regret that a lady, and one of such distinguished ability as Miss Stirling, should have been subjected to such an indignity’. 5

The other respondent was not as conciliatory. The audience had assembled for the band concert, not to hear Stirling play, explained a correspondent with the initials W.W., who identified himself as one of the hissers. They had tried all means to stop Stirling’s recital, he explained, such as applauding forcefully to drown her out. They had come to hear music that pleased rather than confounded them. Referring to his perception of the sound of an organ, W.W. concluded: ‘I hope Miss Stirling will take the lesson, and not again weary out the patience of persons who go to the palace for pleasure, and prefer orchestral music to incessant, tuneless, though perhaps scientific noise.’ 6

The organ clearly suffered an image problem in the ears of listeners not accustomed to hearing its music played in recital. Organs were heard in church, where organists played sacred music for the benefit of congregations of worshipers, and on the street where organ grinders cranked out secular tunes to the amusement and annoyance of people within earshot. They also were heard in concert in the shops of organ builders. But the organ had not yet come into its own as a recital instrument.

A major step in the popularization of the organ recital was achieved in the nineteenth century with the building of grand town halls with their magnificent organs in England’s northern cities and elsewhere. According to the Musical Standard, these buildings served as musical centers ‘sanctioning not only interesting but instructive recreation, as a stepping stone to the higher study of art’. 7 Expanding on the possibilities of the organ built for the Glasgow City Hall in 1853, for example, the Musical World claimed:

Those who used to take delight in hearing or practising the current popular music, whether sacred or secular, will, now that the organ has been erected, have an opportunity of listening to the sublime choral harmonies of Handel, Haydn, and Mendelssohn, accompanied by the only single instrument which can give them proper effect, and they will learn to appreciate the solemn and severe grandeur of the world-renowned fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach. 8

Among the cognoscenti, the organ was seen not only as an instrument to impart musical knowledge, but also as one to effect social improvement through the elevation of listeners’ musical taste. 9 Yet although organ recitals slowly were gaining popularity in England, they apparently still could not match the appeal of a rousing band concert.

The most famous of the town hall organ recitals were those at Saint George’s Hall, Liverpool, where W.T. Best presided at the organ for forty years beginning in 1855. Best’s programmes, which were well received, led the Liverpool Mail to conclude after the first year that ‘it is quite possible for the highest class of music, judiciously collected, to please large audiences’. 10

In Best’s programmes, organ arrangements of vocal and instrumental works of the great masters outnumbered pieces originally composed for organ. Audiences were more likely to hear transcriptions of Handel arias and choruses than Handel organ concertos, and to hear the slow movements from Beethoven symphonies arranged for organ rather than Bach organ preludes and fugues. On the lighter side were operatic overtures and ‘reminiscences’ arranged as lengthy fantasias. 11

The ideal mix of serious and lighter music to please an audience was not easily resolved, in part because of the vagaries of musical taste, polarized in the nineteenth century into classical and popular music traditions. Classical music, exemplified in German instrumental music and fugues, could enlighten and educate its listeners but needed an acquired taste to appreciate. Popular music, represented by operatic and dance tunes, entertained and required little knowledge to enjoy. 12 Given their penchant for musical morality, middle-class Victorians for the most part embraced the classical music tradition.

Stirling’s tastes apparently were toward genuine organ music falling within the classical tradition. She especially favoured the music of Bach, though an occasional ‘chestnut’ that audiences had come to expect made its appearance in her recitals. It is thus of particular interest that Stirilng’s organ repertoire at the 1862 International Exhibition sparked a round of letters to the editor of the Musical Standard concerning bad musical taste. The reaction to her choice of pieces serves as a vantage point from which to examine possible pressure on organ recitalists to compromise between two opposing schools of thought. One favoured serious music originally for the organ, the other wanted lighter music with more entertainment value. This is the topic of the next Blog.


1     ‘Miss E. Stirling’, The Times (London), 12 Aug 1862, 1d.
2     ‘Crystal Palace: Organ Performance’, The Times (London), 9 Oct 1857, 1b.
3     J.J.B., ‘Miss Elizabeth Stirling at the Crystal Palace’ [correspondence], Musical World 35 (17 Oct 1857): 663; George Grove, ‘Miss Stirilng at the Crystal Palace’ [correspondence], and W.W., ‘Miss Stirling at the Crystal Palace’ [correspondence], both Musical World 35 (24 Oct 1857): 679; and J.J.B., ‘Miss Stirling at the Crystal Palace’ [correspondence], Musical World 35 (31 Oct 1857): 695.
4     J.J.B., ‘Miss Elizabeth Stirling’, 663.
5     George Grove, ‘Miss Stirling’, 679.
6     W.W., ‘Miss Stirling’, 679.
7     ‘Town Hall Organs and Borough Organists’, Musical Standard n.s. 14 (23 Mar 1878): 180.
8     ‘Glasgow City Hall Organ’, Musical World 31 (29 Oct 1853): 691.
9     Nicholas Thistlethwaite, ‘Sebastian and the Steam Trumpet’, Organ 56 (Oct 1977): 80.
10  ‘The Organ Recitals at St. George’s Hall’, Liverpool Mail, 6 Sep 1956, 3e.
11  Ibid.
12  William Weber, ‘Mass Culture and the Reshaping of European Musical Taste, 1770–1870’, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 8 (Jun 1977): 16–17.

To be continued

World War II Army Flight Nurses – 10 Apr 2021

In Memoriam
World War II Army Flight Nurses

Jenevieve (Jenny) Boyle Silk, who died in June 2017, was the last living of the 25 World War II US Army flight nurses whom I interviewed in 1986 for what became Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II. I clearly remember each of my interviews with these remarkable women and still can picture them and hear their voices when I think of them.

Twenty of these interviews are now digitized and available as audio recordings on the Imperial War Museum website. Access the interviews here:



My short remembrances are in the order in which I interviewed these former flight nurses.


Frances Sandstrom Crabtree (1920–2006)
816 MAES, Europe

Frances Crabtree née SANDSTROM (Saint Luke Hospital School of Nursing, Spokane, Washington, 1942) had worked in obstetrical nursing after finishing nurses training. Eight months later she entered the military and was assigned to Fort George Wright in Spokane, where she had charge of a women’s outpatient clinic until she was accepted for flight nurse training at Bowman Field. Frances graduated from the flight nurse course on 21 January 1944 and with Jenny Boyle, Brooxie Mowrey, and Louise Anthony was assigned to the 816 MAES for duty in England prior to D Day. Frances was featured on the front cover of Air Force magazine in October 1944 after magazine staff spotted her in a hotel lobby on a layover in New York City from a flight that had originated in Prestwick, Scotland.

Covergirl Frances Sandstrom. (Author’s Private Collection)

My interview with Frances – the last of my interviews – was a serendipitous one. Hilda Chamberlain, whom I had interviewed earlier in the day in Spokane, WA had told her friend Frances, who lived nearby, about the interview prior to my arrival. Frances, who had flown as a flight nurse in Europe during World War II, said that she’d like to be interviewed, too. So I drove to Frances’s house that afternoon for one last interview. Having had one such request to be interviewed fall through, I was delighted that Frances was true to her word. Chatty and enthusiastic about her time as a flight nurse, with minimal guidance needed, Frances would have talked for hours had I not stuck to my two-hour time frame. Afterward, Frances and her husband treated me to a casual meal – a most pleasant way to end my interviews of World War II flight nurses. Frances died on 11 February 2006 at age 85.


To listen to my interview with Frances Crabtree, click on the link:


Interviewed 21 June 1986, Spokane, WA
Learn more about my interview with Frances on the Blog for 18 Dec 2016.