Getting Victorian: Poetry, Song…and a Few Bugs

One of the pleasures of teaching in a large Ph.D. program is the frequent opportunity to serve on dissertation committees outside my immediate field of expertise. For various reasons I’ve found myself on numerous Victorianist committees over the last eight years, working with students on topics from liturgical antiquarianism to nineteenth-century opera. One of these students is Joanna (Annie) Swafford, who’s writing a wonderful dissertation on poetry and music in the Victorian era supervised by my colleagues Chip Tucker and Andy Stauffer.

As an integral part of her thesis work, Annie has been developing over the past several years a remarkable digital archive called Songs of the Victorians, which brings together a number of Victorian poems with their nineteenth-century musical settings as art or parlor songs. Aside from its inherent interest to those in the field, the project also represents a sophisticated tool for the study of musical-literary relations with broad applicability and teachability across many periods and specialties. Going beyond the digitization of old scores, the interface allows the viewer/listener to hear and see these works simultaneously, integrating audio files with high-res images of first edition scores to create a seamless experience of both mediums at once. Once it’s completed (the pre-release was on March 11), this will be a particularly welcome resource for literary scholars who want to work with musical language and terminology, which can feel intimidating for those who haven’t been formally trained in music theory, a highly technical idiom at its best.

Annie describes the project in a thoughtful piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education just posted this morning. Touching on issues of design, platform compatibility, “browser hell,” and so on, she also recognizes the support of the University of Virginia’s staff, faculty, and infrastructure in digital humanities, particularly the Scholars’ Lab, directed by Bethany Nowviskie, and NINES, headed by Andy Stauffer–and she asks for readers’ help in resolving a few remaining technical issues, so if you know your DH stuff please submit a comment or two.

Just to give you a taste of what Annie is doing with Songs of the Victorians, here is a screen shot taken from the site’s presentation of “Juanita,” by Caroline Norton (1808-1877). The brown rectangle hovers over each measure as it’s performed (in this case by Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson), allowing you to see the music and words that you’re also hearing in real time. The screen shot is live, so you can click through to get to the song on the actual site.

Caroline Norton, “Juanita,” from “Songs of the Victorians”

You really have to see and hear Songs of the Victorians┬áto believe it. The site will be a real model for innovative integration of multiple media in the study of the literary and musical past. Kudos to Annie on creating such a remarkable digital tool, and to her collaborators on grounds for supporting the effort. (You can also visit Annie’s blog, Anglophile in Academia, and follower her on Twitter @annieswafford)

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