December 17th, 2008

Portrait as a Renaissance artist-enginee

A Music-Hall Guide to Victorian Living

The Ingleby Singers, usually of Valentine's Mansion in Ilford, exist, as a subset of a larger group of madrigal singers, solely to sing Mrs. Beaton's Book: A Musical-Hall Guide to Victorian Living. This confection of good advice and singing was first published in 1982. It was written by composer Michael Hurd who specialized in writing children's operas and cantatas. In Thursday's performance of it, it was interspersed with readings from the book itself, and recipes from a local nineteenth-century cookery book. To make the performance complete, it was all accompanied by an illustrative slide show.

The songs all draw heavily on the advice given in what is still one of England's most famous cookbooks, a commodious volume giving advice on everything from cookery to managing one's servants and budget for the aspiring middle classes of the 1850s and '60s. That, therefore, comprises the words and messages of the songs themselves: how many servants one can reasonably afford, given one's budget; why one should never chat about trivial subjects; cooking for charitable purposes; the importance of the lady of the house. It's all tongue-and-cheek and funny, while still being rather proper, the self-conscious modern composer appealing to his contemporaries while bringing to life a monument of Good Advice.

And so, my friends, lest you had any doubt: if you earn less than 500 pounds per year, you cannot afford to keep a full-time cook employed in your kitchen, let alone much other help other than part-time.