* As a young child H.P. Lovecraft… “sat rapt with childish adoration at the strains of Beethoven”.
* In his early boyhood he greatly enjoyed… “in youth listening to the [bandstand] concerts of Reeves’ American Band at Roger Williams Park with my grandfather.” and “I was forever whistling & humming in defiance of convention & good breeding.” He also enjoyed hearing Beethoven.
* After two years of lessons in classical violin playing… “I played a solo from Mozart before an audience of considerable size” in 1899, age 9. S. T. Joshi (also a music expert, compared to most ordinary folks) has carefully evaluated the possibilities for the pieced played. Joshi concludes… “it may be that Lovecraft played one movement (probably the slow movement or the minuet, since even the allegros of the early sonatas are demanding to a very inexperienced player) of the sonata in C, K. 6, in D, K. 7, or in B-flat, K. 8. Lovecraft’s description of a “solo from Mozart” implies only part of a work rather than a complete work.” But Lovecraft was pushed too fast and too far, and thus reacted strongly against the possibility of further lessons. All classical music seems to have been thrown overboard, along with his violin.
* By middle-childhood he was instead excelling at a more boyish instrument. He… “was also a star zobo soloist … the “zobo” — a brass horn with a membrane at one end, which would transform humming to a delightfully brassy impressiveness!”
* The popular tunes of his boyhood stayed with him, and… “even now I relish the old-time inanities when they are revived on the radio” (1934). He refers here to ‘tin-pan alley’ songs, old barber-shop tunes, and jaunty marching ditties. S.T. Joshi notes that in 1933 letter Lovecraft could still rattle off the names of “the hit songs of 1906″… ““When the Whip-Poor-Will Sings, Marguerite,” “When the Mocking-Bird Is Singing in the Wildwood,” “I’ll Be Waiting in the Gloaming, Genevieve,” “In the Golden Autumn Time, My Sweet Elaine””. These being the songs he had belted out as a boy of about age 12, in the company of his ‘Blackstone Military Band’ — made up of young friends playing their buzzing zobos and the like.
* He had a phonograph and discs as a boy of about 16-18… “memories of the days of a decade ago [c. 1907], when my phonograph was in constant use. I remember one record — a song called “Starlight”, which was truly Western in its cadences: “Good Nity, my Starrrrlight, hearrrt of my hearrt” … etc. etc.” Presumably he means Western as in ‘the wild west’.
* He appears to have also attained and retained some small facility with a musical keyboard, probably first acquired in childhood. For instance, at the main Baptist Church in Providence… “Lovecraft ascended to the organ loft and attempted to play ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas'”, a jaunty and highly popular tune. Which implies he could handle a keyboard. He would also sing tunes when called upon, in circumstances requiring parlour piano singing, with one letter vividly recording such a time in the Little household. There were probably also various social calls with his aunts where a song was a requirement.
* He was a tenor singer… “I once owned an Edison machine of the primitive type, with recorder and blanks; and I made many vocal records in imitation of the renowned vocalists of the wax cylinder. My colleagues would smile to hear some of the plaintive tenor solos which I perpetrated in the days of my youth!!”
* As for recorded and stage music, he wrote… “I am a frank barbarian, with Victor Herbert as about the upper limit of my real appreciation.” Victor Herbert (1859-1924) was the USA’s first accomplished composer for musical theatre. Mostly known now for a few enduring songs such as “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” (1910). Some of his operetta work is interesting re: Lovecraft, such as his… “wonderful and terrifying children’s operatic dreamscape”, Babes in Toyland (1903, music only). Though regrettably Babes has never been filmed in any form resembling the 1903 stage original (“Alan and Jane are abandoned in the Forest of No Return. In the Spider’s Den, they are protected by the Moth Queen. [In Toyland] the Master Toymaker is an evil genius who creates toys that kill and maim.”). After the First World War, Herbert swung behind the nation’s changing tastes and wrote straight musical comedies with simpler songs and tunes. I imagine Lovecraft liked both phases of Herbert’s work, but his use of the phrase “upper limit” might appear to indicate that he had enjoyed Herbert’s rather more complex operettas of the pre-war period. Yet he mentions Babes in Toyland as a youthful memory, in a letter to Morton of 1932.
* Lovecraft valued patriotic British songs, and for him… “”Tipperary” or “Rule Britannia” has infinitely more emotional appeal than [classical music]”. He refers here to the famous “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary / Pack Up Your Troubles…” song.
* He heard and enjoyed singing in the context of a seasonal townscape, for instance attending Christmas carol-singing… “at the old Truman Beckwith mansion” on College Hill in Providence.
* He apparently approved of Chopin, or at least he expressed murmurs of approval when the enthusiastic music student Gaplin played him some on a gramophone. He also saw light opera on the stage (or, as ‘light’ as opera gets) in the form of Katinka (1915). I imagine that was probably attended in the company of his aunts. There were doubtless many other such visits, to other local popular shows.
* Although he had at first disliked it passing, during his early boyhood, when older Lovecraft was genuinely stirred by the sweeping music of Wagner. He had an excellent opportunity to hear Wagner in New York City when he saw Fritz Lang’s Siegfried in 1925. Though this was seen in a cinema specially-equipped for the lush Wagnerian sound, Lovecraft felt he wasn’t able to appreciate the music fully due to his lack of training in understanding its subtleties and meanings. “The conventional grand opera goes over okay with Grandpa [i.e. Lovecraft], & Dick Wagner (whose Ride of the Valkyries I was privileg’d to hear) is just about my idea of emotion as derivable from sound.”
* He would, of course, have heard a great deal of incidental stage and feature film music over the years. The most memorable of which was likely pointing up some aspect of the macabre, mysterious or fantastical as it flickered across the silver screen.
* He would hum and whistle on walks, which was once a very common and accepted practice. He wrote… “It is impossible for me to whistle out of tune, or to miss notes by sharping or battening them. Whatever I do hum, I hum with the mathematical precision of a well-tuned piano. Rhythm, also.” And, writing to Kleiner… “today I hum & whistle the stuff you despise so much as played on your relative’s phonograph”. The once-common practice of outright singing while walking appears to have totally passed away in the Anglosphere by the 1920s, at least for lone walkers. Even humming and whistling is not ‘done’ today, and strikes us as eccentric and a sign of likely madness. But humming and whistling would have been acceptable in the 1920s, and probably even welcomed on the sleepy back-roads of New England. It would have rather politely served to alert people of his imminent arrival, while coming toward them along a track or lane.
* He also valued simple music that was integral to landscapes, such as… “sleepy churches whose chimes weave music and magic on Sunday mornings”, and faint music heard from ineffably far-off in an intriguingly indistinct and un-placeable form.
As S.T. Joshi has pointed out, Lovecraft never seems to have become familiar with the music of his beloved 18th century.
Thus, an imaginary “Lovecraft’s Music” 12-track album might look something like:
1. Strange “Zobo” noises, the sliding and zip of bicycle tyres on asphalt, merging into a New England parkland ambiance with the oompah playing of a distant bandstand, then a merry-go-round whirrs up to manic intensity, before a tumble of scraping violins chases away all the outdoor sounds.
2. Fade to indoors ambience. Faint scratchings. A single violin starts, initially halting and hesitant, and sometimes “rats clawing in the walls”-like. Yet it becomes ever more proficient and leads up into the fine if not very professional Mozart solo. This is played in a manner that expresses something of the boy Lovecraft’s loneliness. There is no applause from an audience.
3. Climbing old wooden stairs, a creaking door opens. Something from Babes in Toyland is heard, perhaps the “Toymaker’s Workshop” with its medley of weird workshop noises, suggesting Lovecraft’s time spent in the attic and the whirring of his mind as it comes alive.
4. The uncertainty of the previous track becomes the certainty of a jaunty boyish marching song, this then turning into a wartime “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, which in turn merges into a stirring “Rule Britannia”.
5. Fade into distant carol-singing, the noises of College Hill, the mew of cats, but increasingly echo-y as if in dark tunnels. The echo of the Boston subway, the ding and rumble of trolley-cars. The rumbling becomes more and more ominous and is mixed with anxious “Nyarlathotep”-like crowd-shouts from the disturbed Boston of 1919, then…
6. Siegfried music, and on into the “Ride of the Valkyries”.
7-10. A blended selection from the film music Lovecraft would have heard in the 1920s and 30s.
11. A modern electro-ambient / low-key plaintive interpretation of Victor Herbert’s “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” (1910), evoking his fallow years. Delightfully mewing kitties pad softly into and around the music.
12. … fading to a Virginia Astley (From Gardens Where We Feel Secure) -like soundscape of New England summer lanes, the sound of a man humming precisely a lively marching tune as he crunches down a path, against the call of distant bells and ever more indistinct far-off sounds as the man walks into the distance. Sounds of night coming on, a cosmic whisper of stars, distant whip-poor-wills call, and then the distant meowrrr-ing of a grimalkin Ulthar-cat is heard.