Lear’s musical influences
Lear’s musical influences were many and varied and his own music weaves together strands from multiple sources, including opera, hymn tune, ballad, and comic song.
As a dissenter, Lear was exposed to congregational hymn singing in a way that would not become commonplace in Anglican churches until after 1820. Among the hymns that came back to him from time to time were Joseph Hart’s ‘Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched’ (1759) with its chorus ‘If you tarry till you’re better / You will never come at all’, and Isaac Watts’s ‘There Is a Land of Pure Delight’.
Among the comic songs in his repertoire were Jacob Beuler’s ‘Tea in the Arbour’ and probably ‘Wery Pekooliar or the Lisping Lover’. He also sang Thomas Hudson’s ‘The Cork Leg!’: an astonishing vocal feat for the singer. You can hear these below:
The Cork Leg!
He had Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies at his fingertips and many other folk songs, parlour songs and ballads. Examples of songs we know were familiar to Lear include Moore’s ‘Sappho at her Loom’ from Evenings in Greece, Thomas Haynes Bayly’s ‘Teach, oh Teach Me to Forget!’’ and the ballad, ‘Land of the Stranger’. The common theme of most of these pieces is the power of memory and the emotional price it exacts. In his last illness, in 1887, Lear struggled to recall the lyrics to ‘Land of the Stranger’, a song he associated with happy days in the 1830s spent with the Hornby family. He heard it in his head:
For remembrance is like the compass which guides
The wandering mariner forth
Tho’ the ship may be toss’d by the wind and the tides
The needle still points to the north.
Lear often associated particular sounds or tunes with particular places and people: each had a musical leitmotif. For example, Augusta Bethell was evoked by ‘Les Cloches du Monastère’, a nocturne for piano by Lefébure-Wely that she played beautifully and that imitates a carillon of bells. Music does not merely sing of memory’s compass in Lear’s consciousness: it is that compass. The musical power of reprise in his writing is crucial to the emotional hold it exerts.