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The Bloomfield Collection in Brighton provides a unique insight into Browning's musicianship. In the Collection are some 400 items of music belonging to the poet himself, and to his father, his sister Sarianna, and his son Pen. Ranging in date from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, they tell the story of a lifelong interest and enthusiasm nurtured on the popular composers and arrangers of the Regency, and developing into an appreciation of the music of his contemporaries, especially Chopin and Schumann.
Browning's music reveals many familiar names, some gaps, and a few surprises. We can follow his musical education and trace some distinct phases in his repertoire from the time before his marriage to the pieces he played in Italy and the new direction he took after the death of Elizabeth Barrett. We can form some appreciation of his taste and ability as a performer and appreciate how well versed he was in the theoretical and technical aspects of music - tonality, modulation, counterpoint, harmony - from which as a poet he drew so many of his most characteristic images. We are able to hear the pieces he was playing alongside the poems on music and musicians.
The Bloomfield Collection, which comprises approximately 15,000 books, manuscripts, prints, and incunabula, was bequeathed to Brighton Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery in 1916. Leopold Bloomfield, the owner of a firm which made military headgear, was a general collector with a special interest in English and French literature, illustrated and first editions, and fine bindings. At the Browning sale at Sotheby's in 1913 he bought 26 lots, consisting mainly of inscribed volumes from the Brownings' library, with some manuscripts of Robert Browning senior. Lot 362, sold as three parcels, was listed by the auctioneers as consisting of specific keyboard works by Bach and Mozart (Collections A1697 and A1707) plus `a large quantity of music, many pieces being presentation copies from the composers'.(1) The music belonging to, or associated with, the Brownings is now gathered Into various bindings and fascicles, its condition ranging from mint to worn and tattered. Bloomfield bound the sheet music Into folio volumes, roughly sorted according to type and provenance, numbering the pages throughout and sometimes adding an index at the front. In this he was following the practice of Browning's father who bound and Indexed his music (see, for example, A1709). Some of the pieces in the Bloomfield Collection are inscribed and dated, and several bear annotations such as fingering, tempi, dynamics, ornamentation, pedal marks, and other aids to practice and performance. Unfortunately, some parts of inscriptions were lost when the music was trimmed for binding.
The twenty-six volumes of music in the Bloomfield Collection can be arranged in an approximate chronological and thematic sequence, beginning before Browning's birth and ending with some of the many settings and arrangements of his work presented to him in the last years of his life.
Music of Robert Browning senior
Browning's parents both enjoyed playing the piano and singing. Although his first memory is of his mother's playing, we know little of what she played beyond Avison's `March', and there is no music that is identifiably hers in the Bloomfield Collection. Browning's father liked the virtuosi pioneers of pianistic writing, Dussek, Clementi, and Cramer, as well as elegant new composers such as Moscheles and Herz. Hummel, Field, and Kalkbrenner were the major composers for the piano in the generation before Chopin. Earlier composers survive in arrangements and recensions and as popular airs and songs. There is a good representation of contemporary music, mainly vocal and operatic, from once-popular British composers.
As children, both Robert and Sarianna learned to play the simpler piano pieces their father owned, though later Sarianna seems to have preferred songs and piano arrangements of songs. Robert also had lessons tn violin, cello, and voice.(2) The whole family could throw themselves into ad hoc arrangements and medleys. Both father and son developed their keyboard technique with exercises by Clementi and learnt their music theory from Hudl's tables. Two pieces by John Abel add to the little we know about Robert Browning senior's friend and the poet's one-time teacher, `my old piano-forte master, Abel', as Browning remembered him many years later.(3) There are also two pieces by Relfe, the Great John Relfe, [vertical bar] Master of mine, learned, redoubtable', who was the young Browning's tutor in composition and theory.(4) Much of this music is worn, marked, and annotated, …