Richard York brings Victorian song to Keats House

Expect to find a hurdy-gurdy, a harmonium, and Northumbrian smallpipes at his performance on December 17

‘Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter’, wrote John Keats in a poem that doesn’t mark his card as one of history’s keenest concert-goers.

But he did sing at soirees, where his party-piece was imitating a bassoon (they knew how to have fun in those days) and he apparently wrote a poem to the rhythms of a Mozart melody, though no one can be certain what it was. Perhaps an aria from Don Giovanni.

As musical pedigrees go, it’s not hugely impressive but enough to justify the odd music event in Keats House, Hampstead. So next week there’s to be a whole afternoon of music as part of the House’s Christmas festivities.

In residence will be Richard York, an expert on old instruments who demonstrates how they work and will be bringing along a selection ranging from Keats’ own time through to later, Victorian music-making.

Expect to find a hurdy-gurdy, a harmonium, and Northumbrian smallpipes - which were variants on bagpipes used by gentlefolk in urban fantasies of leading pastoral lives as shepherds, milkmaids and the like.

But the show-stopper will probably be a button accordion with dancing jig-doll: a puppet attached by string to the performer’s knee which, according to York ‘reduces quite intelligent people to helpless mirth’’.

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Having started as a classical pianist, he’s been doing this kind of historical interpretation work for more than 20 years, tracking down repertory from sources like the English Folk Song & Dance Society, and with tunes that are sometimes bowdlerised versions of music you can trace back to Handel or Purcell.

That much of what he’ll play is more Victorian than Keatsian (the poet died in 1821) will still fit comfortably in Keats House which, as seen today, is largely a Victorianised building.

As the curator, Mike Scott, insists, ‘we aren’t just a memorial to Keats; we’re a celebration of literature and the arts in general, and events like this Victorian parlour-music afternoon are part of our outreach work. The fun part’.

As it happens, Keats House has a definite link with music dating from its occupancy in the mid/late 19th Century by a piano manufacturer called Cadby - one of whose instruments has found its way back into the house, still vaguely in performing shape.

‘I want more music in the House’, says Scott, ‘and there are plans – which, as the biggest room here only holds just over 40, will mean using the garden. Fortunately we have good relations with our neighbours’.

Even with bassoon impersonations, Richard York’s Victorian music-making shouldn’t give them too much to complain about. He’s there on December 17 from 1pm to 5pm with presentations through the afternoon.

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