The Victorians had a great love for exotic cultural exploration, no doubt an outgrowth of Britain’s imperial expansion all over the world. Amateur scholars and adventurers sailed off to far-flung tropical islands to observe the curious habits, mores, and rituals of the natives, whom they generally considered uncivilized savages.
One such cultural explorer was the musician and author Arnold Safroni-Middleton, also known as Count Safroni. Safroni-Middleton was born in South London, England, in 1873. According to family reminiscences, based on his own accounts, he ran away to sea when he was still a boy and landed in Brisbane, Australia. He survived by playing his violin on the streets. Later, he stowed away on a ship bound for Samoa. Playing his violin allegedly saved him from being devoured by Samoan cannibals.
The somewhat more sober account of his life, according to Safroni-Middleton’s obituary, is that he went to Dulwich College and became a professional violinist who played in orchestras and as a soloist all over the world. But he did have a keen sense of adventure, and there is no doubt that he had an opportunity to steep himself in the exotica of the South Sea islands. Those experiences resulted in a number of memoirs and novels set in the South Pacific, many with examples of “native” music composed by Safroni-Middleton himself. Distributed Proofreaders volunteers have posted five of these novels to Project Gutenberg, and a sixth is in the works. Several include links to audio files of Safroni-Middleton’s music.
In Sailor and Beachcomber (1915), he tells the tale of running away to Australia and fetching up in Samoa. He has romances with native girls and hobnobs with Robert Louis Stevenson, who had settled in Samoa in 1890. Ever the musician, Safroni-Middleton provides the music for a couple of native songs that he says “had the Western note in them” — they certainly do, if his transcriptions are any indication. After an interlude tramping through the Australian bush, he is off to San Francisco, where he plays the violin at a raucous (and dangerous) “high-class dancing saloon” before returning to Australia for more adventures.
The sequel, A Vagabond’s Odyssey (1916), opens with Safroni-Middleton sleeping on the floor of a derelict attic in New England, but determined to become a great violinist. After various vicissitudes (including a stint selling bug powder), wanderlust strikes him again, and he finds himself in the South Seas once more. In this book, he purports to transcribe some Samoan dances that sound suspiciously like Victorian parlor music, such as a “Tribal Waltz” that he claims was played by a “barbarian orchestra”:
Wine-Dark Seas and Tropic Skies (1918), Safroni-Middleton’s third memoir, brings us back to Sydney, Australia, where, at 16, he finds himself stranded for the fourth time. He makes the rounds of the Marquesas, Fiji, and other islands. On the way, he becomes fascinated with a young “half caste” girl, Waylao, whose mesmerizing dance Safroni-Middleton transcribes as a waltz not too different from the one in his previous book.
In yet another memoir, South Sea Foam (1920; in progress at Distributed Proofreaders), he casts himself as a “a modern Don Quixote in the southern seas.” Stranded (again) in Sydney, he heads to Samoa and the Marquesas. The time frame is a bit fuzzy, as he seems to be elaborating on some of the ground already covered in earlier memoirs, but it’s still a rollicking adventure. It features music for a lively Marquesan dance that, like his other “South Sea” music, has a distinctly Western European flavor.
Safroni-Middleton turned to fiction in Gabrielle of the Lagoon (1919), a romantic tale set in the Solomon Islands about a British adventurer (who, not surprisingly, is also a violinist) and a beautiful young “three-quarter caste” girl. Another mixed-race beauty is the love interest in the novel Sestrina (1920).
These are just a handful of Safroni-Middleton’s works. He was a prolific writer who even delved into the realm of science fiction. And he was an equally prolific composer, with a number of waltzes and marches under his belt. His best-known musical work is “Imperial Echoes,” which became famous through its use on the BBC Radio Newsreel for many years.