National Music, Folk Music, And Street Music In Eighteenth-Century Oxford

A dive into the tunebooks of the German-born Oxford music collector John Malchair.

'Stepney Cakes and Ale', collected by Malchair from the 'Dancing Master', reproduced by the author.
‘Stepney Cakes and Ale’, collected by Malchair from the ‘Dancing Master’, reproduced by the author.
 screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-08-50-56          By Alice Little

I’ve cheated a bit with that title – I actually want to write about only one body of repertoire, but in the years I’ve been studying this subject I still haven’t found a single adjective that covers the music I work on.

In fact, I don’t even have a word for the subject I study. I’ve moved from the History Faculty at the University of Oxford, through an MSc in Material Anthropology and Museum Ethnography (which included Ethnomusicology), to the Music Faculty, but I think I’m really studying the history of collecting. I’m now in the second year of my DPhil, and my thesis goes by the working title ‘The tunebooks of J. B. Malchair, Oxford c.1770-1812’ – vague enough to avoid naming the contents of those tunebooks.

Born in Cologne, John Malchair (1730-1812) was a drawing master and professional musician, who came to England at age 24 where he led the Oxford Music Room band between 1760 and 1792 – retiring after his violin was broken by an orange thrown from the audience during a student fracas. Concerts were hazardous places in those days: for example, in 1773 the audience was asked not to allow dogs to wander into the Music Room; in 1787 audiences at the Sheldonian Theatre were instructed to refrain from requesting encores so that the performances could progress; and in Edinburgh there was a prohibition on throwing things at the band. Malchair’s violin was broken, according to a letter by witness John Guard, ‘in the midst of such an uproar as I never heard before at any place of public entertainment’.

Malchair collected tunes in his spare time – though also ‘necessary busness was at times incrotched uppon when the fitt of collecting grew Violent’. He collected at least four volumes of tunes, although only Volumes III and IV remain extant, the latter being titled ‘The Arrangement’. Malchair’s collection today is preserved in three manuscript tunebooks: two pocket-sized notebooks in his own handwriting which together contain 847 tunes, and a further 90 tunes in a larger volume compiled by his friend William Crotch from Malchair’s playing – after Malchair’s sight began to fail in the mid-1790s – alongside others published by Crotch in Specimens of Various Styles of Music in 1807.

Members of Boldwood play ‘La Fete De Village’, printed on a dance fan in the Ashmolean museum, 1789, in the BBC’s adaptation of Poldark:

Most tunebooks of this era were used by musicians as memory aids, and often contained tunes played for dancing alongside the melodies of church hymns. Malchair’s two extant tunebooks are different to this in both content and function. Rather than containing tunes he played and learned from fellow musicians, they form a consciously-made collection, with which he aimed to showcase the best music of a range of nations. He often gave full provenance for tunes and included an introduction to the collection, which together hint at his motivation and methods. From this information we learn that, in addition to seeking out old tunes from books, Malchair received music via letters sent from contacts in different locations, and scribbled down melodies played by street musicians.

But what kind of music are they?

National Music

The tunes are labeled (in Volume III) and grouped (in Volume IV) by nation. There are tunes from fourteen nations in all: England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Norway, Turkey, Scandinavia, China, Virginia, the West Indies, and Persia. Malchair’s introduction to Volume IV, and his choice of arrangement of the tunes into national groups, suggests that he believed the music should be categorised according to its national character (as he perceived it) rather than its geographical origin as we would do today. Thus, for instance, he included tunes that we would today call ‘Scottish’ or ‘English’ in the ‘Irish’ section of his book, and vice versa.

His concern for national groupings makes clear that Malchair’s collection is one of ‘national music’. But ‘national music’ is not what Malchair himself called it: he refers instead to ‘English Tunes’, ‘Scottish Tunes’, ‘Irish Tunes’ or ‘Welsh Tunes’, as well as ‘old tunes’, ‘The Music of our ancesters’, ‘Cunning Music’, ‘admirable tunes’, ‘music of antient times’ and ‘the old Melodies’ – in contrast to ‘Elegant Moderne Music’.

The first person to refer to Malchair’s collection as one of ‘national music’ was William Crotch, when later acknowledging the help he’d had from Malchair (who ‘has made National Music his study’) in putting together Specimens of Various Styles of Music.

So should I refer to Malchair’s collection as ‘national music’ if he never referred to it as such himself?

We can justify this in two ways: firstly by assuming that he did in fact refer to it as such, but that there are simply no references to this that have survived to the present day. After all, we only have two of his tunebooks; and his introduction to Volume IV, at 1,697 words, is only about the same length as this blog post. Secondly, we might conclude that, for Malchair, the fact that his collection was one of ‘national music’ simply went without saying at a time when concerns for the ‘national’ permeated discourse, both politically and culturally.

In either case we can be in no doubt that Malchair would have understood the phrase, being well-read and in regular communication with other musicians and in particular with William Crotch, who seems to have taken it for granted that the phrase ‘national music’ accurately described Malchair’s collection. A quick search of ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online, a searchable repository of digitised books from the eighteenth century) reveals use of the phrase ‘national music’ in print from at least 1755, and of ‘national song’ since at least 1719.

Malchair collected the tune to the song ‘Roast Beef’, grouping it among the Irish tunes, although it was composed by English playwright Henry Fielding in 1731 for ‘The Grub Street Opera’, then made popular in a new setting by Richard Leveridge.

So if we accept that Malchair probably thought of his collection as one of ‘national music’, why have I muddied the waters by calling it ‘folk music’ and ‘street music’?

Folk Music

I often refer to Malchair’s collection in conversation as one of ‘folk music’ because outside of a handful of people in the Music Faculty it is the quickest way to describe what I’m studying. However, the phrase ‘folksong’ was only invented in 1773 (by Gottfried Herder in his Essay on Ossian) and didn’t come into regular usage in English during the eighteenth century at all – according to another search on ECCO.

However, in its twenty-first century form, the phrase ‘folk music’ describes how the tunes that Malchair collected are viewed by musicians today. The majority of the tunes in Malchair’s tunebooks are country dance tunes, and many he copied out from publications such as Playford’s Dancing Master (first published 1651), which Malchair viewed in the Ashmolean Library – now part of the Bodleian. Malchair wrote in his introduction to Volume IV that ‘many of them are so uncommonly beautyful as to captivate the most refined Eare, they are, it is true, involved in a crowde of Vulgarityes but it is well worth the trouble of fighting through that mob in order to save them from oblivion.’

The Playfords, and later publishers such as Allan Ramsay in Edinburgh and George Thompson in London, were making a profit by putting down in print tunes that were in general circulation among musicians at the time, whether the tunes of songs, melodies played for dancing in assembly halls, or taken from the works of known composers, or the arias of the most popular operas.

Though the term ‘folk’ existed in certain musical contexts in the eighteenth century, Malchair and his contemporaries would not have used this word, and could hardly have predicted that the repertoire these publishers brought together in print would later become the bread and butter of the instrumental folk music world two centuries later.

‘Beggar Boy’ was Malchair’s ‘most favourite’ tune –  he said of it that ‘this Melodie is admirabely calculated to rise compassion and has in it the Pure Voice of Nature’.

Street Music

And why ‘street music’? If the phrase ‘folk music’ is anachronistic, perhaps ‘street music’ would be more appropriate, as it locates the music Malchair collected in a physical place and among real people.

Malchair records in detail where he found some of his tunes, and while the majority are from printed collections, there are a handful with much more lively provenance. For example, he recorded three tunes ‘written down from hearing them playd by an Irish Piper and Fidler at Oxford. May 15 – 1784’, one that he heard ‘Played by a Piedernontese Girl on a Cymbal in Oxford Streets, December 22 1784’, and another ‘From the Singing of a Poor Woman and two femal Children Oxford May 15 1784’.

In addition to revealing his sources, these marginalia also give us some insight into his methods. While Malchair was known for carrying his sketchbook with him, it is clear that he did not only collect tunes when he was thus prepared and, one day, ‘heard a Man whistle this tune in Magpey Lane Oxon Dbre 22 1789. came home and noted it down directly.’

Malchair also collected songs from friends, both from live singing and sent to him by letter. Many of his contacts were university men such as ‘the Honble Mr Linsey of Baliol Coll. Oxon.’ and ‘Mr Cunningham of Christ Ch. Oxon.’; and although he was opportunistic, such as when he noted down a tune he ‘heard a man sing in Harlech Castle’, he also actively pursued repertoire, as is implied by his comment that one tune was ‘Noted down from having it sung to me’, presumably at Malchair’s request, by another acquaintance.

Since Malchair collected only a handful of tunes from the street, and a handful more from the singing of friends, can I really refer to the collection as one of ‘street music’? Practically speaking, while not all of his collecting was done on the street, it is likely that many of the tunes he collected were known by people in and around the streets of Oxford. If the tunes he collected from live performance are also to be found in historic printed collections, we can assume that the reverse was also true – that many of those tunes he took from printed music collections were actively being played, sung, and even whistled on the streets of Oxford in the 1780s and 90s, when Malchair collected the bulk of his tunes.

This aspect of Malchair’s collecting practice is of particular interest to me, because most historical commentators place the start of this process in the mid-nineteenth century. By collecting from life, whether from friends, performers or street musicians, Malchair was collecting in a way that has not yet been written about for the eighteenth century, and whatever we call his repertoire – national, folk, or street music – it is his methods and activities as a collector that make him and his work a fascinating subject to study.

Read more about early music on Corymbus:

A New Revolution In Music: Gossec’s Sabinus

Alice is a DPhil candidate in the Faculty of Music at Oxford University; she holds the Hélène La Rue Scholarship in Music at St Cross College. Her doctoral work explores collectors and collections of music in the eighteenth century. In the past she was Assistant Curator of Musical Instruments at the Horniman Museum, and has also worked at the British Museum, the Museum of the Royal Military School of Music, and at the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter