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A Historical Survey of English Dance Tune Manuscripts and Printed Books, and where to find them


Since dancing was a very popular leisure activity, and the industry around it both culturally and economically valuable, encompassing music publishers, professional and semi-professional musicians, peripatetic dancing masters;  and the assembly rooms, tavern rooms, and dancing booths at fairs;  nevertheless being an apparently frivolous and inconsequential pastime it has not left many historical accounts of itself. Mostly these are incidental, in the form of newspaper reports, letters, diaries,  anecdotes, court records, poems, mentions in histories of pleasure gardens, and some illustrations.  Collection and study of all this will eventually yield a coherent account of the various classes of revellers, and the context of their dancing and music making.

Previous scholars

There have been one or two scholars in the past with an interest in this direction.

-       John Malchair (1730-1812) (biog) was an avid tune collector well before his time, collecting over 900 melodies into four manuscript volumes, one of which is held at the Vaughan Wiliams Memorial Library.  He is being studied by Alice Little as part of her DPhil in Music at Oxford University.

-          William Chappell (1809-1888) (biog) First published in 1838 as " A Collection of National English Airs" and then expanded in 1855 into  "Popular Music of the Olden Time" (at IMSLP acc. 20-10-2017) this work was the most significant contribution to the field in the nineteenth century. The fact of it being still in print at the present time is an indication of its worth .

-   Frank Kidson (1855-1926) (biog) in Leeds collected a prodigious amount of both manuscripts and  printed books, producing many articles for Grove's Dictionary of Music , and his book British Music Publishers* is the survey of the firms producing dance music for popular consumption that is the essential starting point for any study of the subject.

-  Anne Gilchrist (1863-1954) (biog) During the first half of the twentieth century  in the North West of England, produced a series of essays on tunes, for the EFDSS and others.

-  Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) (biog) And there was C# of course, though he took the view that Eighteen century and later music and dance didn't grow unaided out of the English countryside, but was the result of upper class, or even worse, foreign fashion and therefore not of relevance to his Folk interests.

-  P.J.S.Richardson (1875-1963) (biog) In the middle twentieth century P.J.S. Richardson, President of the Official Board of Ballroom Dancing produced the most straightforward, though little known, guide to the subject - "The Social Dances of the Nineteenth Century in England", which also covered the earlier origins of social dance.

-   EASMES (Early American Secular Music and it's European Sources). In the late twentieth century Robert M. Keller, Raoul F. Camus, Kate Van Winkle Keller, and Susan Cifaldi compiled a title index of English dance tunes,

-    Some modern research is listed on the Folkopedia website here .

Usefulness of paper records

One  way for melody to persist is in the memory, where it is at liberty to mutate, under pressure from both external cultural influences, such as changes in dance fashions for example, but not least from internal creativity; and this is fundamental to the evolution of culture. Unfortunately it is difficult to access directly what goes on in people's minds, particularly if we want to investigate the seventeenth century! However, written music notation means that every now and then a moment in the evolution of a tune gets recorded on paper.

Beginning in 1651 with Playford, and continuing through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries, the major publishers of English dance directions with their tunes were Walsh, Johnson, Thompson, Wilson, Preston and others, many of which the Village Music Project volunteers have transcribed.

a chart

In for example John GRAY; Twenty Four Country Dances for the Year 1812, (with proper tunes and directions for each dance as they may be performed at Court, Bath, and all Public Assemblys) (image courtesy of Katie Howson ) (link).  It may have been both the first and the final moments of a hack's hopeful offering, but sometimes it was the springboard to greater fame!

        image of the front cover of Thomas Gray's Book

A popular work of the period, like John Johnson's Choice Collection of Favorite (200) Country Dances. Vol.5 ; London: 1750; (link)

would contain a mixture of new and old material.

a tune

I should have shown a tune that became popular, but this does illustrate the unfortunate fact that most of the tunes in these books were, and remained despite their interesting titles, of varying quality and obscure.

Music publishing firms, or music shops, and even a few dancing masters would typically produce what they hoped would become annual collections of 24 country dances with tunes, some made up for the occasion, others found out in the wild. When a sufficient number had accumulated they would be reissued as a volume of 200. In this fashion Thompson eventually printed six volumes, Walsh at least six, and Johnson eight, etc. Playford, first in the field, was more haphazard, his Volume One ran to eighteen different editions, eventually accumulating 535 tunes, and there were a further two large separate volumes in the series. Frank Kidson's work on the subject can be found here.

And of course there were musicians' personal handwritten music manuscript books, of varying sizes, each consisting of one particular musician's choice of tunes, also many of which have been transcribed by the VMP, as in COOPER/COWPER,Thomas MS, (c1770  of Dufton, near Appleby, Westmorland). (link)

an image of the cover of Thomas Cowpers manuscript

Improving Access 

These were ephemera, consumables, mostly only of interest to the musicians who used them, and usually dispensed with as having no intrinsic value once they were overtaken by new fashions, so despite having been produced in such quantities over such a long period of time there is surprisingly little of it remaining, and what remains has not been very visible.

Although there is material to be had in archives, and selections have occasionally been published, most of it, with rare exceptions,  has only been available if you wanted to see it in unabridged form, by locating, visiting and handling the actual copy in the library where it is kept. Consequently it has been little visited beyond a small number of researchers, almost literally gathering dust, and little regarded even by musicians.

The digital age has changed all that and made it possible, from the late 1990s onwards, for more and more of it to be made available online, both as facsimile images and as transcriptions.

It would be pointless providing internet resources if they remained scattered and hard to find. Surfing for arcane material on the internet, though faster than visiting physical libraries, can still be a little like finding a needle in a haystack if you don't already know what you're looking for, and since the sort of material that interests me, and I hope, other musicians, exists in scattered websites I thought it would be useful to provide a portal. To this end I constructed three lists, held on John Adams' Folkopedia Wiki.
The first page is a list of all the tune books containing mainly tunes from the English repertoire printed since 1900 (fewer than 200 of these, mostly out of print)
The second is a list of tune books printed prior to 1900 (about 300 of these),_some_of_which_are_available_on_the_internet
And the third is a list of all the manuscript books I could find or hear about that contain  music of interest (about 300 of these, I suspect there are as many again)
On those Folkopedia pages I have provided links where there is an online source which will enable closer examination of the  material. Many of those links point to the Village Music Project files.

The Village Music Project

Over the last twenty years we at the VMP have been identifying, and obtaining photocopies of, historical tune collections, and producing transcriptions of them. Our first website went live in 1998. 

A volunteer  transcribes the chosen collection into Chris Walshaw's  ABC Music Notation language, another volunteer, sometimes myself, checks it for errors, and then I prepare it for publication on the website, sourcing an introduction and a little biography to go along with it if I can. We believe there is value in providing everything that a musician cared to put in his book, in order to give a full  picture of his musical landscape.

We have so far provided transcriptions of over 5,000 tunes from  printed collections, and 6,000 tunes from manuscript collections,  a Grand Total of over 11,000 tunes!

These transcriptions then get downloaded and used by musicians and publishers of tunebooks, (for which we are always grateful when we receive the credit!); and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, courtesy of Laura Smyth and David Jacobs, have used some of them on the VWML website

Other websites

The Village Music Project, of which I am co-director and co-founder (with John Adams) and transcript editor, is not the only online repository of English dance tunes.

Other major collections are the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website already mentioned

John Chambers' website
Chris Walshaw's ABCnotation website provides links to others
Andrew Kuntz at the Traditional Tune Archive (which was formerly The Fiddler's Companion), is interested in individual tunes from all around the North Atlantic and their histories

Chris Partington,  27/10/17

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