John Malchair’s categories of music: Welsh, Irish, Scotch by Alice Little

Alice Little recently completed her DPhil in Music at Oxford University, focusing on music collecting in eighteenth-century England, and particularly the collection of John Malchair (1730-1812). She is now Research Associate at the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments and a Junior Research Fellow at Corpus Christi College.
The artist and musician John Malchair (1730-1812) lived in Oxford from 1760, where he made a collection of ‘national music’. He copied melodies from books, notated tunes sung to him by friends, and occasionally wrote down tunes he heard performed by street musicians.

In collecting ‘national music’, not only was Malchair collecting those tunes he considered ‘uncommonly beautiful […] in order to save them from oblivion’, he also wanted to showcase the characters of Welsh, Irish, and Scottish music. He expressed this desire when he wrote in his introduction to his manuscript tunebook, ‘The Arrangement’, ‘It is only from an attentive inspection of the collective body that a compleate Idea of the whole can be obtained.’ (‘The Arrangement’, fols 4 and 2-2v, Royal College of Music, GB-Lcm MS 2091.)

‘The Arrangement’ was completed in 1795, and in it he ‘arranged’ the tunes in his first three tunebooks into three categories: Welsh Tunes, Irish Tunes, and Scotch Tunes. Although he created a title page for English Tunes, he included no music in this section, though it can be argued that some of the tunes he collected might have been better categorised as such. In any case, it is clear that he eventually abandoned the idea of completing this fourth section, as he entitled the book ‘The Arrangement, Being an Extract of the Welsh, Irish, and Scotch Tunes contain’d in the foregoing Vols, & placed in separate classes’.

Discourse on national characteristics was commonplace in the mid-eighteenth century. For instance, in 1748 the Scottish thinker David Hume wrote about what has become known as the nature-nurture debate in his essay Of National Characters, where he argued that the character of a nation is influenced more by the custom, education, and government of a nation’s people than by their place of birth (David Hume, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, new edition (London: printed for A. Millar; and A. Kincaid and A. Donaldson, at Edinburgh, 1758), pp. 119–29). Malchair displays awareness of this notion in his collection, not only grouping tunes into three ‘classes’ but also commenting in the margins where a tune’s style seemed to differ from this categorisation.

While in most cases Malchair’s categorisation of his tunes agrees with that of his source, there are several interesting cases where, while nineteenth-century commentators who saw his work, including William Chappell and John Muir Wood, simply thought Malchair was wrong, I would suggest instead that Malchair was categorising tunes not only by their geographical origins but also by taking into account their stylistic qualities. Such ideas are expressed in Malchair’s introduction to ‘The Arrangement’.

This means that when looking at Malchair’s categorisation of tunes, the label ‘Irish’ can be read as either ‘music from Ireland’ or ‘compositions in the Irish style’. Malchair seems to have appreciated that there were two different ways to use national labels, and I believe he used them in ‘The Arrangement’ in both of these senses at different times. For example, the tune ‘Monk’s March’, collected from Edward Jones’ Relicks of the Welsh Bards, was included by Malchair in the Welsh Tunes section of his manuscript with a marginal note alongside acknowledging it to be ‘Very Irish’ (‘The Arrangement’, p. 7).

Though Malchair’s use of national labels is at times ambiguous, his overall intention in his categorisation is clear: to accurately describe the characters of Welsh, Irish, and Scottish music. In his introduction to ‘The Arrangement’ Malchair wrote that his collection ‘comprehends most probabely all the different characters of Melodie that ever were’ and explained that ‘If therefore a proper portion of time bee diligentely bestowed on any of these classes, then a clear and distinct Idea will areise concerning the character of the Music’ (‘The Arrangement’, fols 2-2v). It is statements such as this that indicate his concern was to categorise his tunes reliably, and which should prevent the modern reader from disregarding his occasional anomalous choices as mere errors.

One Reply to “John Malchair’s categories of music: Welsh, Irish, Scotch by Alice Little”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *