On Englishness 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 tunebooks of John Malchair (1730-1812). She is now Research Associate at the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments and a Junior Research Fellow in Music/History at Corpus Christi College.


Why were there so few publications of English national music in the eighteenth century?

It has always interested me that while there are hundreds of eighteenth-century publications of ‘national music’ for Scotland, and certainly tens for Wales and Ireland, there is barely a handful for England. This is especially the case when looking at collections of printed melodies rather than lyrics.

While there were certainly English-composed and English-style tunes in use and circulating in England in the eighteenth century, collecting and publishing there tended to focus on the ‘foreign’, particularly the Scottish, Welsh and Irish. The outpouring of collections of Scottish tunes (as well as poetry and history) from the Scottish press, most notably by Allan Ramsay, has been presented by Matthew Gelbart as a direct consequence of the 1707 Acts of Union between England and Scotland, with such outputs seemingly part of an attempt to make clear Scotland’s cultural independence from England (Gelbart, 2007: 29; Gelbart, 2012: 82).

That the publication focus in England was on non-English music supports the idea that it was fascination with an exotic ‘other’ that drove the printing of collections of music perceived as foreign. But was there even such a thing as a distinct English national identity in that period?

Joanna de Groot has shown that the concept of a ‘nation’ emerged as a new feature of history writing in the early modern period, associated with state and dynastic power and the construction of a shared history and culture. In Britain, especially after 1707, this means that the changing relationships between the dominant English, and the Welsh, Scottish and Irish residents of the ‘British’ Isles, were particularly significant for the writing of ‘national’ histories in Britain (Groot, 201: 9, 45–46).

Colin Kidd has argued that what emerged after 1707 was not a new kind of British identity, but an Anglo-British identity in which the English were primary (Kidd, 1996: 373; see also Kumar, 2003: 155). As such, there was no need for the English to develop distinctly national cultural, social, political or artistic expression in the way that was seen as necessary elsewhere by Ramsay and others.

Instead, the English seem to have moved in two directions simultaneously, both of which were different from what was taking place in Scotland, Wales and Ireland respectively: either the English identified with a larger ‘British’ identity, to the extent that England and Britain almost became synonyms, or they retreated inwards, focusing on regional or local identities. Linda Colley described both of these trends when she wrote of patriotism and nationalist history bringing British people together against the common enemy of France, even while they maintained local identities (Colley, 2009; first published 1995: 372). Likewise, writing in the same year (1995), Eric Evans argued that, ‘The quest for a distinctively English, as opposed to a British, identity in this period is, in fact, one that will prove fruitless. ‘British’ is the dominant descriptor of patriotic identification; and at any level more local than that of ‘Britain’, the English were more likely to identify with their own regions and localities than with the whole country of England per se’ (Evans, 1995: 232).

Other authors have tended to fall on one side or the other, with John M. MacKenzie focusing on the local, pointing out that following the principles of the four-nation approach to their natural conclusion would reveal not only four nations, but perhaps five, six, or seven distinct ethnic identities to consider, including areas such as Cornwall and Yorkshire, and cities like Liverpool which had both an imperial outlook and large populations of people from other nations, such as Ireland (MacKenzie, 2010: 136).

Meanwhile, Krishan Kumar has focused on the overarching British identity, arguing that it was only because Scotland, Ireland and Wales were junior partners in Great Britain that they needed a secondary identity – as a kind of compensation. Had the English developed their own national identity, dissent from Great Britain might have logically followed, thus the English fastened attention on the notion of ‘Great Britain’ and the British Empire, which is why ‘it is so hard to find expressions of English nationalism in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries – whether in political and social thought, literary and artistic culture, or popular movements’ (Kumar, 2003: 179 and 184).

Although none of these authors (with the exception of Matthew Gelbart) has written specifically about music or the publication of tunes in the eighteenth century, the absence of expressions of interest in Englishness is as noticeable in eighteenth-century cultural activity as it is in social and political contexts.

Reference list
Colley, Linda. (2009; first published 1995). Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, Revised edition. New Haven Conn; London: Yale University Press.

de Groot, Joanna. (2013). Empire and History Writing in Britain c.1750-2012. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Evans, Eric. (1995). ‘Englishness and Britishness: National Identities, c.1790-c.1870’, in Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History, ed. by Alexander Grant and Keith J Stringer London and New York: Routledge. 223–43.

Gelbart, Matthew. (2007). The Invention of Folk Music and Art Music: Emerging Categories from Ossian to Wagner, New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gelbart, Matthew. (2012) ‘Allan Ramsay, the Idea of “Scottish Music” and the Beginnings of “National Music” in Europe’, Eighteenth-Century Music, 9.1, 81–108.

Kidd, Colin. (1996). ‘North Britishness and the Nature of Eighteenth-Century British Patriotisms’, The Historical Journal, 39.2. 361–82.

Kumar, Krishan. (2003). The Making of English National Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacKenzie, John M. (2010). ‘Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English Worlds? The Historiography of a Four-Nations Approach to the History of the British Empire’, in Race, Nation and Empire: Making Histories, 1750 to the Present, ed. by Catherine Hall and Keith McClelland. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. 133–53.

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