Reflections on our RNSN concert of British National Songs 1750-1850: by members of the RNSN

Introduction by Kirsteen McCue (University of Glasgow)

In many ways our RNSN concert on 18 March 2019 was the culmination of our network, though we still have many resources and ‘song stories’ to be added to the website and the project will run until the end of August 2019. The plan, from the start, was to involve some young musicians from the four nations of Britain and to ‘bring the songs to life’. With the help of three network members from England, Ireland and Wales (with myself from Scotland) we put together a programme of National songs from across Britain, also foregrounding some of the most popular ‘British’ songs as they appeared in the century from 1750. The programme is available to download from the website, and this blog (and another blog of reflections from our singers) accompanies a video of the performance itself. I am hugely grateful to everyone who took part and to our colleagues at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland for helping make it all possible as part of the Knowledge Exchange + series of events there.

As you’ll hear, from my introduction, when we planned the event we knew that the workshop with our musicians would take place, perhaps fittingly, on St Patrick’s Day 2019. However, I had no idea that it was the culmination of the Six Nations Rugby Championship on the Saturday (Wales won overall, but there had been a nail-biting draw between England and Scotland) and that Brexit would be looming quite so soon. Indeed, while we were rehearsing on the Monday afternoon, John Bercow announced that he would not receive another ‘meaningful vote’ unless it included substantial changes. Amidst this tense and unpredictable moment, we listened to a wide range of popular National songs as they had appeared in print with music between 1750 and 1850, a century we now think of as full of such moments of national and international tension.

As outlined by the reflections of my colleagues in this blog, the event was a wonderful moment for reflection on the work we’ve been doing. As Oskar notes, there is a real difference between researching these songs and talking about them, and hearing them performed – and a palpable difference also between rehearsing or practicing and rendering in ‘performance’. As some of our young singers explained, there was a sense of national character that came to the fore: an ebullient confidence in our English sea songs; a melancholic vision in the Irish songs; a somewhat chivalric past in the Welsh selection; and a mixture of bravado and pastoral love in the Scottish songs we heard. As Karen notes, there was a tension around the song which opened and closed the show, namely ‘Rule Britannia’! None of our singers (Welsh, Irish and Scottish in national connection) were comfortable with this anthem, but the melody is so rousing and infectious, that they recognised why it had become so popular. For me, in the days after the event, I just couldn’t get away from the haunting melody of ‘The pretty girl milking the cow’ and the soft carolling ‘Ar Hyd y Nos’. I spend much of my time with lyrical text, but one should never underestimate the lasting legacy of the tunes, which have carried these texts for centuries and which still have the power to move the listener. It made me pause, again, on the big questions: what made these songs ‘national’ at the time?; what were publishers aiming for with their numerous editions of these songs?; why were they so loved and enjoyed, and why have so many of them stayed part of our national song repertoire? Our hope is that this performance, alongside our selection of song stories, blogs and other resources will suggest some possible answers!

From Sarah McCleave (Queen’s University, Belfast)

As the member of the RNSN network responsible for programming the Irish portion of the concert, I was struck by the fresh revelations about this ‘national song’ repertory that came to me during the performance. First, all credit to the students and young professionals – some of who were dealing with a kind of repertory relatively unfamiliar to them – for bringing to life a programme that was variously rousing, witty, intriguing, and moving. And to turn this around in two days! My planning for the Irish section was about the logistics: I simply chose previously unrecorded songs that would complement the ‘Song Stories’. What came across in performance was the personality of the Irish songs, which were consistently mournful; two were about emigration, the third about a figure from Irish mythology condemned to a wandering existence in an altered form. The Scottish songs, in contrast, exuded either a rambunctious energy, or a charming humour. The Welsh songs displayed fanciful imagination; the English songs projected a strong sense of values. And there was one British song (‘A tight little island’) that on paper looked rather jingoistic but in performance turned out to be very funny – any alarming meaning had been entirely diffused by the assured performance of baritone Jonathan Kennedy. This ability of music, of the live performance of music, to transform our understanding of each other is my ‘take away’ revelation from this project. Aged 55, engaged with music for over four decades now, and still learning.

From Oskar Cox Jensen (Queen Mary University, London)

I find the rehearsal/performance divide such an interesting split – between concern and catharsis, above all, but also the shift in attention: from preoccupation with detail to the capturing of a whole song in performance; from the life that is breathed by an audience and the distinction that being listened to, rather than merely sung, confers upon a song. It seemed to me, as I have observed on other occasions, that some of the singers and instrumentalists only recognised a given song in that moment of live performance, when palpable affect might take over from hackneyed or generic features of composition, or when comedy or pathos became distinguishing assets rather than barriers to engagement. As an embodied listener, I was most drawn to the kinetic, recognising that a song which, in theory, I disdained or ‘knew’, could still exert its power, enjoining me to stir, tap, move. I discovered some great pieces I hadn’t heard before, and had the enormous treat of hearing and seeing songs I only knew on the page being brought to newly-interpreted life. For the strophic songs, meter emerged as a predictable issue – with singers sometimes sacrificing the sense of the words to a purely musical arranging of the syllables, or tripping over the feet of the poetry. I’d put this down to constraints of accompaniment, and a pedagogical tradition of scoring every line, leaving today’s singers free to concentrate on a higher register of interpretative choice rather than the more mundane question of where the syllables go. But I was also forcefully reminded of something that eighteenth-century writers often banged on about: the great thing is to enunciate the words with this sort of material, even if that means sacrificing a little musicality or vocal tone – a challenge which these singers met superbly.

From Liz Edwards (University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies)

Planning out the Welsh portion of the concert partly came down to accessibility: we needed clear, legible copies of songs that would both sound good in performance and weren’t too difficult to come by. The decision to use only George Thomson’s Welsh Airs was partly strategic – I was keen to get a recording of ‘Morfa Rhuddlan’ for an upcoming ‘Song Story’ – but it also resulted from a desire to programme familiar tunes, which Welsh Airs gives us in the form of Haydn’s arrangements of ‘Llwyn Onn’ and ‘Ar Hyd y Nos’. We had to leave a number of elements to a certain amount of chance. How would the songs really sound in performance with period accompaniment? How far would individual pieces suit the singers’ voices? We needed have worried – the result was pure serendipity, thanks to the skill and commitment of all the performers involved.
On the night, the sheer variety of material on display, and of musical mood, was striking. The little-known and wholly unrecorded ‘The Sea’ – which was, Oscar Cox Jensen reminded us, the most popular song in England for over 20 years – showed the buoyant, theatrical energy of national melody. By contrast, the stunning and still-performed (but perhaps not widely known outside Ireland?) ‘Silent, O Moyle’ revealed the genre’s elegiac reach. The Welsh songs divided listeners, in a way that fittingly reflects some of the controversies around their original production. Some in the audience enjoyed Haydn’s elegant settings, others preferred the tunes in their original format – a difference of opinion that brings to mind Thomson’s own comments in 1817 on ‘how infinitely more interesting those [Welsh] Melodies now are, than in their former bald and bare shape’. The jury is clearly still out.

From Karen McAulay (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)

Having spent a long time looking at national song collections not only during but also subsequent to my doctoral studies, it was a delight to attend a concert at which I could hear some of these songs performed to such a high standard, and with instrumental accompaniments appropriate to the era in which the songs were written.  The balance between voices and keyboard, and the sound in general, is quite different with a fortepiano, not to mention with violin and cello, seldom brought out for song recitals of nineteenth century repertoire today; this was a rare opportunity to experience the live sound in concert, performed by the best of today’s emerging young performers.

These national songs were performed from drawing-room collections and stage settings, and I reflected again that this was the form in which many contemporary listeners of the middling (and upper) classes would have encountered them.  This is not to deny that national songs would also have been enjoyed in less formal settings, perhaps unaccompanied or accompanied only by a fiddle or cello – there has never been only one performance medium for national music!  But it seems to me that a proper understanding of popular late eighteenth and nineteenth century amateur and professional music-making is incomplete without recognising the major role that national songs occupied.

And then we come to ‘Rule Britannia’, which opened and closed the concert in settings from 1750 and 1830.  Did the modern [largely Scottish] audience squirm at the sentiments expressed, particularly given the present political upheavals in March 2019?  Was anyone discomforted at the fact that this now controversial song was even selected for such significant positions in the programme?  I would argue that, just as the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ is recognised as a great piece of music, whether or not one has personal faith, so too does ‘Rule Britannia’ stir its listeners because it is, after all, such a rousingly, thoroughly good tune.  To contemporary listeners of the Georgian and Victorian eras, patriotically proud of what they perceived as their country’s disproportionate world influence, it must have been even more stirring than it is to modern listeners, more sensitive now both to historical inequities and to today’s multi-faceted worldview.  It is surely possible to be moved by good music, well-performed, without having to echo the sentiments originally encompassed by the song in its original context.

From Brianna Robertson-Kirkland (RNSN Research Assistant, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and University of Glasgow)

I already had a little experience of singing this material during the ‘Robert Burns Period Performance project: George Thomson Songs’ but I found a new appreciation for this obscure, domestically-styled repertoire after hearing songs from each of the four nations performed together. While much of the English material was rousing, and very much reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan, who were clearly inspired by these parlour numbers, I was surprised at how differently this repertoire sounded and felt compared to the other three nations. Scots song ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, Irish song ‘Silent O Moyle’ and all three of the Welsh songs shared a definite feeling of melancholy, designed to draw a tear to even the driest eye. Yet, the English repertoire was distinctly old-fashioned, even uncomfortable in places, since it reminded me of the dominating force of this country throughout the 19th century. Perhaps, this is why the English material isn’t as familiar to 21st-century ears compared to songs for the other nations.

The real joy of this project was working with the singers. Though many of these songs are recognisable, the printed notation is highly unusual and our singers did a fantastic job at navigating the oddities. The texts for each song were extremely long and required the singer to pay special attention to annunciation and rhetoric. ‘True Courage’ is the perfect example of a song that needs a singer who can deliver it with clarity of speech and intension. It was a pleasure working with Stephen, who transformed this song from an average ditty, to a first class performance! Similarly, I had spoken with Erin prior to the concert, to give a little guidance on how to tackle Ramsay’s ‘Corn Riggs’. While the version performed may look like it is intended for a singer, it has actually been taken from a fiddle book, which makes it incredibly tricky to sing. I enjoyed passing on some of my experience to the singers, who did a wonderful job bringing this music to life.

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