The aim of this Royal Society of Edinburgh funded network is to explore and map the area of national song culture in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales during the period 1750-1850. There is a particular emphasis on bringing this material to life – to highlight the sonic world of song – and to showcase new scholarship in this area. The term ‘Romantic’ is widened here from the usual literary term meaning the period 1780-1830 and the musicological term meaning the period 1820-1900. By choosing the century 1750 to 1850 we are covering a time when printed song established itself and developed significantly, as the practice of performing songs at home became more commonplace. By ‘Song’ we are referring particularly to published song texts with music, thus focusing on how writers and composers were working together with editors and publishers to encourage both professional and amateur performance of these songs. While the project is chiefly concerned with the growing middle-class consumption of songs, the series of song stories presented on this website clearly illustrates how ubiquitous the medium of song was across this century. We have avoided the term ‘folksong’, as it is an anachronistic term that was not in common usage during this period. But, as our song stories reveal, there was much sharing of texts and tunes between popular prints and performances and the more expensive printed songs in circulation at this time. Even though the vast majority of our song stories focus on songs printed with music for performance, all of them also show that these songs frequently had busy lives across a wide range of performance and printed media, evidencing that song was, in the words of Oskar Cox Jensen, ‘the most widespread and influential form of literary and musical expression of the day’ (2017: 1). Our series of commissioned blogs expands on this theme, showing the appearance of national song not just in the domestic sphere, but in a variety of contexts (including theatre, circus and war) and this is where we also showcase new and exciting research in the emerging field of song studies.
The network set out to bring together scholars working in literature and language, musicology, history, book history, and performance history, and to map the field bibliographically. We wanted to establish where these songs were published and performed and how they shaped public perceptions of the different national cultures of the British Isles. As the stories and blogs on the website evidence, the four nations of Britain (alongside many European nations) were actively collecting and disseminating what was presented to the public as ‘National Song’. While work has been done on some individual writers, composers and editors/publishers, there is still considerable confusion about the meaning of the term ‘National Song’ and little understanding of the relationships between the living song cultures of the British nations during this period of social and political upheaval. Our selection of song stories track the biographies of individual songs, important collections, writers, composers, editors, publishers and performers. They present, in the case of each of the four nations, a set of sometimes well-established national characteristics, but several of them also highlight a tendency for national songs of the period to adopt a transnational identity. The emerging genre of British song across the century shows a dynamic, if often unsettling or uncomfortable, process in which aspects of an ancient British history merge with the acute contemporary concerns around the British constitution and Britain’s place in the wider world.
The genre of song presents a number of significant difficulties not just because of its cultural ubiquity, but because of the nature of the form itself. Traditional literary historians have been more comfortable focusing purely on the textual or lyrical, while musicologists are often happier exploring the musical language and content. By working with a group of specialists across a range of disciplines, the material on this website aims to present both a broader and deeper critical framework within which to examine Georgian and early Victorian song in Britain. Song culture from this period has, until recently, been relatively silent. However, as these stories illustrate, it was frequently performances of the songs that established their popularity; it is notable that a number of our featured songs are still popular today. As such, the network has been keen, where possible, to recreate the sounds of these songs as they might have been heard across the century 1750-1850 Such performances are embedded in our song stories, but were brought to life on a larger scale as part of our final concert performance, which is presented here in its entirety.
For those of us involved in the Network, this has been a rich and rewarding project. In addition to this website, our Network events have resulted in a number of additional research plans, which we hope will continue to enhance knowledge in Britain’s rich and diverse song culture. Our blog is staying alive, beyond the funded project, and will provide a platform for ongoing research activity in this area.
Featured image: Joseph Ritson; A select collection of English songs, with their original airs: and a historical essay on the origin and progress of national song; London; 1813: 187. By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.