Singing British National Songs 1750-1850: our performers reflect on the RNSN concert on 18 March 2019

Introduction by Kirsteen McCue (University of Glasgow)

We are most grateful to Sam McShane and her team at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland for working with us and the other UK conservatories to bring together our team of singers for the concert on 18 March 2019. We had four singers from conservatoires in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, all of whom threw themselves into learning unusual repertoire and came ready to listen and work closely with us in a Workshop on St Patrick’s Day and to perform at our concert the following evening. We exchanged information on the history of the songs, and worked with the singers on details about the kinds of performances that might have taken place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Our accompaniment team – David Gerrard on fortepiano and Aaron McGregor and Alice Allen on period violin and ’cello – were able to chip in and to improvise a little too, with their formidable knowledge of period repertoire like this. It was a most rewarding couple of days for everyone involved in the project. Sadly, our English baritone had to pull out at the last minute, but we were joined by Scottish baritone Jonathan Kennedy, who did an amazing job to learn his songs in double-quick time! Thanks to him for being so able and willing to help! The network members who compiled the programme also reflected on the event and you can read their blog, along with a copy of the programme and see the full performance here on the RNSN website.

After the event we asked each of the singers to reflect on the experience of singing National songs published in the British Isles between 1750 and 1850. Thanks to them for their thoughts which you can read here:

From Sofia Kirwan-Baez (from Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama)

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience working with the Romantic National Song Network. Not only was the organisation prior to the project excellent, but the trip itself was an amazing opportunity both to work on more unusual repertoire and meet excellent young artists from around the United Kingdom. I was performing five songs: two Welsh songs (Morva Rhydlan and the Live Long Night), an Irish song (Silent, O Moyle) and two British songs (Britons Strike Home and Rule Britannia). It was fascinating to see how these songs related to the way in which we conceptualise each British country’s national heritage. The Irish and Welsh songs tended more towards melancholy tunes and texts, which made them more relatable and oddly easier to perform than the more proudly flamboyant “British” songs, such as Rule Britannia. My geographically heterogenous upbringing might explain why their Nationalism felt out of place. However, these songs might be resurrected in an attempt to feed the current nationalistic political climate.

As far as my first trip to Scotland goes, I think it could not have gone better. What a rare a privilege it is to be approached to sing from first edition manuscripts of British song! I highly recommend to any singers wanting to find new, wonderful and less well-known repertoire to get in touch with the RNSN.

From Stephen Walker (Tenor, D.I.T Conservatory of Music, Ireland)

Working with the Romantic National Song Network was a very new experience for me, and it also marked the occasion of my first engagement outside of my home country, Ireland. The style of the music presented to me was certainly different to the music I have been working on recently, and definitely presented a challenge. It was difficult to learn some of this music as the music dated from 1750-1850 and there were not many recordings available at my disposal to understand how the pieces might be performed. This was very quickly cleared up by the members of the RNSN when we began rehearsals and workshops on the weekend of the performance. The reception I received from the members and other performers of the RNSN was so warm and encouraging, which really made the experience special. The members provided us with a great knowledge and understanding of the historical and performance context of each piece and allowed us to provide our own feedback and ideas for the pieces – they even helped us to improve our Scottish accents! I really enjoyed working on this project and learning new things; especially the way the pieces were performed historically, such as the unique performance techniques of the great John Braham. The weekend was a lot of fun and was made extra rewarding by the success of the concert. I enjoyed meeting new people who had a lot of interesting knowledge to impart, and working closely with them to provide an authentic performance. This was a very unique experience and I would love to work on it again!

From Erin Spence (From Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)

I thoroughly enjoyed working with the RNSN. I appreciated the experience of singing the repertoire from all the different countries and learning about the backgrounds of the pieces. The music presented many challenges for the singers but each singer seemed to rise to the challenge and having the members of the RNSN to hand during rehearsal and at the concert helped a great deal. It was a joy to listen and learn from the members about the history of the repertoire and the intention behind each piece. It has encouraged me to think deeper about the chosen repertoire that we performed and I will apply this to my future studies. The experience of singing with the instrumentalists and with the forte piano was also a great pleasure. To work with people who are so passionate about what they do is always a joy and I will treasure this experience.

From Jonathan Kennedy (Formerly of Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)

It is always a pleasure to take part in performances like this. Projects like the RNSN provide both performers and audiences with an opportunity to hear well known and more obscure songs alike, in the arrangements that they were originally written in. It is a unique insight into, not only the performance practices, but also the social and political attitudes of the period. This is incredibly valuable in trying to understand why these pieces were written and what the composer/poet is trying to convey through them. Moreover, these projects prove how important the arts have been throughout history as a way of bringing people together under a common believe or feeling ranging from nationalistic or patriotic fervour, to a romantic longing for one’s home country, and a lot more besides.


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