Library and Information Services, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

How far can a song travel?

This evening, I've been reading a new library book - The Fiddletree, by Cape Breton fiddle-maker, Otis A. Tomas.  He made a number of string instruments from an old sugar maple tree.  As well as describing the making of the instruments, he provides the music for a number of tunes he has written, and an accompanying CD.

Here I sit in Scotland, enjoying music written and recorded in Cape Breton.  Nothing very unusual about that, today.

Torloisk, Mull. Now a holiday home
How much more unusual, though, is the idea that some well-born sisters on the Isle of Mull in the early 1800s should enjoy playing Hindu airs on the pianoforte?  The Maclean-Clephane's manuscript music collection is now in Trinity College Dublin, because the first part of the manuscript consists of transcriptions of harp tunes by the Irish Carolan.  However, I was able to see photocopies of the entire manuscript in the National Library of Scotland.

(If you're interested, the references are:- Trinity College Dublin, TCD MS 10615 and National Library of Scotland,MS 14949a-c)

Apart from the Irish harp tunes, the rest of the manuscript is mainly Gaelic song, but there are a few exotic imports.  Such as these intriguing entries:-

A Hindustani Air
A Hindostanee Air
A Malay Tune
East Indian Dancing Girl's Air

When I indexed the manuscript a few years ago, I hadn't time to transcribe the airs, but there's every chance they came from late 18th century English transcriptions of Indian tunes, such as the often-cited Twelve Hindoo Airs with English Words Adapted to them, ultimately published by Biggs c.1805, to words by Amelia Opie.  One day, I'll have to go back to Edinburgh and identify them!

It is incredible to imagine the effort that went into transcribing such tunes, and making the difficult journey back from the colonies to England, to  get words set to them, and then have the book published.  The Maclean-Clephanes visited Edinburgh and London often enough, so they probably bought a piano book on one of these trips, or copied the tunes from a friend's copy.  There was much interest in what would have been considered exotic oriental music around this time; some people even speculated about links between Scottish and Oriental scales in early musical history.  

The eldest sister, Margaret, married the Marquess of Compton and spent the rest of her days between Northampton and Europe, so we can only conjecture whether this particular manuscript went with her, or stayed with one of her sisters.  It was by no means the only song collection in their possession.  How lucky that it survives to this day!

Incidentally, this posting was inspired by Bibliolore's blogpost, Hindustani Harpsichord Music.
Further proof of the exciting possibilities offered by social networking, because neither would have happened before the advent of Web 2.0!

Copyright Dr Karen E McAulay
Music and Academic Services Librarian
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.  23 May 2012. 

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