Eighteenth-Century Tunebooks Project

Eighteenth-Century Tunebooks Project
by Dr Alice Little, University of Oxford

Tucked to one side in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library is a cabinet with a glass front. It’s locked, but if you get permission to look inside you will find a short shelf of about twenty two-hundred-year-old manuscript tunebooks, along with a number more from the nineteenth century, and a range of historical printed collections of tunes too.

I first came to this shelf in 2012, during a conference, when I dropped into the library and asked Malcolm Taylor if he could show me some eighteenth-century music, as I was interested in finding some new (old) performance repertoire. Malcolm brought me two tunebooks to look at and, long story short, three years later I began my DPhil, studying these tunebooks. Now, having finished my doctorate, I am working as a Humanities Knowledge Exchange Fellow, employed by the University of Oxford to work with EFDSS to share information about these same sources.

The aim of this research is to ask – and perhaps start to answer – questions specific to English tunebooks. What kind of music is contained? What instruments were the books written for? Who made them and who used them? What makes them ‘English’ anyway?

This is an exciting project, with benefits for both sides. While I bring to the Fellowship expertise in these sources, and contextual knowledge both of the eighteenth century and the secondary literature about this topic (many modern books about music history are also held at the VWML), members of staff both in the library and upstairs can contribute their all-round knowledge of the collections and the archive, and also make this project relevant to the present day by bringing in musicians and other folk arts practitioners to explore how this music is perceived, collected and performed today.

Laura Smyth, Archivist at the VWML, said, ‘EFDSS is keen to promote the use of its collections, but often they need mediating and interpreting in order to make them accessible. Through this Knowledge Exchange Fellowship, EFDSS hopes that research can be done to uncover new information re C18th English tunes, MSS tune books, and the collecting of music in England.’

If you’re interested in finding out more, you can see scans of many of those books held at the VWML at vwml.org/topics/historic-dance-and-tune-books. More generally, a great starting point is the Village Music Project website (village-music-project.org.uk) where you can find transcriptions of many old tune collections, and Folkopedia (folkopedia.efdss.org) where manuscripts and printed collections are listed with links to where they are held or can be viewed digitally.

Hear more: on 26th February 2020 at 7.30pm Alice will be giving a talk at the VWML on the tunebooks studied as part of this project.

Read more: Alice has written about the tune collection of John Malchair (1730-1812) in the 2020 issue of Folk Music Journal.

Watch this space for news about the next ‘Traditional Tunes and Popular Airs’ conference, to take place in October 2020. Related information can be read at: https://www.vwml.org/events/past-events/tunes-conference

For more information, or if you want to hear about future events on this topic, get in touch with Alice directly to be added to her email list: alice.little@music.ox.ac.uk.

About the author:
Alice Little completed her DPhil at the University of Oxford in 2018, for which she wrote about the collecting of music in eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland, and how ‘national music’ was understood at the time. She is now Research Associate at the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, and a Junior Research Fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. She holds a TORCH Humanities Knowledge Exchange Fellowship, for which she is partnered with EFDSS to work on the eighteenth-century tunebooks at the VWML.


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