‘Unsung Musicians’ named in John Malchair’s Collection

John Malchair (1730-1812) moved to Oxford in 1760, where he led the Music Room band for 32 years. As a hobby he collected ‘old tunes’, what we would today call folk music, noting down tunes heard in the street, receiving music via letters, and recording melodies from the singing of friends. His collection as known today consists of over 900 tunes, recorded in the tunebooks, labelled volumes 3 and 4.

Aside from the authors of printed music books, there are around 30 individuals named in Malchair’s tunebooks as sources for tunes in his collection. Some of these are musicians, their names familiar from concert programmes, as in the case of ‘Mr Fischer the Hoboe’, a well-known oboe player who performed with Malchair at the Oxford Music Room.[2]However, others, such as Rev William Henry Barnard and Rev John Jones are better known in other fields (see below), and are therefore unfamiliar to music historians because they were not professional musicians, and had no connection to the Oxford Music Room or the University’s School of Music. Still others, Mr Cunningham of Christ Church, and Mr Linsay of Balliol College, for example, have never yet been properly identified; while some of Malchair’s sources are impossible to trace, such as the ‘Poor Woman and two femal Children’ Malchair heard singing in the streets of Oxford on Saturday 15th May 1784.[3]

All of the people named, from beggars to soldiers, clergymen to astronomers, contributed to Malchair’s collection of tunes, whether or not they have previously been acknowledged as musical. We might therefore call these figures ‘unsung musicians’. It is my aim, as part of my research into Malchair’s collection, to find out more about these individuals, and to acknowledge their role in musical networks of the eighteenth century. Two figures I have already begun working to identify and credit are Rev Mr John Jones and William Henry Barnard.

John Jones

Malchair copied down several Welsh tunes from ‘an old manuscript book of the Revd Mr John Jones, Jesus Col[lege], Oxon’.[4]Although Malchair had a range of undergraduate pupils at the University, because John Jones was a Reverend it seems more likely that he was a Fellow at the time Malchair knew him. Dr Robin Darwall-Smith, archivist at Jesus College, has identified two John Joneses who were contemporary with Malchair in Oxford: one eight years older than Malchair, the other 17 years younger. The older John Jones was Fellow at Jesus from 1746-96, the younger from 1773-91.

While I lean towards believing the older John Jones to have been the friend of Malchair’s, without further research it is not possible to say for sure which John Jones it was whose manuscript Malchair used – or even to say whether Malchair knew the man himself or simply borrowed the manuscript from a later owner. A discussion following my presentation on this topic at OCLW in February 2018 raised the question of whether it even matters which John Jones it was, if nothing more is known about him than the dates he was in Oxford?

William Henry Barnard

Another ‘unsung musician’ who contributed to Malchair’s collection – and of whose identity we can be more certain – was Reverend William Henry Barnard (1767/9-1818). Grandson of the Bishop of Derry, Barnard was a drawing pupil of Malchair’s, cropping up in one of his tunebooks after he contributed a tune Malchair recorded to have been ‘Noted down by Mr Barnard from having heard it play[e]d in Ireland where this tune is said to be verry [sic] ancient’.

Barnard matriculated at Pembroke College in 1790 and graduated BCL (Bachelor of Civil Law) in 1797. This makes him one of Malchair’s final pupils, as Malchair gave up his drawing master practice in 1797, and by 1799 his sight was more or less gone. Barnard’s name occurs on the back of many of Malchair’s drawings as having been present at the time of its making, and his work is said to be that most often confused with his master’s.[5]Their artistic friendship was close: Barnard gave Malchair several drawings from a trip to the north and west coasts of Ireland in 1792, including one of the Giant’s Causeway,[6]and Barnard drew two of only four pictures of Malchair known: in both of these whimsical sketches Malchair plays the violin.[7]

What can we learn from this research?

Researching the individuals named in Malchair’s tunebooks has afforded key findings relating to the kind of repertoire Malchair collected, his process of collection, and also to Malchair’s own personality.

The range of situations in which Malchair collected this repertoire, and the kinds of people from whom Malchair collected the same sorts of tunes (whether we call them folk music, dance tunes, or national song), reveal that this repertoire really was the ‘music of the people’ in the late eighteenth century. Such tunes were played by professional musicians, sung by parents of all classes with their children, and whistled in the street. This is interesting to music historians, for it was only in the late eighteenth century that today’s familiar distinction between ‘classical’ and ‘folk’ music began to emerge.[8]

Malchair’s marginalia also reveal a great deal about his methods of collecting. It is rare for a tunebook in this period to record the sources of the music contained, even where these were published books. Malchair’s tunebooks, on the other hand, not only name or describe the individuals from whom he collected particular tunes, but also give the method of their communication, whether they came via an old manuscript, a letter, singing, playing or whistling, and sometimes he also names the location where transmission took place. From this we learn that Malchair actively sought out tunes to collect using his network of contacts, that he visited libraries and subscribed to new publications of tunes, that he usually carried a tunebook with him in case the opportunity arose to note down a tune, and that he received and perhaps even requested songs from visitors to the city or friends travelling abroad.

It is immediately apparent that Malchair mixed with a range of people in Oxford and beyond, and gave as much space in his tunebook to street musicians and college Fellows, as he did to the sons of Lords and Bishops. This reveals something of Malchair’s own personality, suggesting he valued the musical contributions of all. Even where his sources are unnamed they are described, tunes attributed to their sources regardless of their social status or musical qualifications: for example, Malchair wrote down five tunes from a blind Irish piper, whom he also drew, recorded songs from a Savoyard, and one from a girl playing a hurdy gurdy. Professor Susan Wollenberg has concluded that Malchair had great respect for these beggars and buskers, otherwise he would not have bothered to describe them in his marginalia,[9]although one might then ask why he did not also record their names.

Taking this wider approach in researching Malchair’s collection already seems to be reaping rewards, informing a new understanding of the content and creation of the collection as well as of all those who contributed to it and the connections between these individuals. In this way this research greatly benefits from considering alongside known musicians those who, had Malchair not named them, we might not have realised were musical at all.

Alice Little is a third-year DPhil candidate in Music at the University of Oxford, and holds the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography/Oxford Centre for Life Writing Bursary for 2017-18. Her BA was in Modern History and she holds an MSc in Material Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, as part of which she studied ethnomusicology and the history of collecting. She previously worked as Assistant Curator of Musical Instruments at the Horniman Museum in London. For more information about Alice’s research see alicelittle.co.uk.

[1]This research forms part of chapter 2 of Alice’s doctoral thesis, Alice Little, ‘The Tunebooks of J. B. Malchair, Oxford c.1760-1812’ (University of Oxford, forthcoming).

[2]John Malchair, ‘Vol. 3d – The Third Volume of Tunes’, p. 60, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

[3]Malchair, ‘Vol. 3d’, p. 42.

[4]John Malchair, ‘The Arrangement, Being an Extract of the Welsh, Irish, and Scotch Tunes Contain’d in the Foregoing Vols, & Placed in Separate Classes’, Royal College of Music, MS 2091, for example, p.19. Other tunes from this source are found pp. 22-3.

[5]Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses: The Members of the University of Oxford, 1715-1886: Their Parentage, Birthplace, and Year of Birth, with a Record of Their Degrees(Oxford: James Parker & Co., 1891), i, p. 62; ‘Gallery Label, September 2004: Rev. William Henry Barnard’ <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/barnard-the-back-of-a-house-in-oxford-t08129&gt> [accessed 6 March 2018]

[6]Ashmolean Museum 1928.246, DBB 323.

[7]One of these two drawings is Ashmolean Museum 1928.239, DBB 318; the other is in a private collection, although a reproduction can be seen in Colin Harrison, John Malchair of Oxford: Artist and Musician(Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1998), p. 39. The two others are the head of Malchair among figures in Sandby’s etching of the Rysbrack sale in 1764, British Museum 1904,0819.723; and what is believed to be a self-portrait from 1765, AM 1925.76, DBB 991.

[8]For a detailed discussion of this history see Matthew Gelbart, The Invention of Folk Music and Art Music: Emerging Categories from Ossian to Wagner, New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); and William Weber, The Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth-Century England : A Study in Canon, Ritual, and Ideology(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

[9]Personal communication with the author, 2016.


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