‘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.



Dirty Little Secrets Of The Caspian

A streak of black for depression, blue for nostalgic memories of home, red for love, I put above all else, yellow for the hatred of injustice, green for the life I chose to not end, white for the peace I desperately seek. Here is a portrait painted with words.

It was time. After much encouragement and practice with my beloved husband Payam, I finally picked up the phone. I drew a deep breath to steady myself and dialed the number to my girlhood best friend in Iran.

One beep, two beeps, three beeps, four beeps…

“Why is she not answering?!”

Both relieved and annoyed, I knew that calling anywhere in the Middle East usually took a few attempts before one finally got through.

I tried again.

After two beeps, she picked up. “Hello.”

I was speechless.

“Hello? Hello?” My friend Delara’s familiar cracked voice came from my iPhone speaker.

I sat on the cold floor of our studio flat in London, gazing out through the window onto the wooden fence.

Frozen, heart racing, unable to speak.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

“Yes… Hi… It’s me… Raha.”

After twenty-three years, I was finally speaking to my childhood best friend, whom I had tried so hard to wipe from my memory.

After the initial shock and an avalanche of emotions, we were able to catch up.

She asked me how things were, and I told her that I was going to therapy, but I didn’t say what for. I told her that I was also taking a short biography writing course.

Payam helped me with the translation a few times; my Farsi had grown rusty without use. When I told her the name of the course in Farsi, she couldn’t believe it.

“Do you remember trying to convince me to write our life stories just before you left Iran? You even started yours in a notebook. I still have it.”

“What notebook?”

“The wounded birds…don’t you remember?”

I had no idea what she was referring to.

She continued, “You had written poems in the beginning of the notebook. ‘If you listen closely, you can hear the shrieks in the silence of the mountains’… Remember now?”

As soon as she said that, I remembered the notebook and the poems… and the consuming pain I was trying to exorcise out by writing.

“I don’t know why I haven’t called for twenty-three years.”

It was a lie. I knew exactly why I had not called her; I just couldn’t tell her the truth because I was afraid of the impact it would have on her.

After what felt like a long pause, she said, “I feel the same way. I think I just wanted to hold on to the good memories. For some reason that I haven’t worked out yet, I think I was afraid of what would happen if we spoke. It was just too difficult. Maybe, because when you left for Pakistan everything happened so quickly and we didn’t even say goodbye properly. I heard through the grapevine that after Pakistan you were in Australia, and now married that famous guy everyone is obsessed with and moved to London. Is that true? How did you even meet him?”

“Oh, it’s a long story.” I said.

“You know, I left our tiny old town too, left university, got married, had a baby and moved to North of Iran, near the Caspian Sea.” she said.

Every time I think about ‘The Caspian Sea,’ a breaking wave of anxiety sweeps me off my feet into panic. But this time, I gasped for air in an attempt to keep my anxiety in check.

I asked if she had moved north into her grandparents’ house, which also happened to be one of my father’s hideouts from the authorities, and where our families had spent one summer together just before I was smuggled out of Iran into Pakistan.

“Yes, for a while, but recently we moved a few houses down the road from them, not long after this beautiful boy was born,” she said in a peaceful voice, “I’m actually looking out onto our garden as I am speaking to you.”

“Wait… so does that mean you still see your grandparents and… umm… and your uncle?” I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say his name.

“Yes, they are all here – at my grandparents’ same old house.” she said.

My heart stopped. That house was where her uncle sexually abused us both, when we were nine—twenty-three years ago.

“Can you tell from my voice that I am freezing here in London?” I asked, quickly changing the subject. I just couldn’t bring it up.

I promised to call her again. It has been one year, one month and a few days since that day.

To be continued…

By Tellurian Writes


Photo by Rui Barros (CC0 1.0)

Work in Progress Seminar 19th February 2014

Lucinda Fenny here, the final member of the OCLW publicity team, welcome to my first blog post and I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts with you over the coming months.

On Wednesday evening, in the company of an intimate audience, OCLW’s visiting members presented an outline of the work they are conducting whilst in residence in Oxford.  Everyone stuck to their allocated time of 10 minutes which was very impressive, and were able to give us a very succinct view of their, in some cases, vast topics, and the challenges that they face.  The seminar was chaired by Hermione Lee.

First to speak was Sophie Scott-Brown from the Australian National University in Canberra, who is working on a biography of the British radical historian Raphael Samuel.  She began by challenging the view of Samuel as a Marxist historian, instead describing him as a people’s historian, despite the difficulties in defining what that term actually means.  Sophie claimed that biography is key to bringing out Samuel’s architectural type, explaining why and how he did what he did.  She also emphasised Samuel’s relevance to contemporary debates on the social role of the intellectual and historian, he advocated for empowering people to speak for themselves.

Our second speaker was Jeffrey Gutierrez from Boston who talked about the issues that surround the editing of collections of letters, in particular reference to William Carlos Williams.  Jeffrey explained how the first edition of his letters were heavily censored, as the poet was still alive at the time.  An important question is how to transcribe Williams’ letters into print, as he often did something artistic with the form of them and although past editors have argued that his is of no relevance, Jeffrey contested this view.  He showed the audience two letters written only a few months apart.  One had been left uncorrected, and showed the state of Williams’ mind following a series of strokes due to the large number of errors.  The corrected letter gives the impression that Williams had made a miraculous recovery, which was, of course, not the case.

Maria Rita Drumond Viana highlighted the vast resources available in relation to W.B. Yeats and how fortunate she felt to now have access to them here in Oxford.  She put forward the notion of letters as a literary genre in themselves, in contrast to how they are used by other scholars, as documents, evidence and testimony.  This distinguishes what a letter says from how it says it.  She put forward the contested notion that the correspondence of a writer can be considered as part of their work, which is not possible with any other artist.  In the discussion this was further covered, where Maria Rita argued that while letters may not be considered part of a writer’s work, they can be included as examples of the way in which they write.

Finally Tracey Potts our visiting scholar from Nottingham University gave us an insight into the methodology and its problems when writing about the biography of objects.  Her work  focuses on clutter and procrastination, which Tracey was quick to point out was not a reflection on her own life! One of the problems when working with clutter in particular is how we deal with piles of stuff, and how we relate to the material world.  Clutter is a certain challenge as it is a thing that is not a thing. An important part of her work is extending the notion of agency to the non-human world, when at present humans are at the centre of the stories of things.  This counters the idea that humans control things; Tracey posited the fact that perhaps it was the other way around and that things might have designs on us.  To further pique our interest in her work she informed us that penguins and coffee tables are two cast members in the book.

How do emotions drive projects; and how do they end them?

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about how far it’s possible to construct an emotional biography of a writer, by examining the texts they choose to write at different times in their life. This is really a question about the emotional driving forces behind the projects in which we choose to engage; and is perhaps particularly interesting when applied to non-fiction writers (in which the personal motivation is potentially more opaque, the writer more obscured, than in fiction and autobiography). Why, for example, does someone like Simon Winchester write biographies of a collector of skulls; the Atlantic ocean; the Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham; the volcano Krakatoa; the geologist William Smith; and two men behind the Oxford English Dictionary?  I’m not inviting psychoanalyses of Simon here, nor trying to find a unifying factor among all these disparate projects. (Indeed, perhaps their disunity is more revealing.) I’m really just wondering why it is that writers become interested in different subjects at different points in their lives: how do certain subjects speak to us, engage our interest, offer a vessel into which to put our hearts? It’s not always enough to just say, ‘well, I simply find that topic interesting’. Interest is usually a matter of emotional engagement; and the extent to which our attention can be held by a matter, our spirits roused,  can be to do with how that subject speaks to our personal concerns at meaningful points in our own lives.

Of course, this isn’t always the case – far from it. In a psychoanalytic tradition, thinking can be an evasion of feeling; not an engagement with it. I think perhaps this was the case for my first book, Map of a Nation (a biography of the Ordnance Survey).

As a corollary to this, I’m also interested in why certain projects (not necessarily literary ones) fail: why are they abandoned? Are there cases in which this is to do with the writer’s heart being no longer in it; a mismatch between the type of emotional investment required to do justice to the subject matter and the writer’s personal drives and interests at that time?

I’d love to hear input on this: why do you pick the subjects that you do to write about? How do they speak to you personally? What sort of emotional investment is required to do them justice? Or do you have examples of projects that have failed because of a lack of investment? a case of the heart no longer being in it?



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