New podcast series on folk tunes and Englishness

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As I’m slightly obsessed with fiddlers’ tune books, ever since I found that this is where I should have been looking all the time for all the gaps in my ballet class repertoire (see earlier post) I was thrilled to see that Dr Alice little from the Faculty of Music at the University of Oxford has teamed up with the English Folk Dance and Song Society(EFDSS) for a project on English Tunebooks of the Eighteenth Century. Today sees the launch of the first of three podcasts on the topic of Folk Tunes and Englishness. As a lot of my work now involves playing for period/early/historical dance (call it what you will), this is really useful stuff.

Episode 1 is called A History of English Folk Tunes, and has contributions from Jeremy Barlow (of the Broadside Band, and editor of the comprehensive edition of Playford’s English Dancing Master for Faber) Matt Coatsworth, and Becky Price of the band Boldwood. They discuss what might make a tune “English,” and how difficult that concept is when tunes travel (for example, between the north of England and Denmark) acquiring different names and subtle variations. If you’ve read this blog, you’ll know how far and wide, and for how long Bon Voyage, Cher Dumollet has travelled. Bon Voyage, indeed.

I was also nerdily thrilled to hear Becky Price say that playing for ceilidhs, she and her bandmates wanted to play 3/2 hornpipes, but people don’t tend to do those at ceilidhs, where the hornpipes are—as they are most other places—in 4/4. That’s one of the reasons they formed a band specifically to play these 17th and 18th century dance tunes where 3/2 hornpipes are a thing. I love them too (see another earlier post). The only other person I know for whom “hornpipe” means 3/2, is Mark Morris, as I wrote about in a post about the joys of playing for his class.

But the best part of the whole podcast was to finally discover the source of a fascinating theory that I heard about in a workshop years ago. It’s the kind of funny factoid I’d want read out at my funeral. In different editions of Playford’s Dancing Master, tunes appeared in one with sharpened leading notes, and in another without. One theory was that at a certain time, the printer simply ran out of sharps, so they were forced to leave them out. I love that theory so much I could eat it. I myself once published and recorded a hornpipe that I thought sounded really trendily Celtic and modal, only to hear it everywhere on Spotify played with sharpened 7ths. When I looked back at my sources, I realized I’d simply misread the key signature as one sharp instead of two. No mystery, no argument over authenticity or sources, just a stupid, schoolboy error. I’ve also let slip metronome marks that have a minim instead of a crotchet, leading to anxious emails, and who knows, frenetic performances. In his ballet Tantz-Schul, the composer Mauricio Kagel made a deliberate feature of the notational errors in the 1716 treatise by Gregorio Lambranzi New and Curious Theatrical School of Dancing by Gregorio Lambranzi, on which the ballet was based (see review in Gramophone).

So I have loved the theory ever since I heard about it, but never knew whose theory it was, or any more detail. Thanks to this podcast, I now know: it was Jeremy Barlow, in a paper for the Historical Dance Society in 2001, called “Tunes in the English Dancing Master 1651: John Playford’s Accidental Misprints?” [hyperlink will take you to the full text of the paper).

Another interesting talking point was the contribution of instrument design on tune notations: on a pipe that had no possibility of playing a leading note in the lower octave, it might be replaced with the 2nd above (in D, for example, that means D3-E3-D3 rather than the physically impossible D3-C#2-D3). Since so much of the character of tunes hangs on these cadential differences, it’s good to know that of all things, they are the most liable to alteration.

See also: Playford’s Dancing Master online, complete.

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