Skip to content

Teaching Cultural History Through National Song

2013 August 29

By Karen E. McAulay, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Fair Ellen of Kirkconnel Lea

Fair Ellen of Kirkconnel Lea

This post suggests a collaboration between teaching faculty and specialist subject librarians by teaching book and cultural history in the context of national song and fiddle tune-books.  I’ve noticed, when giving undergraduate lectures on Scottish music history, that students are more engaged when encouraged to perform the music being talked about; to participate in discussion; or examine historic sources at first hand.  I decided to experiment with the idea of a template for the close examination of historic Scottish song collections from the long nineteenth century – the subject I studied for my PhD.

Much can be learned about cultural history by looking at historic vocal or instrumental national collections.   Obviously the songs or tunes themselves are interesting from a musical point of view, consideration of which will inform our understanding of their purpose.  Most notably, we can examine the song or tune setting, and the nature of the accompaniment, if present: for example, is it minimal or ornate?  What kind of bass-line does it have, and are there introductions and codas?  Are there any other distinctive features?  Is a fiddle collection intended to accompany dancing, or is it a set of tunes with variations, for playing domestically?  What can we tell about the dedicatees, or where the tunes might have come from?

Over and above the songs or tunes, and the musical notation, we can also learn a lot from the material preceding and following the music itself.   The term ‘paratext’ is used by the French literary theorist Gerard Genette. [i] In a musical context, paratextual material is anything appearing before (or after) the music itself, such as the title page, preface, subscription lists, annotations, contents lists or indices.  There tends to be more prefatory material where lyrics meet music in song, than in the more functional fiddle tune-books which have no lyrics.   Obviously the lyrics themselves attract commentary; and there are often individual annotations, giving detail about songs’ known origins and history, or pertinent historical events.

In my lectures at the University of Strathclyde, we had talked about issues of authenticity, effective accompaniments; and art-music collections that either fell short of expectations; or exceeded the capabilities of Victorian young ladies, but I had also mentioned controversial poetry collections; the influence of Gothic novels and Walter Scott’s stories; nationalism; and the Napoleonic Wars.  I had used both live and recorded musical examples.  (Obviously the classroom setting itself may pose restrictions, and live student participation isn’t always an option.)

In this particular workshop, we now turned to look at a few select collections together.  One was Victorian – the other two were early 20th century scores.

Karen E. McAulay Performs ‘Fair Ellen of Kirkconnel Lea’
YouTube Preview Image

First, we looked at The Thistle, a late nineteenth century collection compiled by the first Euing Professor of what was later to become the University of Strathclyde.  James Merrylees was a pioneer of the Sol-fa movement in Glasgow.   The link with their own university made it the more interesting for these particular undergraduates.  There was considerable interest in the whole concept of Tonic Sol-fa, how it developed and how it worked in practice, and we had quite a lengthy discussion about its advantages (for non-music readers) and disadvantages (where choral music was particularly complex harmonically).[ii]

Next came the self-consciously historical Old Time Songs and Ballads: Historic British Songs from 16th, 17th and 18th Century Sources: Senior Series, Book 1.[iii] Dating from 1934, it was intriguing to note the extent of the annotations for what was intended as a school collection, plainly differing from the music books these students had themselves been taught from.  Lastly, we examined Owen Mase’s Scottish Songs, compiled for an educational publisher in 1928.[iv]

I offered the students a list of questions, including the features I’ve already alluded to, and went on to ask what was known about the compiler; whether the preface gave any clues about the ethos and motivation of the compiler, or hints about the manner of performance.  Obviously, different repertoires would have prompted other questions, and the context of the class might have suggested more detailed enquiry into aspects of cultural and literary history.

While it is easy to dismiss a rather shabby old national song collection as something of little significance, yet, if approached thoughtfully and insightfully,   it is astonishing what can be revealed.  I would thoroughly commend such an approach to anyone looking for a new way of teaching cultural history.


[i] “Genette, Gérard.” The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory. Hoboken: Wiley, 2011. Credo Reference. accessed 01 April 2013, and see also Ian Buchanan (ed), A Dictionary of Critical Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), consulted online via Oxford Reference.

[ii] See also my article, Karen McAulay, Musical Times 154 no.1923 (Summer 2013), 191-206, ‘Appropriate Melodies and Natural Modes: two Victorian Scottish Songbooks’

[iii] Old Time Songs and Ballads: Historic British Songs from 16th, 17th and 18th Century Sources: Senior Series, Book 1, ed. Chrisopher Ernest Bygott and Ralph Dunstan (Huddersfield & London: Schofield & Sims, 1934)

[iv] Owen Mase, Scottish Songs (London: Curwen, 1928)


Karen E. McAulay can be contacted via the Library and IT Department at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.  She authors the long-established performing arts blog, Whittaker Live, and also maintains a personal Academia.edu page. She tweets @Karenmca.


Related Articles from the Journal of Victorian Culture


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

Captcha loading...