Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Barra Boydell (NUI Maynooth, Ireland)

‘Melody, tho' pleasing to All, seldom communicates the highest Degree of Pleasure’: exoticism, identity and the adapting of Irish music to eighteenth century taste

In the preface to his Treatise of Good Taste (1749) Geminiani explained that his arrangements of Scottish melodies were ‘improved … into harmony’ because ‘melody, tho' pleasing to all, seldom communicates the highest degree of pleasure’. The eighteenth century witnessed a growing interest on the part of composers, performers and the musically-educated public in the music of regional folk traditions, but it was usually felt that this music needed to be adapted to give it what Geminiani termed ‘all the variety and fullness required in a concert’.

Within the context of Dublin’s musical and concert life the music of Irish harpers, most notably Turlough Carolan (d. 1738), was admired and even patronised by some of the Anglo-Irish elite, but more widespread was the use of Irish tunes within the context of art-music. Many sets of variations and other arrangements (including some by Geminiani) based on popular Irish tunes were published, visiting instrumentalists attracted audiences by advertising the inclusion of such movements in their peformances, and Handel reputedly praised one of the most popular of these tunes, Aileen a Roon, above his own music during his stay in Dublin in 1741-2. But eighteenth century Irish society was deeply divided not only socially and economically but also along religious and ethnic lines. These tunes of the dispossessed rural, Catholic, Irish-speaking population represented a world remote from that of Dublin’s Anglo-Irish elite, whose interest in Irish music can be understood both as a form of exoticism and as representing a desire to establish a distinctive cultural identity for themselves. This paper examines these issues and discusses the musical treatment of Irish tunes in eighteenth-century arrangements.

Last updated on 09 May 2004