What was the X factor of the 18C?

Posted by Abigail Williams on Thursday, May 17, 2012 with No comments
This Saturday we are getting topical, with a talk and concert on Sporting Songs at the Lufthansa Festival in London. Here is a piece about it from today's Guardian How do we know what know what ordinary people performed and sang at home in an era before TV, iPods, recorded music, and public concerts? In the early eighteenth century, readers and musicians had to make their own fun, and they did that through miscellanies, ballads and songbooks – cheap compilations of verse and music designed for home consumption and performance. Sport, smut and political scandal were staple ingredients in these collections, and in a collaboration with folk/early music duo Alva (Vivien Ellis and Giles Lewin) I’ve been testing how far the popular sporting culture of the eighteenth century speaks to that of the twenty-first, in a programme of sporting music for the Lufthansa Festival on 19th May. The repertoire has mostly come from broadside ballads and popular song collections in the vaults of the Bodleian library in Oxford – it’s ironic that music that was once everywhere is now only found in the darkened rooms of a rare book collection. It’s survived thanks to the efforts an extraordinary eccentric collector called Walter Harding a self-taught Chicagoan ragtime pianist, son of an East-End bricklayer, who fell in love with the popular music of the seventeenth and eighteenth century and collected 22 tonnes of it in his suburban townhouse. He left it to the Bodleian in the early 1970s and there it sits, largely unknown and unperformed. But within the yellowing pages and cheap, cracked calfskin bindings of these thousands of volumes we’ve found a whole world of cheering, jeering would be sportmen and spectators. There are songs and ballads that cover modern sports (boxing, cricket, football, fencing, horseracing) but also more offbeat pleasures (bull coursing, cockfighting). We chose pieces that seemed to tell different stories about the age – then, as now, sport is a way of talking about pretty much everything that matters. There’s a preoccupation with national prowess, with what it means to be an Englishman, but also with the dangers of ambition, of success that comes at too high a price. There’s also a good dose of match-fixing, hubristic disaster, and some human tragedy (involving custard). Alva are performing the songs very simply, either unaccompanied, or with just voice and fiddle, as they would have been sung by professional ballad singers in the taverns and on the streets, or by amateurs to entertain friends. But exactly how they were delivered is part of their lost history: the tune is rarely printed, sometimes named, but often not even mentioned, and we’ve had to find tunes to fit them, based on metre and feel and what’s appropriate to their subject. The 18C ballad singer had a massive inbuilt database of tunes, and would have known instantly what to sing to, but we’ve had to use more guesswork. And the relationship between tune and story isn’t obvious either – most of the songs are stories with a tune, but the tune can constrain the delivery. How much should we use gesture and acting? Will the violin get in the way of the delivery of the words? It’s also tricky presenting this noisy, interactive populist repertoire in the formal setting of a modern concert space. Eighteenth century audiences must have had much longer attention spans : many of the ballads have needed a good prune and the odd word change to make sense for a modern audience. But some things never change. The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, and the modern Olympics have their analogies in the eighteenth century popular taste for musical and sporting competitions. We like to follow the rough narrative they provide, to get involved by taking sides, cheering, voting for, or betting on our favourites. Today we cheer and vote in our millions as another hopeless contestant (David) spectacularly fails to make the semi-final of the X Factor, and is pitilessly gonged off by Simon Cowell (Goliath): ‘The audience bayed like the crowds at the Coliseum. ‘Off, off, off!’ they roared. It was all tremendous fun’ (Daily Mail, Feb 2012). If we get some baying and cheering instead of a polite clap we’ll know it worked.