Musical Texts of the Elites

Barra Ó Séaghdha finds much to debate in a recent work on music and Irish identity.

Just a few years ago the publication of a serious study of an aspect of the place of music in Irish culture was a rare and wondrous event. Now, happily, we are getting to the point where those who ignore music will have to justify themselves. The range of topics is expanding: education, rock music, Tory Island singing, Aloys Fleischmann – and here’s another one to add to the pile: Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender / the Construction of Irish National Identity, 1724–1874. This comes from University of Notre Dame Press but has no connection with Field Day Music’s recently launched Irish Composers series. The author, Leith Davis, is associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia. Until the 1970s or 80s, English departments dealt almost exclusively with poetry, fiction and drama; political and cultural history figured largely as a way of illuminating the great works of literature. In more recent times, English departments have been turning themselves into centres of cultural studies, have been breaking down the walls that separated literature with a capital ‘l’ from other forms of writing, and have been showing as much interest in philosophy, politics, gender, colonialism and so on as in the interpretation of individual works of literature.

Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender is clearly part of this trend. As is often the case, the title is perhaps a little generous in describing what the book contains. It is not about music as written by composers or played by musicians in the period in question. The first sentence of the introduction gives a better idea of what to expect: ‘This book examines how texts concerning Irish music and the social contexts within which those texts emerged contributed to the imagining of the Irish nation from the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century.’ As the dates 1724 and 1874 and others in Irish music publishing history are not deeply imprinted on most minds, a list of the principal texts examined may be useful:

> A Collection of the most Celebrated Irish Tunes (1724); John and William Neal. Though arranged for non-traditional instruments and including non-Irish tunes, this marks the beginning of Anglo-Irish engagement with Gaelic culture.
> Dissertations on the History of Ireland (1755); Charles O’Conor, an important Catholic intellectual, sought to bestow a more positive valuation on Gaelic history and culture.
> Historical memoirs of the Ancient Irish Bards (1786); Joseph Cooper Walker tried to establish (in sometimes over-imaginative fashion) an Irish musical tradition worthy of respect.
> Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789); Charlotte Brooke translated and commented on poems from the Irish, as well as composing related work of her own.
> A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music (1796) [and subsequent volumes]; Edward Bunting.
> Twelve Original Hibernian Melodies (1805) and The Wild Irish Girl (1806); Sydney Owenson. The latter work, a romance, was a huge bestseller in its day.
> Irish Melodies (1808) [and subsequent volumes]; Thomas Moore.
> Irish Minstrelsy (1831); James Hardiman’s commentaries presented a harder political line that most other translators/collectors.
> The Ancient Music of Ireland (1855); George Petrie.
> Colleen Bawn (1860), Arrah-na-Pogue (1864), The Shaughran (1874); Dion Boucicault.

Other works could also be listed: various essays and memoirs regarding Carolan; various writings on music, British and Irish, some little known, from the period; the essays on the music of Thomas Davis; a musical entertainment by Samuel Lover, and his novel Rory O’Moore; exhibition catalogues, song-sheets, and so on.

The strong point of Leith Davis’ book lies in the close reading of texts. She is very alert to the self-contradictions and confusions that arise as collectors and translators try to formulate an Irish musical history within which individual songs or airs can be placed or as they seek to formulate a vision of a future Irish culture that can build on elements of the past. Much has been written in recent decades about the way in which the specific realities of Irish politics and society, both internally and in relation to Britain, manifested themselves in – or helped to shape – the works of Anglo-Irish writers from Swift to Yeats, and on into the twentieth century. Davis’ book provides material for a similar narrative in the field of music. In addition, as it does not concern itself with the details of either musical composition or practice, it can be read without difficulty by the literary reader. (In fact, the blurb is remarkably optimistic about the book’s readership: it will ‘appeal to scholars within Irish studies, postcolonial studies; gender studies, print culture, new British history, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studies, and ethnomusicology.’) Davis also offers students of musical history sharper readings of such figures as Joseph Cooper Walker and Charlotte Brooke than are currently available. She also pays close attention to the iconography of the works under examination: the images of maidens and bards, the domestic or wilder scenes, that figure on the covers of Thomas Moore’s various collections are interpreted, for example, as statements about the music itself, as reflecting or hinting at changing political viewpoints, and as ploys to attract readers.

Actors but no stage
Leith Davis’ Introduction suggests that there is a radical thrust to her analysis and that the socio-political context is important. But the context out of which the chosen texts arose is not presented clearly. There is no outline of British/Irish history in the years leading up to the book’s starting point, 1724. There is no outline of how political power was exercised by Britain in Ireland or by the Anglo-Irish elite in Ireland. There is no real sense of the changes within Ireland in the period under scrutiny – and we are given the impression that Grattan won a parliament for Ireland – nor of the way in which American and French realities washed across the Irish political landscape. Despite frequent references to hybridity – the current term of choice among academics to describe how, for example, any colonial contact brings about change in both coloniser and colonised – we are given no outline of the gradations of opinion and allegiance, or of religious belief, within Anglo-Irish society from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, through the development of Protestant Patriotism, the radicalism of the 1790s, the extreme violence of the 1798 rebellion and the brutal repression that preceded and followed it, the Act of Union, and so on. As a result, though readers without specialised knowledge of the eighteenth century can learn something about the ambivalences and self-contradictions of the writers studied, they will not easily discover how representative people like Walker and Brooke and Bunting were, or where they stood within the society of their day. Davis has read the historians of culture and consumption in Britain in this period, but the way in which Anglo-Irish power was made manifest in the dramatic new Georgian streetscape of Dublin and in the material culture of its wealthy residents, and the contrast between this and the seething poverty of sections of the old city, is absent. We can see the actors but not the stage on which they act.

The texts under study, then, float away from their socio-political context. In a book intended to contribute to an understanding of the construction of Irish national identity, this is a serious flaw. How much light can be thrown on the formation of Irish national identity if the multiple and sometimes violently opposed versions of Ireland, nation and identity are not analysed? How much light can an insufficiently contextualised study of texts about music throw on the field of music in general? With the best of intentions, and despite a theoretical commitment to recognition of all elements in the hybrid cultural mix, Davis has ended up replicating some of the blindspots of the writers she is examining. Doesn’t her interactionist model lead to exaggeration when she states, for example, that ‘the most significant change in the interaction between Gaelic and Anglo-Irish musical traditions, the one that would have the most profound effect on both traditions, was the printing of collections of Irish tunes’ (p. 28)? There is little evidence, until a much later period, of the printing of music affecting practice outside a very circumscribed section of society. Most of Leith Davis’ chosen authors are products of Anglophone, educated society. They are looking at the music of the peasantry or at the displaced elite of an earlier Gaelic cultural order. Their readership will naturally be urban, middle- or upper-class and Anglophone. The music they listen to is similar in many ways to the music played in London, but there are also specifically Irish, English-language songs and ballads, and a certain amount of adapted traditional material. Difficulties of terminology arise here. Should all music produced in Ireland be called Irish music? Are there not times when it would be safer to talk of music in Ireland, and then to distinguish among the various sub-categories? Without consideration of the variegated – very well: hybrid – world of music, the particular dilemmas of a certain section of urban or elite society can be mistaken for the dilemmas of all music in the country. On page 45, for example, in a discussion of Laurence Whyte’s poem, ‘Dissertation on Italian and Irish music’, Davis says that ‘Irish music is presented as favoured by the Anglo-Irish male, the “Country Squire dressed like a hero/Who’d rather hear Lil’bolero.”’ If Davis is aware that this is a piece of triumphalist anti-Catholicism, is it not confusing to find the same term – ‘Irish music’ – being used for this and for native/indigenous/traditional/ethnic music. And is music in the classical tradition but composed in Ireland, which scarcely figures at all, to be described in the same way?

Two large issues arise here. First of all, as mentioned above, Leith Davis reads her texts very carefully, but to read the particulars of the Irish situation more precisely we need a fuller and more politically informed assessment – taking account of the history of music elsewhere in Europe and the colonies – of the relationship between colonial elites and indigenous music. Curiosity among elites about such music may be read as signifying enlightened cultural respect, but music may also be a relatively safe way of engaging with precolonial culture and history, or of grafting the colonial identity onto the earlier narrative, or indeed of defusing and assimilating that culture (as in the use of the Scottish bagpipes within the British Army or as modern Australians encourage and collect Aboriginal art).

Secondly, it is very important for a cultural or political historian to be constantly aware of the fact that the ruling classes leave far more evidence of their activities than do the ruled. In the Irish case – and Leith Davis is quite aware of the racist thinking that operated here – the culture of the rural and/or Irish-speaking masses was of little interest to most of the Anglophone elite. Where interest was expressed, it was most often assumed – as a way of avoiding uncomfortable questions of legitimacy and potential resistance – that the culture of the masses was dead or dying. Hence, the prevalence of such words as reliques, ancient, bard, minstrelsy – all consigning this culture to the safety of history. Here again, Davis does not avoid the bias inherent in her material. Readers would need reminding of the fact that, while discussions proceeded in drawing-rooms and coffee-houses, tens – hundreds – of thousands of musicians continued to sing and play the music that was woven into the texture of their daily lives in complete unawareness of the fact that an Irish identity was under construction elsewhere. Any putative Irish identity that did not acknowledge their active existence and culture, no matter how unrepresented in official culture, would be inadequate.

Similarly, when Leith Davis writes that ‘Charlotte Brooke was largely forgotten by the general Irish public,’ she mirrors the section of society she is writing about by forgetting just what proportion of the general Irish population the ‘general Irish public’ constituted. And once again, a fuller understanding of Irish conditions would emerge from a comparison of Ireland with Germany, Denmark, England and other countries, where antiquarianism and the discovery by elite intellectuals of the culture of the folk are concerned.

Music feminine and masculine
As suggested by the title of her book, gender is at the heart of Leith Davis’ concerns. She sees the collectors of music, the historians, the essayists, the songwriters and novelists she examines as having to deal, each in his or her own way, with some of these related questions: Is the melancholy strain in native Irish music inherent (i.e. preceding conquest) or does it reflect a generalised sense of loss on the dissolution of the Gaelic order? Is Irish music, then, marked with the sign of defeat, and does it point to the inferiority, the unmasculine weakness, of that culture? Does the belief that the Irish have a special talent for music but for little else mark the Irish as culturally exotic but inferior? If the public and the private or domestic space are marked out on gender lines, must music belong with the domestic and feminine? Must Ireland create its own more masculine music to reflect a new assertive identity?

Reflecting male dominance of the public sphere and modes of expression, most Anglophone writers, male or female, until recently used the pronoun ‘he’ when referring to their reader, to the idea of a citizen, and so on. Pointing this out is necessary, but making an issue of it where individual writers of earlier periods are concerned, as Leith Davis does, is surely a waste of energy – whereas delineating spheres of action and oppression, or identifying differing degrees of male and female freedom as between classes and cultures, is very important.

There is a danger that current academic preoccupations will lead to a distorted picture of music’s place in society. It is true that in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century middle-class society singing and playing the piano was a desirable female accomplishment, associated with refinement and sensibility, but does this mean that music is to be read as always potentially undermining assertive masculinity? Just as disciplined musicians performed on the battlefield of Waterloo, baton-waving conductors presided over ever-expanding and increasingly disciplined armies of male musicians in the nineteenth-century orchestra. It was the Victorians who, while painting the map of the world red, built up a musical infrastructure that was eventually to bear fruit at the century’s end. Prussia and Austria had highly militarised societies, but with an extraordinary level of organised musical activity. And what is true of the drawing-room may not be true at all of the mud cabin.

Leith Davis identifies the particular pressures on women writers and intellectuals. She observes how Charlotte Brooke negotiates a space for herself in the public sphere – on the one hand, deferring to male authorities such as her antiquarian father and Joseph Walker; on the other, letting readers know that her translations and interpretations are grounded in a knowledge of the original language. Davis also shows how Brooke’s personal and creative achievement as a woman was undermined by the way her work was presented after her death and how one posthumous memoir depicted her as the perfect daughter of the house rather than as an independent-minded woman.

Davis’ comments on gender issues in relation to Thomas Moore are often interesting, but certain details are open to question. Firstly, Davis contrasts Moore’s early reputation as a licentious threat to women with his later reputation as ‘effeminate and an object of feminine consumption’. She relates this to an ‘increasingly gendered politics of taste’. This is all very well but there is a simpler explanation: the risqué material and tone of those early translations and poems were in marked contrast to the far safer sighs and tears of the Melodies. Secondly, the sweetness and nostalgic cast of many of Moore’s Melodies embodied a passive acceptance of history, even if accompanied by a degree of pride. Leith Davis emphasises the dismissive, gendered terms in which the English essayist William Hazlitt (in his wonderful The Spirit of the Age) and Thomas Davis at a later date criticised Moore. Others might emphasise that these politically focused writers had correctly identified the need for a dynamic and forward-looking version of Irish identity if the country was to shake off defeatist passivity and to assert its claim to independence against one of the world’s leading powers.

A chapter on Boucicault’s and other musical representations of Irishness in the United States is interesting in its own right, and will bring the issues home to Davis’ North American readers. The afterword, leaping forward to Riverdance and the globalisation of Irish traditional music, offers little new. If Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender stimulates debate, as it should, it will be because of the challenge offered by its reinterpretation of an important aspect of earlier Irish musical history.

Leith Davis, Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender – the Construction of Irish National Identity, 1724–1874
IN, USA, University of Notre Dame Press, 2005, 344pp

Published on 1 May 2007

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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