From National Character to National Origins: reactions to J. B. Malchair’s collection of ‘national music’

From National Character to National Origins: reactions to J. B. Malchair’s collection of ‘national music’

This week, Alice Little (Oxford) asks why the musician John Malchair categorised his arrangements into national collections.

John Malchair (1730-1812), a musician and artist originating from Cologne, lived and collected music in Oxford between 1760 and 1812. His sources ranged from old books and manuscripts to street performers and even (on one occasion) the whistling of a passer-by.

Though at least two volumes of his collection are no longer extant, we still have over 900 of Malchair’s tunes. Around half of these are preserved in a book he titled ‘The Arrangement’, completed in 1795, in which he ‘arranged’ the melodies into the categories ‘Irish’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘English’.

‘Black Nag’ is a tune from Playford’s ‘Dancing Master’ that Malchair collected twice (from different editions). This video shows the dance in addition to the tune:

National music
It is not likely that Malchair’s collecting and categorisation of these tunes was motivated by political nationalism, a force which only became clearly defined in the nineteenth century. However, his focus indicates that he almost certainly conceived of his collection as one of ‘national music’, and it was referred to as such by his close friend William Crotch in 1807.

Matthew Gelbart’s research has shown that during the eighteenth century music came to be categorised by its geographical origin, rather than by its function as, say, a dance tune or air for solo performance. Key to this shift was the work of Scottish music publishers, including Allan Ramsay, whose first collection of Scottish songs was published in 1723-24. One of the motivators for Ramsay’s work was to use music to present the Scottish nation as culturally homogenous and distinct from England.

‘Paul’s Steeple’ is another tune Malchair collected from the ‘Dancing Master’:

Classifying tunes
However, Malchair seems to have had a different scheme in mind when he made his own classification in ‘The Arrangement’ in 1795. In his introduction he described how each class of music (Irish, Scottish, Welsh) ‘comprehends most probabely all the different characters of Melodie that ever were’ and how he had placed each tune according to ‘the nation it belongs to.’

Malchair did not explain how he decided which national group each tune would ‘belong to’; but he did make clear how he intended his book to be used. In a section of his introduction titled ‘On the utility of these Classes’ he explained, ‘It is only from an attentive inspection of the collective body that a compleate Idea of the whole can be obtained. If therefore a proper portion of time bee diligentely bestowed on any of these classes, then a clear and distinct Idea will areise concerning the character of the Music.’ In other words, he intended ‘The Arrangement’ as a textbook to help people to better understand the characters of Irish, Scottish, and Welsh music.

Reactions to Malchair’s work
Whether or not Malchair really was grouping his tunes according to national origin as reported by his source, his own interpretation of their national character, or something else entirely, remains to be seen. But the fact that the understanding of these categories was changing is confirmed by reactions to Malchair’s work in the years after his death.

One such reaction came from William Crotch (1775-1847), who acknowledged his heavy reliance on Malchair’s collection in ‘Specimens of Various Styles of Music’ (1807). In this work Crotch made his own ‘arrangement’ of Malchair’s tunes by redistributing some into alternative national groupings without explanation.

Sixty years after its creation, William Chappell was lent Malchair’s manuscript. This was in 1856, just as Chappell published the second volume of ‘Popular Music of the Olden Time … illustrative of the National Music of England’. A letter from Chappell can still be found between pages of Malchair’s manuscript, discrediting Malchair’s ‘incorrect’ categorisation of the tunes, particularly the inclusion of a tune by English composer Henry Fielding crammed onto an empty stave among the Irish tunes.

This letter, taken alongside Chappell’s published work, demonstrates that however Malchair might have conceived of his collection in the 1780s and ’90s, by the 1850s the geographical approach to understanding ‘national music’ was taken for granted.


‘Ffarwel Dinas Mawddwy’, composed by Malchair c. 1795. Malchair toured Wales three times, and had a fondness for the village of Dinas Mawddwy, where he completed a number of drawings of the surrounding scenery.

What about English tunes?
Particularly puzzling to me is the fact that despite dividing his book into four nations, or ‘classes’, as he called them, the ‘English Tunes’ section of Malchair’s manuscript was left blank, without a single tune added to the sheets following the title page. His decision to musically describe only three of the four British nations (rather than simply running out of time) is confirmed by his introduction, appended when he completed the manuscript, which refers to ‘three distinct Classes’.

The mystery here is the question of what Malchair thought of the tunes elsewhere in the manuscript that since at least Chappell’s day we have regarded as English. Did he think they were too ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’, or ‘Irish’ in character to represent England; or did he perhaps have too few to merit a fourth section to his manuscript, so he redistributed them to the next best place? It is even possible (although it seems unlikely) that he came to believe there were only three different kinds of music, and that all tunes could be categorised as of a ‘Scottish’, ‘Irish’, or ‘Welsh’ type.


Photo of Magpie Lane, Oxford. Malchair drew this view of Merton Chapel. This was also the location where he recorded an unnamed tune, writing in the margin of his tunebook: ‘I heard a Man whistle this tune in Magpey Lane Oxon Dbre 22 1789. came home and noted it down directly.’

To try and answer these questions, in the next stage of my research I will compare Malchair’s categorisation to that given by his sources and contemporaries, and generate my own ‘arrangement’ of the collection in digital form. This will help to shed light on Malchair’s thinking as well as providing a clearer picture in general of what ‘national music’ meant in the eighteenth century.

Alice has a BA in Modern History and an MSc in Material Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, both from the University of Oxford. After graduating she worked as Assistant Curator of Musical Instruments at the Horniman Museum, and returned to Oxford in 2015 to begin her DPhil, this time in the Music Faculty. Her doctoral research looks at historical collections of ‘national music’ and the practices of music collecting in late-eighteenth century England, focusing on the tunebooks of JB Malchair, who lived and worked in Oxford, 1760-1812. You can find out more about her work at and she’s on Twitter @littleamiss.

Photo credit 1: Reproduced and photographed by Alice Little

Photo credit 2: Magpie Lane, Oxford

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