Dancing Above Par – The Dances of John Old 1808
Alison Davey & Mike O Connor
In June 2002 researchers, Bob and Jackie Patten, told Mike O’Connor of a manuscript book belonging to Frank Huddy of Chard. He bought it for six (old!) pence after it had been remaindered in a Scouts’ book sale in about 1970. The book, dated 1808, bears the name ‘John Old, Par’. The book contains dance tunes, 24 of which have brief dance notes accompanying them, which suggests Old was calling, directing or teaching the dances. The directions for dance were given in a way now usually associated with Scottish country dancing. This book reproduces those tunes associated with dance notes. It provides an interpretation of some of the notes by Alison Davey to permit modern country dancers to gain a swift insight into the world of John Old and enjoy the dances. Other of John’s tunes which have no dance notes may have just been used as instrumental interludes, but many were certainly used for well known country dances, for example ‘The Triumph’ and ‘Speed the Plough’. More about John and his music can be found in ‘No Song No Supper, a transcription of the complete manuscript.
John Old. John lived for a time in Par, but it seems unlikely he was born or died there. The Old family is strong in West Cornwall and near St. Columb Major. Also, a John Old was born in Lanteglos by Fowey (8 miles from Par) in 1750. How and where John acquired the skills to play perhaps 2 instruments and be a dancing master can only be guessed. He was literate and wrote with a practised hand. It seems likely that he came to Par for employment, for dancing was then a required social attribute, especially of middle- and upper-class young women, who were often taught to play instruments as well. Par was centrally located between the residences of some of the richest families in Cornwall. Later it seems that Old left for pastures new, which may account for the book being found in Somerset.
John Old’s World. At Tregrehan, near Par, lived the Carlyons. Their 1766 accounts include a bill from one John Louis for teaching music and dance. Thomas Carlyon was then 18 and was probably among those who were taught. A generation later Thomas’s accounts for 1797 mention a dancing school run by Mr. E. and Mrs. Mary Trethewy. The dancing master was a Mr. Mousely. Thomas’s 2 sons and 3 daughters were then aged between 9 and 19. Clearly the Carlyon family had a history of teaching their offspring music and dance. By 1808 Thomas Carlyon was High Sheriff of Cornwall and a focus of Cornish society, the children aged 20 to 30. At nearby Menabilly lived the wealthy Rashleighs, and Charles Rashleigh was the Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall. At Place in Fowey lived the Treffrys. Numbers of young Naval officers were billeted in the area due to the war with France. Country dancing was the height of fashion and John Old was well placed to be a dancing master, music teacher, and musician for the Cornish aristocracy.
John Old’s Music. John Old’s ms has 96 tunes from the fashionable social music of upper and middle classes of the time. But for much of 19th century there was not the gulf between ballroom and popular dance and music that existed later. The differences were of detail rather than style and many of Old’s tunes are now well known, though most were then relatively new. Most can be found in other collections. Some are named after those prominent in Edinburgh or London society, but just as many were well known in hamlet and village. The Scots tunes, some by the Cows and William Marshall, were then very popular, but it is clear that the latest dance music from all round Great Britain was accessible to John Old. Indeed, it seems as if a society musician from the ballrooms of Edinburgh and London was parachuted into rural Cornwall. One relevance of Old’s activity is that many of his tunes became established in the Duchy, for example ‘Stoney Steps’ is found in Michael Harris’ music book of c1858.
The Purpose of the Manuscript. John’s book would have been easy to read on a music stand in live performance. The lack of errors suggests that either most of the music was copied from other documents or that this is a fair copy. Possibly original music was expensive or hard to obtain in Cornwall and John Old copied the repertoire he needed. The lack of decorations and interpretive markings suggests that the ms may have been a handy reference book, but that style and interpretation was well known to John and his fellow performers. Clearly Old and his friends principally played for dancing.
Instrumentation. Some of the tunes are by known violinists and all are within the compass of the violin. Occasionally ‘double stopping’ appears, so the music was not played on a wind instrument. But often the intervals are hard for a violin. Some tunes have awkward jumps not usual in traditional fiddle music and some known fiddle tunes have been moved into keys less easy on the violin. One tune has a ‘harp solo’ and two are ·laid out with separate melody and harmony parts. Clearly Old did not play alone and the ensemble contained, inter alia, a harp. However, some of the tunes would have been ineffective on the harp alone. On balance it seems possible that Old played both harp and violin as part of a small ensemble.
Decorations. There are few decorations, phrasing, bowing, breathing or fingering marks. No tempi and few dynamics are indicated. If anything can be deduced from this it is that the music was well understood and was perhaps performed in an undramatic fashion. Repeats John Old has a frustrating habit of opening repeat marks in the second half of a tune without closing them. Often Old’s intentions are not clear. In this book we have interpreted the repeats in a way that makes most sense of the dance instructions.
Errors. There are some interesting ‘mistakes’ in the names of the tunes, all of which are reproduced as they appear in the manuscript. For example: ‘Cory Owan’ for ‘Garry Owen’ These look at first like errors in transcription, but the index repeats these spellings, so it seems that this is the form in which that Old received them. That they were not corrected perhaps shows the limits of Old’s contact with the wider musical world. Regular contact with other dance musicians would perhaps have revealed to Old the more normal spellings. There are a few musical errors, but in the main accuracy is high. Old seems to have been a competent and accurate musician.
The Dances. It seems likely that Old was teaching the well-established conventions of the late 18th century. Conventions of style, notation and terminology were then still evolving in both English and Scottish country dances. Old left us the briefest of notes and details of progressions seem to be omitted. His dance instructions are given in italics. The authors’ interpretation is in plain text. The interpretations seem credible to the authors and the volunteers who have tested the dances, but they cannot be authoritative, and other interpretations are certainly possible. Indeed, we welcome comments and ideas from experienced dancers. We have left some dances with just Old’s notes, so that dancers can devise their own interpretations. Remember country dances seemed to increase in complexity between Old’s time and that of Cecil Sharp, and the dances are not necessarily the same as their modern namesakes.
The Tunes. The manuscript has reels, jigs, strathspeys, waltzes and hornpipes. In the manuscript the tunes are not grouped in sets and each dance had just one tune. However, in this book tunes have been grouped and transposed to related keys so that musicians can make sets of tunes and vary the music.
Reels John Old played many reels. Some are well known, especially in Scotland. The reel as a tune (fast 4/ 4) as opposed to a dance figure is rarely found in Cornwall. It seems that the dance figure was more usually danced to jigs in other areas of Cornish society.
Jigs. Similarly, there are many jigs in 3/8, 6/8 and 9/8.
Strathspeys and Schottisches. There are a dozen or so tunes called strathspeys. But others have similar rhythms and it is hard to judge if they were played as strathspeys or as schottisches. For example, Speed the Plough is rather different from the reel more usually collected. The collection of schottisches elsewhere in Cornwall shows they survived in popular favour long after the aristocratic infatuation with Scottish Country Dancing.
Waltzes. There are 5 Waltzes. 1808 was early in the rise of the waltz to the immense popularity it achieved later in the century. Sometimes although called waltz they have the directions of a set dance. Sometimes a 3/8 time signature can make them look like jigs.
Hornpipes. The ms has just 4 hornpipes. Three have 4 beats in a bar and there is one older 3-time hornpipe. This contrasts significantly with the popularity of hornpipes in other areas of 19th century Cornish society, especially for step and broom-dancing.
Conclusion .John Old’s repertoire tells us how cosmopolitan Cornish social music was in 1808. It tells of the fashion among the well-to-do for country dancing, and the popularity of Scottish material in such classes at that time. We should note, though, that dances like ‘Speed the Plough’ and ‘The Triumph’ had enduring popularity as other fashions came and went. There are no minuets or rigadons, there is no modal or ancient music; the tunes are diatonic. In 1808 Cornish society enjoyed the latest dance music from all of Britain. Many of John’s tunes have been found elsewhere in Cornwall. It is reasonable to surmise that the Cornish fondness for Schottisches began with Old and his friends. The social music of Cornwall is an eclectic mixture and Old’s ms is an important source document. It gives a valuable insight into the evolution of the vernacular music of Cornwall.
List of dances and accompanying tunes:
The Village Maid (p.6)
Tunes: the Village Maid
Cory Owen (p8)
Tunes: Bonaparte in a Fog, The Forty Thieves,The Devil in Dublin,New Mills House
Mlle. Parisotts Hornpipe (p10)
Tunes: Dances Hornpipe, The Duke of Clarence’s Fancy
Lady Shaftsbury’s Delight (p12)
Tunes: Lord Kelly’s Reel, Lord Bentick’s Reel, Lady Mackenzies Reel,
Miss Johnson’s New Reel (p14)
Tunes: The Finger Post, Carlton House
Major Macdonald’s Rant (p16)
Tunes: Col Montgomery’s Reel
Speed the Plough (p17)
Tunes: Carlton House
Lord Moira’s Welcome Home (p18)
Tune: Hon Mrs Andrew Ramsey’s
Shaw’s Waltz (p20)
Tune: The Strasburg Waltz
Cornish Dance Day 2015
The theme of the Cornish Dance Society Day in 2015 was early country dance in Cornwall and a number of dances from John Old’s collection were performed. Some groups chose to try and capture the dance as it would have been in its day others interpreted the dance more broadly.
Lord Moiras Welcome: Ros Keltek
Major McDonalds Rant: Penzance Guizers
Mademoiselle Parisots Hornepipe: Tan Ha Dowr
Cory Owen Bolingey: Troyl Band and Dancers
Acknowledgements: We are very grateful for the assistance of Bob and Jackie Patten, who told us of John Old’s music, and to Frank Huddy who rescued the manuscript from oblivion and kindly let the Pattens and ourselves study and transcribe it.
Source: Alison Davey and Mike O’Connor, “Dancing Above Par” (Wadebridge, Lyngham House)