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Music in the Isle of Man

Fenella Bazin writes about music in the Isle of Man from the Fifteenth century onwards

Before 1400

There is little to show what sort of music was played and sung in the Isle of Man during the Celtic Christian and Scandinavian periods of Manx history. Even the rich store of carved crosses show only two musicians - a harpist and a lur player - and there is no archaeological evidence to give any guide to music-making. The harp is a small quadrilateral knee harp about two feet high, and the lur is very similar to one found just across the water in Scotland, and may have been used on ceremonial occasions, or as a hunting horn or simply by herdsmen. Several clues suggest that some of the tunes from the oral tradition may have Scandinavian origins and there is also a category of melodies which bear a strong resemblance to some of the early Irish laments. Although few Manx tunes contain the 'Scotch snap', there are many clear connections between Manx and Scottish tunes, particularly from Western Scotland. 'Reeaghyn dy Vannin', the Manx sword dance, has an almost exact parallel with a Hebridean lullaby, and legend has it that the tune was used as a ritual dance during the Scandinavian period.

1400 - 1800

The increasing evidence from written sources shows that the Manx were enthusiastic dancers and musicians, often appearing in the ecclesiastical courts on charges on making music on Saturday nights or after church on Sundays. The fiddle was the most popular instrument. Curiously for a country with such close connections with Ireland and Scotland, no harp tradition seems to have survived, and the absence of pipes was noted by early commentators. Popular songs increasingly came from Northern England, through the influence of the Stanleys (later the Earls of Derby) who were the English Lords of Mann, and who brought their own retainers and servants with them from Lancashire. There is a large body of eighteenth-century music, including tunes used with broadside ballads, and the jigs, reels and other dances of the day which were popular throughout the British Isles. There seems to have been a variety of church music. Surviving in the remoter country areas were remnants of the old-style Gaelic psalm-singing, wild and discordant to our ears, a reminder of the Byzantine origins of the Celtic church. However, John Wesley wrote favourably about the singing he heard, which suggests that he had heard a style of music more familiar to him, and that the peripatetic choirmasters had found their way to the Island just as they had to others areas of the British Isles. Mainstream European music would have been heard at Rushen Abbey, and the Earls of Derby would have kept their own musicians for church music and court entertainment. A still earlier form of non-liturgical music church music was the carval (closely related to the medieval English carol). Performed at Oiell Verrees, after the Minister had left the church on Christmas Eve, they were sung to popular Manx tunes, and usually had newly-written Biblical texts, some dealing with the Nativity, but most based on other subjects, the most popular being the story of the prodigal son. The character of the melodies is varied but most are exclusively Manx in origin.

Music from 1800 to the present day

In most of the parish churches, clerks raised the hymns, 'lining-out' the metrical psalms for the congregation to echo, in the style widely practised throughout most of the British Isles. On special occasions, 'West Gallery' musicians led hymn singing and amazed congregations, but often dismayed the clergy by providing splendid anthems with instrumental accompaniments in the style of Purcell and Handel. Some of this music was locally-composed, but most was copied painstakingly into precious manuscript books from numerous published collections. Over twenty surviving manuscripts offer an insight into the social lives of 'West Gallery' musicians, many of whom were artisans who learned their musical skills through joining such bands and providing music for polkas, quadrilles and quicksteps as well as psalms and hymns.

Gradually supplanting this was the fashion for surpliced choirs accompanied by organ music, a novelty which attracted churchgoers but was often detrimental to the standard of congregational singing, although it generated printed collections of hymns specially designed for use in Manx churches. In 1799 came the first collection of hymns in Manx, based on 'Wesley as Watts, etc.', printed in Douglas and republished in 1830 and 1846. Published in London about 1835 and dedicated to Bishop Ward was A selection of Psalms and Hymns chiefly designed for the use of Congregations in the Isle of Man. The volume contained 58 tunes, none of Manx origin, without accompanying texts.

This was followed some five years later by 108 tunes (only ten of which duplicated the 1835 collection) in Isaac Dale's Mona Melodist published jointly by Quiggin's of Douglas and English companies from London, Liverpool and Whitehaven, including the traditional Manx melody 'Molly Charane (The Manx National Air)', and featuring Island composers like Rev. R Brown, I Cretney, G H Wood as well as several Wesley hymns. The language of the 'old-style' Gaelic psalms was predominantly Manx, and the hymn-raising parish clerks were more likely to use Manx, especially in country areas. Metrical psalms had been translated from English in 1760, with a special dispensation 'to allow one hymn in English if the Minister so desires'.

The language of West Gallery music was English, as anthems and hymns were generally copied from English-language collections. The music-loving Methodists clung to 'West Gallery' music, and remnants still survived into the 1950s, in tiny country chapels, and other Non-Conformists kept alive the tradition of instrumental music in worship, through the 'Hallelujah' and Teetotal bands, and the Salvation Army. In urban areas, the use of organs and surpliced choirs became widespread, partly in a bid to attract visiting churchgoers, who filled the new churches and chapels which had sprung up in tandem with the developing towns and tourism.

Open-air services attracted huge numbers of worshippers to Braddan, chapel and Sunday School anniversaries became more and more ambitious, Moody and Sankey evenings were popular in country districts, and the increasingly English-speaking congregations adopted the repertoire of hymn-books printed in England. The Methodist Hymn Book contained some traditional tunes, notably W H Gill's Manx Fishermen's Evening Hymn. His adaptation of 'Mylecharaine's march' ('The Manx National Air') was to become the Manx National Anthem. The decline of church music in the late twentieth century is such that few parish churches have regular choirs and many have difficulty in appointing organists.

Social music was greatly affected by the trading and immigration patterns during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The influx of half-pay officers and debtors fleeing English prisons inevitably resulted in the import of new styles of performance and repertoire. Professional and amateur musicians often seem to have worked alongside each other in bands, orchestras and choirs, taking part in concerts and festivals. Private teachers offered tuition in piano, singing, harp, guitar, cornet, as well as figured bass, a musical skill more often associated with the Baroque period than the nineteenth century. Many singers and instrumentalists learned their skills by joining one of the many bands and choirs which flourished in villages and towns, often closely linked with churches, and the Friendly and Benevolent Societies, which played an important role in raising money to help individuals fallen on hard times or to assist the charitable societies which predated the Welfare State.

After playing anthems and psalms on Sundays, West Gallery musicians provided quadrilles and polkas during the week at a variety of functions ranging from country 'hops' in barns to formal balls at the Assembly Rooms in Douglas. Traditional fiddle playing still had a part to play, and old Christmas and wedding customs (many similar to those in Scotland and Scandinavia) were still being observed in Douglas in the middle of the nineteenth century, and lingered later in the countryside. Concerts of sacred and secular music were popular, and often featured singers from Ireland and the North of England. String bands and formal orchestras began to be popular around the 1870s. A huge amount of sheet music was published, featuring songs, ballads and dance-music, much of it aimed at the growing tourist industry. Some has lived on, including 'Ellan Vannin', which many thought was the national anthem.

Visitors from northern England and Scotland were richly entertained with indoor concerts, outdoor band music and, of course, the music hall. The tourist industry had a far-ranging effect on popular music, with dance bands led by Joe Loss, Ivy Benson and Ronnie Aldrich entertaining holidaymakers and residents alike, and the growth of radio and recorded music hastened the decline of vernacular music, which began to be seen as old-fashioned.

The music of the internment camps had little effect on music generally, but did give birth to the world-renowned Amadeus Quartet. The 1960s and 70s saw a proliferation of subscription concerts, festivals such as the Mananan festival, and international competitions for viola, harp and double-bass competitions, and major sports events such as the TTs attracted some of the best rock bands in the world.

The standard of amateur music-making was spurred on by the Manx Music Festival, which celebrated its centenary in 1992. This is still the highlight of the year, particularly for singers, and competition for the Cleveland medal (donated by the members of the Cleveland Manx Society in North America) is keenly fought and of a very high standard. Country traditions such as Oiell Verrees and hymn-raising survived Bing Crosby and Beatles and seem to be increasing in popularity in the 1990s. Miss M L Wood, founder of the Guild and 'mother' of Manx music, and her musical successor Miss Emily Christian would have been sad to see the decline in choral singing, although they would probably have been impressed by the professionally-produced shows mounted at the Gaiety Theatre by the impressive number of music societies.

The choral tradition which was so strong at the beginning of the twentieth century has tailed off, although several choirs still flourish, but the instrumental tradition has strengthened since the 1970s, particularly as a result of educational policy, which has resulted in regular foreign tours by the Manx Youth Orchestra and Choir, and Saturday schools, as well as encouraging musicmaking of all types in school classrooms.

Youth groups flourish outside of the educational system, and the high standards of the Manx Youth Band have developed alongside the regrowth of several town bands, and the popular Brass Band festival. Like their nineteenth-century predecessors, all these groups have a fine record of charitable fund-raising. The increasing international awareness of nationhood was reflected by the interest in ethnic music, which began with Mona Melodies, the first publication of Manx tunes arranged for voice and piano in 1820, and peaked in 1896 with W H Gill's Manx National Song Book and A W Moore's Manx Ballads and Music.

The remarkable work of the late nineteenth century collectors such as Gill, Moore and Dr John Clague, who between them rescued over 300 popular songs, melodies, hymns and dance-tunes which had been transmitted orally and are today the basis of the folk revival. The music had survived in spite of the opposition of the established church, which often 'presented' musicians to the ecclesiastical courts for breaking the Sabbath.

The developments in popular music led to a change in the type of music contained in the oral tradition. Most musicians in the first 70 years of the twentieth century learned their Manx music from The Manx National Song Book, but as Morrison, Douglas and later collectors were to discover, not all traditional music had died. Local chruinnaghts and eisteddfods were still held, even after the demise in the 1930s of the Chruinnaght Ashoonagh Vannin (Manx National Chruinnaght). Choral and orchestral arrangements by composers Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Arnold Foster, and Haydn Wood, as well as numerous local musicians such as J E Quayle and Harry gave opportunities to amateur musicians to perform traditional music in contemporary styles. The successful revival in 1976 of the Manx Gaelic festival Yn Chruinnaght gave an astonishing new vitality to Manx music, and the festival's links with other major Celtic festivals in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany fuelled the vigorous growth of traditional music and dance among people of all ages.

The movement was further stimulated by Colin Jerry's publications of long-forgotten tunes from the collections of the early collectors, previously difficult of access to all but determined scholars. As sound recording became more accessible, Manx performers produced records, tapes and CDs, and it is fascinating to chart stylistic changes from the 1960s, through the performances and compositions of groups and individuals such as Phynodderee, the Mannin Folk, Charles Guard, Stuart Slack, Bernard Osborne/Peter Lumb, the Mollag Band, Caarjyn Cooidjagh, King Chiaullee, MacTullough Vannin and Emma Christian.

Reprinted from an article in The West Gallery Journal © November 2001



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