The digitization of historical sources has massively improved the possibilities for research of any kind. I am very grateful to every library that makes their collections available in the Internet. But of course not everything can be found online. And I asssume it will never be, at least not during my lifetime. While researching the history of "Eileen Aroon" & "Robin Adair" I was looking for a digital copy of the original sheet music of John Braham's "Robin Adair". This version of the song was first published in 1811 by Button & Whitaker and became one of the greatest musical successes of this era. Original prints are stored in some British libraries (see Copac) but as far as I know none of them has been digitized yet. But thankfully - and much to my surprise - I was able to find another extant copy of this historically important publication:
- Robin Adair, The Much Admired Ballad Sung with enthusiastic applause by Mr. Braham at the Lyceum Theatre, The Symphony & Accompaniments, Composed & Arranged For The Harp Or Piano Forte By W. Reeve, London, Printed by Button & Whitaker, St. Paul's Church Yard, n. d. [1811/12] Now available at the Internet Archive
There is a very interesting story behind this song in general and especially this particular publication. The basic facts can be found in contemporary newspapers which are generally an excellent and very valuable resource for musicological research. I have used here once again mostly the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) and this time was also able to find some more information regarding the early history of Braham's great hit that also allowed me to correct some of my earlier assumptions about the song's first performance and the date of first publication of the sheet music.
Braham, one of the greatest and most popular singers of this era (see Wikipedia; BDA 2, pp. 291-303), introduced the new "Robin Adair" on December 7th in a show at the Lyceum, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. This was first and foremost an opera night with The Maniac, or: The Swiss Banditti by S. J. Arnold and Henry Bishop as the main attraction. But as was still common during this era the singers also performed popular songs, old and new, between the acts or at the end of the concert. The Morning Post published a glowing review two days later on December 9th (p. 3, at BNA):
"Lyceum. - Mr. Arnold's Opera of 'The Maniac' was on Saturday performed, for the first time this season [...] To many of the songs he [Braham] gave an effect which perfectly astonished us, and the frequent encores with which he was honoured, bore simple testimony to the taste, and to the gratification of the audience. He introduced the ballad of 'Robin Adair,' which he sung with exquisite feeling, and with all that simplicity of manner which is necessary to render it perfect justice. The audience were absolutely in raptures with it. It was tumultously encored, and loudly called for a third time. The last call was not complied with. It was certainly not necessary, as from the impression it made, being sung but twice, it is probable that the last two lines will often be repeated by many of those who were present - 'Oh! I shall ne'er forget/Robin Adair' [...]."
Braham of course kept on performing the song and in the same paper on December 13th (p. 3, at BNA) the readers learned that at a show the night before he had sung this "simple melodious ballad [...] divinely, and was encored amidst the most tumultous applause [...]". A week after the very first performance the publication of the sheet music was announced (Morning Post, 14.12.1811, p. 3, at BNA):
"Robin Adair - This day is published, by Button and Whitaker, price 1s. 6d, the celebrated Song Robin Adair, sung with such unbounded applause, by Mr. Braham, at the Lyceum Theatre."
The "favourite ballad, 'Robin Adair'" was also explicitly mentioned in adverts for another show on the 17th that were published in the Times on the 14th and 16th (found at The Times Digital Archive). It seems at this point "Robin Adair" had already won widespread popularity in a very short time. But already back then popular songs were a hotly contested market. Every publisher jumped on the band-wagon and produced his own version of this ballad to get a slice of this new promising cake. William Reeve (1757-1815, see New Grove, 2nd ed., p. 75), a popular composer and a mainstay of the London music scene, and as the arranger involved in the production of the new hit - his name was even printed larger than Braham's on the title-page - clearly saw this coming. On December 17th he sent out a letter to at least five London newspapers and warned against what were in his eyes illegal editions of the song. It was published for example on the 20th in the Morning Post (p. 4, at BNA):
Sir, - In consequence of the very great popularity of the song 'Robin Adair' now singing with such applause by Mr. Braham, I am informed that two spurious copies of it are preparing for the Press. Through the medium of your paper therefore I feel it is but an act of justice to inform the public that the copyright of the only genuine copy as sung by Mr. Braham, with the symphony and accompaniments composed by me, has been purchased at a liberal price by Messrs. Button and Whitaker of St. Paul's Church-yard, and that I cannot be responsible for the correctness of any other copy than that published by those gentlemen. I am, Sir, your Obedient Servant, William Reeve, 53, Marchmont-street, Dec. 17, 1811"
One gets the feeling that he had panicked a little bit and saw his financial rewards in danger. Amusingly on the very same day in the very same newspaper the publication of composer John Parry's version of this song was announced on page 1:
"Just Published by Bland and Miller, [...], Robin Adair, the popular Air sung by Mr. Braham, with new words and accompaniment. By J. Parry"
As can be seen from this advert Mr. Parry had even written new lyrics. This text was then reprinted in a couple of newspapers (see for example: 27.12.1811, Chester Chronicle, p. 3; 11.1.1812, Lancaster Gazette, p. 4, both at BNA). The way the new text was introduced there actually insinuated that it must have been Parry's version that Mr. Braham was singing:
"The following Ballad, sung with unprecedented applause by Mr. Braham, is from the pen of Mr. Parry, Editor of the Welsh Melodies:
Whate'er may be thy lot, Robin Adair
Never forget thy cot, Robin Adair
Mr. Reeve continued his campaign against this kind of "spurious editions", but to no avail. They kept on coming. On December 24th the Morning Post (p. 3, BNA) published a note that looks as if Reeve had written it himself. Here it was announced that his letter and signature will be "engraved on the title page" of the sheet music published by Button & Whitaker to distinguish the original edition from unauthorized versions. His letter also appeared in some provincial newspapers (see Northampton Mercury, 28.12.1811, p. 2 & Cheltenham Chronicle, 16.1.1812, p. 3, BNA) and in January he even felt it necessary to send out a second diatribe where he complained that "no fewer than Eight" of these competing editions had already been "imposed upon the public". The customers were once again asked to look for the reprint of his first letter and "the fac-simile of my signature" on the sheet music to be sure that they were buying a "genuine" copy (see Leeds Intelligencer, 3.2.1812, p. 2 & Manchester Mercury, 4.2.1812, p. 4, at BNA). In fact the print I have includes Reeve's letter and singnature:
An astonishing number of new "Robin Adairs" were produced at this time. New arrangements were for example published by Joseph Mazzinghi, John Parry, Antony Corri, Thomas Howell, William Ling and Charles Stokes (see the reviews in Repository of Arts, Literature, Vol. 7, 1812, p. 288; The Monthly Magazine, 1812, Vol. 33, pp. 53, 166; Vol. 34, pp. 155, 445, at Internet Archive resp. Google Books). Clearly nobody cared much about Mr. Reeve's complaints. One of his rivals and colleagues even wrote an answer. Joseph Mazzinghi (1765-1844; see BDA 10, pp. 159-161; New Grove, 2nd ed., 16, pp. 192-3), an English composer of Corsican descent, was another experienced veteran of the London music scene of that era and also someone who had his fingers at the pulse of popular taste. His version interestingly included another new text. But he was also old enough to know that this tune was simply a variant of the old "Aileen Aroon" and therefore described it as "Irish":
- Robin Adair, A Simple Irish Ballad. Sung with unbounded applause by Mr. Braham, At the Lyceum Theatre, Arranged with an Accompaniment for the Harp or Piano-forte, Also may be had with Variations for Piano Forte, Harp & Flute, By J. Mazzinghi, Printed by Goulding & Co., London n. d.  (online available at Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music, Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections).
"The accompaniments to this Edition of Robin Adair, are certainly not by Mr. Reeve, an observation which would never have been made, but for a curious advertisement that has lately appeared, we are too well aqcuainted with Mr. Reeve, to imagine for a moment, that he thinks himself the only person capable of writing an Accompaniment to a simple ballad, were he so vain, this copy would convince him to the contrary, but the fact is. The real merit of robin adair, rests with the original composer, and its present popularity to the inimitable singing of Mr. Braham, by whom, and not by Mr. Reeve, this beautiful melody is once again rescued from oblivion."
While Reeve based his claims for the copyright on the fact that he had arranged it anew Mazzinghi in turn emphasized the importance of the tune itself and of Braham's performance. I only wonder if he also gave a share of his income from this publication to Mr. Braham. Nonetheless, in spite of all these competing editions of "Robin Adair", the original version printed by Button & Whitaker still seems to have been a very big success. According to a report in the Metropolitan Magazine in 1837 (p. 136, at Google Books) "the publisher sold, [...] in one year, [...] upwards of two hundred thousands copies". This was quite a lot for this era. But of course the song was afterwards recycled endlessly without regard for any kind of copyright and at least Mr. Reeve's role was quickly forgotten.
I also happened to find another edition of this song, this time by a publisher from outside of London:
- Robin Adair. The much admired Ballad as Sung by Mr. Braham at the Lyceum, and Mr. Sinclair at the Theatre Royal Liverpool, With an Accompaniment for the Piano Forte or Harp, Liverpool, Printed by Hime & Son Castle Street & Church Street, n. d.  (pdf-copy, my own scan).
As usual this print was published without a date but in this case the newspaper archives are once again of great help. In fact it was mentioned in an ad by Hime & Son in the Liverpool Mercury on September 18th, 1812 (p. 4, at BNA) as "a new edition of Robin Adair, to which is added an Arrangement of the air for two Flutes or Violins". John Sinclair was another popular singer from this era and in another advert published in the same paper on August 21st (p. 1, at BNA) it was announced that "This present Friday Evening" he will sing this song "by particular desire, and for the first time" at a "Divertisiment, Consisting of Singing, Dancing and Recitation" at the Theatre Royal. The arrangement in this edition was of course different from the original and I have some serious doubts if Sinclair or maybe even Braham received some pay for the use of their names. Here we see how a provincial publisher could recycle this song once again with the help of the names of these popular singers which most likely served only as a promotional prop.
Literature & Online Resources
- BNA - The British Newspaper Archive
- The Times Digital Archive (accessed via Nationallizenzen.de)
- BDA = Philip H. Highfill et al., (ed.), A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, Vol.1 - 16, Carbondale 1973 - 1993
- New Grove = The New Grove Dictionary Of Music And Musicians, 2nd ed., edited by Stanley Sadie, London 2001