Sunday, August 30, 2015

Some Notes About The Tune of Thomas Moore's "Minstrel Boy" (1813)

At the moment I am researching the history of some of Thomas Moore's songs: those that were popular in Germany in the 19th century. In this context I also try to put together what is known of the origin and the possible sources of these particular tunes. The one of "'Tis The Last Rose of Summer" has been discussed in a previous blogpost. This one is about "The Minstrel-Boy", also one of Moore's most important and most often performed songs. It was published, together with the latter, in 1813 in volume 5 of his Irish Melodies. The tune is called "The Moreen" or "The Mereen" (pp. 30-35, at the Internet Archive; see also SITM 5340, p. 970):

Where did Mr. Moore find this particular tune? The first step for a question like this is to check the indispensable article by Veronica ní Chinnéide about "The Sources of Moore's Melodies" that was published in 1959 in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (pp. 109-34). She showed that in most cases Moore used printed sources, especially Edward Bunting's publications, one by the Dublin publisher Smollett Holden and also George Thomson's Scottish collections. Other tunes he received from collectors like George Petrie and Thomas Crofton Croker. Until today this is the most complete discussion of this topic and as far as I can see not much has been added in the meantime except some additional information by Aloys Fleischmann in his Sources of Traditional Irish Music (SITM, see there p. xxvi). 

But not all of Moore's sources have been found and this is also the case with the tune of "The Minstrel Boy" (see Chinnéide, p. 123: "not found"). There is still no evidence that a tune like this, with this title, was printed before the publication of "The Minstrel Boy" in 1813. Nonetheless it is easily possible that Moore had heard this melody somewhere in Ireland or that he got it from one of the collectors who used to help him out. 

In fact there is, thanks to George Petrie, at least some evidence that this particular tune existed before it was published by Mr. Moore. Petrie (1790-1866) was, besides Edward Bunting and Patrick Weston Joyce, one of the most important collectors of Irish tunes during the 19th century. But only a part of what he had collected could be published during his lifetime in the 1st Vol. of The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland. Arranged for Piano-forte (Dublin, 1855, at the Internet Archive). Only half a century after his death composer Charles Villiers Stanford managed to make the most of it available in a new edition: 
  • The Complete Collection of Irish Music As Noted by George Petrie, LL.D., R.H.A. (1789-1866). Edited From the Original Manuscripts by Charles Villiers Stanford, 3 Vols., London & New New York, 1902-1905 (at the Internet Archive
In Vol. 3 (No. 1067, p. 270) we can find a tune with the title "Moreen" and with an additional note: "From O'Neill's collection A. D. 1787":

In his own Vol. 1 (1855, p. 88) Petrie had - in the notes to another song - referred to a"manuscript book of Irish tunes, written in 1785 by Mr. Patrick O'Neill, a respectable farmer on the Bessborough estate, and of which book, as well as of several others of the same kind, I was allowed the use for the present work". The manuscripts of Mr. O'Neill - or at least parts of it - surprisingly reappeared in 2008 and were then bought by the National Library of Ireland (see Carolan 2009, at; also The Session and Simon Chadwick at Early Gaelic Harp Info). 

Patrick O’Neill or Pádraig Ó Niall (1765–1832), a farmer and miller, also a musician and poet and a very educated man, seems to have been a local celebrity. His "manuscripts contain music from many different music genres", most likely learned from printed sources, but also "100 Irish traditional instrumental and vocal melodies", most of them possibly "from oral tradition" (Carolan, p. 18). Around 30 tunes in Petrie's Complete Collection are marked as being taken from O'Neill's note-books but according to Nicholas Carolan only 20 of them can be found in these manuscripts. "The remaining nine or ten" - including "Moreen" - are missing and "may have come from another O'Neill MS now lost, or from pages which are now missing [...]" (p. 22, n. 4, pp. 20-1). Therefore it is not possible to confirm Petrie's claims and to check if his date of 1787 is correct. 

Nonetheless it is still tempting to take Petrie's variant at least as an indication that the tune is older than Moore's "Minstrel Boy" and that it may have reached the latter on unknown ways. But I must admit that I am very skeptical. One lone variant, allegedly from a long lost manuscript and now unverifiable, simply can't be taken as any kind of proof, especially when it comes to such a famous tune. And even if it was really there, an error in dating is always possible. So at this point I have to leave it open and have a look at other possible sources and precursors. 

Alfred Moffatt in his Minstrelsy of Ireland (1898, pp. 244-5 & pp. 222-3) pointed to "Green Woods of Truigha" from Edward Bunting's second General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (1809, pp. 42-3; SITM 4942, p. 896) and claimed that this was "one of the older versions of 'The Moreen', to which Moore wrote his immortal song 'The Minstrel Boy'". I wouldn't go that far but in fact we can find here at least the characteristic melodic motive of the first 2 bars of Moore's melody. By the way, the latter used this particular tune much later, in a supplement to the 10th volume of the Irish Melodies in 1834, for another song: "Silence is in our festal halls" was a tribute to Sir John Stevenson, his long-time musical partner, who had died in 1833 (see this song in a later complete edition of the Irish Melodies, Dublin 1882, pp. 260-1).

Aloys Fleischmann in the Sources of Traditional Irish Music not only proposed this tune as possibly related to "The Moreen" (see SITM No. 4942, p. 896; No. 5340, p. 970) but also another one: "On hearing a young Lady sing" from the Scots Musical Museum (Vol. 5, 1796, p. 453; SITM 2343 p. 453), a song written by one Allan Masterton, a friend of Burns (see Stenhouse 1853, p. 393). This is not entirely unreasonable but still there is a long way from this tune to Moore's. 

It should also be mentioned that the melody of "The Minstrel Boy" sounds as if it is somewhat related to the one of Moore's song "The Harp that once through Tara's Hall" (IM 1, 1808, pp. 26-30):

 I hear a similar mood and sound as well as some musical touching-points. Here he had used the tune of "Gramachree", which was popular and well known everywhere in Britain: in England, in Scotland and in Ireland (see Bruce Olson, Gramachree/ Will Ye Go to Flanders, in: Early Irish Tune Title Index; see also the references for SITM No. 1818, p. 344). The earliest known variant can be found in James Oswald's Caledonian Pocket Companion ("Will you to Flanders", Vol. 1, 1745, p. 36 ). The tune variant as used by Moore was popularized in 1775 by the comic opera Duenna , Or The Double Elopement (Act 1, No. 10, p. 21) and since then it was printed in numerous songbooks, for example in the Scots Musical Museum (Vol. 1, 1787, No. 46, pp. 46-7), in Sime's Edinburgh Musical Miscellany (Vol. 12, 1793, pp. 130-2) and in the 1st Set of George Thomson's Select Collection of Scotish Airs (1793, here a later reprint Dublin, n. d., No. 18), the latter most likely Moore's source (see Chinnéide, p. 118). 

But the tune most closely related to the one of "The Minstrel Boy" seems to be another one from Scotland (see Olson, Moreen 2, in: Early Irish Tune Title Index): "Tither Morn", first published in 1792 in the 4th volume of the Scots Musical Museum (No. 345, p. 355) and then three years later - with an arrangement by Joseph Haydn - in the 3rd volume of William Napier's Selection of Original Scots Songs in Three Parts (No. 31):

Robert Burns noted that the "tune is originally from the Highlands. I have heard a Gaelic song to it, which I was told was very clever, but not by any means a lady's song" (Dick 1908, p. 59). Apparently (see dto, pp. 111-2) he himself had collected this melody and then sent it to the Museum's editor James Johnson who - if I understand it correctly - combined it with this text which can be found - with the title "The Surprize, by a Scots Gentleman" - in some songsters from the 1780s, for example The Goldfinch, Or New Modern Songster (pp. 207-8). 

This tune is very close to Moore's "The Moreen", especially the first part. The second part is more different but that doesn't matter much. It would have been not too difficult for Thomas Moore to develop his melody from the one of "The Tither Morn". In fact he didn't need an original version of "Moreen". All the necessary musical material was available with this song as well as in the others mentioned above, especially "The Green Woods of Truigha" and "Gramachree". 

But no matter if there was an earlier "Moreen" or if it was Moore's own work it was the publication of the "Minstrel Boy" that introduced and established this famous "Irish tune". All later variants are clearly derived from his version. Only after 1813 this tune began to appear in other collections. The first one to use it was - of course - George Thomson in Edinburgh, at that time very busy compiling and producing his Select Collection of Original Irish Airs. He immediately - in April 1814 - forwarded it together with the melody of "'Tis The Last Rose of Summer" to Ludwig van Beethoven in Vienna who was writing the arrangements for him (date from Cooper 1994, pp. 22-3, 216; he didn't notice that Thomson had taken them from Moore's Irish Melodies). Both tunes then appeared in 1816 in Vol. 2 of his Select Collection with new texts by William Smyth. In case of "Moreen" it was "Then soldier, come fill high the wine" (No. 38, pp. 91-2). 

Soon afterwards, in 1825, R. A. Smith included the tune in his Irish Minstrel (pp. 14-5), but with two different texts: "Smile Through Thy Tears" by one Thomas Lyle and a new "Minstrel Boy" by James Hogg. Others would follow, like for example John Clinton in his Gems of Ireland (1841, No. 54, p. 27; SITM No. 6087, tune only) and John Henderson in The Flowers of Irish Melody (1847, see SITM No. 6617), the latter with another new text ("Hear, Comrades Hear"). All these attempts at supplying the tune with new words were of course not particularly successful. Moore's "Minstrel Boy" became immensely popular and is still known today while these other versions are at best only of historical interest. 

  • Nicholas Carolan, The Music Manuscripts of Patrick O'Neill (1765-1832), in: An Píobaire, Vol. 5, No. 5, December 2009, pp. 18-22 (at
  • Veronica ní Chinnéide, The Sources of Moore's Melodies, in: The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 89, No. 2, 1959, pp. 109-134 
  • Barry Cooper, Beethoven's Folksong Settings. Chronology, Sources, Style, Oxford & New York 1994
  • James C. Dick (ed.), Notes on Scottish Song by Robert Burns Written in an Interleaved Copy of The Scots Musical Museum with Additions by Robert Riddell and Others, London etc, 1908 (at The Internet Archive)
  • Alfred Moffat, The Minstrelsy of Ireland. 200 Irish Songs Adapted To Their Traditional Airs, London 1898 (at The Internet Archive
  • Bruce Olson, Early Irish Tune Title Index, 2001 
  • [SITM=] Aloys Fleischmann (ed.), Sources Of Irish Traditional Music, C. 1600 - 1855, 2 Vols., New York & London 1998 
  • William Stenhouse, Illustrations of the Lyric Poetry of Scotland. Originally compiled to accompany the "Scots Musical Museum," and now published separately, with Additional Notes and illustrations, Edinburgh & London, 1853 (at the Internet Archive)

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