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Celtic Relics

By Michael Robinson

Ornament Ornament In this section I am collecting information which I have come across concerning the survival of tunes and songs over long periods of time. Some of this information may not meet the requirements of academic scholarship. Nevertheless I have found it thought-provoking and worthy of mention.



Callen o custure me

The jumble "callen o custure me" in Shakespeare's Henry V (IV 4) has been deciphered to read Cailín ó Chois tSiúre mé (I am a girl from the Suir-side). In a poem beginning Mealltar bean le beagán téad (a woman is wooed with a few strings) found in a late seventeenth-century manuscript from Fermanagh, Cailín ó Chois tSiúre is mentioned with the names of other songs, the singing of which, the poet declares, would have been a more profitable occupation for him than writing poetry. Malone, the great Irish eighteenth-century editor of Shakespeare, in his effort to restore the correct reading, has drawn attention to the appearance in A Handfull of Pleasant Delites, published in 1584, of a song entitled 'A Sonet of a lover in the praise of his lady, to Calen o custure me, sung at every line's end'. The air is found among a collection of songs and other pieces bound together with William Ballet's lute book (belonging to the last quarter of the sixteenth century) now preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. It is the earliest known annotation of an Irish song and will be immediately recognised as a variant of that to which The Croppy Boy ('Good men and true in this house who dwell') is sung.

Breandán Breathnach
Folk Music and Dances of Ireland
Mercier Press, 1977
pp. 18-19

William Byrd (1543-1623), the noted English composer, created a version of this tune for virginal, under the title "Callino Casturame". There is an excellent website, The Keyboard Music of William Byrd by John Sankey, which has MIDI versions of Byrd's music. Among these is "Callino Casturame". You must visit the site to hear it; the server refuses links.


The Estampie

From written descriptions we know that music and dance were an important part of life in the Middle Ages, but only about 50 pieces of dance music earlier than 1430 have survived. (A group by the name of New York's Ensemble for Early Music has recorded all known medieval dance music on two CDs—Lyrichord LEMS8016 and LEMS8022). Of these, eight in a 13th century French manuscript are labeled "estampies" and another eight in a 14th century Italian manuscript under the heading "Istanpitta". The tunes have a formal structure consisting of a series of short melodic sections called puncta, each of which is followed by a fixed refrain. Some of the Italian examples have a similar but more complex structure. (If you go looking for these recordings, you will find them under the name "Istanpitta", which from the look of the CD cover seems to be the name of the group. Actually, I've been informed, it isn't.)

In addition to the named estampies, other pieces of unnamed medieval dance music conform to the same structure. Thus the estampie seems to have made up a large proportion of dance music in the international culture of medieval Europe.

Since the first records of what we now call "traditional music" extend back only as far as the early 17th century, it might seem unlikely that any trace of a connection could be found.

Some have suggested that the Scottish reel Stumpie could have taken its name from a survival of "estampie". However, there are other explanations for the name.

However, in Patrick McDonalds A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs (1781), in the section "North Highland Airs" can be found a tune Gur bòidheach, bòidheach an cnocán (with the translation given Lovely, lovely is yonder mount) which has a structure identical to that of the medieval French estampie. The tune is notated with a 1st, 2nd and 3rd "beginning" (each melodically different) equivalent to the puncta, each of which is followed by a fixed refrain. This structure to my knowledge is found in no other Scottish or Irish tune.

It would be interesting to research whether the estampie form could be found in French or Italian folk music, but I don't know enough about these topics to comment for the moment.


The travels of Gallua Tom

The Straloch manuscript of Scottish lute music (1627) contains a lively little tune in jig time entitled Gallua Tom. It is a single melodic section starting in 9/8 time, and ending in 6/8 time. Since the manuscript is carelessly written, some recorded versions of the tune make it sound like an attempt at a sort of uneven Balkan rhythm, but it is obvious that it should be a jig.

Kells beasts "Gallua" is obviously a free spelling of "Gallowa", an area of southwestern Scotland now usually spelled "Galloway".

In 1792 we find Robert Burns giving a very similar tune, now equipped with a second part very similar to the first, but starting the main melodic phrase on a higher note—a typical variation used in Highland pipe playing. Burns also gives the following set of words:

O Galloway Tam came here to woo,
I'd rather we'd gin him the brawnit cow;
For our lass Bess may curse and ban
The wanton wit o' Galloway Tam.

O Galloway Tam came here to shear,
I'd rather we'd gin him the gude gray mare;
He kist the gudewife and strack the gudeman,
And that's the tricks o' Galloway Tam.

Published in 1804, O'Farrell's Collection of National Irish Music for the Union Pipes was the first significant collection of Irish dance music collected and written down by a traditional musician. O'Farrell was an Irish piper who performed on the London stage in the late 18th century. His collection includes a five-part version of the tune in 6/8 time, entitled The Boughlee Buee or Gallaway Tom. I believe that The Boughlee Buee is an attempt at "An Buachaillín buí", Irish for "the yellow boy".

In the late 19th century, in Chicago, the famous Irish collector Francis O'Neill (who is known to have possessed a copy of O'Farrell's Collection) collected a tune named Galway Tom, which he published in O'Neill's Music of Ireland (1903) as no. 745 in the collection. This is a five-part tune, the first part of which is identical to Gallua Tom, except that the 9/8 measures have been lengthened by internal repetition so that the entire section is now in 6/8 time. A second section has been added of different melodic material. The remaining three sections are variations of the first section, of the type frequently seen in the piping tradition.

O'Neill collected the tune from John McFadden, a fiddler born in the townland of Carrowmore, a few miles north of Westport, Co. Mayo, about 1850. McFadden learned the fiddle from his father, and was unable to read music.

O'Neill comments:

The airy style of his playing, the clear crispness of his tones, and the rhythmic swing of his tunes, left nothing to be desired, yet in the manipulation of his instrument he violated all the laws of professional ethics. His bow hand seemed almost wooden in its stiffness, and the bow itself appeared to be superflously long, for he seldom used more than half of it. [Note 1.]

This seems like a playing style relating to earlier times when the bow was much shorter than a modern bow. (A photograph of a Donegal fiddler playing with a instrument and bow that would not seem out of place in a medieval manuscript can be seen in Caoimhín Mac Aoidh's book Between the Jigs and the Reels.)

O'Neill collected another set of Galway Tom (no. 744) from Father James Fielding, a flute-player born in Mooncoin, Co. Kilkenny about 1860. Fielding's setting is in two parts, the first of which is similar to McFadden's variations, and the second of which is McFadden's first section, the original Gallua Tom. Number 706 in the collection is An Buachaillín buí, or The Yellow Little Boy, another two-part setting.

Most traditional musicians of today would recognize McFadden's setting as a close relative of the well-known jig The Lark in the Morning.


Here's something I just came across in a CD booklet. I don't have any knowledge of how accurate the statement is.

It's a CD by the New London Consort directed by Philip Pickett, called Tielman Susato: Dansereye 1551 (L'Oiseau-Lyre 436 131-2). Susato (c. 1500-1560) was one of the very first music publishers. It took about a century after the invention of moveable type printing before they figured out how to print music. Susato lived in Antwerp.

In the CD notes it says:

Susato drew on the common stock of European melodies for his arrangements, including in his collection not only current folk tunes but also a few exotic but obviously popular musical oddities which must date from an earlier time. Similar folk tunes can still be heard in Hungary today, and a version of La morisque is still played by morris sides all over England as the 'morris-on'.


Note 1.

Capt. Francis O'Neill
Irish Minstrels and Musicians
Chicago, 1913
p. 395
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