Head-scratching puzzles

Day 3 with the Stewart Symonds Music Collection and it is turning up quite a few head-scratchers! One of the main questions I have to keep reminding myself to ask is ‘how did this music get here?’ It is very easy to imagine a young lady clinging on to her music book as she sailed the treacherous seas from her British home. However, the fact of the matter is, some of this collection could have been purchased in Britain by keen collectors in the 20th century and brought to Sydney. That being said, much of the collection I have been examining would appear to have been collected and brought in the early 19th century – thanks to all those 19th century musicians who wrote their name on the music!

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Vol 43, Owned by Marion Crawford, Stewart Symonds Music Collection, Sydney Living Museums

This is where original bindings with name plates and dates are just as important as the music contained inside. But even when original name plates remain on the volume, they are not always the key to solving the mystery of whom the music belonged. Such is the case with a volume entitled ‘3 Receuil Des airs, arranges pour piano forte [3 collections of airs arranged for piano forte] J. H. L. 1807’.


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Vol 36, Stewart Symonds Music Collection, Sydney Living Museums


This is a beautifully handwritten manuscript that contains many Scottish fiddle tunes. To be honest, the arrangement for piano forte is not obvious, since the bass line only appears in the first couple of tunes. So let’s get into the nitty gritty of the volume! The date is 1807 but what about the music inside. I have so far managed to identify a few of the tunes, and it seems that the first 9 have come from the same source –Malcolm MacDonald’s A Collection of Strathspey Reels, which just happens to be available on hms.scot! MacDonald’s collection dates from 1788, which perhaps means whoever was putting together 3 Receuil was compiling it towards the end of the 18th century.

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Vol 36, Stewart Symonds Music Collection, Sydney Living Museums, p. 1

As well as these tunes, there are many more strathspeys, reels, hornpipes, waltzes, jigs and just generically labelled ‘dances’. I spent today attempting to identify a few of the other tunes not appearing in MacDonald’s collection and a few of these seem to date form the early 1790s. More on that anon.

So where does the 3 in ‘3 collections’ come in? I was leaning towards this being a collection of materials from 3 tune books but my search today has made me think again. There does appear some consistency, but at the moment it would seem that tunes are coming from more than three books. Did J H L copy from three different friends’ collections?

Now to the real mystery – who is J H L? Unfortunately, the person has given no clues as to name or indeed gender. This may be one mystery that will never be solved, but then again there could be another volume of music out there with the same plate that will give even more hints as to the owner.


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