Certainly, for ‘important figures’—Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, and the like—we can trace when particular pieces were composed, performed, and sometimes even when they became popular for private gatherings.
But in the case of popular Regency songs, we are faced with several problems. First, popular music was often published as ephemera, in particular as one-sheet broadsides that one could buy for a penny. To see the sorts of popular songs available on broadsides, look at the surviving examples at the University of California, Santa Barbara, English Broadside Ballad Collection. https://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/. But remember: these survived either because they were printed in huge numbers or because no one wanted them. Printed poorly on bad paper, broadsides weren’t meant to survive.
One thing you’ll notice, though, is that broadsides and the collections of songs and ballads (like those compiled by Thomas Percy, Walter Scott, Thomas Moore and others) provided just the lyrics, along with an indication of what tune the performer was expected to supply. This worked fine for audiences at the time. Today for example if you indicated a song was to be sung “to the tune of Beyonce’s ‘Single-Ladies,’ people worldwide could sing along.
But that wide-spread contemporary appeal can prove a disadvantage over time. How many of us know the tune of “cooke Laurell, or Michaelmas Terme,” or “Lilli Bulero,” or “Packington’s Pound,” or “Jenny come the my Cravat”?
Broadsides referred their users to commonly known songs, in part, because printing musical settings was far more expensive than simply printing the lyrics on their own. Printing musical settings required providing layers of information on a single page: a staff, a variety of notes, and symbols that gave instructions on how to play the notes. Though some tried to make printing-with-type work for this, ultimately, the best solution remained to engrave an image of the music, just as one engraved pictures. To watch a piece of music being engraved as it was historically, check this out: https://www.youtube.com/embed/345o3Wu95Qo
And engravings were more expensive, in part because (unlike type) you couldn’t break up the forme and reuse the type in a different project. No, once you used an engraving plate for a piece of music, it couldn’t be reused for another piece.
As a result, printed music remained for most pieces the province of specialists. Hand engraved in wood or copper, and later in steel, musical settings were expensive and their purchasers were rarely the common man (or woman).
The movement from wood and copper engravings to steel-plate engravings takes place across the Regency. As technology changed to allow engravings to make more and more impressions (driving down the cost of the engraving itself), lyrics could be attached to their musical settings. And we begin to see reviews of music in the magazines, particularly magazines for ladies.
In my next blog, I’ll take about a particular piece of music produced in 1819 and reviewed in the magazines…and I’ll even send you to a site where you can see (and play) that piece.
But for now, hum a tune, and wonder what other words you could sing to it!