Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Eighteenth Century Pop Music for Vocalists

So what songs might a soldier in the New Jersey Frontier Guard have sung when stuck on the Delaware River frontier in 1756-1758?

Of course, there are religious songs. One of the most enduring hymns of all time is Martin Luther's  1529 hymn, "Ein' Feste Burg ist Unser Gott" (A Mighty Fortress is Our God) .

Some of the most popular in the Anglican Church from the eighteenth century come from Isaac Watts, such as, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past"

 If a recruit belonged to the then relatively new "heresy" of Methodism, he might have sung one of the hymns of Charles Wesley, such as "Christ The Lord is Risen Today".  As I understand it, however, one did not have to be a Methodist to sing Wesley's hymns, as many were and are still popular in the Anglican Church.  Perhaps one of my readers can tell me more; info, anyone?

In a less religious vein, recruits would have probably known "God Save the King". I say probably, not definitely, because the song was first publicly sung in London in 1745, after the Jacobite Rebellion, although the tune and words may both be as early as the seventeenth century, according to the British Royal Website

Thomas Arne's "Rule Brittania" is also very familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of British history. Arne composed the piece in 1740, and it was an instant hit, long outlasting the other pieces in the oratorio for which Arne originally set it.

"Barbara Allen," which dates back to the seventeenth century, is one of the most popular folk songs of all time, and would certainly have been a familiar piece.

"The British Grenadiers" was a popular tune in the mid-eighteenth century, as it is today, and probably dates back to the War of the Spanish Succession.  Interestingly enough, it's one of the few details that the Spencer Tracy film Northwest Passage actually gets right, as Robert Rogers sings the song while getting the drunken protagonist to enlist.

"Over the Hills and Far Away" has become famous, with slightly altered lyrics, as the theme to the BBC series Sharpe's Rifles, but the song long predates the Napoleonic Wars.  George Farquhar's 1706 play The Recruiting Officer uses the tune and the martial version of the lyrics, while John Gay's The Beggar's Opera of 1728 uses the same title and tune, but with completely different lyrics.  Which was more popular in New Jersey in the 1750s, I can't say.

I'm only scratching the surface here, and I'm sure someone who reads this will know more and can make some additions.  I haven't included more "highbrow" music, like Handel's Messiah or opera arias, as I doubt enlisted men in a ranging company would have been familiar with them in the 1750s, but I will gladly accept correction, if anyone can offer it.

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