Wednesday, December 12th, 2012...8:55 am
Country dancing, Peninsular Wars-style
Today, Houghton Library observes the anniversary of John Milton Ward’s passing. Ward, a Harvard musicologist who turned to extensive collecting in his retirement, donated a “Magnificent Collection” of performing arts material to us over the course of many years before his death in 2011. One of his favorite areas of study was the world of social dance, from Queen Elizabeth I and her volta, to a screenplay draft for Dirty Dancing. Ward found great satisfaction in the documentary value of everyday items, for the context they provide to the researcher. Social dance music collections, ubiquitous in their time but not always easy to find later, offer a particularly vivid snapshot of popular culture, and I believe this little collection must have delighted Ward.
Ward cherished an additional interest in Napoleon; consequently we hold a great many printed and manuscript collections of French and English country dances from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, which are particularly fascinating for the titles given each dance. While their spelling varies widely (which can make research challenging) titles frequently make reference to popular people and events of the day, both large (famous battles, new buildings, etc.) and small (someone’s favorite fan). As was common at this time, the music is followed by the “figures” (blocking, really) of the dance. Sometimes these collections can be difficult to date with any dependability, and catalogers rely on publishers’ addresses, watermarks in the paper, bibliographies, and the British Library catalogue (which holds the equivalent of our Library of Congress’s copies of record); but sometimes a cataloger must take cues from the material itself, as in this case.
Given the titles in this collection there’s little doubt that it was printed in or shortly after 1813. The Battle of Vitoria, one of the most important battles in the Peninsular Wars was fought in June of 1813. General Wellington was already famous by this time, so naturally he was honored in the title of this dance. But how about George Ramsay, the ninth Earl of Dalhousie, also a hero of Vitoria? (Here’s an example of that idiosyncratic spelling I mentioned.)
And then there is the Battle of Leipzig, fought in October of 1813.
Others are noted by name or function, and I won’t even get into the styles of the dances which are interesting in and of themselves by virtue of the composers’ choices for each hero or battle. This little collection whispers to us through its titles who was hot, and who was not, 200 years ago. Whose deeds were considered to be of great consequence at the moment (or shortly after) they happened. And whose lack of representation shows us that however great their posthumous fame, they just didn’t capture the contemporary public eye. This collection of dances is but one of many in the Harvard Theatre Collection; next time you’re curious about who was the It Girl during the Peninsular Wars, just check Hollis.
[Thanks to Andrea Cawelti, Ward Music Cataloger, for contributing this post.]