James Oswalds “Mandelin”

On Thursday July 12th 2012 I presented a short lecture on the subject of the James Oswald’s “Mandelin” during the “Zomerseminar voor Mandoline en Gitaar” (Summer seminar for mandolin and guitar). The lecture mainly focused on demonstrating how to perform research into the history of plucked string instruments. An article pushibled in MandoGita later summarizes some aspects of the lecture and already focused a bit more on the basic point: which instrument did James Oswald mean when he put the term “mandelin” on his title page?

This blog series will focus a bit more on the actual case study, and will weigh the different options with more details than I could during the lecture or article. In this first blog, I will just give the general context – I’ll point you to the music and explain a bit more about the background.

I came accross the divertimento bundle by Oswald from several sources. First of all, because it showed up in some bibliographical research about the mandolin. Secondly, because Paul Sparks already mentioned it in The Early Mandolin. Third and not least, because of the excellent article by John Goodin which popped up doing some background research. I was especially drawn to the subject because of his final phrase: “The Mandelins in question could have been any of a number of instruments available to Oswald in mid-18th century London and I certainly welcome speculation on that point from the many true scholars of the early mandolin.”. A good cue to stick my musicologically skilled mandolin nose into the affair, I thought.

Some background information is required though I will not go as far as quoting all the information available. James Oswald was born in 1711 in Scotland. After some time as a dancing teacher in Dumfermline (Fife), he moved to Ediburgh (in 1736). In this city he developed into an accomplished singer, composer and even organiser of concerts. He next moved to London in 1741 and even started his own publishing house (in 1747). Especially the bundles entitled The Caledonian Companion was well received (numerous volumes and editions). Towards the end of his life he even achieved the title of court composer of chamber music (1761). Oswald was a member of the secret society of composers called The Temple of Apollo (which also attracted such members as John Reid and Charles Burney).

As other authors have mentioned, Oswald seems to have conciously published some music anonymously or under nicknames. Even Geminiani, who had some music published by Oswald and even lived in the same street, seems to have been tricked by this (he mentions his praise for the composer David Riccio, which was one of Oswald’s nicknames).(1) All this makes it rather difficult to prove the exact author of some of the music Oswald published. Rob MacKillop and John Goodin come to the conclusion that the bundle of 18 divertimentos were most likely composed by Oswald himself, and I have not yet seen any reason to doubt that assumption. Therefore we will continue in the further writing to assume Oswald as the composer and not just collector or arranger of the pieces.

James Goodin has made such a modern edition of the 18 divertimentos by Oswald available online via his site mandotopia.
Even though I have gone through the trouble of getting a copy of the original, this edition should be fine for musicians. (Though I will eventually focus some attention to the fact that most musicians don’t always follow the typical conventions of the 18th century, for example when playing grace notes.)

In the next blogs of the series, I will first give some further general information about the music before starting the discussion of the possible mandolin types Oswald might have meant.

(1) Already mentioned by John Goodin’s article: he references this back to John Purser, Scotland’s Music, Edinburgh,  1992, rev. ed. Edinburgh, 2007.