The Oriental Miscellany: Airs of Hindustan

compiled and arranged by William Hamilton Bird
Jane Chapman harpsichord, Yu-Wei Hu flute
74:14
signum classics SIGCD415
+W. H. Bird: Sonata for harpsichord & flute

This is an intriguing recording, providing insight into Anglo-Indian cultural exchange in the late 18th century but also raising questions about cultural appropriation under colonial rule. The Miscellany was published in Calcutta in 1789 (and in Edinburgh in 1805) and dedicated to Warren Hastings, whose own attempts to work with Indian culture led to his impeachment. One of the contributors may have been the harpsichordist Margaret Fowke, long based in Calcutta and quoted as writing patronisingly in a letter: ‘I have often made the musicians tune their instruments to the harpsichord that I might join their little band. They always seemed delighted with the accompaniment of the harpsichord’. This recording uses Vallotti temperament, appropriate for the time; as a result the music doesn’t really sound Indian; at times the melodies could almost be Irish or Scottish, harmonised as they are in the basic manner of the early Classical period. It is another example of the 18th-century’s ability to absorb music from outside and make it fit for the British drawing room. That said, this is both a fascinating and agreeable collection of short tracks, played on the Horniman Museum’s 1722 Kirckman harpsichord. There is also a Sonata composed by Bird, which weaves at least eight Hindu airs into standard galant structures, played with flair and panache by flautist Yu-Wei Hu. Jane Chapman uses the harpsichord’s features – swell box, machine stop, lute stop – to full advantage. She improvises short preludes and postludes for a number of these tracks (including the first) which sound more Indian than the original pieces. The recording forms part of a Leverhulme-funded research project, which has compared the tunes with other sources and identified the original Hindu songs. There are very informative liner notes, including two helpful facsimile pages from the collection. It is a welcome project which raises lots of issues and provides answers to some of them.

Noel O’Regan