William Hamilton Bird (c1750-c1804) – The Oriental Miscellany
Jane Chapman (harpsichord) Yu-Wei Hu (baroque flute)
Signum SIGCD415. 74’14
This CD would be attractive enough to listen to without knowing any of the back-story. But it is a fascinating one. William Bird was part of the musical life of the British community in Calcutta in the late 18th century. His Oriental Miscellany (“being a collection of the most favourite Airs of Hindoostan, compiled and adapted for the Harpsichord”), was first published in 1789. It was the first Western attempt to notate traditional Indian music, and contains 30 songs written in a straightforward and approachable style, appropriate for gentle amusement. The list of subscribers includes the expected monikers of ‘Esq., Lieut., Capt.,’ but also many ‘Mrs’, reflecting the importance of woman in the cultural life of ex-pat Calcutta. One subscriber is ‘Dalrymple, Capt.’, I think an ancestor of the historian William, whose books have explored so much about India.
The first piece starts (as do one-third of the other pieces) with an improvised prelude based on a traditional Indian rāg, before dissolving almost imperceptibly in Bird’s Mutre be khoosh nuwa bego (‘Sing, sweet-tongued musician, ever fresh and ever new’) – appropriate words, indeed. Another particularly attractive example is the evocative opening to track 12, (based on the rāg Āsāvrī, the arching and sinuous melodic creating a ‘tender, romantic, melancholic mood’ over a drone) before evolving into the Hindu/Urdu song Susha myra bear ‘Glass/mirror my love .. ‘ . Other title translations include ‘At first, you satisfied me in love’, ‘Listen, beloved! Faithless one!’, and the enigmatic Persian quatrain ‘Be silent as you come!’
Jane Chapman plays with a delightful sense of the mood of each piece, adopting an appropriately fluid sense of pulse and a lively interpretation of ornaments and cadenzas. She is playing the recently restored 1772 Jacob Kirkman harpsichord in the Horniman Museum. This is the largest of Kirckman’s instruments and has a wide range of colourful sounds, including lute, machine stops and a nags-head swell, all heard to good effect on this CD. The CD concludes with Bird’s pretty four-movement ‘Sonata for harpsichord and flute’, here played beautifully by Yu-Wei Hu.
This CD is the result of a research project at King’s College, London. Bird’s volume was dedicated to Warren Hastings “in the humble Hope that the following Exertion of musical Talents will prove acceptable .. ”. I don’t know what Hastings thought of it, but it is certainly ‘acceptable’ to me.