Brignal Ballad

September 9th, 2011

It’s always a good day when you discover a new song, especially one published in 1829, with words by Sir Walter Scott and arrangement for voice and piano by J. F. Hance!

O Brignal Banks Are Wild and Fair: a Scotch Song

O Brignal Banks are wild and fair,
And Greta woods are green,
And you may gather garlands there,
Would grace a summer queen.
And as I rode by Dalton hall,
Beneath the turret high,
A maiden on the castle wall
Was singing singing merrily.
“O Brignal banks are fresh and fair,
And Greta woods are green,
I’d rather range with Edmund there;
Than reign our English Queen.”

O Brignal banks are fresh and fair,
And Greta woods are green.
I’d rather range with Edmund there;
Than reign our English Queen.

If maiden, though wouldst wend with me,
To leave both tow’r and town,
Thou first must guess what life lead we,
That dwell by dale and down.
And if thou canst that riddle read,
As read full well you may,
Then to the greenwood shalt though speed,
As blithe as queen of May.
Yet sung she “Brignal banks are fair,
And Greta woods are green;
I’d rather range with Edmund there,
Than reign our English queen.”

I found scans of the folio, published in New York by Dubois & Stodart, on this website.

I’ll wager you already know who Sir Walter Scott is, and perhaps have even read some of his work. I prefer his poetry (it seems to wear its two-centuries a bit better), though to be fair, I’ve only read one Scott novel. Here is the Baronet (made 1818) himself in an 1822 portrait by Raeburn. He appeals to the Scott in me.

Sir Walter Scott by Raeburn

But odds are you haven’t got the faintest idea who J. F. Hance is. Neither did I until last year. It turns out Mr. Hance was an American composer, active during the early Romantic period, right about the same time as Sir Walter Scott. History has obscured most of his works, and perhaps deservedly so. He is listed as an “arranger” on this piece, though there is no evidence that anyone else wrote the tune. Perhaps it’s a Scottish folk song that he kitted up for the piano forte? It’s quite pretty actually, unlike many of the things that Hance did take credit for writing…

I first ran into J. F. Hance at the museum where I work. A book of piano lessons was found in the collection, owned by the family who once lived in the house. It’s an obscure pedagogical work called Instruction in the Attainment of the Art of Playing the Piano Forte, comprising lessons in basic music theory, 15 rather quixotic etudes, and two mediocre songs. The author is none other than J. F. Hance. In spring 2010, I reproduced the book (hours of wrangling with Photoshop and rendering in Illustrator to get printable page images). The etudes and songs were then recorded on the museum’s recently restored 1840s rosewood piano forte. This instrument, also owned by the family, still sits in the same parlor where it’s been since the mid-19th century. And it’s almost certain that the pieces in the Hance book were played on it by the daughters!

Thrill of thrills, after many attempts to find a more accomplished musician, I ended up playing for the recording. It makes sense in a way, since the women who played the piano when it was new were certainly not professionals. I’ll never forget the feel of the keys, or the sound of the notes echoing through the room. In some ways, it’s as close as we’ll ever come to hearing what they heard, so many years ago. Same room. Same piano. Same song.

Following the advice of our excellent conservator, we decided not to continue playing the piano at the museum. It’s simply too fragile, and continued use means that the original parts will eventually have to be replaced by modern fabrications. This instrument is too much in tact, too well-provenanced, too rare. They do play the recording for visitors though, and soon it will be available for purchase on CD.