Hindustani harpsichord music

After the East India Company attained a firm foothold in Calcutta in 1757, an influx of English middle-class civil and military personnel brought Western classical music to the subcontinent.

A taste for arrangements of Indian melodies arose among these expatriates, prompting such publications as William Hamilton Bird’s The Oriental Miscellany: Being a collection of the most favourite airs of Hindoostan, compiled and adapted for the harpsichord (Calcutta: Cooper, 1789).

In his introduction Bird complained that the songs’ brevity and “their want of variety” obliged him to compose variations for each one, and that their rhythms cost him “great pains to bring them into any form as to time.”

This according to “Corelli in Calcutta: Colonial music-making in India during the 17th and 18th centuries” by Raymond Head (Early music XIII/4 [November 1985] pp. 548–553).

Above, Johan Zoffany’s Colonel Blair with his family and an Indian ayah (Calcutta, 1786), showing a square piano or clavichord. Below, Daniel Laumans performs a “Hindustan air” arranged by Sophia Plowden around the same time.

Related article: How far can a song travel?


Filed under Classic era, Curiosities

5 Responses to Hindustani harpsichord music

  1. Great post, Dr. McAulay! We have returned the favor, linking to it above. Please be sure that RILM finds out when your publications are available; at the moment our coverage of the UK is a bit of a challenge due to budget cuts there. You can always check and improve our coverage here: http://submissions.rilm.org/login.asp?userTimedOut=0&accessdenied=%2Findex%2Easp

  2. And from there, Hindustani melodies were copied into the private collection of some well-off Gaelic-speaking young sisters at the furthest end of the Hebridean island of Mull.