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Music at The Crichton

28 November 2023

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The Crichton Royal Institution supported a vibrant music life, including concerts, musical plays and, from the mid-nineteenth-century, a choir and band. Much of this activity is also recorded at lunatic asylums elsewhere in the UK, but the Crichton is unusual for its record, albeit brief and , of patient composition. This edition of the New Moon, published on 2 November 1846, comprises a series of compositions, largely unidentified, but clearly all connected with the asylum in some way. Although we can’t be sure that they were all composed at the asylum, and for some pieces this seems unlikely, the collection forms a rare insight into the kinds of musical repertoire that might have been performed and heard, and composed.

The music published chimes with what we know about musical performances at the Crichton. There are two songs: the first, for voice and guitar (‘Henri and Mariane’), outlines a dialogue between the two lovers over three verses separated by short guitar solos. The second (‘By thyself’) is again in three verses but unaccompanied. In both cases the songs draw on the styles of the Scottish folk tradition but are irregular and not straightforward to sing.

In addition, there is one line of melody marked as ‘Crichton, C.M.’ written as a hymn tune. Church music in Scotland was relatively austere in the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century and any singing was restricted to unaccompanied hymns and psalms. However, early records suggest both an organ and a female choir at the Crichton.

The remainder of the music consists of dance tunes and character pieces. Three of these are scored for piano, also two are rather simple, and although they have the character of dance tunes, their irregular rhythm would make them rather tricky for dancing. The rest are probably intended for guitar, fitting with the scoring of the first song for accompaniment. The written records of the Crichton archive include references to guitar accompanying songs, but not to solo guitar playing. Again, however, the pieces are unusual and irregular in their melody and harmony and are most likely composed by amateurs either in the asylum or elsewhere.

Although we don’t know much about how the music was performed, by whom, where, or when, having these snippets of musical material helps bring the sounds of the Crichton a little more to life.

Written by Jessica Campbell

Image source:

The New Moon vol. 2 no. 24 (2 November 1846) pp. 1-4

The exhibition is produced in collaboration with The Open University, and with the support of the National Centre for Academic and Cultural Exchange. Additional posts are contributed by members of the Psychiatry and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Britain network, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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