I gather from the discussion about performance vs. participation
that some people are under the impression that Irish music sessions
are a type of traditional event. However, authorities such as
Breandan Breathnach and others agree that Irish music as played
traditionally was a solo, unaccompanied musical form. Furthermore,
the artistry of the music depends for a large extent on the variation
and ornamentation of the basic tune by the performer--subtleties which
are necessarily lost when there is more than one performer.
In Cape Breton, which has probably the most conservative tradition
in Gaelic music, it was unheard of until quite recently to have
more than one fiddler playing at a time. To play while another person
was playing would have been considered just as rude as talking while
another person was talking.
The only circumstance in which it was common to have more than one
person playing at a time was at dances. The lack of affordable PA
systems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made it necessary
to have multiple performers so that the music would be audible.
From the reports of some of the early collectors, it appears that many
professional musicians avoided performing in the presence of other
musicians for fear that their tunes would be stolen. The stock of tunes
in a given area may have been quite small, and knowing a tune that others
didn't could be a distinct advantage. Many of the old musicians were
extremely jealous of each other, and would carry their special tunes to
the grave rather than teach them to anyone other than possibly a son or
extremely well-loved pupil (with instructions not to perform them during
the teacher's lifetime).
Some of the professionals were more generous, however, and some schools
of playing can be traced back to particular founders. (This is described
in "The Northern Fiddler".)
While there were of course many talented amateur musicians, traditionally
the best musicians were usually professional or at least semi-professional.
However, being a professional musician in the early 19th century was a
career rather similar to being a professional beggar. They often played
for tips at cattle fairs, horse races, etc.
A number of professional musicians in the old style kept going well into
the 20th century. For example, Johnny Doherty and Padraig O'Keeffe
made their livelihood from music without giving concerts until late in
their lives, if at all (aside from being taped and played on the radio).
The old harpers were almost all professionals, but they were usually
maintained by the old aristocratic families. This form of patronage died
out around the middle to late 18th century.
In Scotland professional musicians adopted the modern style of giving
concerts, going on tour, etc. around the middle 18th century, just as
the old patronage system died out. The musician/beggar lifestyle existed
as well--no doubt it depended on your class origins.
My guess is that amateurs were much more likely to play in sessions than
professionals, lacking the jealousy caused by having to depend on your
store of tunes for your bread and butter, and lacking the artistry to
perform elegant variations. Since such professional musicians as
emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in the 19th century tended to gravitate
towards stage performance (since the opportunities for a traditional
musical lifestyle and prejudices against lower-class performers appearing
on stage were both absent), it may well be that the establishment
of the session as the standard venue for the performance of Irish music was an
It is certain that the growth of sessions has changed the form of Irish
music. The amount of variation of the tunes has decreased radically and
the old descriptive pieces of music have almost totally died out.
The lifestyle in which Irish music originated is almost totally gone, and
before we become too nostalgic about it we should remember that it was a
life of hard physical labour, grinding poverty, poor health and early death.
The fact that the music is changing is an indication that it is still alive
and has not become a museum piece. This is not the first time that the music
has changed in order to adapt to changing social structures, by any means.
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