[From Mannin #7, 1916]
HE time had now arrived when Tom Brown, retired from a long and strenuous life as schoolmaster, removed his home and household gods to his Fatherland; there as he himself put it, to end his days, 'free to do what I like, say what I like, write what I like!' At that time I had been for nearly two years collaborating with Dr. Clague and my brother, the Northern Deemster; while Mr. A. W. Moore and his assistants were dredging here and there throughout the Island, each party working irrespectively of the other, the one under the professional advice of Miss M. L. Wood and the other of the present writer. Long before actually moving his family to the Island, Brown had heard of Mr. Moore's project with undisguised satisfaction, had promised to stand as Godfather, had lectured on the subject, and had written a masterly preface for the forthcoming book. Naturally enough, on discovering later on that Dr. Clague and his party were engaged on a similar errand, and practically in the same field, he wrote to me questioning the policy of this division of labour and suggesting the possibility nay, the desirability of all working together. But it was too late, and in 1896 the two books appeared within a few weeks of each other literally a neck to neck race.
To his mind the thing was anomalous. 'Two books! Two bites at a cherry! Why two?' In this state of mind he was for some time unhappy and wrote one remonstrance after another the keynote of each and all being why two books?' It was in vain that some of us tried to convince him of the difference of aim between the two books one was purely antiquarian, the other a quasi modern arrangement of the old airs; one a book for the learned few, the other for the unsophisticated many; one for the student in his library, the other for the recreation of the general public. So we thought, and so we told him. But still he was unhappy, and the question recurred at intervals, like the sad refrain of a song, 'Why, O why two books?' Meanwhile, as the Fates or the Fairies had decreed, the two books were already in the primers' hands, one in Douglas, the other in London. It was then that a brilliant idea, as he thought it to be, struck him, and he wrote asking whether 'something might not yet be done in this direction, that is, in the shape of a collection, not of old Manx songs (Volkslieder) such as that on which you are engaged that is a case of now or never but of something original to both of us. They will be Manx, I'll wager my life. Would you like to try ?' and much more to the same effect, until at last, on my saying I would do my best, he sent me a couple of songs to start a new series. Thus it will be seen that, as amongst us all, the Fates or Fairies had decreed there should be three methods of dealing with Manx music (1) the collecting of the raw material by all available workers throughout the Island, (2) the suitable arrangement and harmonising of it by competent musicians, and (3) the composition by native composers and poets of entirely new songs and melodies, preserving as far as possible the national feeling of the country. As we all know, his opinion of the original Manx words was outspoken and anything but favourable. On this subject he has spoken and written freely and fully, and has found in them 'all kinds of compromises, parodies, adaptations, stupidities, misunderstandings, distortions, which have beset our poor traditional literature' as compared with The few songs (i.e., the music) which stand out straight as the Runic stones.' And so, as an alternative, he suggests in one of his letters, whether it might not be possible 'to graft upon the old stock a modern growth? . . I have written some songs . . . would you make music for them? It is surely not impossible to imitate the old music and compose in the same spirit? Such songs would, I think, be acceptable to our countrymen. A great sale, of course, we could not expect on this side of the water. But here are two men, one with a whiff of the old tunes blowing about his brain, the other haunted by the oul' ways and notions, quaint language and homely insularity. Is it vanity to think that such a pair are not likely to be repeated ? An echo, if you will, even now all but dying away on the hills and in the glens of Mannin Veg Veen. But is it not worth while retaining, fixing? Frankly, it would not be archaeological. It would be Anglo-Manx, a mixture genus, but I believe a genuine outcome. Suppose you made it a second part of your work; this would differentiate the work and tend to make it, possibly, not less popular.' Thus he wrote in March, 1895.
Too busy with the old songs, I had not then time for tackling new ones. But there was no escape from his enthusiasm and importunity, and nine months later he returned to the attack. ' Do you remember,' he wrote, 'my broaching a scheme for you which would have provided an independent field ? That was a collection of Modern Manx Songs, the words by T.E.B., the music by W.H.G ?, By modern songs he meant 'songs poetically and musically in the Manx spirit imitations, if you like well, yes, imitations, your imitations. . . I almost think that something could even yet be done in this direction. This is a case of now or never. But you and I could work together for a few years upon these Modern Manx Songs, I believe, with great happiness to both and with some result. . . Now you have exhausted the old tunes and got your hands into the swing of it, I believe you are precisely in the mood to tackle the new songs. I hope they will fit into your inspiration. I can hardly claim that they are inspiring. . . Some years may elapse in the completing of the work even at the risk of your inspiration abandoning you or being transferred elsewhere. The inspiration may prove intermittent. That would suit me exactly.'
In response to this second appeal I sent him my setting of his charming Little Baby Mine which subsequently appeared in the series: Songs of my Fatherland, a publication which is practically the carrying out of his own idea of a much needed new departure. To what extent the general public will accept that collection as carrying out Brown's idea of gaining public favour must depend upon the collective or the individual wishes of our Little Manx Nation. Songs of my Fatherland having been started as an entirely private venture, it is open to the public to accept or reject it as a national possession a foundation for an unlimited super-structure by others more capable than myself
In connection with this question it is only right that our little Island should know why our National Poet's own work is conspicuous by its absence from Manx National Songs, and (a) what was his own opinion of the intrinsic value of that book. Whence or how the notion had got into his head that rivalry existed between the promoters of the two several books is sufficiently explained by the fact of Brown's personal absence from the Island during the inception of both books. To the Manx National Songs he had been repeatedly asked to contribute words for some of the songs, but presumably for conscience sake, i.e., as one already pledged to another cause, he had deliberately though regretfully declined. As regards the second point, viz., his estimate of that collection, what follows as the conclusion of the present narrative answers the question as definitely as facts and written words can make it. Already he had written to his friend, Mr. Irwin, at Clifton,' My time has been given largely of late to my friend's Manx Song Book. He spent last Friday with me, and from 'morn to dewy eve' we dwelt in a perfect bower of melody. It will be a very charming book. . . . We looked at each other with a mild surmise. I can tell you, our delight was huge when we discovered a genuine Dorian Mode in our native ditties,' and so on. The simple fact was as follows: It was long after 'dewy eve' when, the other members of the family having retired for the night, we two resumed our study. The light from a large lamp by the piano shone full on the music and on the face of my old friend as he stood and occasionally sat, behind me, turning over the proof sheets as I played, singing here, humming there, criticising this, that, and the other. I had reserved as a concluding piece the Harvest of the Sea, in which we both heartily joined, and then as the two voices mingled for the last time in this world, in singing the concluding line of the hymn, the master's voice faltered, and then ceased with a sob; when the pupil, who was playing, suddenly looking round, saw a face suffused with tears, and heard that broken whisper, never to be forgotten 'Willy! Willy ! that is' and then, after a pause, as if feeling for a word adequately fitting, the speaker finished the sentence with a sigh of relief That is heavenly'
In concluding this paper, it is only right that our little Island should know what was our beloved Poet's candid opinion of a work which he had for a time mistaken as in the light of a rival to Mr. Moore's Book. The fact is, that repeatedly, and on bended knees, he had been asked to contribute; but that regarding himself as already pledged to another cause, he had, as in honour bound, deliberately, though regretfully, declined. All honour to the memory of a great and good man
W. H. Gill.