Included in a batch of recent antiquarian additions to the Music Department here at the UL is a fascinating volume entitled The Melographicon (MR574.c.80.15). Published in 1826, The Melographicon claims to be “An entirely new and highly amusing musical work, by which an interminable number of melodies may be produced, and those amateurs who have, a taste for poetry, enabled to set their verses to music, for the voice and piano-forte, without the necessity of a scientific knowledge of the art”.
Inspired by the Myriorama, a sort of do-it-yourself for would-be artists (there is a wonderful modern version on the Laurence Sterne Trust pages); the Melographicon, despite its claims of simplicity, will need a dedicated songster prepared to carefully read the instructions if they’re going to make the most of this volume. Follow the rules however, and you too might sound like Mozart, Haydn, Rossini, or Weber; at the very least you’ll be able to delight your friends.
If you’re going to get the best out of The Melographicon, you are going to need to be able to differentiate between your iambic pentameters and trochaic tetrameters; and The Melographicon has a helpful chapter giving tips on separating them out, along with tips on composing for dactylic verses “from the anapestic melographicon,” which sounds less like music, more like something you would buy from a chemist!
So…..you have found some suitable lyrics, but there’s not a tune in your head to fit them. Fear not The Melographicon is ready to leap into action. Here are some lyrics that would probably have been well known to users of The Melographicon:
O my Luve's like a red, red rose, That's newly sprung in June; O my Luve's like the melodie That's sweetly play'd in tune. As fair are thou, my bonie lass, So deep in luve am I; And I will luve thee still, my Dear, Till a' the seas gang dry.
Having established through looking at the musical examples in the volume that this verse is in “Iambic metre of eight and six syllables, alternately,” I am now ready to turn to the appropriate section of The Melographicon, and to add an appropriate bar or two from each section…
Our edition of The Melographicon is in hardback, and printed on both sides of the page. The unknown author points out that the use of a “Music-Slate” would be most useful in noting down chosen bars (how s/he would have loved a scanner and Paint!), but, even more useful, as the author is quick to point out, would be to purchase two copies printed only on one side, priced at 5 shillings per poetic meter. The volumes could then be cut up and pasted on cards, and used either as a sort of early musical i-Ching, (Who knows? Perhaps John Cage was inspired by The Melographicon), as a sort of party game; or alternatively could be used by the burgeoning poet to construct music for their latest lyrics.
An issue of The Belle Assemblee, or, Court and Fashionable Magazine in 1826 was thrilled to recommend The Melographicon to its readers: “We give it our most cordial recommendation, and feel convinced that no lady will regret the purchase, as it not only is an elegant temporary amusement, but produces melodies well worthy of preservation.”
Personally, though, I still think it’s easier to write your own tune….