Handwritten music books – spelmansböcker

The so called "spelmansböcker", handwritten music books containing mostly dance repertoire, are contained in three series in the collections of Folkmusikkommissionen and the former Stockholm Music Museum. The series "Ma" and "M" were originally part of Folkmusikkommissionen's collection. "M" is probably short for "melody book" and "a" probably means that they were originally borrowed for copying, though several of the books in the Ma series are originals, and there are also copies in the M series. About 60 music books collected by John Enninger are part of the M series. Enninger probably coined the word "spelmansbok". The "MMD" series probably means Musikhistoriska museets dansböcker [The Museum of Music History] and consists of originals and copies which came to the museum before Folkmusikkommissionen's collections were deposited there in 1936. After that the M series seems to have been used.

The music books in the collections are mostly from the 18th and above all 19th centuries, a few also from the 20th century. Most of them are from Sweden. A notable exception is the music books from the Baltic states, Poland and Prussia that Nils Dencker copied for the Music museum at the beginning of the 1930s, where the originals from the 17th and 18th centuries in some cases did not survive World War II.

Just like the transcriptions do not represent the complete repertoire of the musicians, we cannot say what was really used and played by looking at the music books, and to what extent it was part of the musicians' active repertoires. Parts of the repertoires were probably transmitted by ear and did not need to be written down, while other tunes were copied into the music book without necessarily forming part of the more actively played repertoire. Many of the music books have also had several owners and it is not uncommon that many different people have written tunes in the same book. In many cases, however, the books contain different and broader repertoires than the transcriptions. Many tunes in the books are from the popular repertoire of the time, e.g. popular waltzes by well-known composers or melodies from operas or operettas. This repertoire was not normally classified as traditional music, and in the transcriptions the focus is often on a local repertoire with unknown composers. (This difference from the transcriptions is incidentally shared by the corresponding handwritten books of song texts.) When older music books were copied, often only the tune types of interest to Olof Andersson and Folkmusikkommissionen were included, and tunes labelled e.g. "pollonesse" (the variation in naming is considerable), have been called "polska" when copied.

In some cases, the music books are part books containing only one instrument, for ensemble playing. Books of fiddle music are most common, though there are also for example some flute and clarinet parts.

The name "spelmansböcker" is sometimes rather misleading for this material, and even more so if you imagine a romanticised picture of the peasant fiddler, in contrast with trained musicians, and with a strong emphasis on oral traditions. The handwritten music books, by definition, had an owner who can read and write music, and in many cases the books begin with basic music knowledge: the names of notes and their places on the staff, the names of the keys, etc. The music books also contain many instances of notes and calculations not necessarily related to the music. When the owners are known they also show that they in many cases were part of another part of the musical life than traditional dance events: members of the royal orchestra, organists, cantors and parish clerks. This shows the close connections between different musical genres, and that today's distinctions between art music, traditional music and popular music were not relevant in many cases: it was simply music!

Before the grand collection activities in instrumental Swedish traditional music got started in earnest at the end of the 19th century, the music books are fascinating entry points to the repertoire of the time. There are many cases of tunes in the music books, which later became part of the tradition and were transcribed in different versions by collectors much later.

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