Opera Reel (1)

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OPERA REEL [1]. AKA and see "Celebrated Opera Reel (2)," "Duke of Cornwall's Reel," "Grand Opry Reel," "McDonagh's Reel (4)," "Tommy Gunn's Reel." American, Irish, English; Reel. USA; Missouri, New York, New Hampshire, New England, southwestern Pennsylvania, Michigan. D Major (most versions): C Major (Howe/Accordeon). Standard or DDae (Bronner) tunings (fiddle). ABCD (Silberberg): ABCDD (Christeson): AABBC (Ruth): AABBCCDD (Bayard, Brody, Ford, Howe, Kennedy, Linscott, Sweet): AA'BBCCDD (Phillips): ABBCCD (Cole, Miller & Perron): ABBCCDD (Bronner). Bayard (1981) did not find it in any collection older than the early 19th century (however, earlier printings did exist--see below). According to Linscott (1939) the tune "was fitted for a contra dance performed on the stage." Bronner (1987) thinks there may be stage origins for the tune on the strength of his observation that "besides producing light operas, popular theaters and chautauquas often did vernacular versions or even parodies of opera," though he admits the tune sounds Scottish or Irish. Apparently as another speculation, he also suggests the "operatic" triplet pattern in the third part "probably suggested the name of 'Opera Reel' in its early forms." There is also a rumor floating about the the reel is made up of strains from different French operas, although this appears to be completely erroneous. Tony Parkes and Steve Woodruff (1980) state the tune was an early 19th century American melody likely modeled on the multi-part Irish and Scottish reels of the 18th century and was particularly popular in the 1850's. Indeed, the "Opera Reel" appears in the 1823 music manuscript book of H. Canfield (Hartford, Conn.), A Choice Selection of Flute Melodies.

Despite the tune's profound association with New England contra dancing, an American claim of provenance (or even partial provenance) is not supported by the evidence. "Opera Reel" was published in Dublin in 1795 in a gentleman's literary journal called Walker's Hibernian, and around the same time by Dublin publisher T. Cooke in Tracy’s selection of the present favorite country dances (c. 1795). Anne Loughran and Vic Gammon's Sussex Tune Book (English Folk Dance and Song Society, 1982) contains what may be a cognate or ancestral melody under the title "The Duke of Cornwall's Reel," sourced from a manuscript music book compiled by William Aylmore of West Wittering (Sussex, England). Aylemore was a clarinet player whose book contains dance, military and religious music and is dated 1796 in one place and 1818 in another.

In New Hampshire the tune was used for the dance Boston Fancy or Lady Walpole's Reel, as well as the dance also called The Opera Reel [1]. Directions for the dance were printed in H.G.O. Washburn's The Ball-Room Manual of Contra Dances and Social Cotillons (Belfast, Maine, 1863):

OPERA REAL. 80 Steps.
Note. – Form sets of five or six couples only in each. First couple balance, down the centre to foot of set--second couple balance, down to foot of set--four right and left at foot--both couples up the centre, first couple down outside and remain at the foot.

"Opera Reel" was entered into the music manuscript copybook of M.E. Eames, frontispiece dated Aug. 22nd, 1859 (p. 7); nothing is known of the fiddler, save that he may have been from Philadelphia (from the titles of other tunes in the MS). It was cited as having commonly been played {under the title "Opera"} for Orange County, New York country dances in the 1930's (Lettie Osborn, New York Folklore Quarterly), and Bronner (1987) says it a standard of the upstate New York old-time repertoire. Jim Kimball concurs with Bronner and remarks that in rural New York state "Opera Reel" remained a favorite tune and dance well into the 20th, and that it was still performed at house dances in the central part of the state in the 1930's. The Opera Reel longways dance was a version of what was known in New England as the Chorus Jig, and there is a dance from Vermont called the Celebrated Opera Reel that also uses this melody as a vehicle. Kimball states that there exists a 1920's recording (for Edison) of regional musician 'old' Jasper Bisbee (b. 1843) playing and calling "Opera Reel," and records that Bisbee lived in Michigan prior to the Civil War (c. 1858), but was born in the town of Ossian, Livingston Co., New York (which has an area that elderly residents still call Bisbeetown). Paul Gifford states that informants have told him that "Opera Reel" was also played and danced in western Michigan at least until the 1920's. "Opera Reel" is one of '100 essential Missouri tunes' listed by Missouri fiddler Charlie Walden. It was also in the repertory of influential Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson.

Irish versions can be found as "McDonagh's Reel (4)," recorded by flute player Matt Molloy and fiddler Sean Keane ("Contenement is Wealth", 1985), from the playing of Tommy Gunn (it has also thus been called "Tommy Gunn's Reel").

The similar title, "Celebrated Opera Reel (2)," was used by Elias Howe in his mid-1850's publications, but that name has also has been employed for other tunes.

Sources for notated versions: Uncle Jimmy Lewis (Pulaski County, Missouri) [Christeson]; Norman Blake (Georgia) [Brody]; Smith Paine (Wolfeboro, N.H.) [Linscott]: Grant Rogers, 1976 [Bronner]: Wilbur Neal (elderly fiddler from Jefferson County, Pa., 1948) [Bayard]; Grant Lamb & Ruthie Dornfeld [Phillips]; Laurie Andres [Silberberg].

Printed sources: Adam (Old Time Fiddlers' Favorite Barn Dance Tunes), 1928; No. 63. Bayard (Dance to the Fiddle), 1981; No. 133, p. 73. Brody (Fiddler's Fakebook), 1983; p. 209. R.P. Bronner (Old Time Music Makers of New York State), 1987; No. 36, p. 133. Christeson (Old Time Fiddler's Repertory, vol. 1), 1973; p. 56. Cole (1000 Fiddle Tunes), 1940; p. 31. DeVille (Universal Favorite Contra Dance Album), 1905; No. 32. Ford (Traditional Music of America), 1940; p. 69. Harding Collection (1915) and Harding's Original Collection (1928), No. 70. Howe (Complete Preceptor for the Accordeon), 1843; p. 35. Howe (Musician's Omnibus, No. 1), 1861; p. 42 (as "Celebrated Opera Reel"). Howe (Diamond School for the Violin), 1851; No. or p. 32. Jarman (Old Time Fiddlin' Tunes). Kennedy (Fiddler's Tune-Book: Reels & Rants, Flings & Fancies), 1997; No. 152, p. 36. Kerr (Merry Melodies, vol. 4); p. 9. Laufman (Traditional Barn Dances with Calls & Fiddling), 2009; p. 85. Linscott (Folk Songs of Old New England), 1939; p. 70. Low (An Instructor for the Dulcimer), Boston, 1858. Miller & Perron (New England Fiddler's Repertoire), 1983; No. 93. Page, Northern Junket, vol. 1, no. 1, April 1949; p. 16. Phillips (Traditional American Fiddle Tunes, vol. 1), 1994; p. 177. Robbins (Collection of 200 Jigs, Reels, and Country Dances), 1933; No. 41. Ruth (Pioneer Western Folk Tunes), 1948; No. 4, p. 3. Silberberg (Fiddle Tunes I Learned at the Tractor Tavern), 2002; p. 113. Sweet (Fifer's Delight), 1964/1981; p. 43. Sym (Sym's Old Time Dances), 1930; p. 12. Wilson (A Companion to the Ballroom), 1816 & 1840; p. 81 (1840 edition).

Recorded sources: Alcazar Dance Series FR-203, Rodney Miller – "New England Chestnuts" (1980). Edison 51278 (78 RPM), Jasper Bisbee (Michegan), 1923. F&W Records 4, "The Canterbury Country Orchestra Meets the F&W String Band." Fretless 132, "Ron West: Vermont Fiddler." Fretless 136, Arm and Hammer String Band – "Stay on the Farm." Great Meadow Music, "Contra Music: The Sound of New England" (compilation). Green Linnet SIF3040, De Dannan – "Ballroom" (1987). Kanawha 313, Grant Rogers – "Ballads and Fiddle Tunes." Rounder 0122, Norman Blake – "Rising Fawn String Ensemble." Rounder CD7018, Frank Ferrel – "Boston Fiddle: The Dudley Street Tradition." Voyager 312-S, Grant Lamb – "Tunes From Home." Rodney and Randy Miller – "New England Chestnuts, vol. I." Troubadour TR001, Trapezoid – "Trapezoid" (1975). Old Bay Ceili Band – "Crabs in the Skillet" (2011).

See also listings at:
Jane Keefer's Folk Music Index: An Index to Recorded Sources [2]
Alan Ng's Irishtune.info [3]
Hear Don Messer's recording on youtube.com [4]
See a transcription from the playing of Adirondack fiddler Alice Clemens [5]
See Austin Rogers' transcription of the reel from the playing of Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson [6] [7]
See John Lamancusa's transcription [8]
See the dance performed on Vimeo [9]




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