RETUNE Festival: Pre Concert Talk with Emma Arthur - Stories from her Songbooks

Free entry, no registration required.

Despite having limited opportunities to access public and professional musical careers, music stood as a central feminine accomplishment in the nineteenth century. For women of upper and middle-class backgrounds (particularly unmarried daughters), musical performance within the home was a vital aspect of their domestic experience. In addition to having means of personal improvement and entertainment, a musical daughter was also typically expected to enrich the lives of her family members and their guests. Such musical responsibilities typically included the playing of music in the drawing room after dinner as well as the providing of dance music for small impromptu dances among family members and guests. A key material culture connected to domestic music-making of this kind was the bound songbook. The practice of organising printed or hand-written music into a bound volume was common in both upper and middle-class homes as well as in other female-dominated communities such as convents.  

Through an examination of five surviving songbooks, each connected to formally educated Catholic daughters, this lecture recital will offer a window into the musical lives of several middle-class girls during the mid-nineteenth century in Ireland. In addition to providing insight into repertoire and instrumentation, annotations and markings on individual pages offer a unique glimpse into the everyday lives of these young musicians as well as the day-to-day function of their music.  

The structure of this lecture takes inspiration from the song cycle: It will focus on the profiles of four girls represented in the various songbooks, each highlighting an individual musical story. 


Emma is a first-year DPhil Music Student at Merton College, University of Oxford. She is a recent graduate of UCD, completing her Bachelor of Music and Master of Musicology degrees in 2022 and 2023 respectively. Her master’s thesis, entitled ‘Art Music and Music Education in Irish Convent Schools, 1830-1900: A Preliminary Survey and Interpretation of the Primary Sources’ was awarded the 2024 Alison Dunlop Graduate Prize by the Society for Musicology in Ireland. Her DPhil research, supervised by Professor Laura Tunbridge, aims to uncover how young women in nineteenth-century Ireland interacted with domestic art music (music made in the home). It explores how societal influences such as religion, class and other facets of identity impacted how music was taught and its significance as a tool for social mobility, marriage and employment.

In addition to her research, Emma also enjoys a busy singing career. She has worked with several notable ensembles including the Choral Scholars of University College Dublin, Crux Vocal Ensemble, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra (Ireland), and Solstice Ensemble and has been a part of several album recordings with Signum and Delphian Records as well as a film soundtrack with Warner Bros. In 2023 she was awarded the UCD Heinrich Schütz Medal for Excellence in Choral Singing.  She currently holds a Choral Scholarship at Merton College, Oxford.

Emma’s doctoral research is funded by the AHRC Open-Oxford-Cambridge Doctoral Training Partnership, the Clarendon Fund, and Merton College, Oxford.

This talk precedes the concert 'Small but Mighty', the first concert of the 'RETUNE Festival', taking place between the 26th February and 8th March - A festival celebrating the commitment, courage and creativity of underrepresented music-makers.