James Oswald and the Eighteen Divertimento’s for two Guitars or two Mandelins

by John Goodin


Over 20 years ago, in 1982, Plucked String Editions published 3 Divertimenti for 2 Mandolins or 2 Guitars, Anonymous 18th Century, Edited by Neil Gladd (PSE 002). Not long after, I purchased a copy, enjoyed playing the music and carefully read the editor’s note at the end. At this point in my mando journey I knew nothing about Neil Gladd’s virtuosity as a mandolinist. However, I could see that he was a composer and editor of mandolin music thanks to the listing of other Plucked String Editions publications on the outside cover of PSE 002. Norman Levine’s name does not appear anywhere in this printing but I might have read somewhere (Frets? Mandolin World News?)  that he was Mr. Plucked String.


Neil Gladd’s editor’s note reads:


These three Divertimenti are taken from a publication of 1757, now in the MUSIC LIBRARY of the UNIVERSITY OF IOWA:


Eighteen / DIVERTIMENTO’s / For / two Guitars or two Mandelins (sic) / Properly adapted by the best Masters. / Printed for J. Oswald on the / Pavement St. Martin’s Church / Yard, LONDON


The music seems better suited to the mandolin than the guitar, but since it can be played on either, no fingerings have been added.


None of the “Masters” are named, but it is clear that the music is drawn from several sources. The cross-relations in the Cantabile of Divertimento I are most often found in English music. Other movements sound French or Italian, while the Giga in Divertimento 3 has the unmistakable sound of an Irish jig.


My contention in this article (thanks to recent research in the history of eighteenth-century music in the British Isles) is that the J. Oswald mentioned above was one James Oswald [1710-1769], an important composer, publisher, cellist and dancing master who worked in both his native Scotland until 1740 and London after 1741. Further,  I will argue that Oswald was actually the composer of the Eighteen Divertimento’s and not merely their compiler and publisher. I will also make a few comments regarding the instruments that Oswald had in mind for this music, again based on recent writing on the subject and my own study of another Oswald publication, Twelve Divertimentis for the Guittar (1759?).


When I first purchased PSE 002 I lived in Indiana. I was no more likely to visit the University of Iowa than I was to visit the Moon. In 1994 I moved to the lovely Hawkeye State and two or three years ago it occurred to me that I was only a couple of hours away from the unlikely home of this eighteenth-century mandolin book. I thought it would be fun to see the fifteen divertimenti not published by Plucked String and, maybe, use my computer to produce a copy for myself in modern notation. I called the U. of Iowa Music Library and asked about the document. They kindly offered to send me a photocopy.


I spent quite a few happy hours translating the old printing and inputting the notes into a notation program. I often wondered who the mysterious composers of this music might have been. Just as Neil said, the pieces seemed to come from a variety of national styles, and I assumed that J. Oswald, or some truly anonymous soul who worked for him, must have chosen the divertimenti from several different printed and/or manuscript sources. I never wondered about the identity of J. Oswald. I left my project unfinished for a couple of years and only came back to it in December of 2002. I finally made a trip to the Rita Benton Music Library at the University of Iowa in Iowa City to inspect their copy, but found no new clues; my photocopy was complete. There is also no record in their card shelflist of how the volume came to be in their collection.


As I was going through some old issues of Mandolin World News, I found an interesting article by Nancy Carlin titled “Sources,” on p. 10 of the Spring 1977 issue (with a young Sam Bush on the cover). This article contained a list of mandolin music on microfilm in the library of the Lute Society of America. It included a listing for “Oswald, J. 18 Divertimentos for two Guitars or Two Mandolins” with no further explication. This sparked the thought that maybe Oswald was not just the compiler of a collection but the actual composer of the music. I decided to find out what I could about J. Oswald.


James Oswald merits a healthy five paragraph biography written by David Johnson and Heather Melvill in the online version of the The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. In discussing his lengthy and successful career (as a dancing master, music teacher, violinist, cellist, publisher and composer) the authors state: “Early on, he discovered two guiding principles: that there was no such thing as a completely new tune, only recycled old ones; and that presenting one’s work as ‘traditional’ could often help its acceptability...he extended his native Lowland Scots style and became fluent in English, Italian and French idioms,....” The music of the Eighteen Divertimento’s is attributed to the ‘best Masters’ and contains pieces (as Neil Gladd noted) in English, Italian and French styles. Of course a Scottish dancing master would also know a thing or two about composing a jig in Irish or Scottish style.


The bibliography of the Grove biography lists several sources including John Purser’s 1992 book, Scotland’s Music. Chapter XIV in that volume, titled “The Tempe of Apollo, 1740-1770," contains a lengthy account of the life and work of James Oswald. It is clear from this chapter that James Oswad was a remarkable man and is deserving of a full biography. I believe Ms. Melvill, a descendant of Oswald, is currently working on one. I intend here to limit my discussion to his publications for “guittar” and “mandelin” .


Purser notes Oswald’s skill in deceiving even the composer Francesco Geminiani by publishing some of Oswald’s own work under the name of David Riccio, while serving as Geminiani’s own London printer.


Geminiani, in his Treatise of 1749, wrote that two composers had appeared in the world whom he admired: David Riccio and Giovanni Baptista Lulli. .... In fact the greatest civiliser of melody in the whole world – the great David Riccio, was simply Mr Anonymous Scot when he was not James Oswald, across whose shop counter Geminiani probably checked the proofs of his own duets which Oswald published for him. (p.179)




Nearly every brief biography of Oswald in standard reference sources mentions his habit of publishing his own compositions either anonymously or under the name of other composers. These were apparently business decisions on his part based on his assessment of the market at any given time for various types of music. He seems to have been a very savvy businessman in addition to being a talented composer and gifted performer on the cello. He is now considered to almost certainly be the composer of many popular “traditional” tunes (including  “The Flowers of Edinburgh”), along with several of the tunes for some of Robert Burns’ popular songs. It is even suggested that he may have composed the music for “God Save the King”/”America”.


Purser also mentions the Twelve Divertimentis (1759) for guitar “which were bound to sell well among the ladies of leisure whose latest instrumental craze was the English Guitar – a sort of cittern more like a lute in appearance than the traditional guitar.” (p.187) Scottish lutenist/guitarist and scholar Rob MacKillop has recently (2002) recorded these pieces on a CD and has reproduced the complete score on his website (http://www.robmackillop.com). The title page reads: Twelve Divertimentis for the Guittar dedicated to Her Grace the Dutchess of Grafton. Composed by James Oswald. It reads further: “London. Printed for the Author & sold at his Music Shop on the Pavement St. Martin’s Church Yard, where may be had the first Book for two Guittars.”


Here Oswald openly claims to be the composer of these twelve divertimentis and refers to an earlier book for two guitars. It seems reasonable to me that the earlier book is likely the Eighteen Divertimento’s, published two years before and, by implication, also Oswald’s work.


Just to make things a little more interesting I have also come across two mentions of another Oswald publication for “guittar.” The website for The Wighton Collection of Dundee (http://www.dundeecity.gov.uk/centlib/wighton/josms.htm) has a listing for The Pocket Companion for the Guittar, containing a favorite collection of the best Italian, French, English and Scots songs, adapted for that instrument and the voice, with the note (Unique) following. No date is given. Henry George Farmer’s book, A History of Music in Scotland (1947) also mentions this publication and dates it 1755, two years before the probable date of the Eighteen Divertimento’s.


At this point I contacted Rob Mackillop, through the wonders of electronic mail, and asked his considered opinion on these questions. He has been seriously researching Oswald’s work for “eighteenth-century wire-strung guittar” (or “English guitar”) for some time and recently delivered a paper on the subject. In his generous response to my questions he states, “I think they (the 18 Divertimentos) are 100 percent Oswald’s own. He uses some of the same music in other publications, including the 12 Divertimentis for the Guittar of 1759. … And the music is very much in his style (I have looked at hundreds of pieces by him).” He shared with me portions of his paper in which he discusses the Eighteen Divertimentos in some detail and it is clear that he recognized Oswald as their creator long before I ever began to think about the matter.


Now, what about the music itself? Given that the second book names only the guitar in its title what instrument or instruments was Oswald writing for in both of these publications? Here we enter the murky waters of eighteenth century plucked string instrument identification.





Of course, James Tyler and Paul Sparks’ book The Early Mandolin is the best source we have for mandolin music of this period. Sparks, in his chapter “The Mandolin Elsewhere in Europe”, specifically addresses the contents of the Eighteen Divertimento’s:


The music contained in this volume is quite unlike any mandolin music to be found in Paris or Vienna, consisting entirely of melodic lines with no double-stopping, and with a lower limit of d’. It is probable that the instrument referred to in Britain at this time as the mandolin was a type of cittern known as the ‘English Guitar’, which had only recently been introduced into the country. (p. 98)


There is no mention of James Oswald (beyond the title page transcription) in The Early Mandolin or any of Oswald’s other publications for “guittar.” The composer is listed as ‘Anon.’ in the “Appendix III: List of Primary Music Sources” and four locations are given: The British Library, the Bodleian Library, The Sandeman Public Library at Perth and the University of Iowa.


In James Tyler’s 1980 book The Early Guitar: a history and handbook he describes the “English Guitar” (that is, the “eighteenth-century wire-strung guittar”) this way:

            The standard tuning for the instrument was to a C major chord, beginning with C below middle C: c, e, gg, c'c', e'e', g'g'. The strings were of brass and steel and were played with the right-hand fingers. At first, tablature was used, but this soon gave way to staff notation, entirely in the treble clef. The music relied upon the use of many open strings, and the use of parallel thirds, which were easy to play with this tuning. Hence, the things to look for in order to distinguish English guitar music from Spanish guitar music are: the predominant use of the key of C; much use of parallel thirds; the lowest notes as middle C on the staff (the instrument sounds an octave lower than written); and the typical configurations of chords, ...


Also, in James Tyler and Paul Sparks’ new (2002) book, The Guitar and Its Music: from the Renaissance to the Classical Era, Paul Sparks gives a similar description of the instrument and mentions “several works by the Scottish composer and publisher James Oswald.”


With these descriptions in hand even an amateur like myself can easily identify the music of Oswald’s 12 solo divertimentos as written for wire strung “guittar.” Every piece is written in the treble clef, in the key of C major and each one ends on a C major chord. Each piece has a series of major third double-stops somewhere it its texture and the highest note is the “c” above the staff. This note falls on the fifth fret of the highest string of the instrument in this tuning but falls on the eighth fret of a mandolin’s “e” string. It is easy to imagine James Oswald’s intention in composing these pleasant pieces for the then popular “guittar” with the c,e,g,c’,e’,g’ tuning.


The eighteen duets that appear in his earlier publication for “two Guitars or two Mandelins” are not so easily explained. Only four of these duets are in the key of C and the low “c” below the staff only appears once in the entire book. Its appearance is in the one piece written in F major. Neither instrument is given a double-stop to play although there are many passages where the two instruments play parallel thirds. Ten of the 18 are written in the key of G major, certainly a popular key for the mandolin in any era, four in C major, three are in D major and one in F. The highest note printed in the collection is “b” above the staff and it only appears a couple of times. All of the music written for the 18 falls within the first position of the modern mandolin and, I believe, also any version of mandolino or mandoline likely to be found in London in the 1750s.




The question remains, what instrument or instruments was James Oswald thinking of when he published the Eighteen Divertimentos? Rob MacKillop has probably given more thought to this question than anyone and kindly sent me a copy of the portion of his recent paper that touchs on this issue. After a fairly detailed consideration of the various pieces in the collection he persuasively suggests that Oswald was thinking of duets for two wire-strung “guittars”, one guittar tuned in C and one in G. It was not uncommon, apparently, for this instrument (especially in its early days) to be tuned in G and this explanation covers all of the musical questions posed by various keys.


I should also mention that Mackillop mentions two more Oswald guittar publications in his paper; A Compleat Tutor for the Guittar (1760) and The Musical Magazine (1759?). I’m sure that he will keep updating his website as he learns more about the work of this important composer.       


This leaves the “mandelin” as a secondary target for this music (it does, after all, appear second on the title page) and a mandolin-type instrument with a lowest note of  “c” below the staff could still play all of the music in the book. The “mandolino” that James Tyler discusses at length in The Early Mandolin could be a 6, 5 or 4 course instrument. It’s typical tuning would be (from high to low) g”, d”, a”, e’, b’, f#. A five course mandolino would have a low note of “b” below the staff and would thus be able to easily render the music from Oswald’s duets..


Tyler cites some examples of mandolino music that a musician like James Oswald might have been aware of in mid-eighteenth century London. George Frederic Handel’s oratorio Alexander Balus (1748) contains an aria with a mandolino obligato part. William Defesch published a collection of songs in London (1745) that lists “violino, flauto traversa, e mandolino” as optional instruments to play the melodies. Nicolas Cloe’s collection  One Hundred French Songs set for a Voice, German Flute, Violin, Harpsichord and Pandola (London, 1749) also likely means mandolino when it mentions pandola. Robert Valentine, an English flautist, also published a collection of six sonatas for flute, or violin, or mandola, or oboe under the name Roberto Valentini in 1730 in Rome. One could well argue that Oswald was well acquainted with the mandolino and its music and was purposely composing music that would be adaptable to either the new wire-strung guitar or the older mandolino.


Another quote that serves to further illustrate the potential for confusion when talking about 18th century instruments can be found in Philip Coggin’s article, “‘This Easy and Agreeable Instrument’: a history of the English guittar” (Early Music, May 1987). On page 207 Coggin’s quotes one Dr. Clephane writing to his niece, Elizabeth Rose:


The spinet, too, has its merits, and has more than instrument I propose for you – the guitarre, or mandolino, as it is called by our London ladies ... However, if you have once made progress on the spinet or harpsichord, the mandola will be an easy acquisition. (p. 207)


            Here we see the terms “guitarre”, “mandolino” and “mandola” being used interchangeably. All of us have probably had the similar experience of having our mandolins referred to as banjos or ukeleles by innocent friends or relatives. I suspect that while James Oswald may have intended his duets for the ancestor of our mandolin, it is equally likely that he had never encountered a mandolino and was simply trying to make his music attractive to as wide an audience as possible by adding “mandelin” to his title page. Hopefully more Oswald publications for mandelin will surface some day and help solve this mystery.


On a lighter note I also want to mention that Oswald’s use of the spelling “mandelin” set me thinking about pronunciation. I grew up on the Indiana border with Kentucky and, in that part of the Ohio river valley, the most common pronunciation of the word “mandolin” puts the emphasis on the first syllable and sounds the “o” in the second syllable much like a short “e”. Kentucky, of course, was settled largely by people from the British Isles. Oswald’s spelling may have been a simple typo or it may have been a logical spelling of the word “mandoline” for his English and Scottish customers.


In summary, I have tried to show in this article that the Eighteen Divertimento’s for two Guitars or two Mandelins Properly adapted by the best Masters. / Printed for J. Oswald on the / Pavement St. Martin’s Church / Yard, LONDON (1757?) are really the compositions of James Oswald. I have also presented Rob MacKillop’s assertion that the “Guitars” in question are most likely two eighteenth-century wire-strung guittars (often called “English guitars” in the modern literature) tuned in either G or C. The “Mandelins” in question could have been any of a number of instruments available to Oswald in mid-18th century London and I certainly welcome speculation on that point from the many true scholars of the early mandolin.