Monday, December 27, 2010


So, early last month I heard (thanks to Dimitra Fimi, the leading Tolkien scholar in Wales) that a Cardiff bookdealer had an unusual Tolkien associational item for sale: a piece of sheet music by Alfred Tolkien, who seems to have been the cousin of JRRT's grandfather, John Benjamin Tolkien (Sr). The price was more than an impulse buy cd justify, but this seemed like one of those never-to-be-repeated chances, so I decided to take the plunge. And now, thanks to the good offices of a friend in England with whom I trade book-purchases (I buy things for him that are only available over here, he buys things for me that are only available over there*), it's finally arrived in the post today -- a little late (we think the post office mistakenly sent it by boat rather than airmail) but safe and sound.

The piece itself is titled THE PATCHWORK POLKA, "Composed for the Piano-Forte & respectfully dedicated to the Ladies of England by Alfred Tolkien", price two shillings and sixpence. Apparently you cd buy it either at Henry Tolkien's shop in King William Street nr London Bridge, or from J. B. Tolkien in New Street, Birmingham (Henry being Alfred's brother and thus another of JRRT's grandfather's cousins**). This suggests for me that the Tolkiens were already thoroughly Anglicized in circa 1865, when this piece was published. I don't have access to a keyboard, but I'll look forward to trying it out at some point -- although haltingly, since a swift glance convinces me it's far beyond my long-atropied skill at the piano. Rather to my surprise it's in 2/4 time, I having been under the impression that a 'polka' had to be 3/4*** -- not so, a little quick research shows; 2/4 was in fact the usual. Live and learn.

Now, if I cd just find someone with a Tolkien piano to play it on, that wd be something.

--John R.
current reading: TROY AND HOMER by Joachim Latacz, THE COMING OF THE FAIRIES by Conan Doyle
current audiobook: HUMAN SMOKE
current anime: CANAAN

*such as, most recently, the Derek Jacobi audiobooks for LETTERS FROM FATHER CHRISTMAS and ROVERANDOM on cd, to supplement the old ones I have on audiocassette.

**and thus JRRT's third cousin, or first cousin twice removed, as some folks prefer to reckon it.

The Wife Says:
"I think I've reached a new high in baffled and bemused tolerance" --JC

CORRECTION (1/2-11): changed "3/3" time to 3/4, thanks to the my error being pointed out in the comments. Many thanks.--JDR


David Bratman said...

I have seen, but do not own a copy of, a book of poems by James Kenneth Tolkien, a distant cousin from the Canadian/American branch of the family.

But it's possible to take this "it has the name Tolkien on it" collecting instinct too far. I once knew a Tolkien fan who also collected material relating to the TV writer Mel Tolkin, because his name resembled "Tolkien" - though there was no genealogical nor etymological relationship at all.

Your grandfather's first cousin is your first cousin twice removed, not just as some prefer to reckon it, but according to every authority on the nomenclature that I've ever seen - up to and including Gaffer Gamgee, who uses that terminology system, not the other, to describe Bilbo and Frodo's relationship.

John D. Rateliff said...

Yes, it's peripheral, but interesting for all that. I had not known, for example, that one of the Tolkien cousins was a "professor of music" (though I don't know in the parlance of the time whether this meant he was associated with a university or simply a teacher of music who took private pupils).

My chief interest in this is for the light it sheds on Tolkien's having come from a musical family, a fact which v. little has been made of biographically. I don't know whether Bradford Lee Eden's collection (MIDDLE-EARTH MINSTREL) includes any study of the Tolkien family's deep musical roots, since I haven't read this book yet: none of the essay titles look like it. Unfortunately the book lacks any sort of index in which I cd look up 'Tolkien piano', 'John Benjamin Tolkien', "Henry Tolkien', or 'Alfred Tolkien'. I also cd find no mention of JBT's cousins in either THE TOLKIEN FAMILY ALBUM or Wayne & Christina's COMPANION & GUIDE, although at least one more of Alfred Tolkien's works is in the British Library, as I've just learned today.

By the way, James Kenneth Tolkien published three books of poetry, not just one. I doubt that JRRT ever read any of them, though, as they seem not to be in the Bodleian. But that by no means exhausts the realm of Tolkien-family items. There are the two (soon three) novels by Simon Tolkien, at least two books on costume jewelry by Tracy Tolkien, a slim volume of stories by Hilary Tolkien, and several books by Christopher Tolkien from before he undertook the editing of his father's work (at least one of which, the edition/translation of HEIDREKS SAGA, is superlative). Plus of course all the books about people connected to Tolkien, the reading of which increases our knowledge of JRRT and his milieu: two recent books on his Aunt Jane, one forthcoming on his guardian Fr. Francis, one on his brother Hilary (unfortunately cancelled), &c.

So yes it's peripheral, almost laughably so, but I don't feel I wasted my money because it's a physical reminder of something I'd like to know more about.


David Bratman said...

I didn't mean to imply that your interest in Alfred is as extreme as that of the guy who collected Mel Tolkin!

In fact, just to show how far we can go here, I know about James Kenneth's other two poetry books. I once tracked down info on him, finding his local paper's obituary, and I even visited his (sadly unmarked) grave. (Another person distantly connected to JRRT whose grave I've visited is Allen Barnett.)

N.E. Brigand said...

Jason Fisher posted an excerpt from J.K. Tolkien's poetry here a couple years ago, where David in the comments mentioned some of the biographical information he has noted here.

John: when you wrote you had "been under the impression that a 'polka' had to be 3/3", did you mean "3/4"? I've never seen the former time signature -- though David probably could point me to a work that uses it!

Ed said...

The time signature 3/3 does not exist, unless it's been used at some point by some avant garde composer trying to be clever. The bottom number in a time signature is conventionally either a "1" (signifying that a whole note=one beat) or a multiple of 2. IF someone were to use "3" in the bottom number, I suppose it would mean that a half note triplet note=1 beat, but you'll probably never see that (except, as I mentioned, from a composer trying to to "break the rules").

I've always thought of polkas as being in 2/4, but perhaps there exists a genre of "waltz-polka" in which the time signature is indeed 3/4.

Regardless of all that, congratulations on the find!

Ed Pierce

John D. Rateliff said...

Yes, I meant 3/4 time; I've now gone back in and corrected the post. Thanks for pointing out the error.
As for unusual times, I remember one place I came across them was in transcriptions of folk music (by Percy Granger, I think) -- British Islands tunes that had been composed aurally and never written down until centuries later, and so didn't follow a lot of the conventions. Afraid I can't remember any specific examples though (that having been in 1981 or thereabouts).