Bunting, Edward (1773–1843), musician and collector of Irish music, was born in February 1773 in Armagh, the youngest son of a mining engineer from Derby who had settled near Dungannon. His mother, Mary (née O'Quinn), was Irish. There were two other children of the marriage, Anthony and John, and all three sons became well-known musicians. After the death of his father Bunting was sent to Drogheda to study music with his brother (from 1782) and in 1784 he was articled to William Ware (qv), organist at St Anne's church, Belfast, as sub-organist and assistant teacher. Bunting's early prowess as a musician meant that his reputation soon surpassed that of his teacher. By the turn of the century he was already among the most prominent musicians in Belfast, and was appointed organist of the Second Presbyterian church, Rosemary Street, in 1806. He had a large private practice as a piano teacher and was equally renowned as a performer.
In the early years of the nineteenth century Bunting was a primary figure in the promotion of European art music in the city and central to the success of the Belfast Music Festival (1813), in which he figured as a soloist in the performance of a piano concerto by Mozart and as conductor in the first Belfast performance of Handel's (qv) ‘Messiah’. He was a founder member of the Belfast Harp Society (1808–13) and the Irish Harp Society (1819–39). He lived in Belfast as a member of the McCracken household in Donegal Street from his arrival in the city until 1819, when he married Marianne Chapman, the daughter of a Belfast school principal. The couple moved to Dublin in the same year. There were three children of the marriage. Through the influence of his brother Anthony, Bunting was appointed organist in St Stephen's church and was briefly partner in a music warehouse.
By his own admission, the pivotal episode in Bunting's career was his participation in the Belfast Harp Festival, from 11 to 14 July 1792, in which he notated the performances of several of the competitors, including Denis Hempson (qv) (O'Hempsy) (then ninety-seven years old), Arthur O'Neill (qv), and Charles Fanning. Encouraged by James MacDonnell (qv), a member of the committee responsible for the festival and subsequently a lifelong correspondent on the subject of Irish music, Bunting travelled to Derry, Tyrone, and ‘the province of Connaught’ in order to collect some sixty-six harp melodies, which he published in 1797 in a volume entitled A general collection of the ancient Irish music, containing a variety of admired airs never-before published and also the compositions of Conalan and Carolan, collected from the harpers etc., in the different provinces of Ireland and adapted for the pianoforte, with a prefatory introduction by Edward Bunting (London).
Of the three collections which Bunting published throughout his life (the other two were in 1809 and 1840), the General collection of ancient Irish music was to prove by far the most significant; it can fairly be described as the most seminal and influential publication in the history of Irish music. It inaugurated a long tradition of systematic music collection which has continued to flourish in Ireland; it provided the primary stimulus for the decisive transformation of the ethnic repertory in the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore (qv), and set the terms (reluctantly, from Bunting's own point of view) for a notably political reception of Irish music throughout the nineteenth century. In this last respect, Bunting's own intimacy with the McCracken family, and thereby with leading members of the United Irishmen, secured a conventional understanding of Irish music as an expression of cultural and political autonomy. Although Bunting himself did not press home such an understanding in his published work, it nevertheless exerted an influence on the shape of his second volume, entitled A general collection of the ancient music of Ireland, arranged for the pianoforte: some of the most admired melodies are adapted for the voice to poetry chiefly translated from the original Irish songs by Thomas Campbell Esq., and other eminent poets, to which is prefixed a historical and critical dissertation on the Egyptian, British and Irish harp, by Edward Bunting. Between 1797 and 1809, collections of Irish airs by Smollet Holden (d. 1813) and Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson (qv)), together with the appearance of the first two volumes of Moore's Irish Melodies, considerably reduced the novelty of Bunting's enterprise.
Of greater importance, however, was the fact that Bunting's scholarly endeavours in the preparation of the second volume (London, 1809) were compromised by an admixture of personal and political circumstances. Bunting was not a United Irishman, but counted among his closest companions those who were. His loyalty to such friends must have been strained in the extreme when his major collaborator on the second volume, Patrick Lynch, turned king's evidence against their mutual friend Thomas Russell (qv), who was hanged for high treason. Bunting had embarked with Lynch on an extensive tour of Connacht in 1802, when Lynch collected and transcribed the texts of some 150 songs, many of which were intended for inclusion in what became the 1809 volume. The full extent of these texts – and of much music besides – has been established through the work of Colette Moloney, who in 2000 published a catalogue raisonné of Bunting's Irish music manuscripts, latterly deposited in QUB. In any case, to have fair copy of so much material to hand and yet to withhold it from publication gives some notion of Bunting's distress at Lynch's act of betrayal and Russell's execution. That Bunting was also unnerved by the success of Moore's arrangements is attested by George Petrie (qv), who insisted that Bunting deeply regretted having rejected an offer from Moore to provide English verses for the 1809 volume. Moore in turn was relieved by the appearance of Bunting's third volume (which in a famous diary entry for 15 July 1840 he described as ‘a mere mess of trash’), because it did not contain material sufficient to induce him to compile another volume of the Melodies.
This third volume is entitled The ancient music of Ireland, arranged for the pianoforte. To which is prefixed a dissertation on the Irish harp and harpers, including an account of the old melodies of Ireland. By Edward Bunting (Dublin, 1840). It formed the culmination of Bunting's career as an antiquarian, and provided him with an opportunity to repudiate Moore's romantic reading of Irish music as an overtly political expression of loss (‘there was never anything more erroneous than this idea’). This volume was in part a collaborative venture. Having returned to the limitations of the first volume (i.e. largely untexted arrangements of the tunes), Bunting stressed in his preface the importance he attached to the authentic preservation and transmission of the ethnic repertory. His discourse on musical terminology, vocal style, and ornamentation is more thoroughgoing than in the earlier volumes, and the inclusion of chapters by Samuel Ferguson (qv) and George Petrie silently affirms the authenticity of Bunting's own scientific descriptions and melodic classifications. Bunting's insistence on the ‘animated’ character of performance ‘which . . . accords more with the natural character of the Irish than the drawling dead, doleful and die-away manner in which all our airs were and are in many instances played and sung today’ depended, as ever, on his experience of the Belfast Harp Festival, but also served as a useful corrective to Moore's influential romanticism. Nevertheless, Bunting's efforts in this volume to distinguish between ‘ancient Irish music’ (i.e. the remnants of a classical Gaelic musical culture which he found originally in the performances of Denis Hempson, a harper who ‘scorned the music of Turlough Carolan’ (qv)) and the contemporary style of Irish music as he found it in his collecting tours did not always survive the immediate reception history of the collections themselves. Writing in 1840, Robert Chambers remarked that ‘We close with regret Mr Bunting's volume because we believe that with it we take leave of the genuine Music of Ireland. It must not be regarded as a Musical publication alone, but as a National Work of the deepest antiquarian and historical interest. Were we to institute a literary comparison, we could say that Moore's Irish Melodies had about them all the fascination of poetry and romance, Bunting's collections all the sterner charms of truth and history.’ This reading typifies a failure to discriminate between Bunting's varying scientific classifications of Irish music, and favours instead a more homogenous characterisation of Irish music, dialectically opposed to the drawing-room pleasantries of Moore.
Modern scholarship has restored the political significance of Bunting's antiquarianism (and Moore's Melodies, for that matter), but the redemptive quality of his work (insofar as he preserved so much music that would otherwise have been lost) has been emphasised at the expense both of his organology in respect of the harp and of his scientific investigations into the provenance of the music he collected. He died 21 December 1843 in Dublin.