I was recently invited to write a guest blog on a subject dear to my heart - Scotland’s songs - sparking memories of childhood music lessons. The grim methods employed by some teachers of generations past – wrong notes rewarded with sharp whacks over knuckles with a ruler – had thankfully long gone and my late piano teacher, to whom I am ever grateful, gave me a meticulous and rigorous grounding in music.
Seeing me through Grade exams and many Inverness Music Festival competitions with consistently robust, yet kindly, teaching, she imparted the many elements of piano study and musicianship; practice, technique, theory, musicality, repertoire etc. Even finger nails were scrutinised! She also, of course, opened my mind and heart to a firmament of sublime composers and their musical riches, a gift that I’ve always cherished.
But there was one thing off-limits - Scotland’s music. When my mother asked if I could learn some Scottish music (meaning folk music), her expression was somewhere between askance and shock; the outlandish request was quietly shelved, but I was baffled. It was acceptable to study classical works influenced by the folk music of composers’ native lands (Chopin, Czerny, Bartok, Tchaikovsky and others), and learn pieces entitled Gavotte, Tarantella or Mazurka, based on old European folk dances, but our own music was out of bounds. To be fair, she wasn’t Scottish so perhaps had limited experience of it.
Fortunately, I heard lots of diverse music at home and happily spent many an hour picking out Gaelic songs by ear or sifting through my mum’s piles of flaking, sepia-tinged sheet music to learn old tunes and Scots ballads. I wish however I’d known then what I know now, namely that Beethoven, Haydn and others had composed arrangements of and accompaniments to Scottish songs, including many by Robert Burns, and that the two musical worlds were not mutually exclusive.
At a ‘Meet the Books’ session led by Ness Book Fest’s Melanie McKay in Inverness Reference Library, I was intrigued by a volume published in 1822 – ‘Songs of Scotland’ - from the Charles Fraser-Mackintosh Collection (MP and developer of Union Street, whose home is now Lochardil Hotel).Beneath the rather weighty sub-title of ‘Thomson’s Collection of the Songs of Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Other Eminent Lyric Poets, Ancient and Modern, United to the Select Melodies of Scotland…With Symphonies and Accompaniments for the Piano Forte by Pleyel, Haydn, Beethoven’, is a collection - based on an earlier edition ‘National Melodies and Songs’ published by George Thomson - of over 250 songs, old and new.
Burns contributed around 100, including many specially written, often to be sung to older airs. After his death in 1796, Thomson recruited Walter Scott and other writers to compose new lyrics and collaborating on all those works were some of the foremost composers of the age.
Thomson states ‘The Symphonies form an Introduction and Conclusion to each melody…while the Accompaniments will be found to support the voice, and to beautify the Melodies, without any tendency to injure their simple character. Second voice parts were also composed by these great Masters…to be sung as Duetts (sic); as well as for the Chorus parts.’ Devoting many years to the compilation of the six-volume Songs of Scotland, his deep respect for the material is evident, being at pains to retain the purity and distinctiveness of the original melodies. His books undoubtably also brought the music to a wider audience.
I think we tend to view cross-genre musical collaboration as quite a modern, edgy phenomenon and, while I of course believe Scotland’s folk songs stand perfectly well on their own, it is fascinating to learn of this early cross-fertilisation between musical spheres.
To see Beethoven’s arrangement of songs such as the well-kent Jacobite rouser ‘Charlie is my darling’ is hugely interesting for a musician. Who knows, it may even have persuaded my piano teacher that there was something in this folk music malarkey after all!
To read the article and find out more about the Charles Fraser-Mackintosh collection: www.invernessrarebooks.wordpress.com
(First published by Highland News & Media 22nd February 2019)