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Scottish Music in the 18th Century



Musical instruments are usually classified according to how they work physically, i.e. wind instruments are distinguished from string instruments, and so on. But an alternative form of classification, more appropriate to this study, is also possible: according to social use. From this point of view eighteenth-century instruments can be distinguished as 'professional' or 'amateur', and amateur ones can be subdivided into 'male' and 'female'.

The 'professional' instruments included all brass and percussion, and all wind instruments except recorder and flute; learning these would have been beneath the dignity of an upper-class amateur player. In Scotland such instruments had a place only in theatre and army bands, and when used in amateur concerts they were always played by imported professionals.

The 'amateur' instruments in eighteenth-century Scotland were as follows: recorder (up to about 1740), flute (from about 1725), violin, cello, viola da gamba (the last up to about 1740), harpsichord, spinet, virginal, clavichord (these last two up to about 1740), piano (from about 1780) and cittern (throughout the century but with a period of special popularity between 1755 and 1780). The harp and guitar did not reach Scotland until about 1810.

[Note: he is talking about the use of the European harp in genteel society in the Scottish lowlands.]

Of these, recorder, flute violin, and cello were played only by gentlemen; gamba and keyboard instruments were played by both sexes, the latter becoming increasingly 'female' as the century progressed; and cittern was played only by ladies. This distribution reflects a society where the men go out to work and meet each other while the women stay put in their own homes—for the 'male' instruments are the sociable ones which fit together into orchestras and chamber ensembles, whereas the 'female' instruments are lone and harmonically self-supporting. The fact that ladies, as well as gentlemen, played gamba seems to break this rule, until one remembers the existence of 'division viol' playing, a style of playing chords as well as melodies on the gamba to make it harmonically complete on its own; this was a seventeenth-century technique which may well have lasted into the eighteenth century in Scotland.

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
pp. 23-24


The Rise of the Violin

There was one major change in instrumental playing during the eighteenth century—the Border bagpipe gradually dropped out of use, and the violin took its place. 'The fiddle', wrote Leyden in 1801, '... has, in the Scottish Lowlands, nearly supplanted the Bagpipe.' But one cannot date the change very exactly: the violin was being used to play folk-tunes as early as 1680, and the bagpipe was by no means extinct as late as 1816. It is no use assigning a date for the change if one has to make allowances of a hundred years each way. (Here again, classical music is contrasted strongly. It can be stated with some accuracy that the transverse flute took over the position of the recorder in Scotland between 1725 and 1740; people follow fashions punctiliously in classical music circles.) It is probable that the violin was introduced into Scotland by the upper classes, who got it from England as a classical instrument. There was probably also an existing medieval-fiddle tradition in Scotland, which the Italian violin joined forces with and stimulated.

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
p. 101


Woman with cittern

When an instrument becomes obsolete and a new instrument arises to take over its social function, it often takes over the old name. Thus flute can mean both recorder ('common flute') and transverse flute ('German flute'); guitar both cittern ('English guitar') and the modern instrument ('Spanish guitar'). A more confusing doubling of this kind, which several scholars have come to grief over, is treble viol, a name used in Scotland at the beginning of the eighteenth century to mean 'violin'. This fact can be established from a manuscript tuning-chart, written probably in Aberdeen in about 1715, which instructs the player to tune the four strings of the 'Trible viol' to g d' a' and e''. A derived term violer, meaning a folk fiddle player, was used in Scotland throughout the eighteenth century, and is recorded in Jedburgh as late as 1816. At what date the actual treble viol went out of use in Scotland is not known, but the name carried on, applied to the new Italian instrument which took its place.

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
pp. 24-25



Events leading up to the Union of 1707, when Scotland lost her Parliament (contrary to the wishes of the majority of the people), coincided with an upsurge of national feeling that was to have not only political repercussions in the ill-fated risings of 1715 and 1745 but also more positive artistic results in a whole series of important collections of poetry and music from Scotland's past. Watson's Choice Collection) and even earlier pieces. It was to prove enormously influential on the poets and song-writers of the eighteenth century, not least Robert Burns. Allan Ramsey, however, took up the idea and produced a similar collection in his Evergreen (1724), and included more of his his work in pastoral vein in the Tea-Table Miscellany (1724-37). In 1726 Alexander Stuart published his Music for Allan Ramsay's Collection of Scots Songs, since only directions to tune-titles had appeared in Ramsay's publication. These are all native airs, many recognisable from the seventeenth-century anthologies, but the collection is unsatisfactory in having no texts, and the instrumental basses to the tunes are very feeble indeed. A much more interesting and impressive collection is Orpheus Caledonius, which first appeared in 1725 as a set of fifty songs with somewhat heavily decorated melodies and rather awkward basses, then in 1733 with twice the number of songs in two volumes, slightly simplified versions of the earlier melodies and much improved basses. The basic forms of the melodies must have been those favoured by the editor William Thomson, a well-known singer of Scots songs who published both his editions in London. Whether or not he was entirely responsible for the basses is another matter. If he got professional help with them it is regrettable that he made no acknowledgement of the fact—but perhaps not uncharacteristic, for he never mentioned Ramsay as the source of his texts; if he merely acquired some lessons in composition, he certainly would seem to have made excellent progress in bass-making between 1725 and 1733, and I do not see why we need not give him the credit for the songs as a whole.

As examples of these songs, settings of two texts by Ramsay in pastoral style illustrate the debt to the seventeenth-century repertoire and the continuity of the folk tradition. The earliest extant source of the tune of The Lass of Peaty's Mill is Robert Edwards' Commonplace-Book of the mid-seventeenth century, while the tune for At Polwarth on the Green looks like an early eighteenth-century 'homage' to it. The uproarious Blythsome Bridal to words by Sir William Scott of Thirlestane (c. 1670-1725) describes in the characteristically Scottish literary form a grotesque wedding-feast with equally grotesque catalogues of guests and dishes to an instrumental jig of the late seventeenth century. Cromlet's Lilt, lament of Sir James Chisholm of Cromleck (c. 1600) after a tragic love affair, suggests by its courtly words that its original music was perhaps courtly solo- or part-song and in the rhythm of a galliard. This music has either been transformed into the idiom of the native air (like Then wilt thou goe) or has been supplanted by another tune of the folk-song variety; at any rate the present one retains the galliard rhythm but is found no earlier than the Balcarres Lute-Book of about 1690. In such an example of the very old native air tradition as Willy's rare and Willy's fair, words and music seem to have been conceived together from the start. How much earlier this song is than its earliest sources (late seventeenth-century for the music, Orpheus Caledonius for the text) is almost impossible to say. The words have all the stark drama and concision of the best early ballads, and the tune has that utter simplicity yet unexpected turn of phrase that suggest an antiquity not often encountered even among tunes of the earliest extant folk-song sources (i.e. the early seventeenth century).

Kenneth Elliott & Frederick Rimmer
A History of Scottish Music
British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973
pp. 52-53


Rococco and Classical Period (1745-1800)

Highland Wedding David Allan (1744-1796) On the folk side interest continued in arranging or composing for violin, notably by the famous Gow family. But folk-song collections of this period are probably all overshadowed by James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum, an ambitious publication in six volumes that appeared between 1787 and 1803 … Each volume of Johnson's collection contains one hundred songs (not entirely Scots as it turned out) for which the music was edited and arranged by an Edinburgh musician Stephen Clarke, and after his death for the last volume by his son William. On the whole the largely unfigured basses are simple, simpler even than those of Orpheus Caledonius (the difference among other things between classical and baroque styles), yet to my mind entirely adequate for the purpose. Robert Burns edited many of the texts for this collection (until his death in 1796), and for it he wrote some of his finest lyrics….

Burns occasionally felt the need to improve a frank or bawdy text for polite society: the racy original of his exceedingly mild version of O let me in this ae nicht can be found in Herd:

But ere a' was done, and a' was said,
Out fell the bottom of the bed;
The lassie lost her maidenhead,
And her mither heard the din, jo.

Burns also saw fit to alter the last two stanzas of Herd's version of O when she cam ben she bobbed, transforming a straightforward situation of servant girl happily seduced by laird into a moral (if democratic) situation of 'Lady Jean was never sae braw' or a servant girl's a servant girl for a' that. The result is certainly rather dull, but strangely it has a musical virtue in Burn's extension of some of the lines to produce a highly rhythmical version of the tune. The tune itself (later used for The Laird o' Cockpen) turns out to be one of many late sixteenth-century discants to the passmezzo antico, an instrumental ground current throughout Europe at the time, and Clarke's setting of it seems instinctively to make use of the older bass.

Kenneth Elliott & Frederick Rimmer
A History of Scottish Music
British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973
pp. 56-58


Dance Music

Irish dancing Almost any form of music could be used for dancing. The fiddle was the dominant dance-music instrument in the eighteenth century, for dancing-masters traditionally played it to accompany their lessons; but if a fiddle was not available its place could be taken by the bagpipe, by any sort of whistle, by a jew's harp, singing, or diddling (a sort of vocalization in which the tune is articulated to 'dum-di-diddle-um' syllables). It was also common in earlier periods for dancing, singing, and playing to proceed simultaneously. The Complaynt of Scotland gives a list of names of dance tunes current in 1548; some of them are place-names which do not imply that the tune had associated words ('ennyrnes', 'the loch of slene', 'soutra'), but others are names of narrative ballads ('Robene hude', 'thom of lyn', 'ihonne ermistrangis dance'). This suggests that it was customary in the sixteenth century to dance while ballads were being sung, and it is possible that the practice survived into the eighteenth century in some parts of Scotland.

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
pp. 104-105


The Penny Wedding The amount of dancing done in Scotland greatly increased between 1720 and 1780, and led to an increased demand for dance music; to meet the need, large numbers of folk-songs were rewritten as instrumental dance tunes and pressed into service. The rewriting caused problems. Most song-tunes were of only one strain, and most dance tunes were required to have two strains. (David Young's manuscript employs two different kinds of handwriting to show what steps are to be made to the first strain of the tune, and what to the second.) Thus a fiddler rewriting a song-tune had not only to transfer it from vocal to instrumental idiom, but often also to compose a second strain to bring it up to the right length. William Stenhouse, annotating the Scots Musical Museum in 1820, remarked of many of the songs that 'the second part or strain of this tune is a modern interpolation', though he offered no explanation why this should have happened. It is clear, however, that adding second strains to tunes was a favourite occupation of educated fiddlers in the mid eighteenth century. A myth even grew up about it: it was said to be impossible to to write a second strain to 'The Broom of Cowdenknowes', and that the famous Geminiani of Dublin had tried and been forced to abandon the task after 'blotting several quires of paper'.

The advent of the strathspey in the 1760s set off a further wave of composition. William Marshall's reconstruction of the song tune 'The Lowlands of Holland' as 'Miss Admiral Gordon's Strathspey' has already been described... Some tunes were turned into strathspeys which had already suffered conversion earlier in the century into country-dances. An example of this is 'O'er the muir among the heather', which appears both as a 'new Countrey Dance' in David Young's 1740 manuscript, and as a strathspey in the Scots Musical Museum in 1792. It is notable that both versions are in definite instrumental idiom—characterized by the large unvocal leaps and the wide over-all range—and that both have two strains.

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
pp. 122-124


Harmonizing Traditional Tunes

It was originally intended by the publisher, that the pieces in this collection should have appeared without any harmonical accompaniment. These airs often differ considerably in their form and structure, from the music, to which parts are commonly sets. The progessions of the fundamental bass, do not always observe the same laws. It seemed, therefore, scarcely possible to adapt an accompaniment to them, which would not, in many cases, violate the established rules of counter-point, and so give disgust to the regular musician …

It seemed, therefore, the safest course, to publish the simple melody, and leave it to masters, or others, who might wish to perform particular airs, to frame an accompaniment, agreeably to their own taste and fancy. The publisher, however, was frequently solicited by many respectable subscribers to his work, to depart from that resolution. It was alledged, that the airs would not be received, or attended to, if they were published in that naked form: and it was suggested, that many persons might wish to play them on the harpsichord, who had not musical knowledge sufficient to enable them to compose a bass, or had not the opportunity of a master to assist them… A middle course has therefore been followed. Basses, chiefly for the Piano-forte, are added to such airs, as were most regular in their structure, or seemed most capable of bearing an accompaniment. The rest are printed without basses…

What has been chiefly aimed at, in setting basses to some of the following airs, is to give specimens of the different methods, in which an accompaniment may be adapted to such music. It is left to performers, either to take them as they are, or to fashion them according to their own taste or system. Some of those airs, will probably produce their happiest effect, when sung or played, in a simple, expressive manner, without accompaniment, or at most, with a few octaves sounded to the emphatical notes, such as we may suppose were struck upon the harp, in former times. Any regular accompaniment, that can be set to them, will perhaps weaken, in some degree, their native expression, by giving them a modern, artificial appearance. It is like superadding the ornaments of the Grecian architecture to the square castle of an old baron. To others of them, the best accompaniment is, perhaps, the bagpipe bass, or the continual repetition of the key-note.

Patrick McDonald
A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs Edinburgh, 1781
pp. 5-6


Non-Tonal Endings

Many Scots tunes have a habit of ending up on a note other than the stated tonic. This must not be confused with the idea of a tune's 'being in a mode' … The usual final notes of such tunes are the second, third, fifth, and sixth degrees of the scale; this is significant since these are the four notes which, together with the tonic, make up the pentatonic scale. Such tunes therefore hark back to an earlier pentatonic melodic system where all five notes of the scale were interchangeable in function, and a tune could close equally well on any of them.

The eighteenth-century harmonizer was often puzzled as to how to treat this type of tune. 'The broom of Cowdenknowes' was a recurrent problem; it closed on the second degree of the scale:

The Broom of Cowdenknowes score

Was one supposed to harmonize the last note by a dominant chord (C major), or a supertonic one (G minor)? Or just possibly, as an English composer in the 1920s might have done, by a supertonic major (G major)? The point is that there were no theoretically correct answers, as the whole idea of harmonization was wrong, anyhow. William Thomson tried different solutions in each edition of Orpheus Caledonius; Domenico Corri in New and complete collection of the most favourite Scots songs (Edinburgh, c. 1783) tacked an instrumental 'symphony' on to the end of it to bring it round to F major again.

Around 1800 'The broom of Cowdenknowes' suffered drastic new treatment: the phrase

The Broom of Cowdenknowes new ending score

was added on to the end of the tune: educated singers apparently could not any longer bear the 'unfinished' sound of the traditional version any longer. … Curiously enough, this was not a unique occurrence, for an exactly parallel addition was made to the tune 'Ay wakin O' at the same period; 'Ay wakin O' originally ended on the fifth degree of the scale. …

Thus in the small tussle with individual notes and chords we catch glimpses of a much larger evolutionary process. The gulf between the folk and classical traditions widened during the seventeenth century; classical music explored deeper and deeper into the possibilities of tonal harmony, and folk music was left behind in the monodic Middle Ages. But during the eighteenth century folk music began to catch up again. It absorbed many of the elements of tonality in a very short time, and it says much for its integrity and vigour that it did so without losing its identity in the process. The retained identity expressed itself, however, in odd melodic corners which did not conform to the classical system; and when the next cross-influence occurred between the two traditions, and attempts were made to harmonize folk-tunes, it was these odd corners that caught the classical arrangers out.

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
pp. 161-163




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