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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Scottish Connections

Let’s start by listening to something you may never have heard before… [listen]

This music is Scottish and it serves to introduce my theme in this post, which I've chosen to call "Scottish Connections". This music was written by Thomas Erskine, 6th Earl of Kellie, who was born in Fife in 1732. That makes him an exact contemporary of Haydn, and you could have been forgiven for thinking that Haydn was the composer of this bright, thrilling music.

Thomas Erskine, 6th Earl of Kellie

Scotland is a part of the world which has fascinated and influenced many musicians (and practitioners of other arts). I have Scottish ancestry on my mother's side, and my mother, who never visited Scotland, always raised us to think of ourselves as being as much Scottish as we were Australian. This conveniently ignored the fact that my siblings and I have far more English ancestry, but that was immaterial!

Scotland from space

In various times, there have been places which constituted the "exotic other" for some cultures. The way the Viennese of Mozart's time viewed Turkey is a case in point, or the fascination with Asian cultures in late 19th century Paris. For some composers and writers, Scotland represented a place of "exotic otherness" in the 19th century in particular.

It is uncanny that music with a Scottish inflection really does "do" something to me. I imagine that it's the same for people who have been raised to be very conscious of such things, Scottish or otherwise. So in this article I want to trace a very rapid line through music which has been influenced by Scotland, and in some case written by native Scottish composers.

One of the time-honoured devices used by composers to suggest a Scottish ambience is the rhythm known as the "Scotch snap" (although these days we tend to say "Scottish" as "Scotch" is usually reserved as a description of steak or whisky). This "snap" is one found in Scottish traditional music, the rhythm of a short note followed by a longer one. In 1690, when providing some incidental music for Dryden's play Amphitryon, Henry Purcell did just that in the movement he called a "Scotch Tune". [listen]

A century and more after Purcell, composers such as Haydn and Beethoven were being commissioned - by British publishers - to compose their own arrangements of British folk songs. One of the driving forces in this was the Edinburgh-based publisher George Thomson. Haydn, Kozeluch and Pleyel were some of the German-speaking composers he commissioned, but the enormous number of folksong arrangements provided for him by Beethoven - the subject of a recent post in this blog - is staggering.

Beethoven also wrote purely instrumental works for Thomson based on Scottish melodies. This is a small set of variations on the song O Kenmure's on and awa, Willie which he wrote in 1818 for flute or violin with piano. [listen]

In the early 19th century, Scotland was seen by composers on the continent as a place of mystery and melancholy. Witness the number of operas based on Scottish subjects and Sir Walter Scott novels, such as Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Rossini's La donna del lago (not to mention Verdi's early masterpiece on Shakespeare's Scottish play).

Raeburn: Sir Walter Scott (1822)

Franz Schubert, too, was attracted to German translations of Scottish texts, from Percy's Reliques to Walter Scott. The famous "Ave Maria" of Schubert is, in its original form, a setting of a German translation of part of Scott's The Lady of the Lake. This lesser-known song, the Song of Norna, is based on an episode from Scott's 1821 novel, The Pirate. [listen]

Nearly every Romantic composer had a go at being an honorary Scot. Scottish folksongs, if not actually quoted, provided the way forward. The Scottish snap was almost always used to create the mood, and occasionally even drones suggested the bagpipe. Bagpipe imitations were used less often, though, as many European cultures have their own form of a wind instrument with drones; the sound was not regarded by European composers as being quintessentially Scottish.

Wallace Monument, Stirling

Chopin's Scottish Dances are a blend of his own, salon-inspired elegance and the rigours of ceilidh dances, helped along by an occasional use of the Scottish snap. [listen]

Mendelssohn, of course, not only loved Britain (and Scotland in particular) but visited the country on a number of occasions and performed there regularly. Scotland provided the inspiration for two of his greatest works, the overture The Hebrides (also known as Fingal's Cave) [listen] and the third symphony (known as the Scottish symphony) [listen].

Less well-known is the fantasy sonata in F sharp minor op 28 of 1833, which was originally given the title Sonate ecossaise (Scottish Sonata). As a "fantasy sonata" it is very much in line with Beethoven's works in this form (which include the famous "Moonlight" sonata). Here the "Scottishness" is more subtle than snapped rhythms or drone basses. There's a certain seriousness in the piece, contrasted with bright shafts of musical sunlight, and these characteristics seem to suggest the nationality of the title. Some of the melodies, as in the third symphony, suggest Scottish folk tunes as well. Regardless of its inspiration, Mendelssohn's Scottish Sonata requires a pianist with an incredible technique, especially in the final presto movement. [listen]

Edinburgh Castle, viewed from the north

A generation younger than Mendelssohn was Max Bruch, best remembered today for his first violin concerto. However Bruch wrote much more than that, with the result that much of his fine music is rarely heard these days. However, running a close second in popularity to his G minor concerto, is the work he wrote in the late 1870s for the Spanish violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. Known as the Scottish Fantasy, this is a major work for violin and orchestra which also has a prominent part for harp in the orchestral texture. Over five substantial movements, Bruch created a dazzling showpiece for the soloist and several traditional Scottish melodies are incorporated into the music. One of these is "Scots wha hae", heard to great effect in the finale. [listen]

Max Bruch

Apart from Erskine at the start, I haven't mentioned any other Scottish-born composers. Rest assured, there are many, and some who have languished in undeserved obscurity are being rediscovered thanks to some enterprising recording companies.

A composer who had an enormous reputation in the late 19th and early 20th century was a man with probably the most beautifully Scottish name imaginable: Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie. Mackenzie was born in 1868 and died in 1935 and, like many other British composers, was not really given the recognition he deserved in either Scotland or England. In Germany, however, he was - like many other British composers - published and widely performed. Mackenzie's piano concerto in G major op 55 is known as the Scottish Concerto and it was premiered in London by none other than Paderewski in 1897. Like Bruch's Fantasy it alludes to several traditional Scottish songs, and it too is a highly virtuosic work. His violin concerto, called Pibroch is simply gorgeous. [listen]

Alexander Mackenzie (1898)

Two other Scottish composers were born in 1868. Hailing from Greenock, Hamish MacCunn wrote a number of major works, including an opera Jeanie Deans, but today he is almost entirely remembered by way of his early student work, an overture called Land of the Mountain and the Flood. It's an attractive work which I've conducted on a number of occasions in both Scotland and Australia. It unashamedly owes a lot to Mendelssohn's Hebrides (it's even in the same key) but the Scottish snap and the sheer beauty of its melodies mark it out somehow as being the work of a native Scot. [listen]

Hamish MacCunn (1886)

Born in Glasgow in the same year as Hamish MacCunn was Frederic Lamond. Lamond was a fine pianist and his aspirations were more directed towards a virtuoso career than that of a composer. He downplayed his compositional activity in his memoirs which is a shame because he was a very good composer. Like Mackenzie, Lamond performed frequently in the United States and in Europe, and much of his music was published in Germany. In fact after studying there, he made Germany his home.

Frederic Lamond (1898)

This explains the fact that his opus 4 was published with the title Ouvertüre aus dem Schottischen Hochlande rather than in English (Overture from the Scottish Highlands). Lamond wrote this in the 1880s and it was originally designed as a musical picture of the title character in Scott's novel Quentin Durward. The piece is an attractive one, and the opening melody over drones sets the Scottish mood subtly but unmistakably. (Sadly I can’t find a recording online to link to here.)

MacCunn and Lamond died in 1916 and 1948 respectively. Composers from across the stylistic spectrum occasionally allowed themselves to indulge a little Caledonian humour from time to time. Even Debussy wrote a Scottish March for piano four hands (he later orchestrated it) which beautifully mixes his own French dreaminess with Scottish snaps.

While he was in America, Benjamin Britten wrote his Scottish Ballad for two pianos and orchestra, using traditional tunes to create a virtuoso showpiece which is not often heard today. [listen]

But I want to end with a piece which is as Scottish as Scottish can be. Again, it's a piece I've conducted in Scotland and on a number of occasions in Australia, and it never fails to capture an audience with its sheer cleverness, humour and stirring beauty. It was written by the Scottish composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (his surname is pronounced "Davis") in 1985 and it's called Orkney Wedding with Sunrise.

Peter Maxwell Davies (2012)

It tells a very simple story or guests arriving at a wedding in the Orkney Islands (off the northern coast of Scotland) in foul weather. The wedding party processes in, and the band arrives and tunes up. Before long the dancing gets underway and everyone is having the best time.

Clearly the band, like the guests, have been enjoying more than a few glasses of wedding cheer, judging by the sy the solo string quartet gets rather muddled, but it’s all in good fun. Eventually, having had a great time, everyone leaves. The darkness of the night is eventually dispelled by the rising sun, symbolised in the music by the entry of a lone piper. In performance the piper enters from the back of the hall (or some other hidden place) and onto the stage, bringing the piece to a triumphant conclusion. There's never a dry Scottish eye in the house.

I have to let the pipes have the last word, so we'll end with this charming music. In this video, the piece is briefly introduced by the composer, who died in 2016. As they say in Scotland, haste ye back. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2009.

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