Nathaniel Gow Dance Band

Having just been awarded funding from the SGSAH to set up a PhD training workshop on research blogging in the arts and humanities, I think it’s about time I started posting in this blog! Expect to see more regular posting over the next few months.

Over the last month, I’ve been playing in Concerto Caledonia’s new project Nathaniel Gow’s Scottish Dance Band, an exciting collective of trad musicians and early music specialists, playing on period instruments and performing music mostly taken from late 18th-century Scottish dance music collections.

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This has emerged as an output of the Glasgow University-led research project, Bass Culture in Scottish Musical Traditions, which explores the harmonic basis of Scottish traditional music. As well as overseeing the project, David McGuinness has been building a massive database and digitisation of Scottish printed sources of fiddle music from 1750-1850 (due to go ‘live’ at hms.scot in October I believe). These represent a substantial amount of (often overlooked) material, and even the more familiar tunes are very different to the versions played today. We’ve been exploring a range of different approaches, styles, and instrumental combinations (including five fiddles, pipes, octave flute, cello and fortepiano). Our job has been made easier by returning the music (at least in part) to its original function through collaboration with a team of period dancers.

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In the premiere performance with the full band at Glasgow’s Cottier Chamber Project on June 19th, our team of period dancers (led by Talitha Mackenzie) demonstrated and taught a number of 18th-century country dances to some unsuspecting (but eventually very keen) audience members! Earlier in the month, Alison, Mairi Campbell and I also played for the Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland’s Quadrille and Contradanse day at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, looking mostly at regency-period dances, and exploring the influence of French dance forms in Scotland from the late-18th century onwards. Our little band performed in the most common 18th-century dance-band set up – two fiddles and a ‘bass fiddle’ [ie cello]. (In David Allan’s paintings, the piper is usually helping himself to a drink while the fiddles play!)

Earlier this month David, Alison and I also highlighted some of the more ‘domestic’ music from the same period on Radio 3’s In Tune. (You can still hear it for a day or two – I even got a word or two in, after some coaxing by David) This included Nathaniel Gow’s ‘The Cries of Edinburgh’, containing two pieces based on ‘Hot Pies’ and ‘Kale and Leaks’ and ‘a favorite new medley’ performed at the annual ball on 14th March 1830. Last week, we recorded this at the beautiful Ardkinglas, making use of their excellent square piano for the smaller-scale ‘domestic’ parts of the album (we ended this session with a trip to the superb Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, just round the corner!)

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The week before, we were at Chrichton Collegiate Church to record the full band. We talked our way into a visit to the impressive remains of Chrichton Castle next door, where Alison and I discovered some graffiti dating from the same period as the sources we were performing from.

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I think I’ll need to write a separate post all about how we brought together different approaches and playing styles in this project. The so-called ‘historically informed’ approach – using period instruments, original source material, and information on period performance style from iconography and treatises – was brought together with musicians that live and breathe this music as part of a living tradition, mixed in with our collective musical intuition. Often long discussions about the best way to play a tune were immediately answered (and superseded) by the involvement of the dancers, with the steps suited to particular tempi or dotted feel. The main realisation was that this repertoire is so rich that a variety of approaches will work, and that there are endless possibilities with performing these tunes.

Pedantic garnish or the man in music maist expert? Memories of McGibbon

After a visit to the superb new Bannockburn Centre last week, I’ve been thinking about how difficult it is to separate history from mythology. The political or cultural importance of figures like Bruce or Wallace often has more to do with legend than historical fact, and in fact since histories are usually written years after the events themselves, by historians with their own political motives, reality and myth are often impossible to separate.

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But even with a minor historical figure, the way they are portrayed and discussed after their death often has little to do with the reality of their life. Last year, I spent several months looking into the 18th-century Scottish violinist William McGibbon (1696-1756); I was analysing his treatment of different national styles, looking at his embellished versions of Corelli’s Op 5 sonatas (or as David McG refers to them, decompositions), and his collections of Scots Tunes. One thing that really struck me was that despite the majority of his output being in Italian “art” music (I hate this term, but you get the idea: lots of sonatas, and now lost orchestral music), it was his three collections of Scots Tunes that he was predominantly remembered for in the latter-18th and 19th centuries.

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After the original Edinburgh edition, the collection seems to have been everywhere, going through numerous new editions and reprints in Edinburgh and London between the 1750s and early 1800s. Some of these stray more and more from McGibbon’s original, re-typesetting the music, changing the basslines and variations, and even adding entirely new material. In fact, the idea of authorship is difficult even with the original edition: McGibbon probably didn’t pen any of the tunes himself, whilst many of the basslines are closely related to earlier sources (especially the collections of Adam Craig and James Oswald) and some of the variations themselves were in circulation for a number of years, being found in many earlier manuscript sources.

Reference to McGibbon was also used on the title pages and prefaces of other collections to instil a sense of tradition or cultural pedigree (or authenticity?). Robert Riddell elevates McGibbon to composer of tunes in his 1794 Collection of Scotch, Galwegian and Border Tunes, whilst James Davie’s 1851 volume of The Caledonian Repository includes McGibbon’s name on the title page amongst the list of authors of the tunes. McGibbon is given special status at the top of the page alongside James Oswald and ‘The Royal Stuarts’.

This is unusual considering the Scottish backlash against Italianate music from the later-18th century onwards. A number of writers lamented the popularity of Italian music, which they saw as a threat to their native traditions. Interestingly, McGibbon is mentioned in this ongoing debate: in the 1770s, Robert Ferguson’s diatribe against Italian music in Scotland “Elegy on the Death of Scots Music” singles out McGibbon not for his Italian music, but as a champion of Scots music:

Macgibbon’s gane: Ah! Wae’s my heart!

The man in music maist expert

Wha cou’d sweet melody impart, 

And tune the reed

Wi’ sic a slee and pawky art;

But now he’s dead

The portrayal of McGibbon wasn’t always positive: in 1798, Alexander Campbell dismissed McGibbon as a “professed” musician and for introducing too much “pedantic garnish” to his Scots tune collections. However, I find it interesting that McGibbon continued to be part of the public imagination for what must have been a fairly minor part of his career and that he could be both celebrated and attacked for his contribution to Scottish fiddle music.

McGibbon might be seen as a special case amongst that body of performers we refer to as “Scots fiddlers”; he studied in England and probably spent time in Italy, and died before the “golden age” of Scots fiddle music. But it might come as a surprise just how involved in European “art” music a number of the great 18th-century fiddlers were. Of course our idea of “classical” and “folk” music as two distinct entities is really a 19th-century invention… (More on that later perhaps, but if interested, check out Matthew Gelbart’s study).

Alexander Munro: Highland music master?

Munro (Recueil des meilleurs airs eccossois) (website)

New evidence on the 18th-century Scottish composer

One of the most enigmatic figures in 18th-century Scottish music is Alexander Munro, composer of the the Recueil Des Meilleurs Airs Ecossois published in Paris in 1732, and described by Hawkins as a ‘native of Scotland’. This volume was not only some of the first Scottish music written for flute, but was very influential to 18th-century Scottish music, arguably creating a new genre: the Scottish variation sonata. Here a single Scots air is transformed into a set of Italian dances, blending Scots fiddle-variation style and the Italian sonata da camera. As well as Munro’s ‘sonatas’ appearing in numerous fiddle manuscripts through the 18th century, other composer-performers such as McGibbon, McLean and Mackintosh took up the form and the work may even have had an influence on Geminiani.

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Apart from a single piece of music ascribed to Munro in the 1740 MacFarlane manuscript, musicologists have struggled to locate any real evidence of the composer and his background. David Johnson speculated that this was the work of an amateur musician: Alexander Monro primus, the anatomy professor at the University of Edinburgh.

The missing Munro?

I have recently located a better candidate: while looking through records at the National Archives of Scotland, I came across a reference to ‘Alexander Munro, teacher of the music school at Tain’ dated 1730. With a couple more days of digging, I’ve found a number of other references to this individual and now have a fairly substantial account of his career as a music master in the Highlands between 1709 and 1736.

Munro is described variously as ‘music master’ at Inverness (before 1709), Elgin (1709-11), Fortrose (1713-16) and Tain (1730-1736). As well as these four teaching posts, he also appears to have branched out as a writing master or professional scribe, writing a document for the Ross family of Pitcalnie and making a manuscript copy of Robert Gordon’s 1630 historical text ‘Earldom of Sutherland’.

So this individual appears to be enterprising, well educated, and connected to landed families. Not a bad contender so far for the composer of the Recueil Des Meilleurs Airs Ecossois.

The remaining issue is that of Paris for the publication of the 1732 volume. However, music publishing was still in its infancy in Scotland at this point, with only a handful of different volumes published by 1732. It’s possible that Munro the music master could have had his own connections in Paris; a number of 18th-century Scots left to study music or work abroad. In particular, Munro’s contemporary William McGibbon studied in London with William Corbett c.1709, may have travelled to Italy, and later published his own work both in Edinburgh and London.