by John Currie
Scotland's heritage in song is one of the richest in Europe and the world. It is a heritage which stretches from the Middle Ages to the present, and which embraces the great Celtic tradition of the mountains and islands as well as the wonderfully varied songs of the Lowlands and Southern Uplands (“The Borders"). Any great folk-song tradition reflects the romance, the politics, and the exuberance of a nation; the lyrics encompass public as well as personal emotions; the songs are national but also international. Scotland's tradition is no exception, and in this concert we bring to you love-songs, songs of political pride, and songs of sheer mischief and hilarity.
But what gives Scots songs their distinct flavor and peculiar emotional power? A sense of space. The songs are "open,” often evoking the great spaces of sea and hill, and the loneliness which is a mark of the Scot and the landscape he so often deserts to live elsewhere. At other times the spaciousness is evoked in a hilarious open-air dance like 'The De'il's awa wi' th’ exciseman" or a subtle love-dance like "Corn Rigs.”
Perhaps it is the sense of space in the songs which always makes it a special pleasure to present them in arrangements for chorus and symphony orchestra. Normally the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Sinfonia of Los Angeles present great classical, romantic and modern works of the concert-hall repertoire, but here they devote their talents to an evening of folk-songs in settings which are designed to underline the spaciousness and strength of the melodies.
Many of the songs need no introduction: "Loch Lomond" and Auld Lang Syne" are known and loved world-wide - although it should be mentioned that the latter is presented here in its correct version as a fine nostalgic song about friendship and friends separated by the oceans. It should be noted, too, how many of the songs have lyrics by Robert Burns. Those who love folk-songs owe him a great debt as a collector of songs and old melodies, and as a poet of genius who could revive and renovate a fine old lyric without destroying its earthiness and simplicity. In most of the melodies, I have used the versions found in The Scots Musical Museum, (edited by Burns) an eighteenth-century Edinburgh publication.
Less well-known beyond Scotland, perhaps, are the dance-songs: fiddle tunes or pipe tunes which combine song and dance. 'The De'il's awa' is the most glorious, “The Piper o' Dundee" a close second. Satan, usually a grotesque comic figure in the Scottish tradition, comes dancing through the town and like a Pied Piper (or rather, a Pied Fiddler) dances away with the hated exciseman, the man who makes whiskey expensive. "Corn Rigs,” a man's song, describes, as a dance, the courting of the not unwilling Annie, until by the end of the song the title has a thousand meanings.
There are also love-songs, in many cases touched by war or political strife "Gae bring tae me a pint o' wine" is a rumbustious soldier's drinking-song, repeatedly softened by the thought of leaving his beloved Mary. Although it is nowhere stated by Burns in "I’ll aye ca' in by yon toun" that the lover is a soldier, there are strong resemblances to the soldier's song in "The Jolly Beggars.” Whatever his profession, the careless jauntiness of the song seems to spring from the fact that he only calls on his girl from time to time, as duty allows. Similarly comic is the provocative woman's song "O Whistle" describing (somewhat over eagerly?) how she can be called out of her father's house, if love is promised. In more serious vein the finest of traditional Scottish love songs are represented by "Willie's fair,” a tragic little ballad from the Vale of Yarrow in the high hills of The Borders; "My love's in Germanie,” a wonderful, intensely sad, melody which wanders over the whole range of the voice; and Burns's incomparable "O my love is like a red, red rose.”
"The Bonnie Earl o' Moray" and "Will ye no' come back again" are songs arising out of particular civil strifes. The latter is a Jacobite song expressing fanatical devotion to Bonnie Prince Charlie, but it has become widely associated with more general nostalgia at the parting of friends. In "The Bonnie Earl o' Moray;' I have not used the original melody, but the dark Victorian melody which has become more widely known. Moray was a popular romantic hero. The handsomest man of his time, his ill-fated love for Scotland's Danish Queen led to his murder, and the tragedy gave rise to this powerful lament. Indeed the folk-talents of the nineteenth-century have not been neglected in this traditional program. Lady John Scott, writing in a folk-tradition, produced songs which were clearly touched by European and English Romanticism, and here we include "Durisdeer" and the familiar, but very fine “Annie Laurie.” It seemed fitting in this program, too, to include another nineteenth-century act of homage to the landscape from which the Scottish folk-culture springs: Mendelssohn's Overture "Hebrides" (Fingal's Cave). The work typifies, with charm and taste, the early Romantics' attitude to Scottish sights and sounds.
The two most exceptional songs are by Burns: "John Anderson" and “The Winter of Life.” Love in old age is rare in folksongs, where the old are normally treated comically, but "John Anderson'' is an old woman's love-song in which death is seen as love's welcome and dignified culmination. In “The Winter of Life" there is no love, but only a lament for the loss of youth. The lyric staggers between conventional English and pungent Scots (a favorite device of Burns), and is set to an extraordinary melody, originally from India, peacefully mixing two-pulse and three-pulse measures.