Saturday, September 2, 2023

Tunes from the British Isles

Most 'classical' music performed today in churches and concert halls all over the world, and recorded on disc, belongs among the category of what is called 'art music'. It was written by composers and has come down to us in fixed form, either in manuscript or in printed editions. However, in the course of history, much music - and probably even most - was sung and played by people who did not use any written notes; many of them were probably not even able to read music. Improvisation was the name of the game, and music was handed over from one generation to another orally. It had no fixed form, and in the course of time, both texts and music often changed considerably. In most cases their original forms are not known, unless at some time such music was written down. That is the case with the music which is the subject of a recording by an the Makaris [1], whose name is derived from makar (pl. makaris), a royal court troubadour of medieval Scotland; the term was resurrected centuries later and is used now to describe a Scottish bard or poet (booklet).

The title of this disc also needs some explanation. David Rizzio, of Italian origin, was secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1566 he was murdered by Mary's Protestant opponents. He was also a bass singer, but there is no reason to think that he has ever written any note of music. However, a number of songs are attributed to him, and that was the work of William Thomson (c1684-c1762), who in 1726 published a collection of songs under the title of Orpheus Caledonius. It was the first printed edition of arrangements of traditional Scottish songs, consisting fifty settings by Thomson over a figured bass. For 43 melodies no composer was mentioned, and it is likely that Thomson plagiarized their texts from a book of Scottish poetry published two years before. Thomson attributed the seven remaining melodies to David Rizzio. The reason for that may well have been that the Italian style was fashionable and that attributing melodies to an Italian Thomson hoped to sell more copies. Several respected composers fell for this myth, including James Oswald and Francesco Geminiani.

Makaris's disc presents all 22 songs falsely attributed to Rizzio, in various arrangements, mostly by composers from the 18th century (Geminiani, Veracini, JC Bach), but also by members of the ensemble. Most of them are performed in a combination of voice and instruments, and some are performed in instrumental versions. In some cases, arrangements by different composers have been mixed. The only composer who is represented with original music, is James Oswald. This disc seems to me of great interest to any lover of traditional music. What we have here is the performance in historical fashion - with instruments of the 18th century - of music from a stage in its development in which it was fixed. It is not only an interesting contribution to our knowledge of the music scene in 18th-century England, but also the history of traditional music and the way it developed in the course of time. Even if you don't understand all the texts, this is an enjoyable disc, as the members of the ensemble perform these pieces with audible enthusiasm and technical skills on their respective instruments.

The second disc is more modest with regard to the participation of instruments. Most pieces are played on the harp, either solo or with violin; the latter was the instrument of the Irish Turlough O'Carolan, and he is one of the best-represented composers on the programme recorded by the ensemble Spirit & Pleasure [2]. This ensemble consists of Christoph Mayer (violin) and Johanna Seitz (harp), in a few pieces joined by Monika Nielen on the oboe. Whereas Makaris entirely focused on tunes from Scotland, here we also get some from Ireland and England. The above-mentioned Geminiani is also represented, and so is James Oswald, who was from Scotland and was educated on the cello. He settled in London and became acquainted with the English, Italian and French styles. He a had a strong influence on later generations of composers.

The pieces in the programme belong among two categories. On the one hand we have 'authentic' arrangements of traditional tunes in baroque style by the likes of Geminiani, O'Carolan and Oswald. On the other hand we have traditional tunes arranged in a comparable way by the performers themselves. The fact that composers of the 18th century arranged these tunes - and they were followed by classical masters such as Haydn and Beethoven - justifies this procedure, and it seems to me that they have done a fine job. The traditional tunes have their own charm, and even those who have no great interest in traditional music as such may well enjoy these tunes in a baroque shape. In this case there are no texts which are hard to understand, as the songs are performed instrumentally, which again is an entirely legitimate procedure.

[1] "The Galant David Rizzio - Eighteenth-century arrangements of traditional Scottish songs"
Olde Focus Recordings FCR921 (© 2022) details

[2] "Good taste - Baroque folk from Ireland, Scotland and England"
Spirit & Pleasure
Aeolus AE-10346 (© 2021) details

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