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Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the 18th Century

By Dr David Johnson

Mercat Press

2003 (1972 OUP)

223 pp

10 Coates Crescent

Edinburgh EH3 7AL

ISBN 184183 0496


Dr Johnson’s account of music, and the society in which it existed in the 18th Century has been the standard text without challenge for some three decades, despite having been out of print for half of that time. Now comes an updated version a decade more than the shelf-life of the original as predicted by the author. The reprint of this valuable treatise is welcome, for authoritative writings on the subject of Scottish music of any period are scarce enough – and the story of its origins and growth is for the most part, even for most Scots, buried in a highland coastal haar.

It is Dr Johnson’s contention that the twin strains of folk music and classical, while two distinct elements, exhibit a notable relationship with each other – and which he illustrates in this account by what he calls a "map of 18th Century Scottish music" – also revealing the influence which music – both folk and classical - exerted on the development of Scottish culture in 18th Century society.

A 2nd edition might usually be expected to contain new information and correction of previous errors. In fact the emendations contained in this new edition are drafted as a quasi-introductory chapter of some fourteen pages, to allow, says the author, retention of the original OUP typesetting. I would suggest that, while this may be a thoroughly commendable reason, it simply reinforces the view that the conclusions of the original book remain true, despite the author’s self-critical eye. Indeed those emendations in the main consist of additional unearthed material – and a modest reassessment of some of the prime movers in the scene – McGibbon, Oswald and the ubiquitous Thomas Erskine, 6th Earl of Kelly. This extra light shed on what, some thirty years ago, was a subject upon which the layman would have found little to say in any discussion is illuminating, demonstrating Dr Johnson’s continuing tireless research - but most important it has had the salutary effect of propelling the book back into print and availability! The layman’s knowledge of Scottish music has been largely limited to Burns suppers and Jimmy Shand. Dr Johnson’s purpose is "to explain 18th century Scottish music [ and I would add, culture] in a way that no reader could ever ignore the subject again". This he pursues with enthusiasm and in readable style.

The main thrust of his argument is to "investigate the separate forms which folk and classical music took during the period, and then attempt to chart the more important cross currents between them" – this latter a feature that, in its vitiated form, we are only too aware of today. He makes the acceptable proviso that a country cannot be considered as having a flourishing classical musical culture unless it supports the actual composition of good music that is yet imbued with some national characteristics. This he argues purposefully in the Introduction before a separate chapter grouping dealing with classical music – the centres of activity, the participants (with a separate account of the important Earl of Kelly). Folk music in a stable society is dealt with briefly before embarking on the all important aspects of cross-currents, the contentious subject of ‘traditional’ melody as being a kind of "artificial substitute for the real thing" which, as Arnold Bax once suggested, had to an extent emasculated the true folk melody (some, but by no means all, Hebridean melodies have been doctored in this way.) A vitally important chapter on the problems of the harmonisation of folk melodies is, in a sense, the climax of the thesis – and it remained, in the light of the social effects of the Act of Union of 1707 and the use of folk melody in the classical milieu of the concert platform, ( in concertos and sonatas such as by J.C. Bach, and John Field) to sum up in what the author apologises as "the gloomy tone of the last page".

"another classical music renaissance is in progress in Scotland at present [written in 1972] and it seems quite probable that the same mistakes or 20th century versions of the same mistakes will be made all over again, Scotland’s real music remains her folk music."

It may be another thirty years before the scope of theses mistakes, if they are still being made, can be assessed. This volume remains a well argued and eminently readable account and should be on the shelves of every Scot with any interest in his heritage.

Colin Scott-Sutherland


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