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Francis George SCOTT (1880-1958) Eight Songs of Francis George Scott (transcribed by Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015)) (1963-1982?) [23:22] Urlar (1948) [3:06] April Skies (?1912) [6:19] Intuitions (1943-1953) [37:12] The Two Neighbours (Campbell Hay) – alternative setting (1952) [1:00]
Minuet and Trio (1903) [1:39] La Joie (c. 1910) [2:07]
Christopher Guild (piano)
rec. 24 February 2019, Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton TOCCATA CLASSICSTOCC0547 [75:22]
A few biographical details on Francis George Scott may be of interest. He was born in the Scottish border town of Hawick on 25 January 1880. After education at the town’s Academy, he studied English at Edinburgh University, and then at Durham University. He went on to teach this subject in secondary schools in Dunoon, Langholm and Glasgow. One of his pupils at Langholm was the legendary Christopher Grieve, later known as Hugh MacDiarmid, through whom Scott became acquainted with verses in the Scots language.
Scott studied music with the French musician Jean Roger-Ducasse, and at first developed a cosmopolitan style. He later chose to research Scottish folksong, including pibroch (loosely speaking, a theme with variations for bagpipe). He applied the results to his compositions. This deep interest resulted in six volumes of Scottish Songs published between 1921 and 1945. Scott was a long-time lecturer in music at Jordanhill Training College for Teachers in Glasgow. After his retirement in 1946, he published Thirty-Five Scottish Lyrics and Other Poems (1949). Many of the settings were of poems by Robert Burns, William Dunbar and Hugh MacDiarmid. Other works included a Renaissance Overture for orchestra and a ballet based on the William Dunbar’s The Seven Deidly Sinnis (it may deserve revival).
As The Times obituarist put it (on 8 November 1958), Scott was “a Scottish Nationalist composer whose music never invaded England”. Unfortunately, the music received equally little recognition in Scotland; that is common to Scottish composers. A few people were enthusiastic about his achievement, including the musician Ronald Stevenson, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid and the music critic and author Maurice Lindsay. Musically, Scott’s style is a subtle fusion of Scottish speech rhythm, folksong and pibroch, as well as an infusion of European developments initiated by his study of Bartók and Schoenberg.
Francis George Scott died in Glasgow on 6 November 1948. He is the subject of only one major study, Francis George Scott and the Scottish Renaissance published in 1980 by the larger-than-life critic, broadcaster and poet Maurice Lindsay.
It must be noted that the artistic movement referred to as Scottish Renaissance was prominent between the First and Second World War but extends beyond that period. Though this was mainly a literary revival promulgated by writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir and William Soutar, the movement’s influence was also found in music, art and politics. It was also important in the rise of Scottish Nationalism (but by no means restricted to it). While the resulting artistic works were often influenced by contemporary philosophy and modernism, there was a synthesis with Scottish culture and tradition. Composers within the ambit of this movement included Erik Chisholm, Ronald Center, William Beaton Moonie and Francis George Scott. Ronald Stevenson was a late adherent.
The opening work is Eight Songs of Francis George Scott transcribed by Ronald Stevenson. There follows the first recording (and probably first complete performance) of Intuitions, 57 fugitive miniatures. Several miscellaneous piano pieces round out the programme.
The Minuet and Trio from around 1903 is Scott’s earliest surviving piano work. It is commonplace, like so much music composed at that time. Next comes the short undated gavotte La Joie, penned when Scott was at teaching Langholm School between 1903 and 1912. Once again, it is proficient, tuneful and in the gift of an amateur pianist. When I first read the track listing, I wondered if April Skies from about 1912 might be a John Ireland-esque character piece with a Scottish accent but was a little disappointed. It is an attractive but “lengthy waltz sequence…imitating the Viennese style”. The most promising of the short numbers is Urlar. This title noun describes a “basic theme of a piece of bagpipe music”. It is a beautiful modal number in ternary form. The liner notes say that the middle section imitates the clarsach (Celtic harp), whilst the opening and closing sections are thoughtful and “gently lilting”.
Eight Songs of Francis George Scott are Ronald Stevenson’s masterly re-creation. I think that it is good to see them in a trajectory from Franz Liszt’s adaptations of Schubert’s Lieder. Stevenson adapts Scott’s songs for piano solo. Kaikhosru Sorabji wrote that those songs are “not just des mélodies, des chansons with a piano accompaniment, with the pianist a bad (and more than slightly ignominious) poor relation, but they are conceived as duos for voice and piano in which neither is in any way subordinated to the other”. The songs in their original incarnation, then, have the vocal and piano parts integrated. This lends itself to “the idiom of the solo piano”. In Stevenson’s transcriptions, there is a clever juxtaposition of Scott’s melodies with various harmonic and accompaniment styles.
Here are the songs:
Since all thy vows, false maid, are blown to air
Wha is that at my bower-door?
O were my love yon lilac fair
Wee Willy Gray
Milk-Wort and Bog-Cotton
Ay Waukin, O
There's news, lasses, news
The liner notes give an incredibly detailed analysis, and examine the technique Stevenson used to re-imagine them. Colin Scott-Sutherland (BMS Newsletter, June 1997, p. 58) insisted that “these transcriptions belong to Scotland and to the whole world”. Would that they did.
The Intuitions may cause the listener some trouble. The work consists of 57 very short fragments, plus one variant, from 2 minutes 10 seconds down to a mere 12 seconds, and most are shorter than a minute. Some have evocative titles, many just an indication of dynamics, and several only a number. They were composed between 1943 and 1953. How do we approach them? Perhaps one way is to see them as “Moments in Time”. I baulk at this phrase: my English teacher “Noddy” Robertson once told me that it was a tautology: all moments are in time. But this is, perhaps, the very point of this music.
What is the mood of these Intuitions? The liner notes suggest that they “animate a very improper sense of the eldritch and eerie, moonlit worlds of liminality and transformation. They never rest complacently – irony keeps them sharp and the humour is sometimes merciless…” But there is another side to this series of miniatures: “a sense of tenderness, a poised sensitivity to the vulnerabilities of childhood and old age which counterpoints the vigorous expressions of force and power.” The notes also say: “Each one of these pieces gently discloses balances of depth, speed and the highly sensitised character of what one might call intimation. They touch on tragedy sometimes, and sometimes flirt and fleetly run with high comical spirit.”
Intuitions remind me of two contradictory composers: Fibich and Webern. The latter is notable for concentrating his musical material to the barest minimum. The former wrote Moods, Impressions and Souvenirs, each designed to capture a single impression of an intimate moment.
The reader will be delighted that I am not going to comment on/describe/analyse each Intuition. This is done in some detail in the liner notes. A few examples will suffice. No. 51, Evening on the Loch, is not descriptive of any highland scene, just evocative of mood: a single idea lasting less than a minute. Yet somehow it captures a whole world of emotion. No. 3, Lonely Tune, is written in in four-part harmony, with a few chromatic twists and a wide-ranging melody – all in 48 seconds. The following Running Tune hints briefly at a half-remembered Scottish Reel. Schumann can be heard in the Border Riding-Rhythm, No. 12; even this horseman has gone before he can be apprehended. The Deil’s Dance, No. 14, looks to Khachaturian with its “urgent, savage rhythmic drive”. The longest is a ballad. For a few moments, No. 15, An Seanachaidh (The Bard), tells his ancient tale. What it was about we do not know. Many of the Intuitions do not have titles. Take No. 21: just a few enigmatic bars, “ending with a question mark”. So, the only way to listen to them is to take them slowly, use the liner notes to pick out something of interest and enjoy, imagine and dream. The more I have listened, the more I got out of them. They are little gems.
I cannot fault the sound quality. Christopher Guild’s recital of this music is engaging and always convincing. There is no element of condescension when he is playing the “easier” numbers and the unsophisticated early works. The liner notes are superb. There is an introductory essay by the poet and academic Alan Riach, with a good appreciation of Francis George Scott. This provides biography, context within the Scottish Renaissance and some well-judged pointers to the appreciation of the music. Christopher Guild’s indispensable dissertation explores the repertoire on this disc in considerable detail. There are numerous quotations from music and literary critics. Non-technical details of each piece are incorporated. There are the usual particulars about the soloist, Christopher Guild. The text is complemented by photos of Scott, Stevenson and MacDiarmid.
There is apparently no more of Scott’s piano music left to record. But what is a desideratum is a complete cycle of the (more than 300) songs: it would be a massive project. And maybe the Renaissance Overture for orchestra. Of equal importance is an easily available printed edition of the sheet music for Intuitions. There is much in these pages that does not require a virtuosic technique that would be of considerable interest to many pianists of all abilities.
As a Scot, born and bred in Glasgow, I am always amazed how little interest we show in our native classical music. It is good to have such a dedicated and committed advocate for our music as Moray-born Christopher Guild. I eagerly look forward to more of his explorations of forgotten repertoire.