Monday, 24 June 2013

Border Minstrelsy and Beyond

I went to an enchanting Northumbrian Minstrelsy concert at The Sage, Gateshead, yesterday - celebrating the bicentenary of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne.  This was too close to my field of research to resist, as you can imagine!  Before I went, I found a pdf of a 1965 edition of the original Northumbrian Minstrelsy (1882).  I downloaded that, then decided I'd try sending it to my Kindle.  (Easy, as it happens.)  By the time the train reached Newcastle, I was quite well-informed about the collection, and knew a bit about the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne!  Funny to think that when I lived on Tyneside - we're talking nearly thirty years ago - I knew absolutely NOTHING about Northumbrian minstrelsy or societies of antiquarians.

I've written about my trip in a couple of blogposts on Whittaker Live, so I won't duplicate the effort here.  (I've posted a couple of links to some fabulous Northumbrian smallpipe playing.)  Suffice to say, it was intriguing to read about a society earnestly collecting and documenting its minstrelsy repertoire as 'my' Scottish antiquarian friends were also doing.  Yes, I learned a few more historical names.  (Acquaintances not friends as yet!)

After an excellent concert, I slept soundly in a hotel literally just five minutes across the Sage car-park, and had two new books to while away the train journey back!

Friday, 21 June 2013

A New (Unknown) Friend

A few weeks ago, I was invited to go and look at an eighteenth century fiddle manuscript that had turned up in Greenock Archives.  It belonged to one 'Hugh Cameron' in the early 18th century.  Someone - presumably Hugh - listed his books inside the front, over several pages.  It covered a wide range of subjects - philosophy, maths and theology to name but three.  The rest of the book contains fiddle tunes.  There were no accompaniments, just the tunes; the repertoire was considerably later than the dates of the listed books; and quite a few of them had been copied, directly or indirectly, from a late 18th century printed collection.

Had Hugh copied them out, or was it someone else, perhaps a relative?  Who knows.

And who was Hugh?  I have a very, very tentative identification.  There's not enough to identify him with any degree of certainty.  My hypothesis fits in with the kind of person who'd have owned those books, and would mean the fiddle tunes were collected when the owner of the book was an old man.  But how do we know that the book hadn't already fallen into someone else's hands?  We don't!

I hope I'm going to talk about this with interested parties in Inverclyde, so I won't say any more for now.  But watch this space.  It's all rather exciting.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Campbell's Episcopal Chapel is utterly gorgeous inside!

A very tasteful conversion into financial offices has retained the interior recogniseably as a former chapel, galleries and all.  I'm very grateful to Dr Stuart Eydmann for sourcing these pictures for me - readers of this blog will recall my excitement when I found the building a few months ago, but didn't have the courage to go in.

It's so light and airy - still an elegant interior.   I'm very happy!

Here's the weblink that Stuart sent me from an exhibition about the architect, Playfair.  It depicts the church building as it is now, inside and out, but also a mansion he designed - Belle View.  Sadly it's no longer there.
This weblink, incidentally, is from, and I'm delighted to acknowledge my gratitude for these fantastic images. Stuart has since sent me images of what the poor old chapel looked like before its renovation.  I'll get these uploaded soon, so you can see what a great job the refurbishment has been.


Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Rainy Edinburgh

It was damp in Edinburgh when we went to the National Library of Scotland in search of fiddle tunebooks today.  The locker-room was more colourful than usual, as you see ...

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Saxophone Suites and Bagpipes in the Library

Campbell is the gent carrying the organ
Whilst this blog is generally about my ‘True Imaginary Friends’ – the late 18th and 19th century Scottish song collectors who were the subject of my doctoral research – the occasion of my recent book launch was a good excuse for making two sets of saxophone arrangements, using one particular old collection.  Alexander Campbell’s Albyn’s Anthology has always been lauded and condemned in equal measure.  Lauded, because of the extraordinary lengths he went to, collecting his tunes from the Hebrides to the Scottish Borders.  Condemned, because his settings of these lovely old tunes were, frankly, not very good.

Nonetheless, everyone agrees that the beautiful repertoire he preserved was well-worth saving.  So, I thought, why not try setting them for a small ensemble?  The challenge was to preserve the modality of the tunes, and also somehow to retain the sometimes na├»ve accompaniments, whilst at the same time removing some of the infelicities of Campbell’s harmonisation.  I’d like to stress that I’m not just missing the point of a clever approach to modality.  Campbell’s chord structures and progressions aren’t that clever, and sometimes they flagrantly break the rules.

I made a set of arrangements for flute, viola and cello, but I couldn’t find an ensemble to play them.  Enquiries on Twitter solicited a response from Sax Exosse (@Saxecosse), so I hastily rearranged a couple of tunes for sax trio, and waylaid the father of one of the saxophonists when they were doing a gig in Buchanan Bus Station last September.  Success!  The girls liked them.

I rearranged the other two pieces from my original mixed trio, and there it was – Alexander Campbell’s Hebridean Suite.  By this time I had realised that Sax Ecosse was actually a quartet.  Over Christmas, I made a second suite – Alexander Campbell’s Saxophone Quartet.

The whole lot was performed by the Royal Conservatoire Saxophone Quartet for my book launch in April 2013.  And I now have two recordings, because the whole book-launch was recorded by a colleague – although the open windows led to a bit of traffic noise – and it was also recorded for me by Saxual Healing, a saxophone quartet from the University of Cambridge.   
It’s the Cambridge recordings that I’m sharing with you here – I might share the whole Conservatoire book-launch event on a different blogpost at a later date.*

Alexander Campbell’s Hebridean Suite (Sax Trio) 

 Alexander Campbell’s Saxophone Quartet
1.    Georgy agam

2.    Cradle Song

4.    Una of Ulva

I love rearranging vocal melodies for instrumental ensembles.  These sax settings had their own challenges because, although the instruments have different ranges, the timbre is fairly uniform, and this means a tune can easily disappear if it’s submerged under other harmonising notes.  (However, the challenge became in one sense greater when I turned to write cello quartets, where the timbre and range are the same for all four instruments.)

Other challenges lie in choosing the harmonisation, and in ensuring there are breaks in the texture, whether for the instrumentalist or the tune itself to breathe!  And that’s quite apart from finding suitable material to arrange; thankfully, using very old songbooks avoids any copyright problems - a considerable relief!

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Song Arranging: Or, Which May Ball Features a Cello Quartet?

A couple of weeks ago, I made a short detour from writing about music to arranging it.  Well, all my song-collectors did it, so it's not so surprising that I should join in the fun.

Our eldest son, besides studying computer science, is also a cellist.  His cello quartet needed music for the forthcoming Cambridge May Balls.  (He's the designer of, as it happens.)  I was asked for Spanish and Scottish song arrangements.  I needed a suitable book of Spanish songs - it had to be old enough to be completely copyright-clear, so there was nothing for it but to take the librarian approach to the problem - find the classmark for Spanish songs, and go look at the shelves!

And there she was!  A Victorian lady arranger of Spanish songs - Mrs S G C Middlemore published her collection in 1887, and they were absolutely perfect for rearranging.*

Songs of the Pyrenees with Spanish, French & English words; Book 2; collected and arranged from traditional Pyrenean melodies with accompaniments by Mrs. S.G.C. Middlemore; translated by W.P. Blake and Miss Constance Bache

 I arranged four of her songs:- 
  1. Bolero
  2. Fandango
  3. Spanish Gypsy Dance
  4. Cancion d'Amor (with surprise banjo line)
Next came the question as to what I should do in the way of Scottish songs.  I like to arrange songs into suites, so the ensemble can play a batch of songs which retain the flavour of the original arranger or compiler.  That's how I came to write Alexander Campbell's Hebridean Suite for Saxophone Trio, and Alexander Campell's Saxophone Quartet - all from his Albyn's Anthology.   (Here's the first movement of the Sax Quartet, played by Saxual Healing Quartet. I'll blog about the sax ensemble pieces in my next posting, so watch this space.)

I'd done enough Alexander Campbell for now, so instead, I found a piano version of 'The Eriskay Love Lilt', by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser.  It was eased into a four-cello setting with no difficulty at all.  I must confess I didn't think I had time to do a whole set of Kennedy-Fraser settings, but maybe I might have a go another day.

Anyway, my final offering to the May Ball project was my own setting of 'My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose'I was quite pleased with the outcome; Finale NotePad played it back to me nicely enough, but I needed 'real cellists' to play it before I would really know if it worked.  Cello-Man phoned me this evening, and paid me one of his own idiosyncratic compliments.  'It worked very well .... I didn't know you had it in you.' 

Well, there you are then.  Not only a musicologist but a fully-fledged arranger, too. What shall I arrange next?!

* Mrs Middlemore also published two books of legends,  called Round a Posada Fire: Spanish Legends (1883); and Spanish Legendary Tales (1885).   In the latter's preface she explains that she spent some years living in the Pyrenees.  Sounds a fascinating woman!  I like to think that such a versatile woman would appreciate what I did to her Spanish song settings!