Celebrating Robert Burns

Once again we hand over to Douglas from the Music Library, this time to tell us about the many composers who have been inspired by the works of Robert Burns.

Robert Burns – poet, lyricist, lover, fighter, farmer, exciseman – regarded by most as Scotland’s national poet. Burns was born 264 years ago on the 25 January 1759, a day celebrated near and far as Burns Night, with suppers given in his honour and much Irn Bru drunk and sugary tablet eaten, (or maybe that’s just my Burns Suppers).

Burns’ memory is toasted with the finest malt whisky and a dinner of haggis, tatties and neeps. The haggis is marched in, accompanied by a piper, and addressed by a guest speaker, before being served. Then songs are sung, dances are danced and the Bard’s poems are recited for the entertainment of the assembled diners.

The Music Library’s Burns display this year contains songs in settings Burns afficionados would perhaps not expect to see and hear. There are also settings that are perhaps less well known and a few select items from the collection of our neighbours, the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection.

Burns Night display in the Music Library
Music Library Burns Night display
Burns night display in cabinet in Music Library

The items in the cabinet are not normally the songs sung at a Burns supper – this small collection are a few of the less well-known settings of the ploughman poet’s work.

The cabinet contains settings by Pleyell, Haydn, Beethoven, Ravel, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich. Of the composers represented in the cabinet, Pleyell, Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann never visited Scotland, although Clara Schumann, composer, gifted pianist and wife of Robert, visited Scotland in 1867 on tour with the celebrated violinist Joseph Joacim. Robert Schumann revisited the lyrics and poems of Robert Burns a few times, the great romantic composer setting the works of the great romantic lyricist. In 1840, Schumann set some of Burns poems in his song cycle Myrten Op25 which was dedicated to his beloved bride to be, Clara. In 1846, Schumann wrote Five songs for Choir Op55 all with words by Robert Burns. There is also a jaunty little setting of My Love is like a Red Red Rose.

Felix Mendelssohn was much taken by Scotland when he visited in 1829. The 20 year old composer “did Scotland” top to bottom. His trip produced the Hebrides Overture and the 3rd Symphony. It also produced some fascinating letters to his family and excellent sketches. Starting in Edinburgh on the 26 July, Mendelssohn set off with with Karl Klingemann a diplomat stationed in London and a close friend of the Mendelssohn Family.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, 1830
by Eckart Kleßmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Felix Mendelssohn had arrived in London on April 21 after a difficult channel crossing. He chose to initially perform only on piano and only in private houses at small functions. It was not until 25 May that Mendelssohn made his London concert debut with the RPO. He was to appear throughout the Summer as soloist in the Weber Concert-stuck and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. He also premiered some of his own works. When the London concert season finished, he was free to travel with Klingemann to their walking holiday in Scotland.

Described as inveterate reviser, the Hebrides Overture has several different names and a few different versions until Mendelssohn deemed himself “satisfied” with the work in 1832. The Scottish Symphony took longer to finish – a full 13 years, the same year as his Volksleid based on the poetry of Robert Burns.

Maurice Ravel,1912, unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Maurice Ravel wrote his Chanson Ecossaise in 1910 and eventually managed to visit Scotland two years later, perhaps this is some sort of pre-inspiration. At the behest of Russian singer Marie Olenine d’Alheim and her so called Maison du Lied which she founded in Moscow in 1908. The Maison organised concerts and international competitions for song arrangements. Ravel entered one of these competitions. Four of his Chansons Populaire won first place, whilst other Russian, Scottish and Italian songs were never published. This edition of the Chanson Ecossaise is reconstructed from existing sketches.

Portrait of Dimitri Shostakovich
Deutsche Fotothek‎, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

Shostakovich’s visit to the 1962 Edinburgh Festival was heavily policed by Russian authorities with all that he said and did being monitored by his state minders. What actual picture or impression of Scotland he got from this visit we cannot tell. Dimitri seems to have been criticised on all levels for all things. His 1962 visit to Scotland to the Edinburgh Festival, allowed every critic and letter writer to “have a go”. If he had had a twitter account, he would have been trolled out of the country.  He was unequally lauded and vilified. Individual critics were torn between carrying him through the streets as one of the great Russian composers or trying to find room on his back for one more knife. His crime was to stay alive during the Stalin era, an era in which to fall out of step with Russia’s tiptop tyrant, meant disappearance, banishment, or death. Shostakovich suffered none of these fates despite almost falling out of line, he always managed to pull himself back from the edge by writing works to please the Party. It was this music, the safe party music which drew most criticism and the behaviour of being seen as a sycophant rather than being dead, which also brought disfavour from the amateur and professional critic, and all the outraged letter writers of Edinburgh. 

The Shostakovich Six Romances on English Folk Tunes Op 62 were premiered in 1943, a difficult time in Russia’s history, it is hard to see how this could be anything other than Shostakovich the patriot, writing music for Russia and the Russians.

Benjamin Britten by
Szalay Zoltán, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Britten – A Birthday Hansell (‘hansel’ is an old Scottish word for a welcome gift or present) was written in 1975 for the Queen Mother’s 75th birthday in 1976. The piece was commissioned by the late Queen Elizabeth II and became Britten’s last song cycle. It was given its first performance by Peter Pears, tenor and the harpist Osian Ellis, whose advice Britten often sought for the harp arrangements. In 1973 Britten had had a failing heart valve replaced successfully but he was never the most robustly healthy man. It was clear by he middle of 1976 that he was unwell and unlikely to get better. His Scottish nurse Rita Thomson organised champagne receptions where the dying composer could say his goodbyes to his friends and family.  Britten died on the 4 December 1976 and was buried in his beloved Aldeburgh in the church graveyard, there he was joined by his partner, Peter Pears on his passing in 1986.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was a great champion of indigenous music, much of his work revolved around English Folk tradition, in amongst all his many works are settings and arrangements of folk songs from other lands. Ca the Yowes is from 1922.

The works by Beethoven, Haydn and Pleyell come from a lucrative arrangement entered in to by them and the Edinburgh based, clerk, businessman, musician and composer George Thomson (1757 – 1851). Thomson was an attendee, but not a member, at the Edinburgh Music Society in their home in the St Cecilia Halls in the Cowgate. Here, he heard the “tasteful” renditions of Scots songs by the Italian Castrato Tenducci, a visitor to the society. This gave Thomson the idea of publishing collections of Scots songs in “tasteful arrangements”.

George Thomson
by Henry Raeburn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Spanning a period of over 40 years, Thomson published six volumes and employed the services of eight composers – Pleyel, Kozelich, Haydn, Beethoven, Weber (briefly), Hummell, H.R. Bishop and G. F. Graham. From various records, Thomson paid between 2/4 ducats for an arrangement. In the time that Beethoven worked with Thomson he produced between 125 and 179 arrangements which almost all were requested by Thomson. This was a favourable arrangement, but disagreements flared between Thomson and Beethoven over the difficulty of the accompaniments. The publisher claimed the arrangements were too hard for the people buying his collections, Beethoven refused to compromise, notoriously ill-tempered. This was when Thomson and Beethoven parted company and Thomson moved on to his next composer. Thompson’s starting point for his volumes of song had been existing works and only Scottish works along the way. Thomson now commissioned works for his collection and expanded the collection to include works from Ireland, Wales and England. Thomson commissioned Burns to write 170 new works and it was Burns who persuaded Thomson to include the work of the other home nations. 

Whether completely new tunes to familiar words or surprising arrangements of well kent tunes. It is always interesting to find how far and wide Robert Burns words travelled, all the way from England to Russian and many stops in between.

There are many more perhaps surprising Burns works at both Naxos streaming sites, Classical and Jazz. Both the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection and the Music Library have many more Burns volumes than can be listed here.

Burns, not Burns

Display in Music Library, Central Library

Not Mr Burns the Scrooge-like boss from The Simpsons, not Pete Burns, unique frontman of the band Dead or Alive, not Frank Burns character in the hit TV show M.A.S.H. and the butt of many a joke, also not Gordon Burns journalist and broadcaster, host of the Krypton Factor or indeed, not the wonderfully named Otway Burns the American privateer and later State Senator for North Carolina born just a few years after the Burns of today’s blog – Robert Burns, our National Bard.

Life is but a day at most.

Written In Friars Carse Hermitage

Robert Burns, fair fa’ his honest, sonsie face, writer of everything and the voice of Scotland since the beginning of time, even though he was born in 1759, and died in 1796, at the age of only 37.

Now health forsakes that angel face.

Fragment “Now health forsakes that angel face”, Robert Burns

Burns, Robert Burns, licensed to rhyme, lived his short live to the full, his many roles included exciseman, poet, republican, song collector, father of four.

I’m twenty-three, and five feet nine, I’ll go and be a sodger.

Extempore Burns 1781/82

His legendary excesses, his many loves and love affairs resulting in, at least, the four children mentioned earlier and his membership of the Crochallan Fencibles, an Edinburgh convivial club who had their meetings in the Anchor Tavern just off the High Street.

I flatter my fancy I may get anither, My heart it shall never be broken for ane”.

As I go wand’ring, A song collected by Burns, C1792

Robert Burns, so good they only had to name him once, is known as a great poet, with a catalogue of hundreds of works and these hundreds of poems and songs make up the lyrics of the great Scottish song collection since the mid 1700s. With a cannon of works as large as Burns has, it is the case that he is the go-to lyricist for all of the songsters since, well since him, Robert Burns.

God knows, I’m no the thing I should be, Nor am I even the thing I could be”.

Epistle To The Rev. John M’math

Our small display in the Music Library highlights the Burns collection of Jean Redpath with Serge Hovey. In 1976, when Jean Redpath began recording the complete songs of Robert Burns, Hovey researched and arranged 324 songs for the project but died before the project could be completed, leaving only seven critically acclaimed volumes of the planned twenty-two, Jean Redpath felt unable to continue without Hovey.

While winds frae aff Ben-Lomond blaw,
An’ bar the doors wi’ driving snaw,
An’ hing us owre the ingle,
I set me down to pass the time,
An’ spin a verse or twa o’ rhyme,
In hamely, westlin jingle.”

Epistle to Davie, A Brother Poet

Thereafter our display highlights the works of other notable poets, many known by, or contemporaries of, Burns. Many of these works, poems and songs by the people below and their contempories were collected by Burns on his travels round the country, this small selection demonstrate that although Burns is the pre-eminent lyricist in the Great Scottish Songbook, there are many others wordsmith for us to celebrate.

Owre the Muir, Amang the Heather (O’er the Moor, Amang the Heather) by Jean Glover
Jean Glover (1758 – 1801) of Kilmarnock was known by Burns as a fine singer and poet, it was he who recorded this song. Burns seems to have had some sort of relationship with Glover, possibly literary sparring partners, possibly more. 

Jock O’Hazeldean by Sir Walter Scott
The fifteen-year-old Scott met Burns at a ‘literary’ get together, where he prompted the bard with the name of a poet whose lines had just been quoted. Scott later remembered how touched he was by the gratitude shown by the great Burns.

Cam’ ye by Athol James Hogg
It is not clear whether Burns was aware of the work of the Ettrick Shepherd but Hogg was certainly aware of the former’s work. Hogg recounts in his memoir how he was in rapture when he heard Tam O’Shanter for the first time and how he learned it in an afternoon.

Farewell to Lochaber by Allan Ramsey
Allan Ramsey died a year before Burns birth, so was unaware of the talent to come. Burns was more familiar with the work of the great Ramsey. Burns was always willing to acknowledge the elder influence, he was not, however, always fulsome with his praise.

Auld Robin Gray by Lady Anne Lindsay
Born Ann Lindsay in 1750, she became Lady Anne Barnard when she married Sir Andrew Barnard in 1763. She accompanied him to the Cape of Good Hope when he became colonial secretary there in 1797. They returned to London in 1802. When Sir Andrew chose to return to the Cape in 1806, Anne decided to remain in London. Sir Andrew Barnard died in the Cape in 1807. “Auld Robin Gray,” written to the music of an old song, was first published anonymously; in 1823 she confided its authorship to her friend Sir Walter Scott, who in 1825 prepared an edition of the ballad. Lady Anne died in 1825 in London.

O! Are you sleepin’ Maggie by Robert Tannahill
The Weaver Poet was born in Paisley, in 1774, where he lived and worked all his short life. Prone to bouts of depression, Robert took his own life in 1810. Tannahill was a great admirer of Burns and was the first Sectretary of the Paisley Burns Club, one of the oldest Burns clubs, which was founded in Tannahill’s house in 1805.

Annie Laurie by William Douglas
William Douglas (1682(?) to 1741) soldier, poet and Jacobite. It was this last part which brought Douglas into direct, and at times physical, conflict with Annie Laurie’s royalist father. Annie and William’s flaming romance fizzled out and they both went on to marry others, but we are left with a wonderful song.

The Auld House by Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne
Carolina Oliphant was a prolific author and collector of songs and poems. Considered by many to be a national bard second only to Robert Burns.

Mary McNeill by Erskine Conally
Conally, born in the year of Burns’ death would have been aware of the Bard’s work. After schooling at a local high school, Conally was apprenticed to an Anstruther bookseller. He moved to Edinburgh and worked as a clerk to a writer to the signet. From there he went into partnership with a solicitor. On his partner’s death Conally took over and ran the firm. Although he never published a collection of his work, many are well-known, with “Mary McNeill” being the best known.

Song Gems (Scots) The Dunedin Collection which contains Mary McNeill is edited by composer Learmont Drysdale, who arranged a number of the songs in this volume. The list of arrangers/composers contains some names of composers/arrangers who crop up regularly in the “Scots Songbook” – J Kenyon Lees, C R Baptie, Ord Hume. In amongst these, there are a few notables in Scottish Music including Sir Alexander McKenzie, Natale Corri and Learmont Drysdale himself.

There is another book to mention in our wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous  display, which is a Volume of “Seventy Scots Songs” by Helen Hopekirk.  Hopekirk was born in Portobello in 1856 and became a world-famous concert pianist and composer, working and touring in Europe and America. After making her home in America, she visited her native Scotland many times during her long life, song collecting and composing. During an extended visit she played her own piano concerto in D major with the Scottish Orchestra in 1919.

So, gie bring to me a pint o’ wine and we will celebrate Rabbie’s birth on the 25 January with suppers and socially distanced get togethers, to drink whisky, or Scotland’s other national drink, Irn Bru, eat Haggis and too much tablet, whilst we recite the verse and sing the songs.

To everyone else born on the 25 January we celebrate you too, and raise a glass in hope that this year is better than last.

Explore Burns in our collections! Here are just a few suggestions –

The Complete Works of Robert Burns
Borrow the ebook

Robert Burns – complete classics
Borrow the audiobook

Burns Supper Companion by Hugh Douglas
Reserve print copy online

Burns Supper Companion by Nancy Marshall
Reserve print copy online

The Ultimate Burns Supper Book by Clark McGinn
Borrow the ebook
Reserve the print copy online

The Broons’ Burns Night
Reserve the print copy online

Burns Night: a freestyle guide by Boyd Baines
Borrow the ebook
Reserve the print copy online

The Edinburgh and Scottish Collection has lots more material available on Robert Burns and the Music Library has many CDS of Burns’ music available. Go to the Your Library website and search the catalogue for Burns suppers, Burns songs etc for much, much more.

And for a quick virtual tour of the Bard’s time in Edinburgh, read the Robert Burns in Edinburgh story on Our Town Stories.

Celebrating Burns and the Scots language with Edinburgh Libraries

Join Edinburgh Libraries in celebrating Scotland’s national poet, Rabbie Burns this week. Born in 1759 in Ayrshire, he was the son of a tenant farmer who went on to become one of Scotland’s greatest heroes. To celebrate his literary legacy and lasting impact we have a range of resources for you to discover and enjoy.

Robert Burns – Poet, by Alexander Nasmyth, 1839

Burns Night Quiz
Each year on the 25 January, Burns night is celebrated across Scotland and the world. Despite the lockdown, this year should be no different! Please join Carol from Stockbridge Library as she presents to you a Braw Burns Quiz. Test your knowledge of Scotland’s Bard and the Scots language on Monday 25 January at 7.30pm on the Stockbridge Library Facebook page.

Scots language collection of ebooks and audiobooks
The Mither Tongue’ collection is a new selection of titles we have chosen for our ebooks and eaudio service, OverDrive/Libby app. The collection goes beyond Burns to also celebrate the best of modern writing in Scots, including newly crowned Booker Prize winning title ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart.

Further fantastic resources from Edinburgh Libraries
The Robert Burns in Edinburgh story on Our Town Stories describes Burns’ time in Edinburgh and his connections to the city.

Also on Our Town Stories, is the story of William Creech and his publishing legacy. Creech was a significant member of Edinburgh’s society during the Enlightenment and is best remembered today for publishing Robert Burns’ poems.

Robert Burns on Capital Collections – this exhibition represents some of the Burns related artworks available in Edinburgh Libraries.

Burns’ Objects and Images on Capital Collections – an exhibition of portraits, documents and personal objects including Burns’ own writing desk and a plaster cast of his skull from the collections of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries housed at the Writer’s Museum on Lady Stair’s Close.

The Cotter’s Saturday Night by Robert Burns – in another Capital Collections exhibition browse John Faed’s illustrations which vividly depict the story of Robert Burns’ poem, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’. The poem was written over the winter of 1785 – 86 when Burns was 26 years old.

The Cottar’s Saturday Night, illustration for verse 2 by John Faed, 1853

Ode to a Mouse – Sean Kane reads one of Robert Burn’s most famous and best-loved poems in Edinburgh Central’s Reference Library.

Immortal Memory: A Burns Night Celebration – just one of the fantastic Burns music titles we have on the music streaming service Naxos and available for free with your library membership.

“To a mouse”

Planning a Burns Supper?

At the Edinburgh & Scottish Library we’re gearing up for the annual influx of enquiries from Burns Supper hosts, attendees and speakers.

The library is home to an impressive collection of material on the life and times of our most celebrated poet. From biographies, poems and songs, to cartoons and rhymes for wee folk, we’ve got all the information you need to make your Burns supper a roaring success. Here’s a selection of what’s on offer.

We also have on display engravings by Robert Bryden from our unique print collection, illustrating scenes from Burns’ poems including ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’. (Last year we blogged about John Faed’s wonderful illustrations of the same poem – if you didn’t see these they’re well worth a look.)

And to get you right in the mood, take a couple of minutes to enjoy this performance of one of the bard’s most popular works.