Academic journal article Notes

Our Ancient National Airs: Scottish Song Collecting from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Era

Academic journal article Notes

Our Ancient National Airs: Scottish Song Collecting from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Era

Article excerpt

Our Ancient National Airs: Scottish Song Collecting from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Era. By Karen McAulay. (Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain.) Farnham, Surrey, Eng.: Ashgate, 2013. [xiii, 279 p. ISBN 9781409450191 (hardcover); ISBN 9781409450207, 9781472400345 (e-book), $119.95.] Illustrations, tables, appendices, bibliography, index.

Published under the umbrella of Ashgate's Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain series, Karen McAulay's Our Ancient National Airs is a truly impressive, definitive study of the activities relating to those who were collecting and publishing song and melody combinations of Scots songs ca. 1760-1888. There is little you will find here about the contents of the collections themselves, but a wealth of information on the collectors, their ideologies, and the contexts within which the music was gathered and presented. Most importantly, the motivations for collectors are explored, as is the influence that their attitudes and ideologies have had on their published material. As a chronological account of the different eras within Scots song collecting, each chapter runs into the next seamlessly, framed clearly within the context of the previous chapter. Useful tables are presented at certain intervals throughout the book to help contextualize the collections and place them together chronologically, and it is of great interest to see how the different collections relate to each other. The mention of David Harker's concept of "fakesong" resonates in the introduction, and serves as a reminder of the problems associated with authenticity in folk song publications.

In the first chapter, "'Never hitherto published': Preserving the Highland Heritage," McAulay takes a close look at the earliest song collectors in Scotland, most notably Joseph and Patrick MacDonald and James MacPherson, in the late eighteenth century. These collectors were primarily concerned with the pursuits of their hereditary Gaelic culture, a distinct oral tradition and identity, which was perhaps the starting point for their song collections. Joseph MacDonald and his brother, Patrick MacDonald, were die first known field collectors in Scotland; their tune-collecting expeditions "amongst the first field-trips for which records survive today" (p. 26). Their works complemented each other, and while Joseph MacDonald collected airs in Ross and Sutherland (as well as compiling the Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe, ca. 1760), his brother collected in Argyllshire and Perthshire. This material was published in 1784 as 4 Collection of Highland Vocal Airs ... To which are added a few ... Country Dances or Reels, of the North Highlands and Western Isles. James MacPherson (1736-1796) is also discussed in some detail, both here and in subsequent chapters, because of his controversial publication, The Works of Ossian in 1765. He published the works, in polished English rather than their original Gaelic, following a collecting trip to the Outer Hebrides and Isle of Skye. This disregard for the Gaelic or Scots language in the publication served the idea that traditional music was becoming corrupted over time, one which weighed on the minds of subsequent collectors. When discussing these collectors, McAulay writes about the clear distinction between those who were traditionalists, "striving for simplicity and preservation," such as the MacDonald brothers, and those who were professional musicians who wanted creative input in their collections. The latter, according to McAulay, "must have recognized that offering the buying public 'authentic' versions of ancient works, in a form that was not usable for home music-making occasions, was not a healthy career choice" (p. 30).

Whereas chapter 1 is concerned with Highland collectors motivated by a desire to preserve their heritage, chapter 2 examines the varied motivations of Lowland song collectors: the antiquarian zeal of collectors including Joseph Ritson, intent on publishing the material before it disappeared; the assertion of Scots identity through national song collections; and the creative input of artists such as Robert Burns. …

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