Monday 24 August 2009

Robert Burns, BBC Proms, Anniversaries & Organic Farming

What is it with the BBC Proms and anniversaries? They are heavy on the big names, but are reluctant to tackle some of the less known or “different” names and there are opportunities missed. This year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, an event which has been noticed north of The Tweed. But for the BBC Proms strutting its stuff as a major international festival, forward looking, and all encompassing, Burns is off limits. There is the Mendelssohn “Scottish Symphony”, some modern Scots Composers, but nothing at all about Burns, who was a lyricist as much as a poet. Moreover, Burns is celebrated across the world. In a festival lasting for weeks, with the BBC forever talking about diversity, why nothing at all?

It is easy to see why the BBC might have stayed clear. They have a large hall to fill, it is now ever necessary to have high occupation figures, and what might they have done? The substantial Scottish community in the London area of the past has gone, and those that are there are lost to sight. Also, there is a basic problem.

It is that the Burns songs have been serially murdered over the last 150 years. The introduction of iron framed large pianos in the early 19th Century, with their sound allied to popularised paper music notation meant that the songs became the stuff of drawing room sentiment, and worse in the music halls the type of exaggerated emotion of the period. Later, the crooners made their impact, and then another assault was made by the joint forces of Faux Folk and Folk Rock.

Add to them sundry forms of instrumentation from anywhere, mikes, and amplifiers, and you have what results. It is how the vast majority of people hear them today, and think that is what they are. Because of what he is alleged to represent any critique of what is claimed to be his work is unacceptable, including those who want to rescue the real talent of the man from the relentless mush of commercialisation, interpretations, and imposed agendas of almost two centuries.

In the study of the brain, and the way it hears, processes and delivers sound, most theories have had little to go on, they have been based on very limited evidence. With new equipment and technique available it is now possible to see into the brain its reactions, and to work out possibilities. Now, there is the question of which came first, language or music, how one might have developed from another, and how much either or both evolved from or caused human capability to develop.

It is clear that some humans because of some feature of neurology are special in how they hear sound, how they can retain it, and make use of it. In music they might be prodigies very young, realise the ability only later, or for some reason have almost total recall, and quite rarely can match music and voice in a very special way.

To know that, it is necessary to have a piece played in a form that is at least near to that of the composer’s intentions, and in a sound world not too far removed in terms of structure and performance. Essentially, Burns took the tunes, heard in his sound world of the time, and brought words to interplay with the music to create a lyrical and poetic experience for the listener.

We can only judge how good he was if we can do that and come close to his idea and intention. The sound world of the Ayrshire and Dumfries of his time, and the places he ventured out to at times are a world away from our own age. He did not write for the concert hall; nor any large assembly; nor the church, but for groups of listening people in small places that knew him and that he knew. So they are intensely personal, for voice, close to the tune, and in his mind of sounds perhaps with an accompaniment of such instruments that were literally to hand.

So what were the voices of that time? There have been scholars that have looked intensely at the sound of the voices of the past. The handful of early recordings we have from a century or so ago tell us that speech was different. We know that the use of the singing voice has changed. In my own recollection of voices I heard of people born in the 1860’s to 1890’s tell me a good deal about how the use of words and intonations can vary, and these include people whose family were in Ayrshire at the time of Burns and before and who I knew well.

There has been serious academic study done on the voice patterns, pronunciation, and use of language in Ayrshire in that period. We know that some of Burns’ work was very personal, some done for an immediate grouping, and some intended for the appreciation of other groups. That being so, his use of language forms vary within those of the time according to the inspiration and the intention as he responded to those around him and to his own ear.

A few years ago, I heard on the radio a performance of Burns songs by a Scots group who had tried to recreate that sound world and had tried to match an instrumentation that was of the period. Sadly, I have forgotten who they were, and have not been able to trace any recording. If it is still there it will be buried deep in the catacombs of the BBC beyond recall, classified as regional folk history, perhaps the tape was reused to record an interview with a junior minister needing to utter a soundbite or two.

What it did do was to transform Burns’ lyrics from the hack bellowing and wailing that we are told nowadays is what it should be, to works of genius where the words sit precisely on the line of the music, revealing a subtlety and understanding that few can achieve. There is a transparency and musicality that are the signs of the master. The problem for the BBC is that if they tried to rescue this to help a deeper understanding of what he was about, they would encounter bitter opposition from the many differing and often opposed interests who claim him as their own.

The tunes themselves are a varied, his choice was eclectic, taking from some he heard about him from local traditions, those that were going the rounds, to others of another kind. Some give pause for thought, the tune for “As I stood by yon roofless tower..” or “The Minstrel at Lincluden” is given as the Cumnock Psalms. If this tune is derived from the traditions of The Cameronians and The Covenanters it is a striking departure, and of interest. The reference to the Minstrel auld prefigures the “The way was long, the wind was cold, the minstrel was infirm and old…” of Scott’s “Lay Of The Last Minstrel” and the words on “lads beyond the sea in bluidy wars they fa’” have a resonance in our own time. Beyond the poetry is the Word, and The Word is the Bible, Burns does not forget it, and in his time he was never allowed to.

The major problem of our age in understanding the past, is TV and film, which rarely is remotely near any real depiction of the past, even in alleged documentaries. As well as having a modern agenda, all too often they lose sight of the wood from the trees. A Jane Austen feature where the heroine talks in a broad old Hampshire accent may be close to Jane in real life, but not to the taste and understanding of a modern TV viewer or critic.

What of Shakespeare? If you try “Now is the winter of our discontent etc.” in a West Midlands accent and a marked sneer it works remarkably well, but at the National and even the Globe they would never attempt it. As for the unceasing landslide of visual rubble that passes for the history of the Tudors, believe that and you believe anything, Lady Margaret Beaufort, where are you when we need you? But the media does not worry so long as it sells and wins the ratings battle.

It is not just Burns that the BBC has ignored. In 2006 as well as Mozart it was the anniversary of Thomas Linley, who died tragically young leaving a little music. He was a prodigy, Mozart knew him as a friend and recognised and acknowledged his genius. Linley was brother-in-law to Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his family were fully involved in the theatre and society of that period. This was the same period as Burns. The opportunities in the BBC Proms, or on any BBC channel for items both commemorating Linley, and placing him in the world of London and Bath of the time were extensive, he was connected to everyone and anyone prominent at the time. But not a thing, and he was English and in London.

A worry about the BBC is that they are all too likely to have fallen for the temptation to make use of the easy option of the Boswell and Johnson touring comedy turn in Scotland, fresh from the salons of London, although Boswell did have Ayrshire background. The pity of it is that a wonderful programme could have been devised from other local sources and records from the Ayrshire of the time. They give a rich choice of readings. They run from the wonderful “Annals of the Parish” of Galt, to other sources, Mitchell, Fullarton, Aiton, Lawrie and others on society, agriculture and the changes of the period. Within the lifetime of Burns Auld Ayr had gone. Moreover the minutes and records of the Kirk, the Corporation, and the Incorporations all have a fund of material. Why did William Burnes build the cottage where he did? Who took over the cottage in 1781 after its sale to the Incorporation of Shoemakers, what were his connections, and what was he up to?

Because of our modern preconceptions, it is likely that TV would shirk the brutal realities of farming in the Ayrshire of the period. The background of the impact of instability of climate and geophysical conditions would be difficult, let alone explaining the economics and the legal and financial hindrances such as the right of the Incorporation of Fleshers in the killing of beasts. For the work of the farm, I could explain about the question of dung and manure, and the intricacies and complexities of that market, the hedge fund and futures market of its day, but it would remind me too much of the time I spent wielding shovels and buckets in the race to fertilise unwelcoming soil. Suffice it to say, that when Robert Burns became an Excise Officer, I suspect he will have been very glad to free himself from the tyranny of the dung sledge and the fees of the Fleshers.

There is an intriguing coda to all this. In Poets Corner, the South Transept of Westminster Abbey, there is a bust of Robert Burns, high on the wall, close to those of James Thomson, an earlier renowned Scots poet, author of the words to “Rule Britannia”, and William Shakespeare. Robert’s gaze is across from one corner to the other. He looks over the grave of Richard Brinsley Sheridan seemingly at the memorial to Edward Wetenhall, 1636-1713, Bishop of Ardagh and Kilmore, and previously of Cork and Ross. The conjunctions are odd you may think. It is possible to connect them all, but that is another matter.


  1. I seem to remember an "alternative" Burns tape cassette from the early eighties which had several different versions of the same song on it.
    It was played on Radio Forth's folk programme then hosted by Iain Agnew.I remember he was not impressed with the Jean Redpath version, and heaped praise on Dick Gaughan's. Not much help I know; excellent post.

  2. As ever, a breathtaking display of culture and erudition - and a sad reminder of the 'lowest common denominator' programming to which we are subjected.

    Might I suggest, however, that Lady Margaret Beaufort was herself no stranger to the airbrushing of history?