As we rapidly approach another Edinburgh International Festival I thought it would be appropriate to post on one from exactly 30 years ago.
All successful music revivals have, in their histories, key events and occasions which can be looked back upon as milestones or tipping points of one kind or another. I propose to feature a few here that relate to the fiddle in Scotland and will start with this focus on a concert held at the Edinburgh Festival on 14 August 1985 at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. Titled Mr Menuhin’s Delight, the event was to be ‘an exploration of Scottish fiddle playing’ with the great man sharing the platform in turn with a range of fiddlers representing different styles and regions.
The show was reviewed by Alastair Clark in the Scotsman the following day:
Scots fiddle music, for so long fettered to the Fringe of the country’s biggest cultural celebration, finally reached the official Festival stage at the Queen’s Hall yesterday.
It was appropriate that Sir Yehudi Menuhin should preside over what turned out to be a showcase for Scotland’s fiddling talent, for he is an incurable dabbler in indigenous pools.
Some in the audience clearly expected Sir Yehudi to dabble rather more than he did. He was content to listen to the Scots contingent and to pass the occasional comment on the music. Not until the finale, featuring a smooth, gliding air written for him by the Whistlebinkies’ Eddie Maguire (sic) did the maestro pick up his violin and lead the ensemble in spirited style.
Listening to this stirring last performance, fired by the Whistlebinkies’ pipes and drums, one wished there had been more of it. At the same time, there was much to enjoy on the solo side as half-a –dozen top fiddlers took it in turn to demonstrate some facet of the fiddlers’ art, from Bob Hobkirk’s skirling pipe marches (“outdoor music,” Sir Yehudi called it) to the drawing-room complexity of William Marshall’s compositions elegantly arranged for Alastair Hardie’s fiddle and David Johnston’s (sic) cello.
Ron Gonella opened with some particularly fine airs. Aly Bain, accompanied for the first time by his wife, Lucy – well, why not start at the top? – played some robustly ringing Shetland music. Edna Arthur contributed a superb reading of an ancient pibroch, Mackintosh’s Lament, which combined feathery lightness with rugged ferocity, and Douglas Lawrence played a nice Scott Skinner set.
As presenter, Mary-Anne (sic) Alburger did well to draw the historical strands together. Next time – and I hope there is one – maybe the fiddlers will get together, too.
.Reviewing the concert in the New Statesman on 25 August 1985, Angus Calder wrote:
MacDairmid wished Scottish culture to live in a modern and international ambience. One afternoon at Queen’s Hall, Yehudi Menuhin met the Whistlebinkies, a folk band, and six fiddlers expert in different styles. Mr Menuhin’s Delight triumphed because it was so nearly a cockup. Audience and performers were delighted by a common fear of disaster. The Beeb, recording the event, had failed to provide technology to ensure that Menuhin’s conversations about technique with other artists could be heard in all sections. The compere kept fluffing and some of the fiddlers looked frightened by the occasion. But they played gloriously. Ron Gonella’s suavely beautiful tone contrasted with Bob Hopkirk’s bagpipe-influenced style and the great Aly Bain’s fierce Norse-Shetland virtuosity. The occasion became historic when Edna Arthur played with supreme skill and intensity a magnificent pibroch dating back to 1526, transcribed for the fiddle in the late 18th century.
Whistlebinkies’ flautist Eddie McGuire, is also Scotland’s leading avant-garde composer (and left-wing with it). The final item was a new slow air and reel written by him for Sir Yehudi. All the performers assembled to participate. the great man, due to lead off, fluffed on the first note, said sorry, and lunged on at once like a small child performing at its first school concert. The piece was fine, the applause was tumultuous; Menuhin played much better in the encore. I felt I was hearing the feudal past being ferried across to the socialist future. Elated, I went out into another torrential downpour. God really doesn’t like to see Scotland getting too big for its boots – or, rather, growing into bigger ones.
On a personal level I can recall a few things about the day. Menuhin was keen to talk about my concertina and told me that he had one at home, a gift from his son I think, and as we chatted I got him to sign a copy of a one of the pieces we played in my manuscript tune book.
Today, that would be the moment for a selfie but, not to worry, there was a professional photographer on hand who supplied the photographs reproduced here.
Waiting in the green room I had to take stick from a nervy David Johnson who chose that moment (of all moments) to have a go at me over something I said in a published review of his recent book on the fiddle in the eighteenth century, and a remember we ate a hearty meal afterwards in the Festival Club with John Purser.
I believe there is an extant recording (I seem to remember the quality was poor) and I hope to include parts from it here if I can locate it. I now have the original programme and will add that too.
Why should this be seen as a key event in the Scottish fiddle revival? For scholar musicians like David Johnson and Mary Anne Alburger it was a personal triumph and an endorsement of their research recently in print. The fact that the Edinburgh International Festival was featuring traditional music was also important and Menuhin brought a degree of legitimacy to the proceedings and to the subject matter. Furthermore, the festival featured an unwashed folk band in its prestigious programme.