Occasional thoughts and ramblings on fiddling
William Syndey Mount (1807-1868) as a Scottish fiddler : 31 October 2013
On a recent visit to the USA I was introduced to the paintings of William Sydney Mount (1807-1868). Born in Long Island he studied at New York National Academy of Design. He was a keen flute and fiddle player and often made music and dance the subject of his work, helping to establish the popularity of well recorded simple rural scenes in American art at a time when Scottish painters were already drifting away from such an approach. He designed and played a fiddle of his own design which he called “The Cradle of Harmony”. The paintings are rich in social history that is invaluable to students of the history of fiddle playing. Take, for instance, his Rustic dance after a sleigh ride (1830):
It has been suggested that Mount was the first American artist to paint African-Americans in a sympathetic way.
It is no surprise therefore to find that Mount has attracted the attention of a number of scholars and writers as a Google search on his name will confirm.
Smithsonian Folkways released in 1976 an LP by Gilbert Ross of tunes from his manuscripts The Cradle of Harmony: William Sidney Mount’s Violin and Fiddle Music
(FW32379 / FTS 32379). The notes by Alfred Frankenstein state that Mount had a ‘predilection’ for Scottish music as demonstrated in the large number of such tunes in his manuscripts. Ross offers the recorded music bearing in mind “such precepts of the performance practice of the time”. The album can be heard on Spotify.
I hope to follow up on the Scottish material in the manuscripts in due course as it offers great potential in an understanding of the dissemination of Scottish music during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Nigel Boullier : Handed Down : 3 September 2013
A short post cannot do justice to this exceptional new book on fiddle music in a corner of the north of Ireland of great relevance to anyone interested in the Scottish tradition. Earlier this year I had the privilege of meeting the author at his home in Bangor, Co. Down when I was gathering evidence for a study on musical traditions for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure of the government of Northern Ireland. There he showed me a late draft of what was clearly an exhaustive and masterful study of the musical traditions of a specific place. Anyone familiar with the book/collections The Northern Fiddler and Hidden Fermanagh will be aware of the richness of the fiddle music of the north of Ireland but could be forgiven for having assumed that Co. Down had little to offer. Well, this book is the result of long and painstaking research, a kind of ‘doorstep ethnomusicology’ where the author, a fine player himself, has wisely decided to dig where he stands. The book is full of versions of Scottish music, there is social and historical context, maps, excellent photographs – and it is huge! The layout design by Mark Thomson is absolutely spot on and sponsors and publisher have to be congratulated for supporting this work. I hope to write more once I have absorbed its many pages. I managed to get a hard back copy at a bargain price through Amazon – buy one while you can.
Competition Fiddling 1 : 3 September 2013
The literature on fiddle music in Scotland makes little, other than passing, reference to the world of competitions. Competitions were a major outlet for traditional music performance in the late nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth centuries and served as a form of popular entertainment. They fitted into the ethos of rational recreation and self-improvement and could even involve a prize such as a violin, a cup or a medal like this one from the Perthshire Musical Festival 1928 which was ‘presented’ to me the other day:
As in piping, competitions must have had musical consequences such as setting standards and standardising style and repertory. I wonder what happened to Alastair B. Kerr, junior soloist in Reel and Strathspey and recipient of the medal.
Fiddling with words 3 : Antisysgy : 3 September 2013
OK, not a word you’ll hear around the fiddle session or at the reel and strathspey society meeting but perhaps one that helps us explain, accept or comfortably accommodate the tension between the extremes of the ‘classical’ and the ‘folk’ in fiddle music tradition in Scotland. As stated in Wikipedia:
“The term Caledonian Antisyzygy refers to the “idea of dueling polarities within one entity”, thought of as typical for the Scottish psyche and literature. It was first coined by G. Gregory Smith in his 1919 book Scottish Literature: Character and Influence (p. 4) in which he wrote:
…the literature [of Scotland] is the literature of a small country…it runs a shorter course than others…in this shortness and cohesion the most favourable conditions seem to be offered for a making of a general estimate. But on the other hand, we find at closer scanning that the cohesion at least in formal expression and in choice of material is only apparent, that the literature is remarkably varied, and that it becomes, under the stress of foreign influence, almost a zigzag of contradictions. The antithesis need not, however, disconcert us. Perhaps in the very combination of opposites – what either of the two Thomases, of Norwich and Cromarty, might have been willing to call ‘the Caledonian antisyzygy’ – we have a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability, which is another way of saying that he has made allowance for new conditions, in his practical judgement, which is the admission that two sides of the matter have been considered. If therefore, Scottish history and life are, as an old northern writer said of something else, ‘varied with a clean contrair spirit,’ we need not be surprised to find that in his literature the Scot presents two aspects which appear contradictory. Oxymoron was ever the bravest figure, and we must not forget that disorderly order is order after all.
The poet Hugh MacDairmid elaborated on the concept in his essay, ‘The Caledonian Antisyzygy’ and the Gaelic Idea, published in two parts in The Modern Scot, 1931-2. The notion is most frequently cited in reference to the seemingly morally contradictory quality of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and James Hogg (The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner), but is also applied to contrasts between the Highlands and the Lowlands, Protestantism and Catholicism and others.
It has been said that this native characteristic can be detected in Byron’s description of Burns:
. . . tenderness, roughness, delicacy, coarseness – sentiment, sensuality, soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity – all mixed up in one compound of inspired clay . . .
Might this also reflect the scope and potential of Scottish fiddle music?
Blind Fiddlers 3 : 3 September 2013
Copyright prevents me from reproducing the images here, but I recently stumbled on two superb photographs of a fiddler, Blind Benjie Finlayson, taken at Cromarty around 1910 by William John Smith.
One is a street scene in which the musician is seated on a chair while life goes on around him. The other Benjie sits on a box playing while his father baits a line.
The www.scran.ac.uk site is full of gems like this and I’ll post more links in due course. Higher education and library users should have free access but for others the cost is well worth it for the treasures it contains.
Blind Fiddlers 2 : 3 September 2013
I was looking at images of paintings of musicians by Frans Hals and in particular his portraits of fiddlers. Two of these feature young male players, and in both the subjects have a similar pose and, in particular, eye position, with the head thrown back. This is quite different from other Hals’ paintings where the musician often looks directly towards and engages with the viewer:
Could these ‘boy playing a violin’ paintings depict blind fiddlers, something which would have been quite clear to the contemporary viewer but something now lost to us?
Bill Hardie, Master Fiddler : 26 August 2013
This extended play record arrived in the post the other day. What a super cover – and music! – the first Scottish fiddle EP?
The term ‘country fiddle’ is interesting as an alternative to ‘traditional’ or ‘folk’ as a means of qualifying the use of the word fiddle. There are parallels in this in Ulster where there is talk of and writing on ‘country fiddling’ to distinguish music from ‘Irish traditional. Complex stuff, and more on this later.
The Bill Dean-Myatt Scottish vernacular discography tells us:
(Aberdeen, 1916 – 1965). “Bill Hardie, violin with John Junner, piano”
Recorded Glasgow, Wednesday, 13th. & Thursday, 14th. July 1956
M-3564 Scotland the brave (trad); The Laird o’ Drumblair (J. Scott
Skinner); Speed the plough (trad) Bel SEP-46(EP)
M-3565 The bonnie lass o’ bonnie accord (J. Scott Skinner);
The Marquis of Huntley’s farewell (William Marshall);
The £10 fiddle (trad) Bel SEP-46(EP)
M-3566 The De’il amang the tailors (trad); The Balkan Hills (J. Gillan);
Lady Mary Ramsay (Nathaniel Gow); Pretty Peggy
(J. Scott Skinner) Bel SEP-46(EP)
M-3567 Bluebell polka (Frank Stanley); Peterhead polka (trad) Bel SEP-46(EP)
Fiddling with words 2 : The Exponent : 15 August 2013
The language we use in talking and writing about music can often tell us much about our values and attitudes to the subject at hand. This is particularly true of so-called folk musics, including fiddling. In academia we try to adopt value free approaches, using terms such as tradition bearer or source singer, but here too, there are issues. More popular usage, including music journalism and promotional writing, is less constrained but perhaps more influential and telling.
One expression that seems to have attached itself particularly to Scottish fiddle music is that of the fiddler as “exponent”. Here is a short selection harvested from the internet with the musicians’ names removed:
AB. One of the most respected exponents of the Scots fiddle tradition today…
CD was possibly the greatest exponent of the Scots fiddle tradition of his generation…
Australia’s foremost exponent of the Scottish fiddle, EF…
GH, one of the most respected of all exponents of the Scots fiddle…
IJ is now one of the finest exponents of the Scottish fiddle in the world today,
KL is a fine exponent of traditional music and leads a very successful and exciting Scots Fiddle and Song career.
MN …will play compositions by many of the country’s historic composers and chat about the lives of great fiddle exponents from centuries past.
OP, QR (fiddle) and ST (piano) are all internationally known exponents of the traditional Scottish music repertoire.
UV are the finest exponents in the world of this kind of music.
WX is one of the leading exponents of traditional Scottish fiddle music of the 18th and 19th centuries, having played a major role in reviving interest in this music, over the last three decades.
YZ who took up the fiddle at the age of eight, is now recognised internationally as a leading exponent of Scottish music.
And it has attached itself to performance practice, and the Strathspey tradition of the North East in particular:
In order to grasp the spirit of the Strathspey there really is no substitute for listening to skilled exponents of the art…
Playing the strathspey can become a very sophisticated art. In the hands of a skilled exponent the rhythms, bowing, and ornamentation add a unique character to tunes which can, in essence, be very simple.
Exponents of this style have produced some truly great music in the Scottish idiom.
What is going on here? What are the boundaries between a “player” and an “exponent”? Is this part of a deliberate attempt to separate the art player from the folk? Do we talk of exponents of the Irish tradition? I wonder when this expression came into common usage but suspect that James Scott Skinner had a major role. Now, he really was an exponent!
Ruddiman 4 : 15 August 2013
I wonder if this instrument is still for sale?
Fiddling of anither kind : 15 August 2013
Its Edinburgh Festival time and last night I attended an outstanding concert of compositions, for soloists and duets, by Eddie McGuire of Glasgow. I was delighted to hear his Rant played live after nearly thirty years (I think I saw Edna Arthur play it at the Queens Hall) although I have heard other performances on tape. I remain of the view, from my lowly position, that this is a great, and seminal, piece of writing for violin which is both Scottish and international in outlook – a bit like the composer himself. This work won the prize donated by Carl F. Flesch for the composition of a test piece to be used at the Carl Flesch International Violin Competition (London, July 1978). It combines the 12-tone note row with the Scottish traditional music idiom. It should be better known and I was delighted by Feargus Hetherington’s interpretation and announcement “this piece was written two years before I was born”! I hope he records it.
The concert opened with a haunting , and no less Scottish (Celtic? Near Eastern?) Prelude 21 by Josie Robertson. I would certainly like to hear that work again. It was written in 2002.
There was other super music on brass, accordion and guitar but that has no place in a diary on the fiddle!
Tullochgorum 1 : Marion Lochead : 14 August 2013
Inspired and encouraged by Ronnie Gibson’s research I have taken to learning, or should I say relearning, the great fiddle tune Tullochgorm on the gut string fiddle. I have never been happy with the version I know and also I’m still bothered by a public performance of the tune many years ago.
In the early 1980s I was invited to a Scottish PEN dinner in Edinburgh (at either the Press Club or the Arts Club) where there would be poetry readings and some informal fiddle music from myself. When I arrived I was asked if I would play Tullochgorm to accompany a reading (by Albert Mackie?) of Robert Ferguson’s Daft Days:
Fiddlers! Your pins in temper fix,
And roset weel your fiddlesticks;
But banish vile Italian tricks
Frae out your quorum;
Nor fortes wi’ pianos mix;-
I had not played the tune in ages and had to do so from memory and without a quick run through and was so nervous I hardly enjoyed the dinner. I did managed to play the tune but not to my own satisfaction and I have hardly played it since.
I remember that event for another fiddle related reason. I found myself sitting beside an elderly woman who introduced herself as Marion Lochhead. Now, I knew that name from a couple of poems in an anthology I had at home Scottish Verse 1851 – 1951 : Selected for the general reader by Douglas Young (Edinburgh, 1952) including her:
Och, gin ye come to our toun,
to our toun, to our toun,
Och, gin ye come to our toun,
play up a rantin air.
Play like the verra deil, lad,
be bauld, lad, be daft, lad ;
Steer up the verra deil, lad,
and fleg us aa sair.
For, we’re aa deid in our toun,
in our toun, in our toun ;
We’re deid and dammed in our toun,
and neither ken nor care.
She was delighted that a young man, and fiddler, knew the verse and explained its context, how it had been written to express a feeling of hopelessness in small town life in the late 1930s.
Marion Cleland Lochhead was born in Wishaw, Lanarkshire, on 19 April 1902 and was educated at Glasgow University. She became a teacher, journalist and writer. She was a founder member of Scottish PEN in 1927 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1955. She died in January 1985.
On the street 1 : 14 August 2013
Two young fiddlers belting out tunes outside the National Library of Scotland during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I wonder if they are aware of the musical treasures the building contains.
Patie Birnie 1 : 12 August 2013
I wrote last week on Fife fiddler Patie Birnie in the entry Fiddling with Words 1 and today the great man pops up twice! Firstly, while waiting for a friend by Bruntsfield Links, Edinburgh I glanced in the window of Gordon Stevenson’s violin shop and who grinned back at me through the security shutter but:
Then, later that evening someone sent me this, which is from the 1852 French illustrated journal Magasin Pittoresque but, unfortunately, without the accompanying text:
So, Patie’s fame had spread to France.
Blind Fiddlers 1 : 9 August 2013
Here is a version Scottish artist David Wilkie’s well known painting The Blind Fiddler, about which a separate post will follow later. The subject of blind fiddlers in the Scottish musical tradition has been introduced by Dr Katherine Campbell in a chapter in her book The Fiddle in Scottish Culture. Aspects of the Tradition (Edinburgh, 2007). I will be making a series of posts complementing Kath’s excellent paper including some new examples of blind fiddlers which have come to light. Meanwhile I stress that the blind fiddler was (and still is?) a Europe-wide phenomenon and that the image of such musicians found extensive expression in art throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as illustrated in the following excellent works by Lichtenstein and Chagall:
Fiddling with words 1 : 7 August 2013
The specific words and language used to talk and write about music can tell us much about attitudes to fiddlers and fiddling, both now and in the past. Ronnie Gibson has written on the implications of the terms “fiddler” and “violinist” and this has, in turn been taken up by David McGuinness on the Bass Culture project blog. I hope to add some thoughts to that thread in due course but meanwhile offer the first of a number of brief posts of my own on the language of fiddle music.
Today I visited the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and was delighted to see on display the portrait ‘The Facetious Peter Birnie/Fidler in Kinghorn’ which I had recently noted was being offered for sale by Bonhams. This picture is attributed to William Aikman (1682-1731) and was previously in a private collection although familiar to readers of David Johnson’s where it is reproduced on the rear dust cover. Well, it seems it was bought for the nation (£10,000 well spent!) and can now be enjoyed by us all, close up and in colour for the first time.
Patie was a professional fiddler who made part of his living by entertaining travelers arriving off the ferry from Edinburgh at Kinghorn, Fife. We hear of Patie in the often quoted but rarely published in full The Life and Arts of, or An ELEGY on PATIE BIRNIE, The Famous Fiddler of Kinghorn [Allan Ramsay. Edinburgh : Printed for the author, 1720], a text which commentators on Scottish violin music have come to use somewhat condescendingly as an illustration of the low-status fiddler of times gone by to emphasise how far the modern art of fiddle playing has developed. The verse:
When Strangers landed, wow sae thrang
Fuffing and peghing he wa’d gang,
And crave their Pardon that sae lang
He’d been a coming;
Syne his Bread-winner out he’d bang,
and fa’ to bumming.
has been read by one modern writer as indicating that the musician in question was “playing without taste or skill” (i.e. prone to “bum notes”) and by another commentator who suggested that he was a mere busker who ‘bums’ money in return for his music. Both interpretations are unfair and plainly wrong being based on more modern usage of the verb to bum. Bumming is clearly the old Scots term for droning. Bees bum, as do bagpipes, spinning tops, peeries and crowds of people. So, what we really have here is a perfectly appropriate and adequate description of the aural effect of his traditional style of fiddle playing which might have been typical of the time. While Ramsay’s poem can be read as poking fun at the musician it is undoubtedly written from a position of respect and affection, the poet marking the passing of a real character and musician of skill. The verse contains other clues to the traditional music making of the time such as accompaniment of solo step dancing and to singing while fiddling:
Whas laid the Stick out o’er the String
With sic an art;
Wha sang sae sweetly tae the Spring
And rais’d the heart.
When I first saw the painting Fisherman playing the violin by Frans Hals in the collection of the excellent Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid I immediately thought of our Patie. This shows a lively violinist (left handed) on a sandy shore with a Scottish towerhouse-like building on elevated land in the background, a scene that reminded me of Seafield Tower just outside Kinghorn. There are also distant walkers and a boat, a ferry perhaps?
For a moment, before checking the wall label, I wondered if this could be an illustration of the Ramsay poem. Also, the violin did not seem right to me, being rather sophisticated for the 1630 and for a fisherman (although I suspect the Netherlands of the time had many wealthy fisherman/entrepreneurs who enjoyed that nation’s Embarrassment of Riches).
I have given it little thought since but, in writing this, noted on the museum website that that there has been doubt surrounding the painting in the past and that:
The background landscape is not particularly common in Hals’ work and it has been suggested that the artist may have collaborated with Pieter de Molijn, who painted the dunes, beach and sky in a less vigorous manner. It has also been suggested that the setting may be the outskirts of Zandvoort near Haarlem and that the building on the left is one of the lighthouse towers in that area. Two further versions of this composition are known, neither of which are considered to be autograph.
Could this be a much later painting made for a Scottish client in the style of Hals? Did a Dutch artist visit the Forth where he met the famous fiddler? Did Patie have a blue feather hat?
Heifetz in Tartan 3 : 24 July 2013
Further proof of Jascha Heifetz’ interest in Scottish traditional music in the collection of his material at Stanford University, California:
Identifier/Call Number: ARS.0046
Repository: Archive of Recorded Sound, Stanford University Libraries
Stanford, California 94305-3076
Box 3, Disc 62
Pibroch Donald Dhu ; Bob o’ Fettercairn ; Deil among the tailors — Tulloch Macarrick ; Braes o’ Tullymet ; Auld wife. 1916?
10″ shellac 78 rpm sound disc
Performed by Pipe Major Forsyth, bagpipe solo
Pathé: 8383 ; 78943, 78944 ; 60510 (G.R etched in disc beneath number), 61542 . R.A (additional numbers)
Box 3, Disc 63
Hundred pipers ; Miss Drummond of Perth ; Sleepy Maggie — 25th. farewell to Merut ; Tulloch Gorm ; Reel of Tulloch. 1916?
10″ shellac 78 rpm sound disc
Performed by Pipe Major Forsyth, bagpipe solo
Pathé: 8431 ; 78945, 78946 ; 60247 G.R, 60708 (+, etched in disc) R.A (additional numbers)
Heifetz in Tartan 2 : 22 July 2013
For an interesting story on Heifetz’ encounter with pibroch and Pipe Major Robert Reid see this article. Copyright prevents me from quoting from it. A search in the Glasgow Herald confirms that the great violinist played in Glasgow in November 1935 and March 1937.
Scots Drawing Room Style : 21 July 2013
Thinking about how Scottish fiddlers handled their instruments in the days before the shoulder support and chin rest I remembered that wonderful book(let) produced a decade or so by the Rutland Press, Edinburgh: Elegance & Entertainment in the New Town of Edinburgh. The Harden Drawings. With and essay by Iain Gordon Brown. (Edinburgh, 1995). This little book, along with Memoirs of a Highland Lady; the autobiography of Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus, is invaluable in illustrating popular upper-class music practice in Edinburgh, Scotland and elsewhere in the first decades of the nineteenth century.The Harden drawings capture violin, flute and keyboard music sessions including some great depictions of fiddlers playing “off the shoulder”:
Heifetz in Tartan 1 : 19 July 2013
I have long been fascinated by this stanza in Hugh MacDairmid’s 1926 poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle:
Heifetz in tartan, and Sir Harry Lauder!
Whaur’s Isadora Duncan dancin’ noo?
Is Mary Garden in Chicago still
And Duncan Grant in Paris — and me fou’? (lines 29-32)
This work has been analysed by many scholars each of who give a slightly different interpretation of the meaning of the passage. Christopher Whyte, for example, writes:
The point here is the wasteful dispersion abroad of Scottish talent, in dancing, music and painting. The insertion of a knighted Harry Lauder underlines the pitifulness of what is left at home. A mere four lines bring together Russia, America and Paris, Scottish contributions to art in these countries, and the biographies of those involved: Isadora Duncan’s impact on French art in the twenties, her marriage to Esenin; Grant’s relationship with Vanessa Stephens and the whole Bloomsbury Group; the songs Debussy dedicated to Mary Garden, his first Melisande. Determined internationalism is a defiant reaction to the provincialisation of Scottish culture… (Christopher Whyte ‘Construction of Meaning in MacDiarmid’s “DrunkMan”‘ Studies in Scottish Literature Volume 23, Issue 1, Article 15, 1988 Article p. 223).
As with Whyte, most writers skip over the Heifetz reference but I have always read it as a swing at the tartanry which became attached to popular music in Scotland in the twentieth century, including the influence of the cult of James Scott Skinner. I remember asking MacDairmid scholar Raymond Ross back in the early 1980s but he too had no suggestions as to the reference to the famous violinist.
Now, through the wonders of Google, we have a clue. On 4 October 1928 The Glasgow Herald carried this small feature:
Then in The Catholic Herald of 22 November 1935 we find the headline “Heifetz likes to wear a kilt” and the text:
He has a passion, too, for first editions and ties. His wardrobe is full of tartan ties, of which he once had 400. Indeed so enthusiastic a “highlander” is he that he sometimes wears a Royal Stuart kilt, and has appeared at New York Scottish functions in It!
Perhaps Jascha Heifetz also liked to play Scottish dance music on his trusty piano accordion:
Twa Ruddimen : 31 July 2013
Today I had a very welcome and entertaining visit from fiddler and fiddle academic Ronnie Gibson who came to listen to some of my archival material. Ronnie brought along one of the Aberdeen University Joseph Ruddiman violins and it was great to hear both instruments played together.
I am in the process of making digital copies of my material and hope to be able to share some extracts and transcripts in due course.
My new old violin : 19 July 2013
My new old violin is here! It seems so different from my ‘normal’ instrument and although playing without a chin rest presents no difficulty I really need my shoulder support. The excellent Boston Irish fiddler Laurel Martin came to stay with us for the weekend and she managed to get a great sound from the start which suited her old settings of the tunes. Let the fun begin.
Ruddiman 1 : A gut feeling : 18 July 2013
A few years ago I found in an Edinburgh second hand shop a violin made in 1775 by the well-known maker Joseph Ruddiman of Aberdeen. This maker’s instruments carry a certain cache in Scottish music culture: It was he who repaired Neil Gow’s fiddle after it was damaged in a fall on the ice, his son Nathaniel Gow is said to have played one of his instruments, there are prized examples in the collection of the University of Aberdeen in playing condition and at least one in the University of Edinburgh Collection of Musical Instruments.
The instrument I acquired was in a poor state. There was considerable damage to parts, the sound post required setting and the pegs were in bad order. The fiddle was not in its original state as the neck had been ‘modernised’. There were cracks on the belly, although apparently stable, and there was a hard, chocolate coloured varnish which was failing in places, particularly under the chin area.
I considered keeping the instrument as a curiosity but was also anxious that it was played again. However, professional, financial and family reasons (including moving my study to a new room!) meant that the matter was set aside until relatively recently.
My interest was rekindled by a meeting at the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention at Derry in June 2012 with Ronnie Gibson, PhD student in music at Aberdeen University, who, after giving an excellent paper, told me of his work to “attempt to reconcile the historicity of tradition with living traditions by investigating performing practices. A combination of ethnography and historical investigation will provide an insight into the roots of the music in addition to gauging its status in the present.” Ronnie has a fascinating blog which I strongly recommend. I suggested to Ronnie that there might be merit in considering how the largely self-taught or untutored musicians of the folk revival who claim no pedigree with the high-status ‘great men’ of Scottish fiddle music have developed their stylistic and technical approach to the old Scottish repertory. Might there be clues to to performance practice which can complement information gained through other approaches? We talked over how such musicians might handle playing on older instruments in comparison to more ‘trained’ players coming at the area wearing a ‘early music’ hat.
Now, I know from my own academic research and experience as a participant in the revival that many instrumentalists engaged in intensive experimentation, trial and error and adoption and rejection of techniques from the widest range of sources in finding their own ways of playing. I am fascinated, for instance, to see and hear how folk guitarists (such as Tony Cuffe or Tony McManus) and developed highly appropriate ways of playing Scottish music which are as often quite different to (although not always) yet as valid as those used by musicians who have come from a ‘classical’ background (such as Rob MacKillop).
I offered myself (a wholly untutored player!) as a subject and also recommended my friend Derek Hoy of Edinburgh who had a highly individual fiddle ‘voice’, extremely sympathetic to the old Scottish tunes that he had developed over 35 years of playing. Derek was very interested in the playing of Canada based baroque violinist and fiddler David Greenberg who we both heard play in Edinburgh with the ensembles Ferintosh and Concerto Caledonia and in a workshop at the Scots Fiddle Festival in Edinburgh. You can read David’s paper “Some Thoughts from a Switch-hitter: Baroque/Modern/Cape Breton Violin and Bow Talk” (Silver Apple News, November 2000).
I also offered to have my Ruddiman fiddle restored for this purpose. Tragically, Derek passed away in late 2012 but had been highly enthusiastic about this project and in his terminal illness encouraged me to proceed with it.
Two other events also encouraged me. Firstly, I heard the recordings of Scottish and Irish music made by Jordi Savall played on viol. While I have some doubts about these records, fearing at times that the player has a relatively thin engagement with the genre, I am inspired by the fact that such a highly skilled and enthusiastic musician should recognise the potential in this music. Secondly, 2012 saw the lost of another good Scottish fiddler who came to the fore during the revival. Ian Hardie, like Derek Hoy, had spent decades working through the old materials (as well as composing many excellent tunes of his own) but it was only recently I learned of his fascinating experiments involving Scottish and North American traditional fiddle styles. You can hear the results in his CD Westringing.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Finally, my Ruddiman violin is now being put into playing condition and should be with me imminently. It was decided, following discussion with various experts that only the minimum of work necessary would be undertaken on the instrument. This fits perfectly with my approach in my professional work with historic buildings. The pegs are being re-bushed and a new sound post fitted. Internal inspection with a endoscope confirmed that there has been substantial work in the past and that the cracks have been repaired previously. Gut strings are being fitted with a baroque bridge and a new tailpiece. The varnish will be left as is apart from a few cosmetic touches. However, the instrument will not be returned to its original ‘baroque’ state.
In anticipation I have acquired an inexpensive baroque bow and am playing on my son’s fiddle (Joseph Ross of Pitlochry, made in wild gean from Glen Lyon) with soft strings tuned to A=415. I look forward to the musical journey ahead.