Library and Information Services, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Every Picture Tells a Story (and History)

We were donated some old music the other day.  At first glance, it was rubbish - old and tatty, probably ten-a-penny.  Both pieces were published by Bayley & Ferguson, a music publisher with bases in Glasgow and London.

Reading a Score (not your usual score-reading!)

But look again.  'A Fairy Croon' was published in 1918.  That's the era of Hugh Roberton and the Orpheus Singers, one of the big names of choral music history in Glasgow.  This particular piece, scored for soprano solo and female voices, isn't a Roberton one - it was arranged by Julian Nesbitt, a name completely unknown to us today.  Nonetheless, it's still distinctly in the 'Celtic Twilight' vein.  Today we know it as 'Dream Angus'.  

The other sheet, 'Scottish Part Songs, no.83' is set for mixed choir.  It contains four song settings, beginning with 'Caller herrin'.  That's a Scottish folk song that is still quite well known.  Although ... we call it a folk song, but it isn't really.  Far from being plucked from the rural hedgerows and oral tradition, we learn from this score that Lady Caroline Nairne wrote the words, and Nathaniel Gow Junior composed the tune.  'Folk?' 'Traditional?'  Hardly!  Strange things happen to 'folk songs' when they're scored for SATB choir, too.  Sometimes they become almost hymn-like, and sometimes the harmonies are as thick and sludgy as golden syrup!

One last comment about 'Scottish Part Songs'.  If there were four songs in no.83, there were plainly hundreds in the series.  This one's in conventional staff music notation, but it says there was also a Tonic Sol-Fa edition.  Those were the days when choral singing was much more popular, and Tonic Sol-Fa brought singing and sight-reading within the capabilities of people who couldn't read music.

So much musical and social history in two scruffy pieces of sheet music.  We might keep them, anyway!

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