Thursday, July 19, 2012

Peirles Paramour...A journey into our past

Fragment from text of document 
I've been singing again. Back to where, in a way, it all began - and the time when the text on the left was at once wondrously strange and increasingly familiar. If you sat Higher Music in Scotland in 1964, it may well seem familiar to you too - for that year one of our set works for study was a group of pieces from Musica Britannica Vol XV - Music of Scotland 1500-1700, edited by Kenneth Elliott. I have a clear memory of standing round the piano in the Music Room (Room 16) of Hillhead High School with a group of friends, singing our way through this particular song as best we could, the sight-reading of music and language taxing our brains and leading to much hilarity - before we started again, determined to get it right.

After I left school I met Kenneth Elliott at Glasgow University, not because I studied music (though I did, for one year, to make up the so-called "science" subject in an Arts degree) but because I sang with a small group who actually performed this music he'd spent so much work on. We were invited to his house for evenings of singing and wine; we stiffened the ranks of various University choirs as they struggled to meet his demands. I've been singing it, on and off, ever since.

And this is why, a couple of days ago, I found myself singing this music of a Scotland that few really know about - singing it with the St Maura Singers, the quartet that has been a thread through my life since the late 60s, rehearsing for a memorial concert for Kenneth Elliott which will take place in the original home of the St Mauras, The Cathedral of The Isles on Cumbrae. We're doing a whole programme of this music, almost all of it for four voices, and one of the pieces is Support Your Servand - which in fact we've never performed. I was eighteen again, suddenly - and it was as if we were seeing it for the first time.

Read the words again. Read them aloud. How are you pronouncing them? How, gentle reader, will we pronounce them? This is a discussion we have every time we perform any of these pieces. Are the "oi" sounds as in "hoy!" or simply the modern "sore"? And we listen to recorded performances - much lauded - in which the accent is so ... Scottish? ancient? ... as to be incomprehensible, and we wonder if anyone in the audience will have a clue. And then we found what Kenneth himself had to say about it, and it was wonderful.
I would once again urge singers to pronounce the Scots texts as naturally as possible, without recourse to the extremes of local dialect: these text are related to the courtly tradition of Scots poetry, written by sophisticated Scots of burgh, song- or Grammar-school and university, in touch with, if not even part of castle and, ultimately, court culture, rather than the rustic precursors of bothy balladeers, kailyard confectioners or Doric dropouts.

I can hear Kenneth's voice here - and a degree of exasperation (I would once again urge..) Obviously he's had this conversation before. So we will not roll our 'r's more than normally, nor will we sound like The Corries on a culture trip. The music - in all its complexity or its deceptive simplicity - will speak as well as we can achieve. And despite all the people who have sung it since, we will know that we were there very early on in the performing of it.

And somewhere, I think Kenneth will be smiling.

1 comment:

  1. How right he is....for some reason only 'rustic' seems to have music cred....