Hyperion monthly sampler – May 2012
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Movement 1: Scots! Wha hae wi' Wallace bled
Movement 2: She's faire and fause
Movement 3: I coft a stane o' haslock woo'
London, with its ‘Treiben’ [doings] (and above all its interruptiveously interested people of all kinds) is no place for a composer as I find out now. Your London is a horrid hammer for driving out poetry that, I long since, discovered.
In fact J S Blackie dedicated his book Scottish Song to the much younger Mackenzie, whose own knowledge of Scottish song must have been unrivalled. Both he and his father had not only played and arranged large quantities of Scottish melodies and texts, but they had themselves contributed original tunes to the repertoire—tunes played to this day. Mackenzie, like Blackie, was a thoroughgoing nationalist in these matters and reveals it strongly, writing to Blackie in acknowledgement of the dedication of the book:
I do hope from time to time to add a little contribution to Scotch Music, I mean in this popular way and apart from the more elaborate work to which, of course, I am devoted.
But Mackenzie was also aware of the dangers of uncritical nationalism and wrote in the same letter of 1889:
My reticence in giving too much national music of my own is chiefly due to an experience which has reached most thinking musicians, viz: that a composer may in it, only too easily become a mere mannerist. Some of the Norwegians and Swedes have taught us this.
Did Mackenzie have Grieg in mind? The two men had met and, after hearing Mackenzie’s Burns Rhapsody, Grieg’s eagerness to identify with his Scottish ancestry (of which he was extremely proud) prompted him to assert an affinity between Norwegian and Scottish traditional music which Mackenzie was not willing to share.
However, there can be few more obviously nationalistic works than the Burns – Second Scotch Rhapsody, not only because it honours the national poet of Scotland, but because of its opening theme. Burns knew the tune as Bruce’s March to the great victory in 1314 at Bannockburn which established the Scottish nation as truly independent of England. Burns set new words to it, burning with the zeal of a post-French-Revolutionary vision. He will have known that this same tune piped Joan of Arc, with her substantially Scottish army, up to the gates of Orleans, opened to her by its Scottish Bishop Kirkpatrick. The tune is still played at Orleans on Joan of Arc Day, so it is heavy with the symbolism of the independence of two of the great nations of Europe, the enemy being, in both cases, England. But it was the words that Burns gave it that have immortalized it as Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled, and in choosing to celebrate Burns with this piece Mackenzie knew full well what it meant to the poet and to the nation. He quotes the opening lines on the score:
Scots! wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots! whom Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victory!
From all this one might expect a work of military triumphalism, but Mackenzie was made of subtler stuff. The latent power is there, but it is constantly tempered by an equally Scottish characteristic—that of pawky humour—in a counter-melody drawn from the main theme.
The central section is based on a beautiful tune collected by Burns himself and to which he added bitterly reflective verses:
She’s faire and fause that causes my smart,
I lo’ed her mickle and lang:
She’s broken her vow, she’s broken my heart,
And I may e’en gae hang.
Mackenzie presents the tune with lovely harmonies, but wisely never intrudes on the melody itself. Even the second statement is embellished only by a simple commentary on the violins, and the section ends in wistful simplicity.
The tune for the final Vivace was an old one known as Salt Fish and Dumplings. Burns wrote new words, quoted, as are the other poems, on the score:
I coft a stane o’ haslock woo’ [I bought a stone of wool from the sheep’s neck]
To mak a coat to Johnny o’t:
For Johnny is my only jo, [love]
I lo’e him best of ony yet …
The cardin’ o’t, the spinnin’ o’t,
The warpin’ o’t, the winnin’ o’t’;
When ilka ell cost me a groat, [When each length cost me a groat]
The tailor staw the linin’ o’t. [stole]
The poem goes on to praise Johnny despite his old age. Whether Mackenzie’s choice of quotations had any special meaning for Jessie Hillebrand is not known, but his treatment of The cardin’ o’t is as straightforward and sportive as the tune itself.
from notes by John Purser © 1995