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Thomas Erskine (1732-1781)

Fiddler Tam

The music of Thomas Erskine, 6th Earl of Kellie
Concerto Caledonia
Download only
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Philip Hobbs & David McGuinness
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: March 2005
Total duration: 76 minutes 40 seconds

Cover artwork: Painting by Joseph Davie (b1965)

From the harpsichord, David McGuinness conducts the music of Thomas Alexander Erskine and makes available this superb, though rarely heard, distinctive musical voice of Scotland.


'Fiddler Tam, on the Linn label, features music by the 18th-century Thomas Erskine, sixth Earl of Kellie. Spirited performances by Concerto Caledonia; I can't stop playing this delightful disc' (The Times)

'This is music of far higher quality than much being written in Europe at the same time … everything here demonstrates convincingly that the old canard (still heard in some quarters) about all later eighteenth-century British composers being in thrall to Handel is nonsense' (Fanfare, USA)» More

'Concerto Caledonia has done a wonderful job making available this superb, though rarely heard, distinctive musical voice of Scotland' (Sunday Herald, Scotland)» More

This is the first recording devoted to the works of one of the most significant British composers of the eighteenth century, and includes several pieces previously unrecorded. Thomas Alexander Erskine rejoiced in the titles of Lord Pittenweem, Viscount Fenton, and Sixth Earl of Kellie, but was best known to his retainers as fiddler Tam on account of his skill on the violin. He was born at Kellie Castle in the Kingdom of Fife in Scotland, on the 1st of September 1732, making him an exact contemporary of Haydn. He is variously referred to as Kelly, Kellie and Thomas Erskine. Here we shall give him his title in the proper spelling of his family scat, where the Trio Sonata No 6 and the Largo on this CD were recorded.

Kellie's father, the Fifth Earl, was an amiable drunk who "came out" for Bonnie Prince Charlie, in full Highland gear and with the two retainers he persuaded to join him. He fled from the field at Culloden and eventually gave himself up and was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle until 1753. This splendid, if useless, gesture left the heir with reduced prospects. But instead of looking for gainful employment, young Kellie went to Mannheim to study composition with Johann Stamitz. On his return, he lived off the sale of the lands he inherited. This was, in its own way, an act of rebellion. The aristocracy were expected to build up their lands and they did not regard music as anything other than a dilettante occupation for a gentleman. Many years later Charles Burney wrote of him:

The late Earl of Kellie, who was possessed of more musical science than any dilettanti with whom I was ever acquainted … shut himself up at Mannheim … studied composition, and practised the violin with such serious application, that, at his return … there was no part of theoretical or practical music, in which he was not equally versed with the greatest professors of his time. Indeed, he had a strength of hand on the violin, and a genius for composition, with which few professors are gifted.

When Kellie returned from Mannheim he became a central figure in British musical life. He is said to have persuaded the violinist and composer François-Hippolyte Barthelemon to leave the (French) Irish Brigade in 1761 to become a professional musician, and John Collett dedicated his 1766 symphonies to him in glowing terms in which genuine gratitude shines through the conventional obsequiousness:

My Lord, Although these Symphonies to which I hereby presume to affix your Lordship's Name, have already had the honour of your appro­bation, Yet J offer them with the greatest diffidence, when I consider what will, perhaps, be expected from anything which you consent to Patronize. Your own exquisite knowledge in the Science of Music is so universally allowed, that the Public may entertain too high an opinion of a Work ushered into the World under the Sanction of Your Name, and demand a greater Performance than a Young Adventurer is able to produce. But Tho' your good-nature may prevail over Your Judgment, I hope your Lordship will excuse this Address, as my chief motive is, to seize an opportunity of expressing my sincere gratitude for the many favours you have already conferred on My Lord, Your Lordship's most Obedient and most devoted humble Servant John Collett.
Till the tumid extravaganzas of Stamitz and Lord Kelly were adopted, the elegant and well-conducted fugues of these [Boyce's] sonatas continued to contribute to the bill-of-fare of every public concert and, as inter-act pieces, to be listened to with attention at the theatres.

This strongly suggests that Kellie was responsible for a major change in taste in London only three years before Mozart's arrival there, and when Mozart and his father did arrive, Kellie's The Maid of the Mill Overture was one of the great successes of the season. We do not know whether the Mozarts attended the show, but Kellie's first movement was certainly the inspiration for a J.C. Bach Symphony in B flat, composed some years later.

The new disciplined Mannheim style, with its dramatic crescendos, was a thrilling novelty in the London of the 1760s, and Kellie was the first to exploit it in Britain. Bremner published six of Kellie's symphonies Op 1, in 1761, and soon afterwards, Collet, Hook and Norris followed Kellie's lead. Thomas Robertson, writing in 1784, gives us an insight into contemporary responses to Kellie's music, which include the suggestion that some of the passion in his music was the consequence of his being a Scot:

In his works the fervidum ingenium of his country bursts forth; and elegance is mingled with fire. From the singular ardour and impetuosity of his temperament, joined to his German education under the celebrated Stamitz ... this great composer has employed himself chiefly upon symphonies, but in a style peculiar to himself. While others please and amuse, it is his province to rouse, and almost to overset his hearer. Loudness, rapidity, enthusiasm, announce the Earl of Kellie.
What appears to have been singularly peculiar to this musician, is what may be called the velocity of his talents; by which he composed whole pieces of the most excellent music, in one night's time. Part of his works is still unpublished; and not a little probably lost. Being always remarkably fond of a concert of wind instruments, whenever he met with a good band of them, he was seized with a fit of composition, and wrote pieces in the moment, which he gave away to the performers, and never saw again: and these, in his own judgment, were the best he ever composed.

We have lost much of Kellie's music as a result of this cavalier approach which was part of his whole convivial lifestyle. Some of his chamber music has survived by good fortune in a set of parts discovered in Kilravock Castle and now in the National Library of Scotland. They include several string quartets, nine trio sonatas (three already known), and a virruosic three-movement ductto for two violins.

Kellie's reputation was international, and as early as 1764 his music was being per­formed in Kassel, as James Boswell reports:

At six I went to the comédie. On entering the house I was surprised to hear the orcheJtre play one of Lord Kellie's concertos. They, however, played it very ill. The pretty slow parts they made a country dance of. The piece was Tartuffe, and pretty well performed.

Another "concerto" (Boswell probably means by this an overture or symphony) used regularly as a curtain raiser was Kellie's Maid of the Mill, which reached New York in 1769, St Petersburg in 1772 and Jamaica in 1779. Boswell knew Kellie and his music well. He had borrowed money from him at the races: "I felt a strong regard for him and was pleased at the romantic conceit of getting it from a gamester, a nobleman, and a musical composer", reporting that "Lord Kellie was in high glee".

Kellie was frequently in high glee on account of wine, women and song- in that order. He is credited with having founded the Capillaire Club which "was composed of all those who were inclined to be witty or joyous". Kellie's Capillaire Minuet was no doubt danced to at the Club's annual ball in 1774 which was attended by nearly 200 ladies and gentlemen. The Scottish poet, Alison Cockburn, mentions the Club in a letter to the great Edinburgh philosopher, David Hume:

Goodness! How little you know of our world. Dear man, you can be member of the Capilaire, and then have Sunday set apart for that and topcing … bring you vices we shall find objects for them. As for the Godly, there is not one here … All, all are worshippers of Mammon.

Kellie would have been happy in such company, for religion was not his strong suit and it was said of him that his nose was so red it would ripen cucumbers. One of his best friends was Lord Stanley, and in June 1774 he provided a substantial part of the music for the first fête-champêtre held in Britain. This was a five-day entertainment at Lord Stanley's country estate—the Oaks at Epsom—to celebrate his Lordship's marriage. Modelled on French rural festivals, it cost five thousand pounds. There was an orchestra in the orangery, and London and environs were cleaned out of orange trees to prettify the place. Kellie's Minuet for Lord Stanley is an extremely lively piece, suitable for a twenty-two-year-old aristocrat given to horse-racing and cock-fighting and, like Kellie, fond of his pleasures. But it is this same music which makes of Kellie something much more than an eighteenth century rake. The Minuets arranged for the occasion show considerable variety, including a suitably soothing one for Lady Stanley.

Such were Kellie's musical skills that it was told of him that:

In the midst of a turbulent and tumultuous movement of a symphony in twelve or fourteen parts, if any instrument failed either in time or tune, though playing a different and difficult part himself, he instantly prompted the erroneous performer with his voice, by singing his part without abandoning his own.

We may also assume that as the introducer of the Mannheim style, he must have been one of the first to train British musicians to imitate it. Nor is his musicianship confined to matters of technical skill. There is depth of feeling in many of his slow movements, and his vivacity is far from superficial.

His harmonies arc acknowledged to be accurate and ingenious; admir­ably calculated for the effect in view, and discovering a thorough know­ledge in music. From some specimens which he has given, it appears that his talents were not limited to a single style; and which has made his admirers regret that he did not apply himself to a greater variety of subjects.

At least one subject reveals that variety, and that is Freemasonry. As a leading member of the Freemasonic movement, Kellie was bound to share in its deep seriousness of purpose. This election to the positions of Grand Master of the English and Scottish Masonic Lodges simultaneously (an honour which has never fallen upon any other man} shows that others also regarded him as being as capable of philosophical reflection as he was of being jocund. It seems likely that Kellie had a hand in the design of St Cecilia's Hall. He was a former school-mate of Robert Mylne—a freemason and the architect of the Hall. It is a beautiful oval concert room, completed in 1762. Aristocratic masons were not stone cutters and builders, but some, like Sir John Clerk (Concerto Caledonia's recording of his music is on Hyperion CDA 67007), were amateur architects, and there was a general agreement that music and architecture were closely allied.

Death, however, is no respecter of persons, be they philosophically or rakishly inclined. Kellie died in Brussels on the 9th of October 1781 of a "paralytic shock" followed by a "putrid fever", the consequences, no doubt, of his having tested life's pleasures to destruction.


The Overture in C Op 1 No 2 can equally well be described as a symphony. The distinc­tion at that period is often purely academic. In any event, it is not merely a piece of chamber music transferred to orchestra, but composed with a concert hall and concert audience in mind. It is bold and thoroughly public. There are three movements, the opening Allegro bursting into the eighteenth century concert hall with that great novelty from Mannheim—the crescendo. The second subject features oboes, and the horns add drama to the tuttis.

The Andantino is in the key of C minor. In the hands of a lesser composer, its sighing gestures would be mere mannerisms; but there is grace in its melancholy, and the gentle tread of the bass line has a dignity which, with crescendos over a pedal bass, bring deeper emotions towards the surface.

The concluding Presto assai is full of sportive trills and a much more lively bass part than many composers were managing at the time. With its sturdy repetitions and bouncy tempo, it is like a fast minuet, to be danced only by those in the very best of humours.

The concert aria Death is now my only Treasure shows that Kellie had the capacity to face his end with true masonic equanimity. It is a short, but very lovely piece in the key of three flats, in three-four time, full of passages in parallel thirds. Three is an important number in Freemasonry and these instances may be taken as symbolic of the three levels of masonry, the three steps leading into the Lodge, and the three lights, or windows on all but the north elevation of the Lodge. Parallel thirds arc also symbolic of love and friendship, and the character of the piece, which cheerfully accepts Death as a true friend, is best explained in a Masonic context. It was originally sung by the brilliant castrato, Tenducci.

Death is now my only treasure;
Death is all the Gods can give.
Fate can't rob me of this pleasure;
None can force the wretch to live.

Fear no more to pine and languish;
Fear no more the rack of life,
Pain and torture, toil and anguish;
Death shall end the fev'rish strife.

The Quartet in C minor is one of the works in the part-books discovered in Kilravock Castle, where Bonnie Prince Charlie played chamber music the night before the disastrous Battle of Culloden. Perhaps Kellie's father was there to hear him.

The leading ideas are largely presented in the lower registers of the instruments, and minor key and chromatic colourings predominate. There is a strong undercurrent to this movement, as though it were crossing troubled waters. The unison opening is almost operatic, and the treatment is suggestive of the Sturm und Drang movement in German literature, to which Haydn became a significant musical counterpart, but which might be said to have been anticipated in Scotland by MacPherson's Ossian, which profoundly influenced Goethe, Herder and Schiller, the movement's three leading lights. We do not need, therefore, co look to Germany for a farvidum ingenium which had many of its roots in Kellie's own culture.

The G minor Andante, likewise, starts in solemn insistent mood. It features a searching rising sequence which leads to expressive exchanges and gentle echoes, but there are chromatic shadows, and even the more settled passages seem somehow anxious. It is a beautifully-shaped and thoughtful movement, revealing Kellie as a composer of real substance.

The concluding Allegro is equally far from the frivolities with which convention tended to conclude three-movement works, and it has a nervous quality, despite a relatively stable bass-line. Tripping figures on the violins seem to skirt around some danger, and the preponderance of the minor key leaves this remarkably dark work unbroken in its sombre mood.

The Lover's Message
He is said to have composed only one song; but that an excellent one.

It is indeed excellent, and serves here totally to dispel the dark of the preceding quartet. Kellie never married, but he enjoyed women in goodly measure. Love was a subject close to his heart—as the Honorable Alexander Erskine wrote to James Boswell in January of 1762:

We had a splendid ball at the Abbey of Holyroodhouse … Lord Kelly danced with Miss C-, by the fire of whose eyes, his melodious lord-ship's heart is at present in a state of combustion. Such is the declaration which he makes in loud whispers many a time and oft.

It has also to be admitted that Kellie was not merely a member, but probably ‘Sovereign’ of The Beggar's Benison—an all-male club which indulged in relatively harmless sexual foolery involving masturbatory rituals—this perhaps in reaction against the recent promotion of the idea that masturbation was physically harmful as well as morally wrong. The Scottish physician, John Armstrong, advised his readers to avoid ‘the solitary Joy’ and ‘Find some soft nymph’ or else patronise a brothel. It is in this context that The Lover's Message takes on its proper meaning, for Strephon is basically holding his Celia to ransom, pretending he is dying for love (for which read sex), but admitting that if she turns him down, he will scorn to die. The air to which Kellie sets this is as charmingly insincere as one could possibly wish.

Ye little loves that hourly wait
To bring from Celia's eyes my fate,
Tell her my pain in softest sighs,
And gently whisper, Strephon dies.

But if this won't her pity move
And the coy nymph disdains to love,
Tell her again 'tis all a lie,
And haughty Strephon scorns to die.

The Overture in B flat, The Maid of the Mill, was composed as a curtain-raiser for the highly successful comedy of that name, premiered at Covent Garden on the 31st of January 1765. This too can be classed as a symphony, and its first movement was the model for J.C. Bach's own B flat major symphony Op 9 No 1, published fifteen years after the Kellie. It is an ebullient piece with thrilling rhythmic energy, Mannheim crescendos, and expressive use of the oboes, horns and bassoon which constitute the wind section.

The Allegro opens with two contrasting statements, crisp assertive chords being balanced by lyrical phrases on strings and wind. The premier coup d'archet was something the French made much of, though Mozart ridiculed it. However, Kellie's early juxtaposition of contrasting motifs was to become a hallmark of Mozart's symphonic writing. A splendid crescendo follows and the whole first subject section is redolent of that fervidum ingenium which so delighted Robertson. The second subject is little more than a brief moment of reflection before the development with its contrasts of energy and calm.

A combination of lyricism and gentle wit in the central Andante seems to make delicate play with the drawing-room manners of the time. Formal gestures predominate, but the emphasis on the wind instruments, and the extended phrases, especially in the central section, draw us into a world where such gestures go beyond formality.

The elegant concluding Rondo-Minuet, with its bowing phraseology, acquires a lovely bassoon countermelody on its first return. Nor does this elegance preclude a darker moment as bassoon imitates oboe, and a crescendo makes a troubled way out of the minor key back to the Minuet theme. But Kellie has taken the form away from the dance floor and imbued it with something more than occasional pleasure. He was a master of the Minuet form, as his many other minuets demonstrate, and in this he would have found ready appreciation from Haydn.

The three-movement Quartet in A is one of Kellie's best. The Allegro molto is a vivid example of Kellie's liveliness of temperament. The opening material is built out of bold descending syncopations and busy figuration. It is followed by a Mannheim crescendo leading to the dominant key and a second subject with a hint of elegance and even a suggestion of wistful echoes at the end of the exposition, which is repeated. The develop­ment is brief, gathering a touch of menace as it moves into the minor key until .it slides sequentially into the recapitulation. This second half of the movement is also repeated.

The Adagio in F sharp minor is based on the first four bars of a Barsanti concerto grosso which Kellie might have picked up when he was eighteen, playing in the Edinburgh Musical Society orchestra. Each half of the movement starts with Barsanti but is soon worked into new combinations, turning Barsanti's contrapuntal figures co deeply expressive use by adding falling octaves, repeated sighing phrases and bringing the first half gently to rest in A major over a pulsing pedal note on the cello. The second section inverts and expands some of the material, but despite some hints that it might end otherwise, reiterated F sharp minor chords underline the sadness of the end. For all that this movement has its starting point in the work of another, it achieves a deeply personal sense of sorrow.

The quartet ends with an elegant Minuet and Trio, providing a balanced response to the contrasts of the two previous movements. The scotch snaps of the Minuet become plaintive in the minor key of the trio section, with its unexpected harmonic twist; but the poise of the Minuet is never abandoned and its repeat re-establishes a gentle sense of security at the end of a work which in many respects went a long way to subvert the expectations of a society rather more polite and conformist than was Kellie himself.

The Trio Sonata No 5 in E is an elegant and kindly piece in a bright key, particularly agreeable to the violin. One could almost listen to this as though it were a Lover's Message which required no holding to ransom on either part.

The Andante con espressione, which forms the first of its two movements, has the three strings enter in unison in a yielding gesture, and soon cello and first violin arc answering each other fondly, with the second violin anything but a gooseberry in their company. J\s though to emphasise this amity amidst conversational freedom, when the opening idea initiates the second half, it does so in imitation rather than unison.

The Minuet makes delightful play out of trills and its main theme is in essence built our of a trill written out as semi-quavers, as though the notes were being affectionately coaxed into response. All three parts join in the coaxing. It is marked con spirito and its pleasant assertiveness would not disgrace a Haydn Divertimento.

Lord Kellie's Reel, played here as a Strathspey and Reel, is a good example of that side of Kellie's musical life which earned him the title Fiddler Tam. The Strathspey is simply a slow form of reel, with characteristic rhythmic snaps which are smoothed out somewhat in the ensuing faster reel tempo. In Scotland, traditional and classical music and dance could exist cheek-by-jowl, like Jacobites and Hanoverians, so it was the same young man who wrote a classical minuet for his sister, Lady Ann Erskine, as coined this robust piece. We can imagine him ending a late-night rendition for members of either the Capillaire or The Beggar's Benison, with just the sort of flourish used here to round off the dance.

Kellie's Largo is based on the well-known ballad The Lowland! Of Holland. This is an old tune first found in the Skene manuscript of c1625, with the title Alace I lie my alon, I'm like to die awld. The word ‘awld’ does not mean ‘old’ but refers to the way a sheep will die if it lies on its back. The melancholy duly attached to dying alone in bed like a sheep on its back is here raised to a status of near grief, and demonstrates just how natural it is to lose a light heart to a heavy one.

The substitution of flute for violin on this recording of Trio Sonata No 6 in G is entirely justified. It was a common practice and is particularly appropriate for the Andantino, which is lyrical and unassuming. It places nearly all the emphasis on the Primo part, which sings away as happily as a bird in springtime, with the Secondo and Continuo doing little more than supply discreet support.

A Tempo di Minuetto concludes the work and, likewise, ripples along on the flute without troubling the lower parts too much. Something resembling a development starts the second half but, with the ascending trills and turns having to stay in the lower register to maintain the tonic key at the end, the work ends as unassumingly as it began. It seems that is how Kellie himself was regarded—as a delightful and unassuming friend and companion, as shown here in the lines of one who knew him well:

To thee John Warre! I Caleb Whiteford send
The honour'd bust of a departed friend;

Me too the bonds of firmest Friendship tied,
And half my soul took flight when Kelly died!
Whose Sense refin'd, whose wit devoid of Gall,
Ne'er wounded any, but delighted all.
Where shall we seek such Pleasantry to find
That cheerful constant sunshine of the Mind?
How vain the Labour, and the Search how vain,
Unless himself should visit Earth again!

But though no longer we behold him here,
Kelly still shines in a superior Sphere:
That Soul of Melody, that feeling Heart,
In Heaven's high Concerts surely bears a part;
And, though alas! From former Friends remov'd,
He still enjoys that Harmony he loved!

John Purser © 2005

As Kellie was an amateur composer in the very best sense, his manuscripts and printed texts don't always attain a 'professional' level of polished attention to detail. He had more interesting things to do with himself than proof read, when his career and status did not depend upon it. The Kilravock parts appear to have been prepared by a near but inexperienced copyist from a messy score: in the case of the C minor quartet, from a very messy score. There are many dynamic markings missing, slurs and articulation marks misplaced, and plenty of wrong notes.

While correcting obvious errors, I deliberately preserved some inconsistencies where they are musically interesting, particularly in the symphonies. Dull consistency and regularity don't appear to have been great priorities for Kellie in life or in music, and we have relished the occasional added variety of a 'variant reading' which may have been introduced by sloppy Eighteenth-century draughtsmanship. To tidy up Kellie's music too much seems out of character both with the music and with the man. Some textual and interpretative points in the symphonies were illuminated by the contemporary keyboard arrangements by Domenico Corri and others, although these have to be treated with caution, especially Corri's bizarre sense of dynamics.

The quartets in the Kilravock MS also include three pieces from Robert Bremner's 1765 collection 'Six Simphonies in four Parts, Proper for small or great Concerts. Composed by J: Stamitz, his Pupil the Earl of Kelly, and Others'. These 'simphonics' arc clearly expected to sound equally well as chamber and as orchestral music, so from Kellie's quartets we've played No 9 as a 'small Concert' with string quartet, and No 8 as a 'great Concert' with full strings and harpsichord.

This recording is dedicated with love to Katherine McGillivray and Alison McGillivray, who enabled me to finish it. My grateful thanks to John Purser for intro­ducing me to Kellie's music; to David Johnson for his tireless research, without which our knowledge of Kellie and his musical times would be much the poorer; to Iain McGillivray, Marie A Dunn, and Peter Ferguson-Smyth for practical help; to the staff of Glasgow University Library and the National Library of Scotland; and to my family for their love and great forbearance.

David McGuinness © 2005

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