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Francis George Scott (1880-1958)

Moonstruck & other songs

Lisa Milne (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano)
Download only
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2006
The Warehouse, Waterloo, London, United Kingdom
Produced by John H West
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Andrew Mellor
Release date: April 2007
Total duration: 62 minutes 21 seconds

Francis George Scott is a key figure in Scotland's musical history. Often referred to as Scotland's Hugo Wolf, his poetic settings draw on material from such writers as Robert Burns and Hugh McDiarmid to convey an extraordinary range of emotions and themes.

This new recording featuring masterful performances by Lisa Milne, Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside helps to shed light on an often overlooked composer, whose work stems from both the spirit of his national identity and the tradition of the great European song composers.


'The finest MacDiarmid settings here—Moonstruck, The Eene Stane, The Watergaw—are angular and often intensely chromatic, showing that Scott knew his early Schoenberg, while an interest in Bartok inspired his research into Scottish folk music. The songs here are shared between soprano Lisa Milne and baritone Roderick Williams, who capture perfectly the fragile sensitivity of the best songs' (The Guardian)» More

'F.G. who? Get Moonstruck and find out. One of the best things to come out of Scotland since whisky' (MusicWeb International)
Francis George Scott was a Borderer, born in the town of Hawick in Dumfriesshire, twenty miles north from England. He grew up in a Scots-speaking community where a blind great-uncle, a fine Scots fiddle-player, identified the young F.G. by running his fingers over the boy’s head and feeling the ‘frontal bones’—‘good musical bones!’ he called them.

Through his childhood, Scott would commonly hear his family singing the Border Ballads in their home and he attributed his sense of what poetry can do to his mother. He spent his first seventeen years in the Borders before leaving for Edinburgh University where he was taught English by George Saintsbury and enrolled as a pupil-teacher at Moray House College of Education. He had absorbed more than poetry and song from the Borders—there was also a fiercely independent spirit. He never completed his degree at Edinburgh, stubbornly refusing to apologise for having offended one of his lecturers, and although eventually he took a B.Mus. degree from Durham University in 1909, he was in many respects an utterly dedicated autodidactic student of music. His father would find him up till 3 a.m. in the early days, making his first attempts at composition. His first song was written for the local Riding of the Marches, the high-spirited annual festive riding round the territorial boundaries of Hawick.

Through the late 1890s and into the twentieth century, Scott taught English at various Scottish schools. From 1903-1912 he was in Langholm Academy, back in the Borders a dozen miles from Hawick. Here he was in charge of a class in which a pupil named Christopher Murray Grieve was to catch his attention as a young writer of clearly high potential. One day, when Grieve was sitting immobile, thinking about a writing exercise, Scott rapped him on the brow and said, ‘Don’t worry Christopher, there’s just so much in that big head of yours, it’ll all come out in time!’ It’s said that Scott also gave the boy at least one dose of corporal punishment. Recollecting this later, Grieve commented that he couldn’t remember what it was he’d done but he was sure that he’d deserved it. ‘We were all juvenile delinquents, and consequently up to pranks which today would condemn us to a remand home or borstal.’

Not long before the outbreak of the First World War, Scott fell in love with and married a fellow teacher at Dunoon Grammar School, Burges Gray, a fine mezzo-soprano, and they had four children, Francise (who was born while they were in Paris in the winter of 1914), Lilias, George and Malcolm. He volunteered for military service for World War One, but was rejected on medical grounds. Through the war years and immediately after, Scott made firm friendships with a number of writers and artists associated with the Scottish Renaissance movement of the 1920s—the artist William McCance, the poet and critic Edwin Muir and his wife the novelist Willa Muir, the poet William Soutar and the French critic and scholar Denis Saurat.

Saurat took Scott to Paris, where he was introduced to the composer Roger-Ducasse, who immediately recognised the quality of Scott’s compositions and invited him to stay and work with him and the inner circle of the Paris Conservatoire—Fauré, Debussy, Ravel. But Scott pulled back, acknowledging his own family commitments in Glasgow.

In 1925, he became a Lecturer in Music at Jordanhill, Glasgow’s Training College for Teachers, and the family moved to 44 Munro Road, a grey sandstone terrace house, which was to be their home and a central powerhouse of the Scottish Renaissance in the 1920s, what Saurat called the beginning of ‘a sort of furious spiritual awakening among some people in Scotland’ who ‘looked to Scott as their master.’

In 1922, his former pupil Christopher Grieve had started publishing poems under the name Hugh MacDiarmid. He was to become the major Scottish poet of the twentieth century, recognised as such by Yeats, Eliot and Pound. Another old Langholm teacher, William Burt, showed some of MacDiarmid’s poems to Scott and they met again in 1923. Scott recognised his former pupil and recognised in the poems exactly the sort of work that he needed for the song-settings which are the heart of his achievement. Scott continued to set MacDiarmid’s poems over the following ten years or so, through a period in which he closely studied the works of Bartók, whom he met when his fellow- Scottish composer Erik Chisholm brought Bartók to Glasgow. At the same time, beginning in 1923, he attended the series of International Contemporary Music Festivals at Salzburg and absorbed the work not only of Bartók but also of Schoenberg; meanwhile at home he was researching the music of the Scottish Borde Ballads and the classical music of the Highland bagpipe, pibroch—or Piobaireachd—whichinforms the beautifully sustained melodic poise of ‘Milk-Wort and Bog-cotton’.

Through the 1920s, the Scott family often holidayed in Montrose (MacDiarmid’s home at this time) and Scott and MacDiarmid would get together for Wagnerian conversations about poetry, music and the artistic regeneration they both saw as essential to a revitalised Scotland. The composer’s cousin, the artist William Johnstone, described them at this period. Scott, Johnstone said, ‘became greatly excited by what he saw as the possibility of a splendid revival, a Scottish Renaissance of the arts. We three were to be the core of this Renaissance. He felt that if we all pulled our weight together and tried, Christopher with his poetry, I with my painting and Francis with his music, all having a revolutionary point of view, we could raise the standard of the arts right from the gutter into something that would be really important.’ It was to be ‘a great resurgence of the arts in Scotland’.

This vision was fragmented in the 1930s. MacDiarmid, isolated personally and increasingly politically extreme, moved to the Shetland Islands and Johnstone went to work as a teacher in London. Both kept up a high output of brilliant work but they were too far apart to combine forces effectively. Moreover, the fourth member of this group of friends, Edwin Muir, asserted in 1936 that the only way forward for Scottish literature was for it to be written exclusively in English. This led to Muir’s bitter alienation from MacDiarmid and Scott himself saw Muir’s statement as a criticism of his own musical idiom—which confirms that he thought of his own compositions as occupying a distinctly Scots musical language, to match the Scots written language employed by MacDiarmid.

By now, however, MacDiarmid was writing long poems and there were fewer of the intense lyrics in Scots of the previous decade for Scott to set. They kept up their friendship though, partly through a common meeting ground in St Andrews, from where the sophisticated cultural periodical The Modern Scot was being produced, which published both of them. When, after the break-up of his first marriage, MacDiarmid suffered severe nervous and physical breakdown in 1935 and was hospitalised, Scott was there to help. And when the poet returned to live in Glasgow, Scott’s home was always open to him.

Scott remained at Jordanhill till 1946, when he retired. His duties included lecturing on theory and musical appreciation to students about to begin their careers as schoolteachers, and practising them in choral singing and training a small orchestra. He also served as an Inspector of Schools, in Central and South West Scotland. Occasional concerts after the war succeeded in getting Scott’s songs heard by a small, appreciative public but there was very little prospect of seriously establishing them in the British concert repertoire. When a number of French concert enterprises came to nothing, Scott’s hopes for a European response to his work were dimmed. An orchestral ballet score setting of William Dunbar’s poem ‘The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins’ was considered by Sadlers Wells and Leonide Massine but came to nothing. A concert overture, “Scottish Renaissance” similarly has been languishing in the archives of the Scottish Music Centre in Candleriggs, Glasgow, and deserves fresh performance, and there is also a small manuscript collection in the Scott archive in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library. And there is an unrecorded series of piano pieces, ‘Intuitions’ begun in 1943 and written into the 1950s, housed in the Scottish Music Centre. Glasgow University gave him an Honorary Doctorate in 1957, noting his characteristics: intensity, humour and exacting fastidiousness—but by then he was an ailing man. He died in 1958 and is buried in the Borders, in the Wellogate Cemetery, overlooking his native Hawick.

The biography suggests some of the composer’s essential qualities. His first twenty years were spent in the nineteenth century: he came from an older Scotland and a specific part of it. As a Borderer, Scots was a language he grew up with and knew in his bones, a language earthed in body and physicality, yet given to song and melody, as Burns and the folk tradition demonstrates so clearly—very different from the airs of the English choral tradition or the magniloquent tradition of English verse, from Chaucer through Shakespeare to Milton and Wordsworth. The poetry of Dunbar, Burns and MacDiarmid breathes differently.

Also, Scott was possessed of a Borderer’s sensibility—the sense that just over the border was the enemy, not in terms of military might but in terms of an alien sensibility: over-genteel, crippled by propriety. His songs animate a very improper sense of the eldritch and eerie, moonlit worlds of liminality and transformation. They never rest complacently—irony keeps them sharp and the humour is sometimes merciless, possessed of what the poet Norman MacCaig once called ‘the homicidal hilarity of a laugh in a ballad’. But the other side of that is a sense of tenderness, a poised sensitivity to the vulnerabilities of childhood and old age which counterpoints the vigorous expressions of force and power. There is something elemental in Scott’s compositions that remains unforgettable. If exaggerated, such qualities might deliver excessive sentimentalism but Scott’s songs never indulge themselves. There is a precisely-judged universal quality of sentiment, an adamantine strength of character, an absolute trust in selfdetermination and an exemplary confidence about what is really worthwhile in life. That’s what roots these songs not only in Scotland but in the European tradition and the best that all the arts can do, to help people to live. They are essentially popular—not in the facile sense of fashionable, but in the real sense of, ‘of the people’—they show us the things that, if we are honest, are worthwhile being honest about.

Alan Riach © 2007

“I get it,” Roddy Williams burst out, “he’s the Scottish Charles Ives!” We had just read through the first half dozen Scott songs for this CD. “Not at all,” I came back at him, “he’s Scotland’s Hugo Wolf. Or perhaps Scotland’s Gerald Finzi.” The Ives parallel had never struck me, but halfway through the next song I saw Roddy’s point. Like Ives, Scott uses his songs as a sort of chemistry lab, the crucible for wild experiments in musical language, decades ahead of his time. He loves contrast, the vernacular nestling cheek by jowl with the radical. He makes you laugh. And as with Ives, Scott’s songs show a gruff man, filled with huge, unconventional energy.

Yet those other comparisons are valid, too. Like Wolf, Scott longed to be acknowledged in larger forms, while excelling primarily in song. And like Wolf, his work falls naturally into songbooks—musically defined collections setting different poets. Like Finzi, Scott will be remembered above all for his closeness to a single poet. Where Finzi had Thomas Hardy, Scott has Hugh MacDiarmid; the vital difference is that Finzi was not Hardy’s English teacher.

The settings Scott made of MacDiarmid poems in the 1920s and early 1930s are the heart of his work, and the starting point for my personal selection of his songs. Their poetic range is extraordinary: the condensed madness in Moonstruck, the tenderness of Milkwort and Bog-cotton; self-mocking, grumpy Scottish agitprop in Lourd on my hert, heart-wrenching simplicity in Empty Vessel. It is in these MacDiarmid settings that Scott is at his most radical. Such harmonic daring, from a contemporary of Roger Quilter!

A contemporary, but by no means a compatriot. Nothing in these MacDiarmid songs, musical or verbal, links them to musical life south of Hadrian’s Wall. Scott’s points of reference are European: a nod to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in Moonstruck, a wink to Bartók in Country Life, with all its farmyard high jinks. Elsewhere, resonances of a French sound world appear. How tantalising, that Scott was offered a period of study in Paris; how sad that the hard choices of family life should have held him back.

Leaving aside the personal connections between Scott and MacDiarmid, there is something European, too, in the qualities that drew the composer to his younger friend’s work. Scott had the truffle hunter’s nose of the true song composer, that acute instinct for what he needed from a poem. The way MacDiarmid moves between the natural and the personal, between image and emotion, gives Scott space for his music. The Watergaw is clearly about more than a rainbow, the bitonal Eemis Stane about more than a snowy Borders night: in both, the natural provides a creative springboard for poet and composer, a visual element that Scott can translate into sound, a canvas for his singer’s thoughts and emotions. It is a process that goes back to Schubert and beyond, a synergy placing Scott and MacDiarmid firmly on the family tree of European song.

Together with Robert Burns, they also belong, proudly, on the family tree of the anti-clerical. Can any self-respecting member of the Church of Scotland listen in comfort to the magnificent bile that is An Apprentice Angel? How Burns would have approved! Earlier in the CD we meet that peculiarly Scottish instrument of public torture, the creepie chair, a special place in the Kirk where fornicators sat to be denounced and humiliated. It features in the Burns setting O, wha my babie-clouts will buy, one of Scott’s quieter masterpieces. No Schoenbergian harmonies here, no cascades of rippling pianism: just a single mother contemplating her fate with remarkable dignity, to a tune which seems to have been there for ever.

While Scott’s musical vocabulary for Burns is more conventional, he remains true to his poet. Never is there a whiff of sentimentality, never a glimpse of the shortbread tin. Instead the high energy feistiness of Amang the trees sits next to Ay waukin O, infinitely gentle and the earliest song in this selection. Its tune, too, manages to sound traditional, while being freshly composed.

Elsewhere Burns’s battle of the sexes rages on with much twinkling of the eye, whether in the raunchy Discreet Hint or the rampantly, jubilantly, politically incorrect My wife’s a wanton wee thing.

It is when Scott turns the poetical clock back beyond Burns that parallels arise with English song. Peter Warlock would have felt at home with the texture of Je descendis dans mon jardin; while Scott’s neo-baroque style finds its highest expression in the counterpoint underpinning Mark Alexander Boyd’s ravishing sonnet Cupid and Venus. Other songs on the disc show great simplicity. The Old Fisherman uses a scant handful of chords to wonderful effect. The harmony of Florine would not have caused Mendelssohn to raise an eyebrow; yet it manages to be both touching and original, its little piano interlude continuing the singer’s thought.

And originality is what we are left with, as the sum of all these parts. The talents of this man “blazing with spiritual energy,” as MacDiarmid put it, are surely much too strong to be overlooked any longer. At a time when Scotland is drawing new strength from its place within Europe, when it is looking again at its national identity, let us celebrate this most European of Scottish composers.

Translations of Hugh MacDiarmid Poems
Scots is a different language from English. They both have common roots but each developed through different histories, localities, literary traditions and political contexts. Most of F.G.Scott’s settings of poems in Scots are approachable with a glossary but sometimes the density of the language makes the idiom and atmosphere difficult to comprehend for an English-language reader, in which case the song is perhaps best approached as if the poem were in German or French, with the sense that it inhabits an entirely different atmosphere. Translations of some of the poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, by Alan Riach, University of Glasgow, are supplied with the texts.

ahint = behind, beyond
alane = alone
amplefeyst = a fit of the sulks; spleen
antrin = rare
a’thing = everything
auld = old
ayont = beyond

bairn, bairnie = child
banes = bones
ben = inside, within
bide = endure, remain, stay, wait
bien = complacent, smug
birlin = whirring
bizzin = buzzing
blate = timid, shy, frightened
blaws = blows
bleezin’ = blazing
blint = blinded
boarden = table
boddom = bottom
braw = fine, excellent
bricht = bright
bumclocks = humming flying beetlev ‘bune (abune) = above

ca’ = call, name
cairney = stone-heap to mark a place
caller = fresh, cool
cannily = cautiously, prudently
cauld = cold
cay = jackdaw
chitterin’ = shivering, quivering, flickering
choppin = small piece
cornskreich = landrail (bird), corncake
coup’d = tumbled over, drunk off
couped = tilted
couth = affectionately, comfortably
cowl = old woman in nightcap
cray = hutch, coop, pen
croodit = corwded
croud = croak, groan, coo (as a dove)
cushie’s = pigeon’s. dove’s
cwa’ = come away

deed = died
deid-auld = dead old, decrepit
deil = devil
dern = wither, hide
dochter = daughter
dooks = ducks
dour = stern, grim, hard
dree = endure
dyke = stone wall

eemis = unsteady, loose
een = eyes
eerie = sad, gloomy
enough = enough

fail = a turf or sward
fain = eagerly
feck = plenty, great deal
Fegs = Faith ! (as an oath)
flee = fly, flea
fley’d = afraid, frightened
flicht = flight
fochin = turning (scones on a griddle)
forenicht = early evening, dusk
fowr = four
fug = moss

gae yer gate = be on your way
gane = gone
gang = go
gangrel = vagrant, tramp
gar’d = made
garth = garden (term in courtly love)
gif = if
gin = if
golochs = earwig(s)
gowd, gowden = gold, golden
grat, greetin = cried, crying, weeping
grumph = grunt
gude = good
guissay = pig

hairst = harvest
ham’ = home
hanla-while = a moment
hause-bane = neck-bone
hazelraw = lichen
hert = hart (male deer); heart
heugh = hollow, valley, glen, cleft in rocks
hicht = height; raise, lift
houp = mouthful; drink in mouthfuls
how-dumb-deid = dead silent depth
howked = dug out, pulled out

ilka = each, every
ingenrit = engendered

keen (it) = look, peep, pry
ken = know, recognise

laich = light, low, soft
lave = remainder
laverock = lark
leelang = livelong, whole
leuch = laugh
licht = light
lift = sky
loupin’ = jumping, leaping

lourd = heavy
luely = softly
lowe = flame, glow

maik = partner, mate; make, shape
maist = most
mane = moan
maun = must
Mavsey = Malmsey wine
mony = many
mou = mouth
muckle (meikle) = great, large
mune = moon

nane = none
neist = next
nicht = night
niggartness = meaness
nocht = nothing
noo = now

on-ding = downpour
ourblawin = overblowing
ourhailit = overcome

peerie = spinning top; little
peerie-weerie = the faintest sound; anything very small
preif = proof

quhither = moonbeam

reek = smoke
reid = red
reuch heuch hauch = rough, low-lying ground by a river; an area of country near Hawick
risp = coarse grass; bulrushes
ruffum = (exclamation) or footstamping
rankled = wrinkled, crumpled

sabbin = sobbing
saip = soap
sall = shall
sark = shirt
sauch = willow
sauls = souls
sawis = sows
sawt = salt
scroggam = (name; scroggy-stunted) scraggy
shift = move, escape
sic = such
sickin = sighing
simmer = summer
smool’d = stole (crept)
snod = neat, trim
soon’ = sound
spreit = spirit, soul
stane = stone
ster(n) = star
stoup = vessel, measure
stoure = strife, storm, difficulty
straucht = straight
sturt = vexation, trouble, strife
syne = since

t’ane = the one
techit = taught
teuch = tough
thaim = them
theek = thatch
thocht = thought
thole = suffer, tolerate, endure
thonder = yonder
thunner = thunder
t’ither = tousled
tousie = tousled
trouse = trousers
tutemout = whispering, lisping, muttering
twa, tway = two

wad = would
warl’, warld’s = world(s)
wat = know, inform
watergaw = indistinct rainbow
waukin = waking, awake
waukrife = wakeful
weel = well
weet = wet
wha = who
whar = where
whase = whose
wheesht = hush
whirligig = any rapidly revolving object, eddy, whirlpool
whuds = rushes past, whisks past
wi’r; wi’t = with her, with our; with it
wonn’d = lived
wund = wind

yane = one
yestreen = last night
yirdit = buried
yok’d = harnessed, oppressed, burdened
yon = that, those
yowdendrift = heavy drifting snow, blizzard
yow-trummle (ewe tremble) = cold weather after sheep-shearing

Ian Burnside © 2007

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