Commemorative Cover

Robert Burns
The Song Writer

Burns the Song Writer.
This article is based on an interview with Dr Fred Freeman who is working with Linn Records as the arranger and director in producing the Complete Songs of Robert Burns. A mammoth task, but one which is welcomed and appreciated.

At present we know of 368 songs which Burns has written although more are coming to light daily. This article has a twofold purpose. Firstly to give a better understanding of the man and his music. Secondly, to heighten the enjoyment of listening to them when played and sung.

Semi-classical arrangements of the songs have been around for ages. Indeed, composers such as Beethoven and Haydn have made use of Burns airs. In Johnson's Musical Museum most arrangements are for voice and piano but these arrangements are not as Burns intended. His arrangements were based much more on folk music, in a style which is closer to the way they would have been sung in Burns time.

But what of the tunes? Did Burns himself, a passable fiddler who could read music, write some of these? Essentially the words of the songs are all by Burns, although some of them are his versions of traditional words. The tunes are much more varied in their origins. Some of them were written by Burns, and some he picked up. But there's also the question of different melodies to some of the same songs. For instance, the melody to Auld Lang Syne which Burns actually wrote is infinitely better than the one we normally hear. I refute the claim that William Shield, an English composer, had written the tune we normally associate with the song.

Bremner had already published it, and Shield picked it up in the 1780s or thereabouts.

But what exactly is a Burns song as opposed to a Burns poem? The poems he wrote as poems, and the songs he wrote as songs, and as nothing else. There are certainly poems that can be set to music, but he wrote his songs as songs, and for the most part published them as such in Johnson's Musical Museum or Thomson's Scottish Collection.

Burns was first and foremost a songwriter. He thought of himself as such, and he thought songwriting was high art, even though it wasn't valued in late 18th-century Scotland.

It still isn't, Burns, it seems, was sickened by attitudes in the 18th century, when gentility was all. He didn't generally approve of drawing-room settings of his songs. Nor would he have approved of the 19th-century trend (which is still around today, especially at Burns suppers) of having a trained bel canto tenor voice giving his songs an alien vibrato.

He conceived of a song as speech, he says as much in his letters. He liked enunciation of syllables and he liked simplicity. There's the occasional song that fits the drawing room to a degree, like A Rosebud By My Early Walk, but not in the sense we mean today.

Burns is thought of as a collector of old Scottish melodies and airs, to which he set his own words or adapted old ones. But there is more to Burns. He was a composer and arranger of consummate skill. He could take a jaunty tune and turn it into a smooth air. He could detect the basic essence of a melody, and by doing so stand it on its head. And he could, most importantly, re-create tunes from fragments and motifs.

Burns was a musician, he was a composer, and he called himself a composer in his letters.

So how badly has Scotland treated the songs of Burns over the years?

His songs have been lying in a heap, basically, for two centuries. So he's been written off. He is better known as a poet. You had the music-hall settings, which put a lot of people off Burns because they were inappropriate. And you can't do mouth music if you're putting a schmaltzy vibrato to it. A tune like Brose And Butter is mouth music basically. You can't do justice to it on the concert stage.

Most people now know that Burns was no heaven-taught ploughman poet. He was an educated man who was considerably better informed about the literature and music of his day than most of the gentry who patronised him in Edinburgh. He spoke excellent French, and knew the work of contemporary European composers such as Mozart and Haydn.

In fact, Burns argued with Thomson about what Pleyell, a composer who was a protege of Haydn, was trying to do with his music. At the time Burns was being lionised in Edinburgh, Pleyell was being lionised in London, and Burns took him on.

If Pleyell changes one iota of the native features of these Scottish airs, I'll have done with him. Burns told Thomson, as he was well aware of the classical manner in which composers like Pleyell and Haydn were writing at the time.

Burns is Scotland's, and arguably the world's greatest songwriter. Many European musicians and scholars agree on this point.

What musical instruments were being played in Burns time?

Fiddles were certainly around, but what about that other staple of folk music, the guitar?

The Spanish guitar came to Scotland in the 16th century. When we use the term 'guitar' today, we tend to think of it as that instrument. But the English guitar isn't like the Spanish one. It's more like a cittern, and that's what was used in traditional Scottish music making. It is still played today and Burns said he liked the guitar.

A Burns song is a puzzle, you've got to retrace his steps and find out what the puzzle is. You look at the song, and you see that it has very serious neo-classical words. You then look at the melody, and see that it's very stilted.

You look at it again, and you see that it's an exaggerated neo-classical spoof. So you've worked out the puzzle.

With another song the tune is best played as a jig, as in Contented Wi Little And Cantie Wi Mair. The song is about rhythm and form. The puzzle has been solved once more.

Burns was a perfectionist. He once said that art is a matter of labour, attention and pains.

Let the songs speak for themselves.

Dr Fred Freeman is available for concert bookings, lectures and also for CD sales. Send an e-mail to me and I will pass on the contact address.
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Scotland’s leading independent record label Linn Records is pleased to present the only fully comprehensive recordings of all 368 songs by Robert Burns, in a 12 volume box set. Featuring musicians from Battlefield Band, The Corries, Deaf Shepherd, Malinky, Old Blind Dogs among others, the series contains 368 songs including Sweet Afton, Ay Waukin O, Scots, Wha Hae, My Heart’s in the Highlands, and Ae Fond Kiss.

Robert Burns, writer of the timeless verses of Auld Lang Syne and My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose, is acknowledged as Scotland’s most celebrated writer and takes his place amongst the world’s great writers. Linn Records’ Complete Songs of Robert Burns collection will be the only recording of every song written by Burns and as such will be the definitive recorded edition of his work.

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Burns Importance to Scotland and to Scots the World Over

Burns and 18th Century Oppression

Burns and the Scottish Dialect

Burns the Patriot Bard

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