Mackintosh on Record

The release this week of a new album by Concerto Caledonia featuring the music of eighteenth-century fiddler-composer, Robert Mackintosh (c. 1745-1807), represents something of a milestone in the reception of ‘Golden Age’ Scottish fiddle music. Robert Mackintosh: Airs, Minuets, Gavotts and Reels consists of tunes from Mackintosh’s first collection of 1783. While he went on to publish three further collections of tunes it is the first that strikes our modern sensibilities as more than slightly incongruous and anachronistic, featuring as it does a schizophrenic mix of art music solos, minuets, and gavottes with folk-inspired reels and jigs. But, as David McGuinness eloquently explains in the liner notes, Mackintosh was composing at a time when the division between art music and folk music was much less pronounced, with his first collection of tunes representing his ‘desire both to understand the musical world around him as fully as possible, and to forge himself a career within it.’ In this way, his music is well-suited to the ConCal treatment of early/traditional fusion.

The historical performance of ‘Golden Age’ Scottish fiddle music continues to attract interest, whether through the reintroduction of the ‘cello as accompanying instrument (Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas) or by engaging with old archive recordings (Catriona MacDonald), but it is Concerto Caledonia who are at the forefront of efforts to gain an insight into how this music might have sounded at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. But perhaps more significant than what was heard are the thoughts and ideas an historical audience had about the music – how they heard it, if you will – and that is something which is even harder to know. However, the figure of Robert Mackintosh, and his ‘conflicted’ first collection, potentially reveals a perspective on the how by juxtaposing the ‘classical’ and the ‘folk’ without further explanation.

It is fruitful to compare Concerto Caledonia’s new album with one from 2004, being fiddler, Pete Clark’s, homage to Mackintosh, Mackintosh at Murthly: The Music of Robert Mackintosh. Pete has famously broadcast and recorded on the fiddle believed to have once belonged to Mackintosh’s near contemporary, Niel Gow, and the album cover further demonstrates his commitment to historical performance by depicting a fiddle and ‘cello in the surroundings of a stately room at Murthly Castle. But his approach is categorically different to that of ConCal: whereas he is a fiddler who incorporates elements of early music into his performances, David Greenberg (the lead fiddle on the ConCal album) is principally a baroque violinist who incorporates elements of tradition fiddle music into his performances. While each approach achieves convincing interpretations and coherent performances, the results are quite divergent.

Tunes by Mackintosh have been included in collections of Scottish dance music since at least 1884 (The Athole Collection) and John Glen provides a brief biography in his collection of 1891. As such, his music has been in the repertoire of fiddlers possibly continuously since its composition. The trinity of Hector MacAndrew, Douglas Lawrence, and Paul Anderson have advocated Mackintosh tunes in their distinctive North-East style, and this tradition has been continued by Paul’s student and Glenfiddlich award-winning fiddler, Nicola Auchnie, on her debut album, Bennachie. In this tradition of performance, which was strongly influenced by the musical aesthetic of James Scott Skinner, fiddle and piano are the dominant forces. The over-dotting of dotted rhythms and the battery of bowing techniques mark their interpretations apart from other schools.

Since 2002, Mackintosh’s music (in notation) has been easily accessible through The Mackintosh Collections, an edition published by Highland Music Trust which includes the contents of all four collections. The Trust’s dedication to Scotland’s heritage of fiddle music is to be applauded: alongside Taigh na Tued and the Hardie Press, it has guaranteed the preservation of the Scottih fiddle music repertoire for generations to come. But more than this, it has allowed present-day fiddlers access to the equivalent of urtext editions of the music, which has been meticulously transcribed by Helen Allan to include all slurs and articulation marks. While many performers may ignore what seem inappropriate markings, those who spend time engaging with them will be well rewarded with a glimpse into the past.

Ronnie Gibson (8th March 2013)

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