Continuity in the Transmission of Scottish Fiddle Music; or, The ‘Strange Consequences’ of a Broken Musical Tradition

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(Dis)Continuity: A central component of my current research project is the investigation of claims about continuity in the performance of Scottish fiddle music. Almost every writer on the topic makes reference to it, with Mary Anne Alburger, for instance, stating from the outset of Scottish Fiddlers and their Music that ‘the music of the fiddle has been played in Scotland for more than half a millennium’. Similarly, Katherine Campbell, in The Fiddle in Scottish Culture, confidently asserts that ‘the fiddle tradition in Scotland has been a continuous one’, albeit in contrast to discontinuous, or revived, traditions such as that of the clarsach. Both authors are, of course, quite correct in their assertions, but problems emerge when continuity is equated with tradition to mean unchanging or static, the implication being that the performance of fiddle music today is no different to that of the distant past. In this vein, David Johnson’s untenable claim, in Scottish Fiddle Music in the Eighteenth Century, that all the elements of ‘the violin’s defunct 18th-century art-music technique […] are still very much alive in present-day Scots-fiddle playing, where they have been handed down unchanged for the last 200 years’ is symptomatic of a view that remains pervasive throughout fiddle scholarship. Changes in instrument construction, musical tastes and fashions, the functions and contexts of performance, and attitudes towards the repertoire separate us irreconcilably from earlier practitioners, yet the appeal of an ideology of tradition still holds strong.

Aspects of Tradition: The complexities of musical transmission are such that performance practices and styles are impossible to pin down, and while students may imitate their teachers or musical idols, the autonomy of individuals’ creativity is difficult to mute. Nonetheless, it can often be feasible to transmit near-faithfully aspects of the tradition, such as a bow stroke, ornament, or a particular interpretation of a tune or performance aesthetic, while allowing for broader changes or differences.

Links with the Past: Musical lineage and continuous transmission are often cited as links with the past in the present-day performance of Scottish fiddle music, in addition, of course, to the heritage of tunes from old collections and archive sound recordings. Most famously, Hector MacAndrew’s connection to Niel Gow through a series of intermediary teachers was upheld for the cultural significance this imbued on his performances. The identification of Gow is important, as no other fiddle player would attract such prestige, his unique place in the history of the music framing his position as the father of the tradition. Thus, the connection is portrayed as being between Gow (1727-1807) and MacAndrew (1903-1980), with the ‘intermediaries’ given short shrift and the nineteenth century conveniently maligned in the narrative.

The Nineteenth Century: Given scholars’ focus on continuity in studies of Scottish fiddle music, it might be expected that a wealth of research should be forthcoming on every part of the music’s history from its origins to the present, as researchers accordingly trace the many continuous lines of transmission. However, the majority of research is focused on the eighteenth century, the so-called golden age of Scottish fiddle music. Crucially, at the same time as scholars celebrate continuity between the past (typically the eighteenth century) and the present, they depict the nineteenth century as a time of dearth:

When [Nathaniel] Gow died in 1831 and Marshall in 1833, Scots fiddling was left without a figurehead for more than a generation; no other really outstanding player came to the fore until Scott Skinner reached maturity in the 1860s. A line of nationally-renowned fiddlers which went back to William McGibbon had been broken; with strange consequences.

I’ve written before about the supposed waning of Scottish fiddle music in the nineteenth century, with David Johnson’s view of fiddle music at this time as in decline or at least abeyance shared by many writers on the topic. Significantly, the emphasis is most often placed on a fall in the number of compositions, with Mary Anne Alburger’s claim that ‘there was little creativity left’ echoing the sentiments of James Hunter, who thought that ‘by 1820 the great fiddle era was past’. There were still many performers of fiddle music, but far fewer new collections were being published. However, as I’ve argued elsewhere, events in the history of Scottish fiddle music in the nineteenth century had a formative influence on later practitioners, including the ‘invention’ of a Scottish fiddle tradition and the advent of regular fiddle competitions.

Conclusion: The curious dichotomy between continuity and breaks in the history of Scottish fiddle music emerges from the lionisation of the ‘golden age’ and subsequent depreciation of later events, with changes in the mechanisms of patronage and the introduction of continental dance forms to the repertoires of Scottish fiddle players thought to contaminate the indigenous tradition. It’s my mission to rehabilitate the history of Scottish fiddle music in the nineteenth century by tracing the many lines of influence that, while admittedly linking the eighteenth century with the present, do so only through the media of nineteenth century innovations.

Ronnie Gibson (9 April 2015)

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One thought on “Continuity in the Transmission of Scottish Fiddle Music; or, The ‘Strange Consequences’ of a Broken Musical Tradition

  1. Stuart says:

    I would take issue with your suggestion that in the nineteenth century “There were still many performers of fiddle music, but far fewer new collections were being published.” I would suggest that violin playing only became a truly popular activity, for the first time (some say a cult), in the second half of the century through:

    Enhanced and more structured leisure time;
    Enhanced disposable income;
    The promotion of music as a means of self-improvement and ‘rational recreation;
    Availability of reasonably priced instruments, mainly imported from abroad;
    Growing access to teachers and learning through certified teachers and musical institutions;
    A new acceptability of string playing among women;
    New ways of communal music making (orchestras, bands, reel and strathspey societies…);
    The publication of tutors and self-learning books; and
    Increased musical literacy.

    I suggest the key period for this was from 1875 onwards.

    The foregoing also embraced the publication of Inexpensive (sometimes very inexpensive) music publication;

    While this was true across the whole of the developing world, in Scotland the musicians included in the popular and classical music repertory a very large proportion of Scottish dance and song airs, including new Scottish music generated at the time. In this way contemporary (19th century) ‘classical’ technique and technical standards and expectations became inextricably linked into the performance of traditional music. In embracing a large element of Scottish repertory the music was articulated with contemporary strings ‘best practice’. The attitudes struck in the late nineteenth century dictated what was heard and played in the early 20th by which time untutored ‘traditional’ playing was highly marginalised and residual. The influence of formal musical education and the BBC from the 1920s (as well as new champions such as Milne and Skinner) built on that foundation to develop the modern aesthetic of the Scottish Violin.

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