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Celebration of Scottish song

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 6, No. 5  3 May - 13 June 2010 ]

Faculty of the VCA and Music - School of Music (Parkville) voice teacher and singer Vivien Hamilton arrived in Australia as an immigrant with her family in 1977, but in her heart holds a special place for her native land of Scotland. Katherine Smith reports.

That connection to place has culminated in a CD with pianist Len Vorster, launched last year to coincide with Scotland’s 2009 Year of Homecoming. The recording, Burns and Beyond, released by Move Records features 26 songs based on the poetry and melodies of one of Scotland’s most cherished sons and one of the world’s great collectors of folk material, Robert Burns.

“The Ayrshire ‘ploughboy poet’ Robert Burns,” as Ms Hamilton describes him, alarmed by the degradation of Scots culture due to English influence in the late 1780s, visited the Scottish Highlands to collect and write down hitherto unprinted highland and Gaelic airs.

Enlisting the aid of organist Stephen Clarke, he used these old Scottish tunes, and others found in older published music collections, and went about marrying old fragments of texts to ancient Scottish music.

“In the process, Burns also contributed new poetry to traditional violin and bagpipe tunes,” Ms Dickson explains. “In total there are 600 songs published in his pocketbook song companion The Scots Musical Museum, and I dare anyone to sing some of them. The bagpipe melodies are hard, the violin reels and jigs impossible! His work in The Scots Musical Museum is the repository of most songs recognisable today as popular Scottish song.”

The songs included on Burns and Beyond represent the response to that storehouse of folk music from the Scottish Highlands, as interpreted by musical luminaries such as Benjamin Britten, Percy Grainger, Maurice Ravel and Roger Quilter, as well as some less well-known composers and arrangers.

Among the songs are ‘Ye Banks and Braes’, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, and ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’, as well as songs in French and German, with the original 18th century songs celebrating the landscape, the force of nature, as well as the spirit of the Scots, who Ms Hamilton describes as “harsh but sentimental”. The response of those musicians who came after Burns and were inspired by his passion are a striking collection of cross-over folk to art songs.

Ms Hamilton says that when advising her students about selecting a project, she recommends they choose songs with which they feel a connection to the music and words, a philosophy well illustrated through the singer’s clear affection for the cadence and tone of Burns’ words.

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