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Scotland in music

Review by Edward Scott Pearlman

A living tradition such as Scottish music requires both an engaged community to support it and a knowledge of the past to nourish it. Listeners and dancers make good use of the songs and tunes, while musicians learn from each other and bring fresh ideas to old music. There is joy in the present, and great respect for what has gone before.

Scottish music is a remarkably literate tradition. We often hear performers announce the names and even composers of the tunes they play. They certainly learn a great deal from other musicians, but they also often consult books, both new and old, to learn more good tunes or to gain a better appreciation of ones they already know.

Tune books of Scottish music date back to the 18th century, when traditional musicians and their publications were supported by aristocrats. At the same time that Mozart was hired by an Austrian prince to compose classical music, Niel Gow was employed by the Duke of Atholl to play and compose strathspeys and reels, as was fiddler and composer William Marshall for the Duke of Gordon.

Between 1780 and 1810, Niel and Nathaniel Gow published about 20 collections of traditional tunes, dedicated to no fewer than ten different aristocrats -- dukes, duchesses, earls, marchionesses, countesses.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2015 issue of Scottish Life.

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