The Scots Musical Museum and basses

This morning I was in Special Collections at Glasgow’s university library with Dr Vivien Williams, who’s working with Prof. Murray Pittock on what is becoming a monumental edition of the Scots Musical Museum, the six-volume songbook which occupied Robert Burns for much of the last decade of his life.

It’s always surprised me that such an important publication has never been critically edited or explored thoroughly before, as the sources for its music as well as its texts seem to be many and various. But it was quite a surprise to me this morning to have Vivien show me her huge list of the alterations that were made in the basslines for the 1803 version of the first few books, and to see the two collections side by side.

Some of the self-consciously ‘clever’ quirks of the later, familiar version are late additions, but there is no clear consistency of style in the changes made, some of which seem quite arbitrary. Nonetheless, trying to see into the mind of someone making corrections or improvements to a musical text is a lot of fun. The changes here are nothing like the wholesale rewriting of Gow and Marshall’s books that took place; they’re perhaps more like Urbani’s more subtly ‘corrected’ versions of Abraham Johnson, Joshua Campbell and Abraham Mackintosh.

If I had nothing else to do I would set off on some detective work, analysing the changes and looking for stylistic traits that might identify the corrector(s) or improver(s), but we already have plenty to do here as it is! In the meantime I’ll settle for delighting that the really crass-sounding D sharps in the bassline for The Birks of Aberfeldy aren’t in the original version. I won’t be playing those again then.

John Clark’s ‘one size fits all’ bassline

Karen and I have started working our way through the huge collection of old fiddle books in Glasgow University Library, and one of our earliest finds was John Clark’s Collection of New Strathspey Reels, published in 1795 by Anderson’s music shop in Perth. Clark’s family members, plenty of local people, and even the music shop itself have tunes dedicated to them, and there is a strict copyright warning on the titlepage: ‘NB. Such copies as are not signed & numbered by the Composers own hand write, are a Forgery & will be strictly Looked after.’

But what struck me was the number of reels that had almost identical, or completely identical basslines in the first strain: here are some examples (there are plenty more). click on the images to see them more clearly


The first two bars have 6 beats of the tonic I followed by 2 beats of the note a step above (or sometimes below) O, and the other two bars are a walking bass followed by a V-I perfect cadence. The third example shows some slight variation in bar 3, but only just.

In these and other examples the 6+2 of the first two bars remains even when it’s very clear that the harmonic structure outlined by the tune is 4+4 beats: the bass line isn’t under any obligation to follow the tune slavishly. Perhaps you know a session player who always starts off with the same chord patterns under every reel? This is clearly a practice with a heritage!