Italian Style

In the late 18th and early 19th, paratext in Scottish song and dance collections quite often object to “Italian” influences in music.  There’s the perception that “Italian” is synonymous with fussy, arty, classical music and not quite what the compilers expected in a Scottish music anthology. Things were different in earlier days.  Here’s Francis Barsanti (Francesco) circa 1742, in A Collection of Old Scots Tunes, With the Bass for Violoncello or harpsichord. Set and most humbly Dedicated to the Right Honourable The Lady Erskine.  (Sadly, his successors would probably have dismissed it as just another Italianate, Baroque collection!)


Having discovered, in several ancient Scots tunes, an elegance and variety of harmony equal to the compositions of the most celebrated masters of those times; at the desire of several gentlemen of taste, I applied myself to do justice to those ancient compositions, by a proper and natural bass to each tune, with the strictest regard to the tune itself, and without any alteration of the tune to accommodate it to the bass.  As I flatter myself that this attempt to revive the taste of our ancestors will not be disagreeable, I have submitted the same to the judgment of the Publick, that in case this should have the good fortune to please, I may be encouraged to further attempts of the same kind.

See the music

de-Italianising basslines in Ayr, 1782

Ayr’s John Riddle (or Riddell) published his Collection of Scots Reels or Country Dances and Minuets in the mid 1760s, and it’s a great collection of tunes. There are a few copies surviving of the second edition from 1782 (which is described as ‘Greatly Improved’) but the unique copy of the first edition is in the National Library of Scotland, where Karen and I have been hiding out for two days a week recently.

The Library bought its copy for the princely sum of £10 (less discount) from Davidson Cook in 1937, because it is ‘the earliest collection of Scots Dance Music bearing the name of the composer on its title-page’, according to a note left inside. There’s an index from D.C. (presumably Cook) in the University of Glasgow copy of the 2nd edition, detailing the differences between the two books, but in the NLS today, we were able to put the two versions side by side and look for ourselves.

And what did we find? Well, where the same tune exists in both books, it’s pretty much identical, complete with slurs and ornaments, but there is some very subtle rewriting of the basslines here and there. Where a tune moves simply from one tonal centre to another, sometimes Riddle has found a grammatical but slightly awkward bassline which forms a plausible harmonic progression following the ‘classical’ rules. Francesco Barsanti and William McGibbon were  very good at this with Scots Tunes in the 1740s.

But in the 80s Riddell, with his re-spelt name, has looked back and realised that such a style may work for Scots Tunes (or airs), but it doesn’t make sense for Reels and Strathspeys, which need something more direct, rhythmic and uncluttered. So he’s simplified the basslines, breaking the ‘scientific’ harmonic rules as he goes, to uncover a simpler style that better represents the harmonic structure expressed by the tunes. It’s not a big change, but it shows a certain confidence in the inherent quality of the music that perhaps he lacked as a younger man. It doesn’t have to be dressed up with the rules of counterpoint to be presentable.