‘The tang of the real Scottish snap’

I have tracked down my prey!  Perhaps I should explain my sense of triumph. When David, Barnaby and I were discussing terminology the other day, we talked about “taste” and “tasto”, but I mentioned that I had also encountered ‘tang’ as a way of describing the Scottish fiddling style. I knew I’d read about it in a piece of writing from the early 20th century. I knew it was written in connection with Scottish fiddlers, in the plural, rather than about one single fiddler. But could I remember where I’d read it? Apart from the fact that I’d found it by Googling for something else!

I have spent several hours since then, trying to find it again. My web history wasn’t helpful. Neither was my recollection of my researches into an Irish poet who was fascinated with Scottish poetry, particularly by Robert Burns.

Finally, finally, I have found it! William Honeyman’s ‘Strathspey Players’ was written in 1922. Yes, it referred to an authentic ‘tang’.  We certainly do need to be aware of this article, as a historical piece of writing if nothing else.  You can read it here.

But the word – I can now say authoritatively – is not solely applied to strathspey playing! Scottish whisky is often said to have a salty tang. There’s also a seaweed called Tang – it comes in yellow and blue! An interesting word, then, but perhaps not particularly useful to us!  And now I can stop banging my head against a brick wall …

Joshua Campbell and strathspeys

Karen and I are now nearing the end of our odyssey to investigate as many printed sources of Scottish fiddle music from about 1750-1840 as we can. On the way back from Aberdeen yesterday we realised that we only have two library visits left to make, and then we will have seen pretty much everything relevant that’s in Charles Gore’s Scottish Music Index.

Down in the basement of Aberdeen’s iconic Sir Duncan Rice library we were looking at two of Joshua Campbell’s books, both from Glasgow around 1788. One is a substantial, handsome volume A Collection of New Reels & Highland Strathspeys, which contains mostly strathspeys of great character, some with variations. The other, A Collection of the Newest & best Reels and Minuets, is a cheaper pocket book of tunes collected from other sources. It’s very curious that strathspeys were given the big authoritative expensive treatment, while reels and minuets were relegated to a cheaper, more rough-and-ready publication. Did strathspeys have more cultural cachet? Or was the smaller book a reaction to the commercial failure of the bigger one?

Either way, the books contain an object lesson in early strathspey style, as the tune ‘The New Town of Edinburgh’ appears in both. In the wee book it’s a reel, almost exactly as it had appeared in Bremner’s similarly small A Collection of Scots Reels book decades earlier.  But in the big book, it’s a strathspey, and not only has it the characteristic dotted and back-dotted rhythms, but the tune is decorated liberally with semiquaver runs. Bremner has to point out in his Scots Reels (c.1757) that ‘The Strathspey Reels are play’d much slower than the others’ (p38) and his example ‘The Fir Tree’ has a similar combination of dotted rhythms and semiquaver passages. So playing a reel as a ‘Strathspey reel’ could involve more than just changing the rhythm and the bowing: there was an opportunity to fit in more notes as well.

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.