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Eight Songs of Francis George SCOTT

Transcribed for Piano by Ronald STEVENSON

Goodmusic under the Roberton imprint (9548)

1. Since all thy vows, false maid (anon)

2. Wha is that at my bower door (Burns)

3. O were my love yon lilac fair (Burns)

4. Wee Willie Gray (Burns)

5. Milkwort and Bog-Cotton (MacDiarmid)

6. Crowdieknowe (MacDiarmid)

7. Ay waukin’ O (Burns)

8. There’s News, Lasses, News (Burns)

The Transcendental Tradition

"…..That’s what transcription is, or rather should be – the transcendental tradition – an art based on tradition but going beyond it; an art both old and new at the same time" (Ronald Stevenson 21.4.76 programme note. – the title suggested by Peter Pears.)

"…..notation is itself the transcription of an abstract idea….." (Busoni (trans Ley) ‘The Essence of Music", Rockliffe 1957 p 87)

The art of transcription is all too often misunderstood as being synonymous with ‘arrangement’ – that is, the reproduction of the music of one medium in terms of another. The purpose of ‘transcription’ may be simply the making available in an accessible medium of music whose realisation requires expensive forces (1), or as a means to convey the arranger/transcriber’s enthusiasm for the music concerned, and his insight into the spirit of the music. In the latter case this generally entails an element of re-creation, resulting in what amounts to a new work. Busoni points out, rather obviously, that transcription, while it involves alteration to the original yet does not destroy the original, which remains physically as before. Yet on the other hand ‘arrangement’, however faithfully the notes are duplicated, must really be ‘transcription’ since to the original are inevitably added altered values of timbre, and tone colour, resulting in a new sound. The art of transcription is neither new, nor is it, as is often suggested "a form of 19th century aberration or sacrilege practised by one composer on the music of another"(2). Neither is it ‘variation’ form, though related, as that involves a number of often unrelated realisations of the ‘theme’ which do not seek to recreate the ‘theme’ but may fragment it, comment on the essence of the ‘theme, or introduce architectonic devices such as retrograde and inversion.

What then is ‘transcription’? It is demonstrably a form – sans rules or dogma – of creative expression in which the creator – or re-creator – essays, like the virtuoso, to present his vision of a particular music. It is in fact perhaps more pertinent to re-create than to express one’s idea, as the critic or commentator, in print. How this is dealt with in the hands of a master of the art, such as Ronald Stevenson can be seen in these eight transcriptions of songs by the Scottish composer, Francis George Scott (1880 – 1958)(3).

Stevenson has made many transcriptions, amongst them music of Bach, Bull, Berg, Ysaye, Chopin, Purcell – as well as several volumes of ‘L’art du chant appliqué au piano’ in Thalbergian garb favourites such as ‘We’ll gather Lilacs’, ‘Eleanore’, and ‘Go not happy day’. All of these are born of his enthusiasm for melody and the piano, his schoolmasterly delight in sharing and desire to impart, not only the melody, but the spirit of the original and his insight – a kind of nostalgia in which an aristocratic sensibility colours the music. He is a born communicator and equipped with a formidable technique. He was able to use this keyboard virtuosity to portray the originals in an entirely personal way.

These eight songs, rich in melodic character and humour, fine works in their own right, are varied in transcription – some faithful to the letter of the original – some extravagant exercises in extrovert virtuosity which has no element of Lisztian bravura. The poems, drawn only from Burns and MacDiarmid are vivid with their depictions of love, of false love, philandering, the Last Trump yet, dispensing with the words Stevenson contrives successfully to imbue each transcription with the character of the original verse as well as the spirit of the original composer.

The score, which demands the use of the third pedal, is scrupulously edited for pedalling and for fingering; in Stevenson’s hands part of the creative process. At various points almost Graingeresque directions bring out the character of the music as F.G. Scott conceived it – such as papagenesco, paganinesco, nello stile Paderewskiana, as well as comments ‘like pelting hail’ (as ‘assalire a colpi di grandine’!) helter-skelter, like a signal, and ‘swippert’ (which he feels obliged to explain as ‘hasty, nimble, tart’) and ‘wi’ muckle smeddum’ which Scott would have relished, and needs no translation!

He gives the opening bars of ‘Since all thy vows’ to the left hand, bringing out the reproach of the jilted lover, voiced at ‘When I’m a ghost I’ll visit thee’ in sepulchral arpeggio. The last few bars he scores in the manner of Schumann’s Romanza II (Sauer) ‘with Wordsworthian plain elegance’, an illumination born of his love of that composer His talent for musical illustration invests the pert dialogue of ‘Wha is that at my bower door’ with brilliant humour – the importunate Findlay and his teasing would-be lover. ‘O were my love yon lilac fair’ (4) is a fragrant aquatint albeit with sombre colouring. In contrast ‘Wee Willie Gray’ twinkles with impertinent, elfin glee with all the agility of a leprechaun. One of MacDiarmid’s finest lyrics ‘Cwa e’en like bogwort and milk-cotton hair’ is set with extreme simplicity, the intensity of MacDiarmid’s vision, a twilight vision of earth’s beauty, given full expression Together with ‘Ay waukin O’ these are moving musical expressions, not beyond the capabilities of a competent amateur pianist. ‘Crowdieknowe’ is however a different matter! The importunate summons of the last Trumpet rouses the rough men of Crowdieknowe ‘wi ‘feck o’ swearin’ and Stevenson’s colourful picture of this Stanley-Spencerian scene is appropriately embellished with echoes of the Verdi Requiem and the Dies Irae! ‘Fegs! God’s no blate gin He sirs up the men o’ Crowdieknowe! Equally boisterous is the concluding ‘News, Lasses, News’ whose tramping rhythm and thunderous bass ‘quasi gran casa’ provides a joyous finale to the set. This is Scottish music at its very best incorporating the folk element within fine craftsmanship.

Colin Scott-Sutherland

This is Scottish music at its very best incorporating the folk element within fine craftsmanship. ... see Full Review

  1. cf. Busoni: "The art of transcription has made it possible for the piano to take possession of the entire literature of music." (ibid)
  2. Ronald Stevenson: "Western Music" Kahn & Averill 1971, p. 84
  3. Recorded by Murray McLachlan on Olympia OCD 264
  4. There is a misprint in the title, which should read ‘You’ not ‘Yon’.


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