John Purser took
on a huge and clamantly needed task
when he ventured on writing this book.
That it was needed there was no doubt.
There is simply nothing like it.
The first edition
was published in 1992 as a companion
to BBC Radio Scotland’s ‘Scotland's
Music’. That series spanned two series
and fifty-one episodes. The book quite
naturally bears the marks of the author's
work launched in the mid-1980s on
that long and unrolling sequence of
illustrated radio programmes. I remember
listening to some of these while I
lived in Stornoway. I trust that the
tapes and texts have been preserved
by the BBC and the National Library
of Scotland. Meantime this book makes
for an easily accessible store of
a torrent of information and informed
critique spanning the stone age to
the Picts to the Gaels to medieval
times, to nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, addressing popular music
as well as concert-hall art-music.
The present edition
of the book (its second) includes,
we are assured, much material new
since the first edition. One can push
symbolism too far but I note that
it was published in 2007 within the
decade in which the present Scottish
Parliament came into being and when
books such as this provide a renew
focus for and consolidation of national
identity. It is good to see that the
Scottish Arts Council have supported
the production of this fresh edition.
To gain some handle
on coverage it is worth quoting the
subtitle. It gives a sweeping indication
of its ambit: "A History of the Traditional
and Classical Music of Scotland from
Early Times to the Present Day."
then; not "The History".
This conveys a seemly modesty and
modesty is often to be applauded.
However the book is something other
than cause for modesty and the modesty
implicit in the subtitle need not
distract you from what is a serious
yet forthrightly encyclopaedic and
provocatively splendid book.
Its second obstacle
to appreciation is also one of its
merits. A passing glance at this large
format book might lead you to expect
one of those high-calorie low-fibre
coffee-table volumes. But this is
not of that ilk. It is a substantial
tome but it carries a great deal of
insight into which has been sunk a
considerable burden of research. Its
down-side is that it is no easy read
on the train or anywhere where you
lack space to spread.
This book certainly
does not deserve to be doomed to a
glance at the illustrations and to
the awkward mission to find a suitable
large section of the bookcase or shelving
– although you will have to find that
niche. In fact the main text is lively.
It is finely written and eminently
readable with the text laid out in
two columns per page. Purser deals
doughtily with a significant subject
in a serious but engaging way. This
is stiffened by an open-handed selection
of illustrations jostling music examples,
engravings and photographs mostly
monochrome. There are two clutches
of photo-quality paper featuring a
total of 33 colour plates. There are
also several full page plates advantageously
exploiting the page size.
The end result is
a large format volume running to some
330 pages of main text and 25 pages
of end-notes; the latter a pity as
they are not as easy to use as footnotes.
Select bibliography, illustrations,
music examples and detailed index
bring the book to 428 pages. This
also includes a select list of recordings.
The list is nothing too scientific
and the author disarmingly admits
that he relies on his own collection.
Nevertheless it is still most useful
and a dimension often ignored in such
volumes. Even so it is a pity that
the Symposium archive recording of
Tovey’s Cello Concerto is not listed.
The same goes for the newish Toccata
recording of the Concerto.
Nothing is perfect
but for any Third Edition it would
be worth changing ‘Aschenbach’ on
pp. 317-8 to the correct ‘Achenbach’.
‘Altanus’ on page 388 should be ‘Altarus’
(Center). ‘Ardamurchan Point’ on p.
390 (Weir) should be ‘Ardnamurchan
It is interesting
to note in passing that Purser has
written a radio play ‘Carver’ about
the composer he considers to be Scotland's
greatest - Robert Carver.
This fine book should
play its part in leading and fuelling
the continuing renaissance in the
Scottish musical arts and deserves
to attract attention throughout the
UK and beyond. The day will come when
the Scotland’s musical establishment
will not be docilely obsessed with
novelty. When it is also prepared
to reach back into its legacy of the
good and the forgotten and mount performances
and recordings then we will know that
this book has served part of its purpose.
Perhaps one of the best indicators
is the Scottish festival movement
especially that in Edinburgh. We need
to see, from that internationally
revered source, celebrity revivals
of the works of Carver, Gray, Moonie,
MacCunn, Chisholm, F G Scott and Stevenson
done with the resounding confidence
that their music merits. The building
and practical expression of that confidence
has a secure and evangelical foundation
in John Purser’s book.