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Scotland's Music by John Purser
Mainstream Publishing
ISBN-10: 1845961609
ISBN-13: 978-1845961602
Hardback - Large format: 28.8 x 23.2 x 3.4 cm
430 pages
Experience Classicsonline


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."

"A History", 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 Point’.

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.

Rob Barnett



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