Complete Songs Of Robert Burns - online book

360+ songs with lyrics, sheet music, historical notes & glossary.

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In bringing together for the first time the songs of Robert Burns with the melodies for which they were written I do not propose to criticize either. So far as the verses are concerned they have remained famous for more than a century, and are likely to continue famous independent of any literary criticism. So far as the airs are concerned—airs which go to make up the folk-music of Scotland, that particular form of unconscious art of which the vehemence, pathos, and often eccentric progressions have been known outside the limits of the country for the last 250 years— want of space forbids any criticism. A merely verbal description of music cannot convey any real Impression to the general reader, and an Imperfect technical account of Scottish music would be unsatisfactory to the expert. Both will doubtless prefer to read the music for themselves and form their own opinions. For this reason the Preface will be confined to an explanation of (1) Burns's own theory as a song-writer, (2) how he carried it into practice, and (3) what his qualifications were for writing and adapting his verses to pre-existing music.
To begin with, then, the term song as it is now used admits of more than one meaning. Originally it meant—and was invari­ably—a combination of poetry and music, something to be sung. It did not mean, as it often means nowadays, verse with or with­out tune; nor was it, like the songs of most modern poets, purely literary verse to which music might accidentally be attached. For Burns's songs, peculiarly, this latter meaning is insufficient, and I designate Burns a tone-poet because he wrote for music, and his songs with their airs are a study in tone-poetry.
His Commonplace Book (recording his experience about the age of twenty-three, and before he was known to the world) makes this evident, and shows beyond all doubt that he always associated music with his songs. Speaking, for example, of a forgotten old song of which he remembered that the verse and the tune were ' in fine unison with one another,' he says that when one would

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