Complete Songs Of Robert Burns - online book

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V. BACCHANALIAN AND SOCIAL               433
No. 233. Should auld acquaintance be forgot? (Johnson's set.) From a holograph copy in the Interleaved Museum. Scots Musical Museum, 17Q6, No. 413, signed ' Z.' Auld lang syne is the best known and most widely spread social song in the Anglo-Saxon language. Without official aid such as has been given by religion to the Old Hundredth, or to God save the King by the State, Auld lang syne has steadily worked its way to the heart of all classes of the nation, and it stands pre-eminent as the most familiar secular song Of the English-speaking people throughout the world. In Scotland it slowly supplanted and eventually obliterated Good night, and joy be wi you a' which, for a century and a half had been the dismissory song at festive meetings. It would be difficult to apportion the relative merit of the verse and the air which has contributed to the extraordinary popularity of Auld lang syne. Both are sImple and directly emolional. Nine-tenths of the words are monosyllabic; the melody is a Scottish country dance tune, which in the course of half a century of continuous use was gradually divested of superfluous ornament, and was developed into the sImplest musical phraseology of the original. A century of increasing fame has put Auld lang syne beyond criticism, and we might as well try to analyse the colour or aroma of a wild flower in order to direct the taste as to make an Impression by dissecting the song. The description of Burns has been justified, and it illustrates the power of song so effectively expressed by Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun (1653-1716) nearly two hundred years ago in the following words more often than otherwise quoted incorrectly: ' I said I knew a very wise man so much of Sir Chró's sentiment, that he believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.1 {Account of a Conversation; Edin. 1704.)
A brief and bare statement of the origin of the verse and air may be permitted here, as the history of both are obscure and disputed. As regards the verse _ Burns is responsible for leading the public astray, and his musical editor George Thomson obscured the source of the air. The words were originally published from the manuscript of Burns in Johnson's Museum at the close of the year 1796, or about six months after the poet died. It is not certain, but it is very probable, that Burns saw the engraved Museum copy of Auld lang syne.
In a letter to Johnson about October, 1793, he says 'as to our Musical Museum, I have better than a dozen songs by me for the fifth volume.' In the same month he asks Johnson why the tunes and verses which could not be made out were not sent to him, and he requests that they be forwarded without delay, for he and Clarke are laying out materials for the fifth volume. About February, 1794, he sent forty-one songs for the volume, and informed Johnson that he had a good parcel of scraps and fragments in his hands. In the middle of June, 1794, Johnson wrote to Burns stating that the fifth volume was actually begun ; and in March, 1795, a packet of songs was returned to Johnson, ob≠viously received by Burns for correction. Finally, a few months before his death a friend who was in Edinburgh was commissioned to bring any proofs that were ready. These references are given to show that Burns knew the contents of the posthumous fifth volume of the Museum of which Auld lang syne is the thirteenth number. The poet wrote at least four holograph copies of Auld lang syne. The first was part of a letter to Mrs. Dunlop on December 17, 1788, from which the following is an extract: 'Your meeting which you so well describe with your old schoolfellow and friend, was truly interesting. Out upon the ways of the world I they spoil these " social offsprings of the heart." Two veterans of the " men of the world " would have met with little more heart-workings than two old hacks worn out on the road. Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld lang syne exceedingly expressive ? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs, I shall give you the verses on the other sheet . . . Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen.
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