Complete Songs Of Robert Burns - online book

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

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compose to these Scottish airs ' to sough [hum] the tune over and over is the readiest way to catch the inspiration and raise the Bard into that glorious enthusiasm so strongly characteristic of our old Scotch poetry1' Again, late in life, when he declined to write for an unfamiliar air, he explains that until he was master of a tune in his own singing he never could compose for it, adding that his invariable way was to consider the expression of the music and choose his theme, ' humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed2 So invariable with him was this way of writing that his first song was made for the favourite reel of the girl he loved, and his last for the 'difficult measure' of a 'beautiful strathspey'; and (though it may be that he was elevating the music he wrote for at the expense of his own reputation as a poet) when he said that some of his songs were often mere rhymes to express airs, he spoke a literal truth.
Nevertheless, though he knew more of the popular music of his country than any man of his time, and he is unique3 among distinguished poets in writing for pre-existing music, this side of him has been rarely noticed, if at all. His achievement in the reconstruction of old poetry have blinded his critics' eyes to his knowledge of its sister art, Scottish music, of which he was the apostle. Perhaps his very uniqueness in this respect has caused it to escape notice. Old melodies as a vehicle for song have been despised or ignored by literary poets themselves, from Corneille, who execrated the commands of his royal master to write for them, saying that a hundred verses cost him less than two words of a song4 {que deux mots de chanson), to Lord Byron, who, after trial, flatly refused to be harnessed in music5. And though the exquisite songs of the Elizabethan poets were made to be sung, and many of them are to be found only in contemporary music books, there is this difference between their work and Burns, that the music was composed to fit their words, but his words were
1 Commonplace Book, 1872,52.                         ' Cf. Note 101.
3 Unless we accept Marot, whose psalms for secular airs are still in the Genevan Psalter, and Luther, who led the Reformation by adopting popular melodies for the hymns sung in the Reformed churches.
* See Tiersot's Chanson Populaire, Paris, 1889, 441.
5 See an Important letter of Byron in Hadden's George Thomson, 1898,191.