Complete Songs Of Robert Burns - online book

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considered proven against Burns, and little or nothing said to counteract the belief. So that we find Tom Moore in 1841 expressing surprise that ' the rare art of adapting words success­fully to notes' should have been exercised by Burns, ' who was wholly unskilled in music1,' and Robert Chambers, in his garrulous Life of Burns, ineptly remarking on the subject that Burns thought himself a kind of musician. Thus widely may biographers miss the point.
From the writings of Burns, and particularly from the Thomson letters and MSS. in the British Museum, it is possible to describe with some accuracy his musical knowledge and acquirements. It may be granted at once that about the higher forms of the musical art he knew little and cared less. He never heard a symphony or a string quartette2, and though at the houses of some of his friends he listened to sonatas on the harpsichord, they raised in him neither emotion nor interest. His knowledge of music was in fact elemental; his taste lay entirely in melody, without ever reaching an appreciation of contrapuntal or harmonious music. Nor, though in his youth he had learned the grammar of music and become acquainted with clefs, keys, and notes at the re­hearsals of church music, which were in his day a practical part of the education of the Scottish peasantry3, did he ever arrive at
them to distinguish one tune from another . . . and certainly, if any person who knew the two boys had been asked, which of them was the most likely to court the muses, he would surely never have guessed that Robert had a pro­pensity of that kind' (Currie's Works of Robert Burns, Liverpool, 1800, i. 91).
1  Moore, in the Preface to his Works, 1841, vol. v., says,' Robert Burns was wholly unskilled in music; yet the rare art of adapting words successfully to notes, of wedding verse in congenial union with melody, which, were it not for his example, I should say none but a poet versed in the sister art ought to attempt, has yet, by him, with the aid of a music, to which my own country's strains are alone comparable, been exercised with so workmanly a hand, as well as with so rich a variety of passion, playfulness, and power, as no song-writer, perhaps, but himself, has ever yet displayed.' Farquhar Graham, in his Notes on the Songs of Scotland, stated briefly the result of an inquiry into the musical training and acquirements of Burns, but it received no attention and has been forgotten.
2  At a performance of The Messiah of Handel he remarked on the infinite pathos of the air ' He was despised.'
3  Currie, i. 11.