Complete Songs Of Robert Burns - online book

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composition, except in the case of one melody which he composed for a song of his own at the age of about twenty-three, and this melody displeased him so much that he destroyed it and never attempted another *. In the same way, although he practised the violin, he did not attain to excellence in execution, his playing being confined to strathspeys and other slow airs of the pathetic kind2. On the other hand, his perception and his love of music are undeniable. For example, he possessed copies of the prin­cipal collections of Scottish vocal and instrumental music of the eighteenth century, and repeatedly refers to them in the Museum MS. and in his letters. His copy of the" Caledonian Pocket Companion (the largest collection of Scottish music), which copy still exists with pencil notes in his handwriting, proves that he was familiar with the whole contents. At intervals in his writings he names at least a dozen different collections to which he refers and from which he quotes with a personal knowledge. Also he knew several hundred different airs, not vaguely and in a misty way, but accurately as regards tune, time, and rhythm, so that he could distinguish one from another, and describe minute variations in the several copies of any tune which passed through his hands. The Thomson letters (and particularly one about September, 1793, only published in part by Currie) contain a description or criticism of over one hundred melodies. Many of the airs he studied and selected for his verses were either pure instrumental tunes, never before set to words, or the airs (from dance books) of lost songs, with the first lines as titles. That he sometimes esteemed the air of a song more than the words is clear from his saying, 'Better to have mediocre verses to a favourite air than none at all'.! It is hard to believe that a poet with such prefer-
1  Cf. Note 312.
2  On a private copy of his Epistle to Davie he describes himself as a brother fiddler, and in his humorous anonymous letter to Sharpe of Hoddam he styles himself a fiddler and a poet (Works, y.j66).
3  Note 91. Compare his statement made in requesting permission to insert a song of the Duke of Gordon's' in the Museum—that he was assisting in collecting old poetry and for a fine air making a stanza when it had no words {Works, iv. 293). Also his apology for many trifling songs, which, as he explains, are due to the fact that many beautiful airs wanted words, and be was obliged to pass in a hurry what he had written (Note 19).