Complete Songs Of Robert Burns - online book

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for the Museum he had comparatively only a small number of vocal airs to choose from. In all the various collections pub­lished up to 1787 there were not two hundred different Scottish airs printed with verses, and of these Johnson had utilized a good proportion in the first volume of the Museum—that is, before Burns became connected with it. The greater number, therefore, of the airs for which Burns wrote were only to be found in instru­mental or dance books, and consisted of pure reels and strathspeys, which had never before had words, or of the tunes of lost and forgotten songs *.
In these numerous instrumental collections of the eighteenth century, and particularly those of the latter half, when Burns flourished, is stored the most characteristic Scottish music in peculiar scales and with eccentric intervals. Never before had there been such a plentiful crop of Scottish dance and other music, and never has there been since. Dancing in Scotland3 had reached its climax. In Edinburgh every coterie had 'Assem­blies,' and each of the resident dancing-masters followed suit. Captain Topham 3, on a visit to Edinburgh, was amazed at the vigorous dancing practised in the Northern Capital. Every class indulged in it—duchess and housemaid and grave professor alike —and danced for dancing's sake. And it was to find appropriate words for some of these dance tunes that Burns set himself/ Before he could do this he was obliged to study their acceni and rhythm. This was no difficult task for him as long as he was free to choose or reject; but when the egregious Thomsori not only selected airs for him, but tried even to dictate the ortho­graphy of his text, it became hard enough. 'These English verses gravel me to-death,'he groans ; or, when criticized, declines to alter his words, and says with regard to a disliked air, ' the stuff won't bear mending.' And, as a result of his compliance in other cases, the Thomson series contain—among a number of brilliant
1 In some cases Burns utilized the whole tune, in others he selected particular moYements or measures of th'e air for the verses he proposed to write.
a At the close of the century reels and strathspeys became fashionable in London, and the habitue's of Almack's engaged Niel Gow, the famous fiddler in the North, to lead the music in their ball-room.
3 Letters from Edinburgh, 1776, 262.