Scottish composers and the referendum – nationalism and patriotism do not necessarily go hand in hand

Clare MacMillanMon 8th September 2014

A composer may display patriotic pride in their music but may also be sceptical about present secessionist claims

Music is regarded as having a potential for persuasion, and therefore the potential to be used as a political tool. In recent decades Scottish composers have absorbed nationalistic influences into their music. Composers such as Judith Weir (the new Master of the Queen’s Music), Edward McGuire, James MacMillan (my father), and William Sweeney have all used Scottish traditional and folk music as a source of inspiration.

However, Scottish classical composers are instinctively more guarded on political matters and can seem less outspoken than some in the other arts. Many choose not to use their music to explore politics directly. The aforementioned composers give space to a ‘Scottishness’ in their work but it is not clear whether this symbolizes anything about their political opinions. On the other hand, Scottish folk and pop musicians are a lot more openly committed about politics in their music. Traditional folk musicians and prominent artists from the 1970s and 1980s, including Dick Gaughan, The Proclaimers, and The Corries (whose song ‘Flower of Scotland’ has become the country’s unofficial national anthem) have all voiced their political opinions in their music and have sometimes hinted towards nationalism.

Edward McGuire is a classical composer and folk musician who plays in the folk group The Whistlebinkies. He quite frequently draws upon the Scottish musical idiom in many of his classical works. His work for orchestra Calgacus is one of the only really outstanding works to involve bagpipes. The bagpipe is the idiomatic instrument of Scotland and by evoking a deliberate ‘Scottishness’ in his work it is inevitable that one should detect an audible patriotism. Yet McGuire has been very outspoken against Scottish independence and cultural nationalism. McGuire is a good example of an artist who loves his country’s musical traditions and is proud of Scotland’s music, but whose patriotism does not include a commitment to separation. A composer may display patriotic pride in their music but may also be sceptical about present secessionist claims.

After the 1979 referendum Scottish writers and musicians channeled their frustrations into cultural activity. Some looked to the past for creative inspiration, but this new cultural nationalism was a modern movement responding to modern social and political issues. However, it was three earlier Scottish composers who contributed significantly to the transformation of a Scottish musical nationalism: Francis George Scott (1880-1958), Ronald Center (1913-73) and Ronald Stevenson (1928-). The musicologist Malcolm MacDonald said this of Scott: ‘It is perhaps significant that in French music – especially the Impressionism of Debussy and, behind Debussy, the naturalistic Russian idioms of Mussorgsky – he saw an antidote to the largely Germanic musical culture which then held sway both in English and Scottish musical academies.’ The French composer Jean Roger-Ducasse, described Scott as ‘the Scottish Mussorgsky’.

Contemporary Scottish composers have shown that new Scottish music has a powerful universal appeal. MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie sounds Scottish; it contains ‘national’ clichés but they are subtly reworked so that they are not obvious in the way that 19th-century musical Scotticisms could be. He subtly uses Scots song and bagpipe drones, but he breaks them apart and makes them sound different and new. Allusions to Scottish traditional melody, complete with its modality and ornamentation, are worked into a rich string polyphony at the beginning and end of the piece.

William Sweeney’s Salm an Fhearainn (Psalm of the Land) was one of the first extended classical compositions that set a Gaelic text. He also wrote the first full-length opera in Scots Gaelic, An Turus. The first piece is a striking example of a modern Scottish composer’s fascination with the heterophony of Gaelic psalm signing. In this a cantor or precentor leads the singing of a decorated melodic line. The congregation follow him in a staggered unison. However, the effect is not of unanimity but of a leader-and-drag, canonic effect, creating an eerie and mysterious vocal texture. Sweeney attempts to capture this effect by writing it down in a choral score.

But the most interesting and paradoxical composer in the present independence row is Edward McGuire. When he speaks out against Scottish independence, he makes clear that his music is not propaganda, but more a body of work which expresses a patriotic sentiment rooted in a universalist social concern. He has taken part in a number of media debates about the upcoming referendum. He has tussled on BBC Scotland’s Newsnight with Alan Bissett, the writer and leading spokesman of the separatist National Collective - to discuss how Scottish independence could help or hinder the arts. McGuire explained why he supported the union: ‘I see Scottish traditions as part of a British family of similar traditions; you’ve got Northumbrian bagpipes, you’ve got great part singing in Dorset, you’ve got Welsh choirs. Scottish music, theatre and visual arts are all part of a fabric of British culture… And, to say that we are going to split working people’s ability to resist the onslaught of impoverishment in this capitalist crisis, is, to me, a bit of a betrayal...’

Nationalism and patriotism do not necessarily go hand in hand. McGuire incorporates melodies and styles of ornamentation found in folk music and uses a folk-derived modality. His music persuades on a fundamentally and purely musical level. When the current political sparring subsides on September 19, we Scots need to hear more of it.

Clare MacMillan

Clare MacMillan is a recent graduate of Royal Holloway, University of London, where she was a choral scholar in the chapel choir. Presently she is Festival Assistant for The Cumnock Tryst, a new festival of music in Ayrshire.

Gramophone Subscriptions

From£64/year

Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017