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Scottish Baroque and other Influences


At the end of the 17th century Scotland’s capital city Edinburgh was coming out of a long musical coma induced by the intolerance of the various protestant movements. Mr. Beck, a lutanist and music teacher from Hamburg had successfully gone through the law courts and won approval for his “concert of music”. The quiet German opened the way for what would be for many a new golden age of Scottish Music which came to be known as Scottish Baroque.

Old Assembly Close Edinburgh

Like a lot of cultural things in early 18th century Scotland, Scottish Baroque had its beginnings in a pub in Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town – Patrick Friel’s tavern to be precise. This was the Cross Keys alehouse owned and run by Patrick Steil in the Old Assembly Close, later known as Steil’s Close, an alleyway running from the Royal Mile. Patrick Steil was not only a landlord and a competent violinist, but surprisingly for an innkeeper he was also an violinmaker and valuer.

At the beginning of the 18th century his pub had become the centre of Edinburgh’s musical life, and what could be called the “Corelli Sessions” were a regular event. Here the city’s “Masters of Music” were sitting side by side with no mere dilettante hobby musicians, but they were playing together with “gentlemen of the first rank and fashion“, many of whom had studied in Italy with the finest composers and players of their generation.

Here the ever popular music of Corelli could sit side by side with the fiery reels and jigs much loved by the Lords and Ladies for their weekend dance parties. The same musicians would be playing both repertoires, with the same enthusiasm for each, with the same technique and using the same instruments.

The reason Steil’s pub became the focus of the musical life of Edinburgh is simple. By the early part of the 18th century it had become the favoured rendevous of the cultured elite “in days while as yet there were neither theatres nor balls“. The fact that ladies were frequent guests at the concerts given there was reason enough for several other well-known cultured elite to favour the venue. One frequent visitor, a Dr. Archibald Pitcairne even went as far as writing latin poems in praise of its beer.

Scottish Baroque became a lively fusion of home-grown talent, music and culture combined with Italian flair and style. In the 18th century this volatile mix produced many excellent works which later fell out of the repertoire and did not return until quite recently. Works like Francesco Geminiani’s settings of Scots Songs in his “A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick” (available here from the excellent website of the IMSLP Petrucci Music Library).

The Scottish songs which inspired Geminiani and others are not however to be confused with what we now know as “folk” songs. They were in the main “art songs” in the style of and inspired by the traditional idioms of Scottish music, and frequently Pastoral in concept, like Allan Ramsay’s “Gentle Shepherd” from 1725.

In recent years the music of this lively and vibrant time in Scotland’s history has been gradually rediscovered, and there are an increasing number of recordings now available. In Scotland there is however really only one ensemble dedicated to the Scottish Baroque of the Italian and Scottish composers of 17th and 18th century Scotland. David McGuinness has now been ploughing a lone furrow for more than 10 years with his Concerto Caledonia and other projects.

Concerto Caledonia sit almost on the fault line between traditional and Early Music, sometimes leaning quite far in one direction, sometimes in the other, and quite often leaning to the wild side. Based in Glasgow, their performances are described by the Sunday Times as “the sublime rubs shoulders with the ridiculous. Everything is infectiously played and sung. Bizarre, but utterly compelling“.

Concerto Caledonia describe themselves as Scotland’s Early Music Group, committed to “bringing historically important early music back into circulation, and doing it with as much a sense of danger as of style“.

Taking a more mainstream approach, performing the works of established composers such as Bach and Handel are the Dunedin Consort, a group of professional singers drawn from various parts of Europe and North America.

The Dunedin Consort was was founded in 1996, and perform at various venues throughout Scotland, from remote Highland churches to major concert halls, with a wide repertoire of music from the Medieval and Renaissance. The Dunedin Consort also perform a range of contemporary works which include commissions from composers both in Scotland and beyond. The singers are augmented by instrumentalists of the Dunedin Players, chosen for each project according to repertoire.

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