Contested Identities colloquium – dialogues between nations

No sooner have I returned from my adventures away and I am straight into more research fun at Glasgow. Today, I spoke at the Contested Identities colloquium, where themes are mainly centred on Scotland’s contribution to and influence from other nations such as The Basque Region, Ireland, Italy, Asturias and many others. The day was jam packed with talks on literature, poetry, film and let’s not forget music!


What I was most intrigued to hear was Gillebride MacMillan’s paper on ‘Song and Folklore collection in the Hebrides’. He discussed the work Marjorie Kennedy Fraser who had been a collector of songs from the Scottish islands. Though she often has been accused of ruining these songs since she frequently rearranged them in her publications. However, MacMillan pointed out that she had never intended to provide authentically notated versions of the songs, rather her publications were arranged for a very different consumer – that of a city-dweller who would not have been able to sing at the ‘low pitch’ of the islanders. Rather, Kennedy Fraser’s real fault was her choice of title ‘Songs from the Hebrides’, which perhaps implied authenticity.

There were many parallels in MacMillan’s paper to my own, where I pointed out that the Italianisation of Scottish song at the end of the 18th-century by authors such as Domenico Corri and George Thomson was to make the music suitable for performance in polite society. Consumers across Britain demanded music suitable for performance in the domestic setting and they wanted to perform the most popular songs and arias sung by their favourite singers. And often, when such singers came to Scotland, they picked up a few Scottish songs but adapted them into their own performance style, typically including Italian ornamentation. Corri and Thomson then came along and created Select Collections that emulated that style. This new setting was not a way of degrading the original melody – rather, these authors were inspired by the original and used it as a building block to create something that was intended for a new market. As time wore on, however, the Italianisation of Scottish melodies was seen as a affront to the ‘original’, rendering the practice taboo and Thomson and Corri’s publication forgotten.


There is an interesting cultural dialogue between popularity and vulgarity. Time seems to render popular practices vulgar until it becomes culturally unimportant. But the fact that it was popular to begin with is precisely why it is important and thus deserves further attention. In the 18th-century, Italian musicians such as Corri could have easily come to Scotland and brought his music, put on his operas and ignored Scottish music entirely. While Italian music was performed, it co-existed with Scottish music – the two mingling and influencing each other and having a cultural impact that we probably no longer even realise. It is my mission to take a closer look at what this impact may have been and how it has changed our modern world.


The clear demonstration of the power of music was evident at the end of the day, when we finished with a few songs. The intention had been that visiting artists would perform while we enjoyed some wine and nibbles, but before long most of the participants who included speakers from Spain, Basque country, Poland and the highlands and islands of Scotland contributed a song from their nation. Though most of the songs were in a language I did not speak, each singer communicated their joy for their homeland and importance music played on a personal and national level. It was a perfect beginning to a much larger discussion, where I hope music is a significant topic!


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