Introduction to "The Complete Songs of Robert Burns" by Dr Fred Freeman

The 18th century poet, Robert Burns, whom today's folk artists have rediscovered and, thereby, forced one to reassess, was a major song-writer. In the course of challenging his editor, Thomson, and the "classical" establishment of the day, he would develop seminal theories of language and interpretation which would take him to the very height of his artistry.

He knew this. At a time when song had even a lower status than it does now, he considered it high art; the ideal medium for much of his creative output. He wished himself numbered among the great Scottish song-writers - "men of genius", he called them - who had come before. "Composing a Scotch song", he averred, was not a "trifling business".

He would neither permit Clarke nor the celebrated Pleyel (Thomson's music advisors) to "alter one iota" of what, in his judgement, were the "native features" of the best Scottish airs. Burns fussed over the words of his songs with the painstaking subtlety of a man obsessed with fusing English and Scots language, of unconventionally mixed register and variety, into veritable tone poems. What could be freer, or more idiosyncratic, than his deceptively simple - "gie's a hand o' thine" (Auld Lang Syne)? Ralph Waldo Emerson would rightly pronounce the achievement: "the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man".

For Burns, composition (and editing) became, primarily, a matter of what he termed "ballad simplicity". With this in mind he developed, paradoxically, perhaps, elaborate theories regarding the appropriate music and language for a given song; the length and expression of syllables in a musical phrase; the natural rhythmic and tonal irregularity of the Scots musical idiom (which, he felt, few musicians grasped); the closeness of song to the tradition of dance, song and piping - the instrumental music he was so busily re-jigging and ingeniously simplifying for his songs.

Through these principles he would change the course of folk music in Europe. Little wonder that Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was certainly in a position to know, would state categorically: "there can be no more original genius than Burns..."

What interests me is that Burns himself, along with the early music theorists whom he knew and respected (William Tytler and James Beattie) was deeply involved in the self-same battle as the modern Scottish folk artists. Only his battle was (from their point of view historically) before the fact: with the advent of classical and early romantic trends he disapproved of for folk song - especially the more homophonic texture of the music; the heavier articulation and vibrato in singing; the less communal character of the performance.

To his mind, communication and expression were paramount. Enunciation and the clarity and informality of the speaking voice - as with the singing of someone like Tony Cuffe - were central to his idea of song. As William Tytler stated at the time, it was already "a common defect...to smother the words, by not articulating them..." Likewise James Beattie deplored the inappropriately "warbled" delivery of Scots songs. For him, as for Burns, however much a pretty voice "tickles the ear...A song which we listen to without understanding the words, is like a picture seen at too great a distance."

Ultimately, nobody need justify the superb rendering of Burns in this collection. The performance is both a lasting tribute to the man and to the contemporary folk movement in Scotland.

Return to "The Complete Songs of Robert Burns".