Lesley Duncan meets Dr Kenneth Elliott,
musician and musicologist, who is also
the general editor of a new in-depth
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study of early Scottish compositions
KENNETH ELLIOTT'S is not a widely known name. It deserves to be, certainly among those with an interest in Scottish culture. For this distinguished musician and musicologist has done much in his lifetime to bring the achievements of past generations of Scottish composers back into the public domain.
Having formally retired as a senior lecturer in Glasgow University's music department last autumn, Dr Elliott has embarked on the most ambitious project of his career, the publication by the music department - under the generic title Musica Scotica - of editions of early Scottish music. Elliott is general editor. The publications, while scholarly, will encourage performances by amateur singers and instrumentalists as well as professionals. Once the series is established, contributions from other scholars in the field will be welcomed.
Elliott himself, at the age of 66, is an incredibly boyish figure who has lost none of his youthful commitment. His eyrie on the second floor of the music department is a cluttered place with music on every available horizontal surface. He flits between his two keyboards - a venerable upright, with Chopin's cello sonata propped open and the ``inexhaustible'' 48 Preludes and Fugues at hand, and that indispensable tool of the modern musicologist, a computer terminal. This versatile musician's activities range from giving impassioned accounts of Chopin ballades on the piano and baroque music on the harpsichord to identifying the earliest known fragments of Scottish polyphony from a drain in Paisley Abbey.
Music has always loomed large in Elliott's life. As a child in Dundee he was a chorister in St Paul's Scottish Episcopal Cathedral - a ``wonderful training in choral singing'', he says. His first degree at St Andrews was, with typical Scottish academic breadth, in classics, but he was meanwhile playing the continuo as well as piano and organ. His interest in early music was fanned by his discovery of Monteverdi.
A formative influence at St Andrews was the Professor of Music, Cedric Thorpe Davie. Thorpe Davie was not an avant-garde composer but his arrangements of Scottish songs, both choral settings and instrumentally accompanied, impressed the young Elliott.
At that time Thorpe Davie was writing a great deal for Edinburgh Festival productions, such as Allan Ramsay's The Gentle Shepherd, and, most notably, the incidental music for the celebrated Festival productions of The Three Estates. The music for the latter followed the style of old Scottish music. Elliott, who took part in the chorus in the 1951 production, didn't then realise there was an existing repertoire of early Scottish music. That had to wait till he went to Cambridge.
Here his future interests were gradually focused. Doing a B Mus degree under Robin Orr, subsequently Professor of Music at Glasgow University, Elliott attended a course by Dr Thurston Dart on musical notation. Having studied early manuscripts of English, French, and Italian origin, Elliott began to ask himself if there were comparable Scottish manuscripts. And so came his first encounter with the Carver Choir Book in the National Library of Scotland. The mysterious Robert Carver would turn out to be a major figure in the rehabilitation of the Scottish early music tradition.
Meanwhile, Elliott went on to do a PhD in Cambridge, working in conjunction with Helena Shire, who was independently pursuing her interest in literary aspects of Renaissance Scots songs. Three years' work on the music of Scottish sixteenth and seventeenth-century manuscripts led to the publication of part of Elliott's doctoral dissertation as Music of Scotland 1500-1700 in the Musica Britannica series. The music had been mostly theoretically in the public domain in places such as the National Library of Scotland but had been neglected for centuries.
One effective agency for the promotion of the rediscovered music was a vocal quartet, the original Saltire Singers, directed by the German Hans Oppenheim, and later accompanied by Thea Musgrave. Elliott and Shire prepared music for the quartet's concerts at the Saltire Society's base, Gladstone's Land, during Edinburgh Festivals.
Kenneth Elliott and Fred Rimmer, Robin Orr's successor as Professor of Music at Glasgow University, did a series of programmes on Scottish music for Radio Scotland, a precursor to John Purser's more recent marathon, Scotland's Music.
In the earlier series Elliott introduced Scottish music up to 1800 while Rimmer covered the period to the 1970s. Elliott was also closely involved in the production of various recordings of Scottish music from his period. These, on the Scottish Records label, are still available.
Meanwhile, Elliott had been pursuing his academic career in the music department at Glasgow. ``I've always liked to strike a balance between teaching, performance, and research,'' he reflects. Sometimes the teaching role proved too heavy for research but, he says: ``I've always kept up performance.'' This has included solo work and directing the university choral society and chamber orchestra (in the latter case from the harpsichord) in performances that have ranged from Purcell's Fairy Queen to ``a whole series of Mozart Piano Concertos''.
As for the genesis of the new series of printed editions, Elliott explains: ``Over the years I had produced performing editions for particular radio broadcasts or records for Paisley Abbey Choir, under George McPhee.'' Some of the editions were straight; others expanded the music in a contemporary sixteenth-century idiom with instrumental divisions and keyboard or lute parts. Alan Tavener and his Cappella Nova also collaborated in putting on performances of Elliott's editions at Glasgow Cathedral, most notably the Carver masses and motets.
With all this material accumulated, Elliott decided to approach two British publishers. He was turned down. An American publishing house was interested but it had a logjam and there could have been a 10-year delay before publication.
So four years ago, as he was reaching the end of his teaching career, Elliott ``began to think seriously of producing the series myself'' by setting himself up as an independent publisher. Then with the arrival of a new Professor of Music (Graham Hair) at Gilmorehill, an increasing departmental interest in electronic music, and a ``tremendously big step in the direction of computer literacy . . . we began to examine various programmes for printing music on computer''.
Inspiration was to come from Dr William Clocksin of the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University who had developed a ``very good software package'' - named ``Calliope'', after the muse of epic poetry. This makes the complex business of reproducing musical notation economically viable and has the additional advantage of being ``very beautiful to work with''. To his surprise, Kenneth Elliott found himself becoming ``fairly fluent''.
He proposed his series to Graham Hair and departmental head Marjorie Rycroft and with their blessing got a year's leave of absence to prepare the groundwork. This was session 1994-95. Last year he was awarded a Leverhulme emeritus fellowship (which also provided him with a research assistant, Agnes Walker). Moreover, on his official retirement last year, he was made a senior honorary research fellow of the music department. With all that encouragement, academic and financial, under his belt, work has proceeded apace.
The first two volumes - of sixteenth-century Scottish partsongs, adapted for solo voice with lute or piano accompaniment, and the complete works of Carver - will appear soon, with an official launch following in the autumn. Meanwhile, Professor Hair is planning a parallel series of twentieth-century Scottish music. These two initiatives should, together, raise not only the profile of Glasgow's music department but of Scottish music itself. Now for the difficult questions. Are there specific Scottish characteristics about this music and how would Elliott rate its absolute standard? He replies cautiously: ``I'm always a bit wary about trying to isolate Scottish characteristics.'' Music of that time was an international language, he points out.
With an early proof copy of the Scottish songs, I've had a chance to browse through some. One is particularly haunting, thanks to the zest of its language (the poem is by Alexander Montgomerie) and its taut rhythms.
``Lyk as the dum Solsequium/With cair ou'rcum/ Doth sorrow when the sun goes out of sicht,/Hings doun his head /And droups as dead . . .'' goes the love-lorn swain (solsequium being of course a Latinate-Scots rendering of sunflower). Both text and music seem to me to be utterly distinct from contemporary Elizabethan song. Elliott reminds me, however, that the tune has its origins in a French song, though much altered. He agrees that the setting and the words are ``very distinctive indeed''.
The music of these sixteenth-century Scottish songs owes a lot to various influences, he says, particularly French. This French influence dates from the 1530s, even before James V made his marriages with successive French princesses. The dance element - including the French fricassee (as in stew) and the lively rustic dance the branle - is very strong in these songs, he points out. This wasn't the case with English music, which till Dowland in the 1580s was rather separate and then influenced by Italian madrigals.
``It was only in the seventeenth century that real Scottish melodic elements, from Scottish folk music, became recognisable,'' says Elliott. The earliest manuscript showing these was the Rowallan Lute Book, dating from about 1615, though some of the music in it must have existed long before that. In the seventeenth-century song volume people will find characteristics now regarded as Scottish, namely ``the pentatonic element''. With his succeeding volumes, covering the eighteenth as well as seventeenth centuries, Elliott says he wants to show a ``steady perspective'' on the progression of Scots songs through the three centuries.
The next volumes in preparation are devoted to the sacred music of Robert Johnson (``a very good composer'') and the seventeenth-century songs. A secular song of Johnson's, scribbled into a flyleaf in the 1530s, has just come to light in England.
Elliott himself is no stranger to such finds, but the discovery of the earliest surviving evidence of polyphony in Scotland - in the form of music scratched on slates excavated from a drain in Paisley Abbey five years ago - must still rank as unusual. His scholarly little account of them is published in a booklet, also under the Musica Scotica imprint. The music may have been thus inscribed on slates to be chorister-proof!
I press Elliott again on his views on the absolute quality of the Scottish music he has been handling. He replies with typical intellectual fastidiousness: ``I'm always a bit wary of making too grandiose claims for this music (perhaps because I've lived with it for so long!).'' He adds: ``On the other hand, some writers are really extravagant in the way they inflate the music.'' He cites the much lauded Carver: ``I think a composer like Carver is a very good composer but I wouldn't have thought of the first rank, because his music does contain many technical errors.'' Those offending parallel fifths and octaves, I suggest diffidently, might sound quite valid to twentieth-century ears. Kenneth Elliott responds with a laugh: ``I dare say.''
Liturgical music - even such tours de force as Carver's 19-part motet O bone Jesu - is not to everyone's taste. But what could be more universal in its interest than Auld Lang Syne? Elliott promises a paper on it soon, exploring the antecedents to Burns's globally sung version.
``Even scholarly resurrection of music of the past can be something vital as well,'' says Elliott mildly. He understates the case.