Scotsman 200: Concerts that captured the hearts of audiences

Musical highlights include pipe bands playing at Murrayfield.
Musical highlights include pipe bands playing at Murrayfield.
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To mark the 200th anniversary of The Scotsman, we are dipping into our archives to bring you a selection of some of the biggest stories of the last two centuries. This month we have recalled Scotland’s arts scene, reproducing The Scotsman’s original coverage of many of the most memorable events from the stage and screen to exhibitions, concerts and Edinburgh’s festivals. Today the focus is on classical and folk music. Scotland’s rich landscapes and history have provided a great deal of inspiration for composers of classical and folk music. Its venues have also welcomed world-famous performers – pianists, orchestras, stars of the opera.

Wednesday, 26 October, 1831

Paganini

The second and third Concerts given by Paganini, though by no means crowded, have been very respectably attended. He has another to-morrow evening, and as numbers coming into town have not heard him, we dare say he will be induced to prolong his stay.

Many go only to see and hear him as a wonder – and to these a single visit suffices; but such as go to hear him for pure gratification; in most instances, go back, and would go again and again with renewed pleasure, for one of the great features of his performance is, that it improved upon an ear at all susceptible of musical sensations.

At first we are so lost in wonder and astonishment, that we cannot sufficiently compose ourselves to admire. By and bye this subsides, and the attention, inured to astonishing mechanical execution of the artist, hangs with rapture on the magical beauty and perfection of his performance.

In his concerts, Paganini continues to play his pieces in uniform order, beginning with his concerto, comprising three movements; a sonata or aria on one string, and a piece with variations.

The concerto on Saturday morning pleased us, upon the whole, more than any we have heard. The andante grazioso was full of fine sustained melody, and played with exquisite expression. The rondo brilliante in B minor was one of fine effervescence of sparkling fancy.

The liquid beauty of his harmonic touches were in most astonishingly correct unison with the accompaniment of little bells. The preghiera from more in cgitto was actually sung on the covered string.

We have heard it from the vocal organs of the best singers in Italy, but never felt more touched than with the elevated sentiment he infused into it.

His concerto on Tuesday evening was of a more nervous description. It was grand and impressive. The one string performance was admirable, and the concluding piece, which was also done on Saturday morning, was an introduction and variations on a Venetian air, in which Paganini brought into requisition all his tricks and stratagems to dazzle and confound.

In general, we may remark of his compositions, that the melodies are grateful and pleasing, and blended with a harmony and instrumentation denoting the most perfect and skillful knowledge of effect. Many passages are strikingly original. The sporzando crashes, which he is so fond of introducing, give energetic and decided character to his music.

Not the least interesting part of the performance is to see and hear this unapproachable musician, standing fearlessly forward, without a note before him, presiding over and giving forth the radiant creations of his genius.

At times, he appears absorbed in the mazy intricacies. Again, he starts forth, and with anticipating impetuosity he calls down the thunder clouds of harmony, under the shade of which he is lost for a while, till “ceased the high sound,” we again hear him alone in all the sweet serenity of returning repose, in eliciting strains “with linked sweetness long drawn out.”

It would be as difficult to define the extraordinary qualities of Paganini, as to describe the manifold sensations he produces in his audience. He has been styled “an incarnation of music,” “an embodyment of the art,” and what not?

One of the most justly merited, as well as eloquent elogiums we have met with, occurs from a writer in the last Westminster Review, who thus expresses himself, “In Paganini, we recognise one of the magicians of the olden times; and the rapture with which we hang upon his melodious eloquence, is near akin to the worship which would have made a demigod of him in the days of the antique world.

“Paganini possesses, besides, “a solitary and selfish advantage;” he cannot perpetuate his talent; it is inherent in his organization; it cannot be transmitted; were he, like a Druid, to bestow twenty years on a pupil, it were all in vain. Let his violin be broken on his tomb, and Paganini live, like Amphion, in the recollection of his hearers.”

Saturday, 7 October, 1848

M. Chopin’s Soiree Musicale

On Wednesday evening the Hopetoun Rooms were filled with company to hear this celebrated performer. Any pianist who undertakes to play alone to an audience for two hours, must, now-a-days, be a very remarkable one to succeed in sustaining attention and satisfying expectation.

M. Chopin succeeded perfectly in both. He played his own music, which is that of a musician of genius. His manner of playing it was quite masterly in every respect. In his peculiar touch and manner of expression, he reminds us more of John B. Cramer than of any other pianist we have heard.

When the late inimitable contrabassist, Domenico Dragonetti, was asked “Who was the best pianist he had over heard? His reply was, “Ha! John B. Cramer! He makes de instrument sing! Ha !” and with his deep guttural Ha! He as usual ended his short speech.

At that time the Donner and Blitzen school of pianoforte playing had not become so prevalent as now. People had still a lingering love for melody and meaning, and mere feats of digital dexterity were not yet considered all in all. Many still remained of Clementi’s classical school, and among them John Cramer.

Since then, the Donner and Blitzen school of pianists – originating, we believe, in France – has thrown most European young ladies into fits of ecstatic admiration, and into a career of insanely ambitious imitation. The results of such amateur attempts to play this music has been a lamentable failure, and the almost total destruction of good rational pianoforte-playing among the rising generation.

The ambitious amateurs who scramble through these very difficult pieces, and break down at every real difficulty, could not, were it to save their lives, perform with accuracy or effect any one of Clementi’s or Beethoven’s charming and classical sonatas – music full of artistic skill, and melodic and harmonic beauty, and far easier, withal, M. Chopin’s compositions have a peculiar charm, which, however, is only brought out by his own exquisite manner of playing them.

We suspect that many of the salient points of melody in his compositions are reminiscences of the popular airs of Poland – of his own ill-fated land, and that the touching expression he gives to these arises from “feelings too deep for tears.”

The infinite delicacy and finish of his playing, combined with great occasional energy, never overdone, is very striking when we contemplate the man – a slender and delicate-looking person, with a marked profile, indicating much intellectual energy.

Monday, 8 September, 1947

Pipers and drummers stir crowds: World Championships in Edinburgh

Ten hours of continuous piping and drumming, including a contest for the world’s pipe band championship, ended with a massed display by over 1000 pipers and drummers in the rugby international ground at Murrayfield as dusk was falling on Saturday evening.

Drawn from all the 85 bands which had been competing for honours since 11 o’clock in the morning, they took ten minutes to enter the field, into which they were led by four ladies’ pipe bands.

Huge crowds, which brought the attendance figures to 36,000 for the whole day, heard them playing together in the “El Alamein” march composed by Pipe-Major William Denholm, who was one of the competitors. The tremendous volume of sound was echoed by ringing cheers from the spectators as the massed bands then joined in “Highland Laddie,” as a salute to Sir Iain Colquhoun of Luss, chieftain of the gathering.

It was the first occasion on which the world championship, hitherto competed for at Cowal Games, has been promoted by the Scottish Pipe Band Association. The winners were the Bowhill Colliery Pipe Band, from Fife (Pipe-Major C. L. Sutherland), who were already the European champions. As a close second came the Clan MacRae Society Pipe Band (Pipe-Major J. F. Nicoll), who also won the world’s drumming championship for their performance.

The principal contest began at 5.30 and lasted for two hours. Each of the 26 bands which had entered for it played a march, a strathspey, and reel, and the noble tunes brought round after round of applause from the crowded stands and terraces.

Tuesday 4 January, 1994

A Celtic miscellany

An Ambitious Festival In Glasgow To Promote Celtic Music Kicks Off At The Weekend In The Royal Concert Hall.

Preview by Kenny Mathieson

The growing clamour among Scots for Celtic roots music – both contemporary and traditional – has sparked a January experiment which raises hopes of an annual folk extravaganza at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall.

The instant, do-it-yourself mega-festival, Celtic Connections has no major backer, and will have to sink or swim by its box office appeal, abetted by some modest sponsorship, notably from the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

In some respects, though, it has much in common with the Glasgow Jazz Festival – principally, a hankering to pack the bill with the biggest names available, and an impatience with any notion that the way to create a successful festival is to build up in gradual stages.

There has certainly been nothing gradual about the birth of Celtic Connections.

The idea was first mooted in the summer, and began as a joint venture between Cameron McNicol, director of the Concert Hall, and BBC Radio Scotland.

It then mushroomed dramatically from there, as Colin Hynd of the Concert Hall explained.

“The first batch of names which came out of those initial talks were strong, but tended to be from the traditional side of the music. We then took the decision to try to widen the scope and the appeal of the festival by drawing on some of the newer bands like the Lost Soul Band (January 18), the Old Blind Dogs and Iron Horse (10 Jan), and one or two artists who are on the fringes of folk and rock, like the McCluskey Brothers (Jan 22) or Martin Stephenson (Jan 15).

“What we are looking to do with the festival is to represent Celtic and Gaelic culture as widely as possible, and we will be having some talks and exhibitions to support the music programme as well.

“We believe that we have covered a lot of ground in very little time, and we are hoping that we will attract quite a few different audiences across the two weeks.

“The Concert Hall has never really attempted anything similar to this, but we have had a good response to folk music in the past, and we hope that will continue here.”

It is hard to argue with Hynd’s summation of the programme, which seems to feature just about everybody who is anybody on the traditional music scene, and largely defies sensible paraphrase.

A taster selection of the treats in store would include an all too rare opportunity to hear Canadian singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Jan 13), Irish giants The Chieftains (Jan 11), De Dannan (Jan 14) and Altan (Jan 10), and Scottish favourites like Capercaillie (Jan 23) and Battlefield Band (Jan 21).

That, however, is only the start.

Other featured names in the main auditorium include the likes of Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham (Jan 11), Gaelic rockers Wolfstone (Jan 9), Uillean pipe wizard Davy Spillane in a double bill with the dazzling Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell (Jan 12), spiky Irish singer Mary Coughlan (Jan 15), and The Boys of the Lough (Jan 20).

Even without those concerts, however, the events scheduled for the smaller Strathclyde Suite (which will be laid out in cabaret-style with tables, rather than in the less appealing regimented rows of chairs) and the Exhibition Hall would make a respectable festival on their own.

The Concert Hall are clearly taking their remit seriously, and have committed themselves to further festivals in 1995 and 1996. That amounts to a very considerable financial risk at a time of year when audiences have not traditionally been lured out of the post-Christmas slump by, well, anything at all, really.

“January is an unusual time, but we actually had very little choice– the only practical alternatives were July, during the Glasgow holiday, or August, when we would be running against the Edinburgh Festival.

“It does make it a bit of a gamble, perhaps, but we are looking at the event in terms of a three year spread to establish it fully.

“It means that the hall will be alive with lots of events at a time when it is usually empty, and we are hoping that people will respond to the chance to get themselves out and come and hear some very fine music.”

The full text of these edited extracts can be found at The Scotsman Digital Archive.