Ensemble Hesperi - Scottish Baroque Music: Your Questions Answered!

Ensemble Hesperi - Scottish Baroque Music: Your Questions Answered!

Well, what is Scottish Baroque Music?

If your first reaction to the title of this article was ‘Scottish Baroque music? Really?’ you might be surprised to learn that there is a great wealth of beautiful Baroque repertoire from late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scotland. Some historical performers might be familiar with Barsanti’s ‘Scots Tunes’ and perhaps some might have heard of one or two of the leading Scottish Baroque composers, such as James Oswald or William McGibbon. But there is far, far more Baroque music to enjoy from this corner of the world, relatively little of which is known in England, or indeed outside Early Music circles within Scotland itself. As an Early Music ensemble based in London, we are working hard to introduce this fascinating repertoire to the wider musical community through our Scottish Baroque programme ‘The Caledonian Pocket Companion’.

Who were the composers?

Although composers from across Europe visited (and in some cases settled in) Scotland through the eighteenth century, there was no shortage of Scottish-born composers, many of whom made a successful living in the flourishing musical circles of Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Many were viewed as musical celebrities, performing for and teaching the Scottish gentry throughout the country, where they were often attached to wealthy patrons, who supported them throughout their careers. Following in a long tradition of Scottish musical excellence, composers such as McGibbon, Oswald, John Reid, and the Earl of Kelly composed in a variety of different forms and styles to a highly appreciative musical Scottish audience of professional and amateur musicians.

So, what was the music scene like in eighteenth-century Scotland?

Both Edinburgh and Aberdeen boasted thriving musical scenes throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. The Edinburgh Musical Society was established first, in 1728, followed by the Aberdeen Musical Society in 1748. In both cities, however, musical communities had long flourished, and concerts were well-attended and did not lack financial support; indeed, the societies were able to employ salaried musicians to teach their members, and to perform orchestral works. These musical societies ‘subscribed’ to the latest compositions from popular composers as we might subscribe to a magazine, and the catalogues of their libraries show that the works Italian composers such as Corelli were particularly well-loved, as well as those of Scottish composers.

What makes it ‘Scottish’?

Scottish music possesses several distinctive features – but the most well-known is the ‘Scotch snap’, a reverse dotted note pairing, which is instantly recognisable as a ‘folk’ element or ornament. Ornamentation in general in Scottish music is also highly distinctive, often derived from bagpipe or fiddle music. Finally, traditional Scottish music takes several forms which are instantly recognisable from folk genres, such as airs, reels, hornpipes, and jigs. It is these elements combined which make the music ‘Scottish’; and in fact Scottish composers of the eighteenth century incorporated these features instinctively to produce an organic mix of traditional music and the conventions of ‘classical music’ at the time.

Who was the best composer of the Scottish Baroque?

Arguably, amongst Scottish Baroque repertoire, there is one composer who stands out as having achieved great things within his lifetime. Born in Crail, a beautiful fishing village in Fife, James Oswald (1710-1769) had an incredibly successful career, eventually becoming Chamber Composer to George III in 1761. When he moved to London in his twenties, the musical community of Edinburgh lamented his departure, and an ‘Epistle to Oswald’ was published in the Scots Magazine in 1741:


‘Dear Oswald, could my verse as sweetly flow
As notes thou softly touchest with the bow, 
When all the circling fair attentive hing
On ilk vibration of thy trembling string,
I’d sing how thou wouldst melt our souls away
By solemn notes, or cheer us with the gay,
In verse as lasting as thy tune shall be,
As soft as thy new polish’d “Danton me.”
But wha can sing that feels wi’ sae great pain
The loss for which Edina sighs in vain?
Our concert now nae mair the ladies mind,
They’ve a’ forgot the gate to Niddery’s Wynd;
Nae mair the “Braes of Ballandine” can charm, 
Nae mair can “Fortha’s Bank” our bosom warm, 
Nae mair the “Northern Lass” attention draw, 
Nor “ Pinky-house” gi’ place to “Alloa.”
Alas! no more shall thy gay tunes delight,
No more thy notes sadness or joy excite,
No more thy solemn bass’s awful sound
Shall from the Chapel’s vaulted roof rebound.
London, alas ! which aye has been our bane,
To which our very loss is certain gain,
If they thy value know as well as we,
Perhaps our vanished gold may flow to thee.’


When he arrived in London, James Oswald set up a publishing house, and published several of his own works, one of which is unique even within the wider parameters of eighteenth-century chamber music.  This is his set of 96 ‘Airs for all Seasons’ – 24 each for Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Scored for solo line and figured bass (although a small number of airs also have a second part), each air is named after a flower which blooms in the appropriate season: ‘The Tulip’ or ‘The Crocus’ for Spring, for example. These airs are short, (around 5 minutes in duration) but usually consist of two or three movements, most of which are strongly influenced by his early life in Scotland. Many include dance movements and slow airs, and the ‘Scotch snap’ is never far away…

Ensemble Hesperi performs 3 Airs from ‘Spring’ by James Oswald.

What about the ‘Scots Tunes’?

One of the reasons we, as performers, find Scottish Baroque music so compelling is the fact that it combines the simple beauty of folk tunes with the more structured conventions of figured harmony. In the mid-eighteenth century, a group of Scottish composers decided that to take ownership of the Scots style and to refine it - and soon composers such as William McGibbon and James Oswald were taking Lowland Scots tunes and adding simple figured-bass lines to render them more familiar and perhaps ‘acceptable’ to middle-class audiences. Italian musicians such as Barsanti, Tenducci, Corri, and even Geminiani, followed suit, and many of these collections were subsequently published in London, where they found great popularity amongst professional and amateur musicians alike. Interestingly, the tunes themselves frequently vary from setting to setting, and it seems reasonable to assume that many of these composers learnt these tunes simply by hearing them performed. As a result, these settings of Scottish folk melodies represent a real synthesis between aural and written traditions of musical transmission. 

Who was Francesco Barsanti?

The most well-known setting of ‘Scots Tunes’ is by the Italian composer Francesco Barsanti (1690-1775), whose life, though not well-documented, seems to have been full of travel and musical exploration. Historically, musical relations between the east coast of Scotland and Italy were always very active, and the eighteenth century was no exception. In Italy, it was becoming increasingly difficult for young musicians to earn their living, and many emigrated to Britain, where they travelled regularly between England and Scotland, gaining patrons far and wide, and forging successful careers through performance, composition, and, of course, a great deal of teaching! Barsanti spent several years in London and the North of England, before moving to Scotland in 1735. There he married a Scottish wife (about whom we know nothing save her name – Jean!), and settled in Edinburgh, where he was employed by the Edinburgh Musical Society as a wind instrument specialist and copyist.

Where can I find editions of this beautiful music?

There are very few modern editions of Scottish Baroque music available at this point, and often they consist of one sonata from a collection, for example, or a few airs from Oswald’s 96!  However, some of this music is freely available on the ISMLP (Petrucci) website, or can be obtained from National Library of Scotland, the Bodleian Library, or the British Library. In Glasgow, a trust, ‘Musica Scotica’ exists whose sole purpose is to publish, perform, and record Scottish music: it has a large and growing catalogue of collections of Scottish Early Music, and one volume of ‘Chamber Music of Eighteenth-Century Scotland’ was published in 2000 (see www.musicascotica.org.uk for more). Ensemble Hesperi hopes to make modern editions of complete individual works such as Oswald’s ‘Airs for all Seasons’, so that this music can be performed more often and easily accessed by all music-lovers worldwide.

Are there any recordings of Scottish Baroque Music?  

Again, sadly, relatively few commercial recordings of much of the repertoire by the key Scottish composers exist. Ensemble Hesperi hopes to record the complete ‘Airs for All Seasons’ by Oswald, along with a set of 12 sonatas by another fascinating Scottish composer General John Reid, who founded the chair of music at Edinburgh University.

Ensemble Hesperi performs John Reid's Sonata II.

So how can I hear this music?

Ensemble Hesperi is looking forward to performing its Scottish programme throughout 2017 at several prestigious venues, including the London Festival of Baroque Music as part of its ‘Future Baroque’ series, and at Brighton Early Music Festival. For more information and tickets, visit:

www.lfbm.org.uk/future-baroque-2-2 and www.bremf.org.uk


Ensemble Hesperi is a young, innovative, Early Music duo based in London. Its core members, Thomas Allery and Mary-Jannet Leith, are dedicated to showcasing the infinite colours of their instruments: harpsichord and recorder. Ensemble Hesperi brings lesser-known Early Music to a wider audience, presenting programmes through the lens of colourful characters from the past. They have a particular interest in promoting Scottish Baroque repertoire, exploring the fascinating links between Scotland, London, and the continent during the eighteenth century. The ensemble performs regularly throughout London and further afield, and is particularly delighted to have been selected for the Brighton Early Music Festival Live! young artist scheme for 2016-2017. In 2018 they hope to tour England and Scotland with their Scottish Baroque programme. To keep up to date with all the ensemble’s news, and find a concert near you, please visit www.ensemblehesperi.com.


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