Songs for George Thomson

Burns’s Songs for George Thomson
Edited by Kirsteen McCue

George Thomson (1757-1851)

The third volume of the OUP edition will focus exclusively on Burns’s songs for his second song editor George Thomson (1757-1851). Previous editors of Burns’s songs – notably James C. Dick, James Kinsley and Donald A. Low – have produced the songs as a body of work, extracting them from the collections for which many of them were originally created, amended or collected by Burns. But this new edition is going to revisit the songs within the context of those collections for which they were intended. Thomson’s work was aiming for a similar domestic music market to his rival James Johnson, for whom Burns worked tirelessly on The Scots Musical Museum (edited for this new edition by my colleague Murray Pittock). Johnson is respected by those interested in Scottish song and culture, but Thomson has received LOTS of bad press! Dick called him ‘the egregious editor’; Kinsley referred to him as ‘priggish’, because he edited out the ‘naughty’ bits in many of Burns’s songs. The Scottish musicologist David Johnson called his work ‘a monstrous white elephant’ and composer Cedric Thorpe Davie thought his volumes were ‘a sad memorial to misplaced enthusiasm and ignorant amateurishness’. But the close working relationship between Burns and Thomson – which only lasted from 1792 until the poet’s untimely death four years later – is the main source of information we have about Burns’s song-writing methods and his opinions of what makes a good song and what doesn’t, or what he liked about a song and what he didn’t. And, furthermore, Burns was committed to Thomson’s collection and even left Thomson the copyright of many of his songs. So I really hope that my work for this new edition will allow everyone to see the details of this bit of the Burns story in a much more balanced way. Thomson’s claim to fame, aside from commissioning Burns and many of his contemporaries, was that he asked contemporary European composers like Beethoven and Haydn to ‘set’ or ‘arrange’ the melodies for these songs for piano and voice along with parts for violin and ‘cello. So we end up with the amazing combination of Burns and Haydn or Burns and Beethoven. These new ‘foreign’ settings are not everyone’s cup of tea, but they have a really interesting place in the new drawing-room musical world which was coming to the fore at this point in our history. So I’m also really hoping that the new edition – and some newly commissioned recordings – will explain this whole context more clearly for us in the 21st century.
— Kirsteen McCue

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