‘How British is Scotland? Harmonic Fantasy or Unresolved Dissonance?’

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On 8 April 2014, the Centre welcomed the University’s own Prof Bill Sweeney to discuss ‘How British is Scotland? Harmonic Fantasy or Unresolved Dissonance?’, continuing the ‘How British is Scotland?’ mini-series and following Prof Lynn Abrams’ lecture in March. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

For some, being Scottish necessitates the rejection of ‘Scottishness’ (at least in the traditional, parochial sense), and the acceptance that Britishness is both half of our identity and half foreign – something we ‘vaulted over to find ourselves’. However, this can create a ‘paralysing dualism’. Taking an autobiographical slant, Prof Sweeney argued that a sense of Scottishness came more from class identity, stemming from a lack of identification with the militaristic Empire and the ‘Oxbridge patois’ of Received Pronunciation. Admitting this was somewhat anecdotal, he integrated the theory of John Foster called ‘complementary subordination’ or ‘the historical relationship and behaviour of the Scottish economy within British capitalism’, to represent a wider disconnect from central British identity.

The title of the lecture was analysed, and Prof Sweeney revealed that the terms ‘Harmonic Fantasy’ and ‘Unresolved Dissonance’ were intended as deliberately ambiguous and paradoxical. Paradoxes loomed large over much of the lecture, and for good reason. Hugh MacDiarmid’s assessment of Scottish identity hinged upon the nation’s ‘specific aboulia’, or absence of willpower. Yet paradoxically, his poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (read by MacDiarmid here) deplores parochial traditionalism, while constructing a synthetic version of Scots to make a political point about the condition of the nation.

The famed composer Haydn arranged the Scottish song ‘Tullochgorum’ (written by John Skinner, 1721-1807) and ‘smoothed out’ the rough Scottishness of the tune, ‘taming’ it, and making it palatable for the nostalgic and picturesque society of upper-class Europe. This interaction with foreign influence has been bemoaned by some down to the present day, and opinions can be divisive. Even without comparison to peers, composers were subject to the whims of critical judgement. The Scottish composer Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie  was deemed ‘cosmopolitan’ by  Grove’s Dictionary of Music (1940), yet was later criticised for his overly ‘self-conscious’ insertion of Scottish characteristics by Cedric Thorpe Davie in 1980. Interestingly, Henry George Farmer argued that Mackenzie’s ‘distinctly Scottish’ music was a major part of the renaissance of British music, which implicitly celebrates committment to discrete musical traditions. Farmer also pointed out that several Scottish composers took German or Italian names to ‘further their professional interests’, yet in ‘private life they were good Scots’.

Returning to the incorrigible MacDiarmid, Prof Sweeney discussed his reaction to the founding of the RSAMD in Glasgow, which he claimed would become a ‘mere cramming shop for non-creative people’ due to its disconnect from continental influence. The paradox and conflict between ‘real Scottish’ music and international compositions may be the true essence  of individual Scottish identity, and the resolution of these paradoxes would stifle creativity; the conflicting and contrasting aspects of Scottishness are the ‘rocket-fuel’ of innovation. Further to this, Prof Sweeney suggested that such psychological problems cannot be resolved through constitutional change, i.e. the upcoming referendum. Instead, they can be remedied through a consistent dialogue with our contemporaries and predecessors, both internal and international, with the goal of reinvention. Only through the building of such ’empathetic bridges’ can we find a ‘sense of ourselves’.

The lecture was played out by Symphony No 3 [end] by the Scottish composer Thomas Wilson, who said of the piece:

…[it leaves] the audience to envisage the subsequent but unwritten progress of this new cycle in their own imagination’.

In the question session, Prof Sweeney emphasised that many Scottish composers, such as Thomas Wilson or Erik Chisholm, are sadly underplayed in their home country as many orchestras prefer to play internationally renowned compositions.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues after Easter on Tuesday 29 April with Dr Ewan Campbell and Prof Stephen Driscoll, ‘How British is Scotland?  Archaeological Origins of Scotland’. This will be held in the Western Infirmary Lecture Theatre at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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