Professor Kirsteen McCue: ‘Robert Burns’s Songs for George Thomson’

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Blog Author: Maria Marchidanu

Poetry and song framed the online seminar hosted by the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies on the 9th of February 2021. ‘Robert Burns’s Songs for George Thomson’ was presented by Professor Kirsteen McCue and the event welcomed over 130 attendees from numerous international locations. Kirsteen McCue is Professor of Scottish Literature & Song Culture and Co-Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow. She has previously edited two volumes of the songs of James Hogg for the Stirling/South Carolina Collected Works of James Hogg, has co-edited Women’s Travel Writing in Scotland (with Pam Perkins) and has published widely on Romantic song culture, most recently ‘The Culture of Song’ in the new Oxford Handbook to British Romanticism. Between 2017 and 2019 she led the RSE Romantic National Song Network. Professor McCue’s warm presence, along with her research on Romantic song culture and 30 years of work on George Thomson created an event where every attendee, regardless of previous historical or literary knowledge, received the necessary instruments to step into the eighteenth-century world of music collectors, song editors, and poets, thus shaping a seminar that echoed a story as much as an academic analysis.

The event celebrated the publication of the fourth volume of the new Oxford Works on Robert Burns, marking the end of the AHRC funded project developed by the Centre for Robert Burns Studies – Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century: Prose & Songs. While the presentation examined the relationship between Burns and George Thomson who undertook the editing of many of Burns’s songs for the first time, it also highlighted the significance of the volume in a present-day context; the songs are usually approached as poetry and, while this is certainly the case, no other volume has published the songs as they appeared in Burns’s own time.

Inspired by his mother and local community, Burns worked almost exclusively on songs towards the end of his life. While anecdotes exist regarding Burns’s own musical ability, the creative process itself required a melody to be added to the poems and thus turn them into songs. If no other edition has fully considered how Burns’s songs were edited and arranged, this ground-breaking volume offers an insight into how Burns gathered songs for a large collection (in the role of both writer and collector), while the range of his involvement in the project is recorded using 8 categories, from 1 marking works entirely by Burns, to 8 highlighting songs in which he played no part.

Moreover, the new edition helps reassess the artistic collaboration between Burns and Thomson as it developed in the context of protecting a national song legacy. Professor McCue evidenced how, through Thomson’s commission, Burns was able to work on the song culture he loved, while expanding his readership through the collection’s publication in London. Burns compared the process of making songs to manufacturing a product for export, a statement which is also suggestive of Thomson’s approach during their collaboration. Both men’s commitment to song culture is evident in the intensity and detail of their correspondence where Burns is seen to list and discuss over 170 songs in one letter alone. If Thomson’s collection received a mixed reception, his objective was for the songs to be enjoyed in the domestic sphere, while his primary clientele was female. This fact influences Burns’s awareness of how to package the songs, yet Thomson does make one exception by publishing ‘The Jolly Beggars’.

Professor McCue added that while Burns provides the largest body of work for Thomson, he is not his only contributor. Thomson published over 30 writers (including James Hogg, Walter Scott, and Lord Byron), particularly supporting women such as Anne Grant. Correspondingly, Thomson commissioned a range of musicians to arrange the melodies amongst whom were Haydn and Beethoven. Thomson would provide a thematic overview of the songs to the musicians, but not the actual texts; in fact, Beethoven is the only composer who contests this approach claiming that he cannot do justice to the works without accessing the poems. Professor McCue shared one of the songs that resulted from the collaboration between Burns and Thomson, ‘There’s Auld Rob Morris’, arranged by Pleyel and performed using period instruments. More songs can be accessed through the project website:

Although Burns never heard the 174 songs published by Thomson, their correspondence illustrates an energetic and rich collaboration, covering, amongst other editorial topics, detailed exchanges around the inclusion of Scots and English songs. The new edition follows these editorial changes in great detail, while also providing the reader with an insight into decisions Burns agreed and disagreed with. 

Thomson was accused of failing to pay Burns for his work, a charge which followed the editor for the rest of his life. However, research into their correspondence reveals that, actually, it was Burns who aggressively refused to accept any financial recompense from Thomson, going as far as to claim that he will stop their collaboration if the editor continues to send him money. Thomson played a significant role in the memorialisation of Burns and was involved considerably with his family following his death.

The new collection shines a new light on the collaboration between Robert Burns and George Thomson. Described as ‘thrilling’ and ‘inspiring’, Professor Kirsteen McCue’s seminar presented innovative research on song culture in Scotland, while opening the door to the complexity and energy of an artistic collaboration travelling from the eighteenth-century to the present-day. One of the guests claimed that Professor McCue’s ‘passion and emotion are illuminating’, a description which mirrors both her research and an atmosphere shared with all the participants in this inspiring event.

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