Vancouver Bach Festival: Keyboardist David McGuinness documents how European composers borrowed from Scots
Scottish keyboardist David McGuinness says he hesitates before ever claiming to be the first to do anything.
“That’s always dangerous,” the Early Music Vancouver artist in residence tells the Straight over Zoom from his home in Glasgow. “Somebody will always prove you wrong if you say that.”
But it’s accurate to describe the director of Concerto Caledonia as one of the music scholars most responsible for elevating awareness of the role of Scottish folk musicians in the development of European baroque music.
This passion came about quite accidentally. As a young man, McGuinness enrolled in mathematics at York University in England but quickly learned that he didn’t have an aptitude for the subject. So he veered into studying early music, which was part of a maths and music program.
“They had just bought a harpsichord,” McGuinness recalls. “It was really nice and nobody else could play it.”
He mastered the instrument, which was popularized with the rise of baroque music. That led him to study old Scottish fiddle books from around 1800 and earlier.
In those days, people would discourage him from playing those tunes, disdainfully referring to them as “drawing-room music”.
But he disagreed, arguing that this wasn’t a case of people trying to write baroque music and failing.
In fact, he concluded that Scottish fiddle-music composers were creating something entirely different, writing in a vernacular rather than a traditional manner.
“There was a distinctive Scottish style, and they were looking at how they could integrate that in different ways with music that was coming from elsewhere, particularly Italy,” McGuinness says.
He decided to record this 18th-century Scottish music with Concerto Caledonia, in part because it was nowhere to be found in his local record store.
“I thought, ‘There’s a job that needs to be done,’ ” McGuinness states.
In 2007, McGuinness produced a 50-part history of Scottish music for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He's also a senior lecturer in music at the University of Glasgow,
McGuinness is one of two Early Music Vancouver artists in residence who are playing major roles in the organization's Vancouver Bach Festival. The other is Cape Breton Island violinist and fiddler David Greenberg, a longtime music collaborator of McGuinness.
"We've been playing together for 20 years," McGuinness says.
Greenberg has recorded Scottish, Cape Breton, and baroque music on several occasions.
According to Early Music Vancouver executive director and former McGill University professor Suzie LeBlanc, it’s become clear in recent years that Scottish musicians inspired several Italian baroque composers, including Francesco Geminiani, as well as Germany’s Georg Philipp Telemann and France’s Georg Muffat. And this connection between Scottish folk tunes and baroque music from the European continent is at the heart of this year’s Vancouver Bach Festival, which runs until August 6.
McGuinness has also concluded that the influence of 18th-century Scottish poet Allan Ramsay spread far and wide.
“His songs—uncredited—are what a lot European composers picked up 30, 40, 50 years later when discovering the magical mystical joys of the Celtic fringe,” he quips.
The growing awareness of Scotland’s historical connection to Europe comes as Scottish nationalism is on the rise. For McGuinness, the link between his research and Scottish identity comes through having aspects of the culture taken seriously.
In addition, it's becoming increasingly clear that Scotland has a long historical connection to the European continental land mass, as well as to Scandinavian countries.
“It’s not an inward-looking culture either,” McGuinness adds. “We think of Scotland as being on the remote edge of Europe. If you consider that most of the routes were by sea and not by land, we’re not remote at all.”