The Christmas season is about to end and the dawn of a new year looms before us. With a new year also comes a new recording and recital project.
I have begun work on my new CD, Emerald Songs, which will focus on the music of Ireland and Scotland. My resulting search for material has taken me on interesting paths, specially in the area of the lesser-known songs. It is during this research that I stumbled on the collection work of Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser.
Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, the daughter of two Scottish singers, was one of the many individuals who took interest in the ‘Celtic Revival‘, a variety of movements and trends, mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries, which drew on the traditions of Celtic literature and Celtic art, or in fact more often what art historians call Insular art. An interest in the movement was also shared by William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, “AE” Russell, Edward Martyn and Edward Plunkett.
While touring Eriskay, Marjorie witnessed many Gaelic folk songs endangered of disappearing as a result of population decline, and, being herself a singer, began a personal project to record and transcribe the music of the Hebrides, which she then arranged for voice and piano or harp. One of these songs became widely known as the “Eriskay Love Lilt”. For her contributions, she was awarded with the Order of the British Empire (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), and an honorary degree of Doctor of Music from the University of Edinburgh.
Russian operatic tenor, Vladimir Rosing frequently performed Kennedy-Fraser’s songs in his London recitals during the 1910s. Dr. Per Ahlander, Research Fellow at The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanitie of the University of Edinburgh, indicates in the abstract of his paper titled ”Marjory Kennedy-Fraser (1857–1930): musician, cultural entrepreneur, suffragette and musicologist”, that after her death, Fraser’s œuvre was virulently attacked by trendsetting Scottish intellectuals, who accused her of having misrepresented Gaelic songs. Unfortunately Dr. Ahlander has not published his documented after the speech and I have not been able to find examples of the criticism.
Nevertheless, Fraser’s attempts to combine the traditional with modern harmonic arrangements, early use of gramophone in recording and exposure of the material to a world stage are Fraser’s greatest contributions. On the difficulty of adapting the songs, she wrote in the preface to her collection Songs Of The Hebrides:
“Unfortunately, all these scales, as sung by the people, differ slightly from anything we can convey by any system of notation as yet in use. If in noting them down and thus trying to preserve them by other than the traditional aural method we sacrifice something of their character in this respect, it is imperative that we go further and compensate for this loss by furnishing them with an instrumental accompaniment. If in the days of the Greeks it was found difficult, as Aristotle says, to grasp a unison melody at a first hearing, how much more must that be the case now that we have learnt to rely upon a harmonic accompaniment. A melody, to be fully appreciated by the Greeks, had to become familiar through repetition. The modern art of harmonic accompaniment greatly lessens the need of the familiarizing process, since it helps to reveal, at a first hearing, the salient points and characteristic features of a tune.”
“To add harmony to an ancient melody is practically to produce a modern composition on an ancient foundation.”(Abdy Williams in ‘Internazionale Musikgesellschaft Journal.’) There is no traditional method of harmonizing old Celtic airs (although we know from old songs that the harp was used with them), there can therefore be no standard save that of individual taste.”
I am enjoying Fraser’s works, which I consider, as she quoted, new compositions based on ancient foundations (such as Britten’s work on folk songs)- I will be selecting a good number of candidates from Hebrides, and then turning my attention to the man many consider Ireland’s last and greatest Irish harpist-composer: Turlough O’Carolan.