The British Isles: A Musical Tour – Scotland

Hardly surprising, Scotland, with its rugged landscapes, rough seas and die-hard nationalism, has provided the inspiration for some powerfully evocative music and has enticed composers from far beyond its borders. One question begs to be asked, though: ‘Why do women in Scottish operas all seem to go insane?’ Answers on a suitably picturesque postcard, please…

Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 3 (‘Scottish’)
It is not just the Hebrides Overture that owes its existence to Mendelssohn’s Scottish travels – the composer’s Third Symphony was inspired by visits to the palace of Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Park in Edinburgh. As he wrote at the time: ‘Few of my Switzerland reminiscences can compare to this; everything here looks so stern and robust, half enveloped in haze or smoke or fog.’

Bizet – The Fair Maid of Perth
Bizet’s four-act opera is set in various locations in Perth, including the city square. The plot, taken from Walter Scott’s novel of the same name but sometimes rather remote from it, revolves around a smith’s love for the local glover’s daughter, his suspicions of infidelity on her part, her subsequent madness and their eventual reunion. Contrived stuff indeed.

Mendelssohn – Hebrides Overture (‘Fingal’s Cave’)
Mendelssohn visited Fingal’s Cave on the isle of Staffa during his first journey to Britain in 1829. he described the landmark – known locally as An Uaimh Bahinn (The Musical Cave) – as being ‘like the interior of a gigantic organ for the winds and tumultuous waves to play on’ and allegedly wrote down the overture’s first 20 bars while at the cave itself.

Orkney Islands
Maxwell Davies
Peter Maxwell Davies made the Orkneys his home in 1970 and since then Orcadian themes have featured largely in his work, which includes the chamber opera The Martyrdom of St. Magnus, Hymn to St. Magnus and An Orkney Wedding. St. Magnus himself – to whom the cathedral in Kirkwall is dedicated – died in Eglisay in the Orkneys in 1116, at the hands of his cousin.

Literary Scotland
Donizetti – Lucia di Lammermoor
Another opera based on a Walter Scott novel and, like The Fair Maid of Perth, another mad female at its end. Lucia’s dementia is, of course, one of opera’s defining moments – many used to regard it as the whole opera’s raison d’être. There’s bloodletting aplenty, for those inclined that way. Don’t go looking for Ravenswood or Lammermoor on the map, however: they’re fictional.

Scottish Songs
Vaughan Williams, Haydn, Ravel, Beethoven, Grainger
The allure of the Scottish folksong has enticed many composers, not least Vaughan Williams, whose arrangement of Loch Lomond, for baritone solo and male-voice accompaniment, was completed in 1919. Ravel, too, included a ‘Chanson Écossaise’ as part of his Chants Populaires of 1910. Beethoven and Haydn, on the other hand, had to be persuaded to write harmonies for Scottish songs.

A German fan
Bruch – Scottish Fantasy
It was always a source of pride to Bruch that he assembled the folk elements for his Scottish Fantasy – essentially a four-movement violin concerto – not from books but from visits to the country itself. The Fantasy was composed in 1880, at a time when there was great admiration in Germany for all things Scottish.

Verdi – Macbeth
Witchcraft, murder and, in Lady Macbeth, one of opera’s most frightening leading ladies – yes, she has a mad scene as well. Shakespeare’s Scottish play provides the plot for arguably Verdi’s darkest opera, set both in Macbeth’s Scottish Highland castle and at a location near the English border.

Classic CD magazine, 1998


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