Five of the best... settings of Robert Burns poems
We celebrate Burns Night in the company of the great composers
From the Borders to Caithness, in the heart of Glasgow or on the remotest Hebridean island, any self-respecting Scot will have twigged that this evening is Burns Night. And most will, of course, be preparing a wee celebration or two.
Born in Ayrshire on 25 January 1759, Robert Burns (or ‘Rabbie Burns’ to many) enjoys an iconic status as Scotland’s national poet. Best known to most people as the writer of Auld Lang Syne – surely the most regularly misquoted poem in history (there should be no ‘the sake of’ in there) – his work can be cuttingly satirical, lyrical and romantic or just really rather charming.
Unsurprisingly, his genius soon spread well beyond Scotland itself, and his words have inspired settings from many of the greatest composers, from soon after his death in 1796 to the present day.
Though there is not a drop of Scottish blood to be found in the BBC Music Magazine office, we are more than happy to raise (and down) a glass of single malt or two and join in the fun. Here, then, are five of our favourite Burns settings…
The Lovely Lass of Inverness (1818)
This exquisite, but desperately mournful, little number is one of Beethoven’s 25 Scottish Songs, a group of folk settings for voice, violin, cello and piano – as well as Burns, there are also poems by the likes of Walter Scott and William Smyth. The opening lines tell you all you need to know: ‘The lovely lass o’ Inverness, Nae joy nor pleasure can she see…’
Die Hochlände-Witwe (1840)
On the eve of their wedding in 1840 – his famous ‘year of song’ – Robert Schumann presented his wife-to-be, Clara, with his Myrthen (Myrtles), an exceptional set of 26 songs setting poets including Rückert, Goethe, Heine and, of course, Burns. Translated by Wilhelm Gerhard, Die Hochlände-Witwe (The Highland Widow) is actually a grave lament, written in the aftermath of the battle of Culloden: ‘Oh I am come to the low Countrie, Ochon, Ochon, Ochrie! Without a penny in my purse, To buy a meal to me. It was na sae in the Highland hills, Ochon, Ochon, Ochrie! Nae woman in the Country wide, Sae happy was as me.’
Also an avid walker, writer and painter, the inspiration that Mendelssohn drew from his 1829 tour of Scotland has been well documented by famous works such as his Hebrides Overture and ‘Scottish’ Symphony No. 3. On a smaller scale comes this romantic duet that sets Burns’s ‘O wert thou in the cauld blast’, in which the poet promises to protect his beloved from the worst that the Scottish weather can throw at them. Which, as we know, is quite something…
Chanson Ecossaise (1909)
While Mendelssohn’s tributes to Scottish culture had been inspired by first-hand experience, the same could not be said of Ravel – the Frenchman didn’t, in fact, visit the country until two years after he’d written this song. Setting Burns’s gently pastoral ‘Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon’, the Chanson Ecossaise forms part of Ravel’s Chants Populaires series and, complete with the sound of a bagpipe drone in the piano accompaniment, is unmistakably Celtic-sounding.
MacPherson’s Farewell (1943)
Shostakovich’s Six Romances for Bass contains two Burns settings: ‘O wert thou in the cauld blast’ (see also Mendelssohn, above) and this spiky number. The poem itself is one of defiance, telling about James MacPherson, a real-life outlaw in north-east Scotland who was eventually caught and hanged. In Burns’s words, we hear him facing up to the gallows with typical bloody-mindedness: ‘Farewell, ye dungeons dark and strong, The wretch’s destinie! M’Pherson’s time will not be long On yonder gallows-tree…’