With its rugged landscapes, beautiful wildlife and rich history, Scotland has always been a source of inspiration for composers. The distinctive quality of the country’s traditional music, instruments and style have resulted in some stunning pieces that express the vitality of the nation. These are six of the best compositions that take their influence from this spectacular country.
The Hebrides by Felix Mendelssohn
This famous concert overture is most commonly known as Fingal’s Cave – the source of its inspiration. After a visit to the island of Staffa in 1829 Mendelssohn was so taken by the echoing waves in the cave’s natural acoustic that he immediately wrote the opening few bars.
Sending the music to his sister Fanny Mendelssohn, he wrote ‘In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.’ The piece’s enduring appeal has encouraged people from all around the globe to visit this natural wonder.
A Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch
Despite having never visited Scotland before its composition, the German composer took elements of traditional folk tunes such as Hey Tuttie Tatie, The Dusty Miller and Auld Rob Morris to create this four-movement composition for violin and orchestra.
Bruch had a special place in his heart for the music of Scotland, saying that the folk tunes ‘pulled me into their magical circle’
The prominent role of the harp as an accompaniment to the violin is also a nod to Scotland’s earliest music. Highly popular at the time of its premiere, this piece remains one of Bruch’s most famous works.
Scottish Rhapsody by Ronald Binge
‘The mist enshrouded lochs, the calm of the glens, the skirl of the pipes and the swirl of the kilt as the highland fling dances on its with merry way.’ This is the image conjured up for composer Ernest Tomlinson by Binge’s mighty orchestral work.
As well as using tunes such as Kelvin Grove and Fairy Dance Reel, the English composer simply wrote in his own melodies where he saw fit, successfully managing to emulate the traditional style.
Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold
Written in 1957 for the BBC Light Music Festival, these four colourful dances heavily use key features of traditional Scottish music, such as scotch snaps and reels. The composer also used different timbres to imitate the drone of the Highland bagpipes
Though most of the vibrant melodies are original, Arnold did use one written by Robert Burns himself.
Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davies
The simple yet heartfelt melody line of this solo piano piece unveils a stark political message. A keen environmentalist, Davies wrote this to protest the planned building of a uranium mine in Orkney, where the composer lived.
It was premiered in 1980 at the St Magnus Festival; an event on Orkney which Davies himself co-founded.
The Land of the Mountain and the Flood by Hamish MacCunn
Written when he was a mere 18 years old, MacCunn’s work is considered a prime example of the Scottish overture. Born in Greenock, MacCunn’s compositions all have a distinctly Scottish sound, and he championed his country’s traditional music.
This orchestral work is based on Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Despite criticism at its premiere, it went on to become MacCunn’s most renowned work.