The music of James Oswald, described as the ‘Scottish Orpheus’
James Oswald was born in the little town of Crail, Fife and started life as a dancing master in Dunfermline. He spent time in Edinburgh and
then went to London and started to compose music based on Scottish tunes then the rage in the 1740’s. He set up shop near St Martin’s Churchyard and this became a meeting place for expatriate Scots. He developed his links with the English aristocracy and was appointed Chamber Composer by George III.
We were delighted to welcome Jeremy Barlow to the meeting, an authority on this period of music. Jeremy is one of the most versatile musicians on the British early music scene, with a career encompassing writing, lecturing, and performing. After studying at Trinity College Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Music, London, his first job was as flutist with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
But what characterises Scottish music and makes it so recognisable? The basic reason is that it is based on the pentatonic scale not the normal 7 note scale we are used to. It also has a base accompaniment which is a chord which only changes one note at a time as the melody progresses. The third feature is something called the ‘Scotch Snap’, a short accented note before a longer note. These combine to give Scottish music its particular sound.
As an introduction, Jeremy played the Birthday Ode for Queen Mary composed in 1692 by Henry Purcell. This uses a Scottish tune in the base line. We also heard contemporary examples by William McGibbon; Francesco Geminiani and Alexander Erskine, Earl of Kelly. The main part of the evening was music by Oswald which included Airs for the Seasons, the curiously named Dust Cart Cantata and the Divertimento No. 8 for English guitar. Jeremy Barlow directed the Broadside Band in Airs for all the Seasons, Oswald’s finest work.
Oswald became particularly friendly with John Robinson-Lytton the owner of Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. After Robinson-Lytton died he married his widow and moved into Knebworth, he had surely come a long way.
An interesting evening concerning the work of a composer few would be familiar with.
I am indebted to the notes provided by Jeremy in writing this piece
Next meeting 13 November which is a members’ evening so please let Tony Powell know what your choice is.