Tuesday, January 11, 2011

'Ay, ye have music'

Some months ago--indeed, over a year ago, now, I mentioned that Robert Louis Stevenson (the same ubiquitous Stevenson) had a fondness for music, playing the flageolet and the piano. Here, however, is an impressive site that does a good deal more than mention it, having transcriptions of some of the tunes RLS wrote or collected. It requires a bit of scrolling, which is well worth it, especially on the home page where you can get a look at a jam session in the South Seas, including views of two French flageolets which seem to have very little finger room in relation to their size. (There was a copy of the same picture in the Stevenson Museum when I was there last month, and I did end up making several trips back and forth between it and Stevenson's (English-style) flageolet which was on display in the other room. I never did quite figure out how it worked; the fingering looked straightforward enough, but the keys were intimidating.)

Among the tunes in the index, one particularly worth mentioning is "Over the Sea to Skye," an old tune to which Stevenson penned a set of his own particularly wistful words. His lyrics are available at the bottom of the page, along with the useful trivia that "Over the Sea to Skye" (or "Skye Boat Song," if that's what your band calls it) is pentatonic (at least in the setting he used)--and why.

So there's your music theory for the day. Furthermore, the list includes several good old Scottish tunes, as well as some classical pieces that look rather intriguing--or if you are, like me, just an abyssmal piano player, there is company for the misery, a line from a letter Stevenson wrote to his cousin: "I can fish along with either hand pretty jolly, but on putting them together I become like Martha careful and troubled."

One bit of music which doesn't seem to appear on the site is the tune mentioned late in Kidnapped: "At first I proposed I should give him for a signal the 'Bonnie House of Airlie*,' which was a favourite of mine; but he objected that as the piece was very commonly known, any ploughman might whistle it by accident; and taught me instead a little fragment of a Highland air, which has run in my head from that day to this, and will likely run in my head as I lie dying. . ." One could, of course, assume that Stevenson had generously left the tune to the imagination of the reader which, perhaps, was exactly what he did at the time. However, when he got around to writing Catriona, he, went to the trouble of inserting a footnote in David Balfour's voice: "A learned folklorist of my acquaintance hereby identifies Alan's air. It has been printed (it seems) in Campbell's Tales of the West Highlands, Vol. II, p.91." Which, thanks to Google Books, is this:

*A tune which gets its own page here.

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