Wednesday, January 12, 2011

While I'm On the Subject. . .

As I was rambling on last night it occurred to me that quite aside from any music Stevenson played himself, one could likely compose a decent paper on mentions of songs and tunes quarried out of his books. "The Bonnie House of Airlie," turned up more than once, and there was Alan Breck Stewart, bursting "with a great voice into a Gaelic song," after his defense of the roundhouse, or whistling "Hey, Johnnie Cope" by way of an insult--or to switch books entirely, what about "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest"? When I thought about it, I realized my delight in the discovery of the music archive I posted yesterday was caused less by a satisfying of historical curiosity and more because Stevenson, when he had occasion to work a bit of music into a story, wrote as though he appreciated both a good tune and the skill required to turn it out well. Well, yes, he was a writer of fiction and so could make his characters say whatever they ought, not necessarily what he was believing in his own mind, but he was, for my money, accurate on the subject and. . .aw, I'll just come out and say it. To borrow a word from Alan Breck, I'm unco fond of the piping bits--like that scene from Catriona where the selfsame Alan is describing how he passed his time while in hiding:

'And whiles I would make songs.'
'What were they about?' says I.
'O, about the deer and the heather,' says he, 'and about the ancient old chiefs that are all by with it long syne, and just about what songs are about in general. And then whiles I would make believe I had a set of pipes and I was playing. I played some grand springs, and I thought I played them awful bonny; I vow whiles that I could hear the squeal of them!'

Stevenson himself said, on the subject of writing: "The right kind of thing should fall out in the right kind of place; the right kind of thing should follow; and not only the characters talk aptly and think naturally, but all the circumstances in a tale answer one to another like notes in music. The threads of a story come from time to time together and make a picture in the web, the characters fall from time to time into some attitude to each other or to nature, which stamps the story home like an illustration."* In his own writing, such illustrations are far from lacking, but one of my lasting favourites is "In Balquhidder" from Kidnapped. If you click the beginning below, it should take you to a page where you can finish out the chapter and decide its merits for yourself. But a story stamped "home like an illustration," or no, the details are delightful--the picture of the two enemies nearly running into each other at the door, the descriptions of the playing, especially the "warblers," which would almost have to be crunluaths, by the details set out, even the remark: "And he had no thought but for the music," is a perfect summation of the effect of a piobaireachd. Not as visually memorable, but the bit where Alan and Robin are debating whether they should eat before playing is rich. . .or at least somehow it comes back to haunt you when you find yourself first up some chilly morning, in a solo competition with nothing more hearty than a cup of Arco coffee to encourage you: "I havenae broken bread for near upon ten hours..."

*"A Gossip on Romance" (1882)

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