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Scottish Musical Fascists

This month The Scotsman reported that Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival has been awarded £100,000 by the Scottish government “to create a new body of orchestral work inspired by the Declaration of Arbroath. Eight of the nation’s leading folk, jazz and classical musicians will be charged with composing new pieces which will be premiered together months before the 700th anniversary of the signing of the document next year. It is hope [sic] the project will inspire a new generation of composers to emerge and create ‘extraordinary symphonic pieces with a Scottish voice that is not patronising or backward’.”

The Declaration of Arbroath was a letter written in 1320 by Scottish magnates to Pope John XXII, who had recognised England’s feudal overlordship of Scotland. That might seem none of the Pope’s business, but he’d been wickedly provoked. In 1306, Robert the Bruce stabbed to death his rival John Comyn in front of the altar of Greyfriars Church in Dumfries. For this he was excommunicated. The nobles wanted the penalty lifted and Robert recognised as king, on the grounds that Scotland was a free and independent kingdom. 

The BBC History website tells us that the Declaration of Arbroath was “a prototype of contractual kingship” and that the American Declaration of Independence was “partially based on it”. Both claims are strongly disputed by scholars. But that doesn’t trouble the SNP, which likes its nationalist history neat, with not even a wee drop of ambiguity. 

The composers will be given “complete freedom”, says the festival. For some reason this prompted me to listen to Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution. It was about as much fun as the title suggests, written in a spirit of sycophantic terror by an almost-great composer who chose to end his exile in America and live in Stalin’s Russia. His cantata didn’t protect him from persecution, but it’s hard to feel sorry for him.

I’m toying with an extreme analogy here, so I’d better be careful. The Scottish government isn’t demanding that the Celtic Connections composers set its propaganda to music. Nor does it have a taste for genocide, though I suspect that an independent SNP-ruled Scotland would be a creepy place. 

But let’s take a look at what Donald Shaw, creative producer of Celtic Connections, has to say: “It’s very strange that a country like Scotland, which absolutely has its own musical identity, hasn’t had big symphonic pieces rooted in the folk tradition like those from Bartok, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. This project is a declaration of intent to grasp the thistle and give a sense of confidence to orchestral works from Scottish composers. It’s about freedom, exploration and intent.”

None of this rings true. Which big pieces “rooted in the folk tradition” does Shaw have in mind? Shostakovich was inspired by Jewish, not Russian, folk music. Stravinsky despaired of composers trapped by their national idiom. Which leaves Bartok, whose music, even at its most inaccessible, speaks with a Hungarian accent. But it’s rooted in the the Western musical canon, not “the folk tradition”. And although Bartok was a pioneer ethnomusicologist, he collected more Romanian and Slovakian tunes than Hungarian ones. 

I suspect what Shaw means – and wants – is nationalist music. That describes Bartok’s early symphonic poem Kossuth, written when Hungary was a Habsburg kingdom – but it sounds more like gypsified Richard Strauss than mature Bartok. Stravinsky wrote none. And Shostakovich’s nationalist music, like Prokofiev’s, is state-commissioned propaganda.

Maybe there is something in my analogy. Scottish nationalists still worship the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, whose own household god was Stalin. The Celtic Connections festival, though lively, is creeping ever closer to Scotland’s nationalist government. Check out Donald Shaw’s Twitter profile, full of SNP ranting and boasting: he may not know much about classical music, but he could give Prokofiev lessons in toadying to political masters.

I said that none of Shaw’s statement rings true, but notice that it twice uses the word “intent”, which is hard to square with its talk of “complete freedom”. Will the composers be free to challenge the mythology of the Declaration of Arbroath? That’s a silly question, I suppose, because someone has to choose the composers, who will be “charged with” producing music that is not “patronising or backward”. Meaning: if you want a commission, get with the programme. 

The author of the Scotsman article, Brian Ferguson, certainly is with the programme: his “report” is a press release. Scroll down, however, and you’ll find a comment from someone called Eddie McGuire. It simply reads: “Creativity being harnessed to the separatist project!”

That must have stung. McGuire is one of Scotland’s finest composers. If you doubt that, go on to Spotify and listen to his chamber music, in which formal mastery of composition and years spent playing flute in a proper folk group, the Whistlebinkies, combine to enchanting effect. He could, if he chose, write a mighty piece inspired by the Declaration. But my guess is that he’d choose not to, because he can spot a political stunt when he sees one. 

And there are plenty to spot. The SNP has always dreamed of a day when all creativity is harnessed to the separatist project. Now that it controls not only the government purse but also much of the Scottish media, that day is not far off.