Waverley’s Aura and the Romance of Scotland

It’s the morning after.  The world is waking up from something. Was it a nightmare or a fantasy?  Scotland will not separate from the United Kingdom after all.

This morning –knocked a bit senseless by a cold, sniff sniff cough cough, and so confined to quarters for a bit—I went to youtube, to see if there was anything that seemed to properly capture the moment.

There are so many pieces of music –some classical, some, not—that in various ways conjure up Scotland.  Please note, too, that I am speaking not as a Scot but as a Canadian, a Hungarian-Canadian come to think of it.  I’d noticed parallels long ago between Hungary & Scotland, and also between Canada & Scotland.  Hungary was the wilder gamier yin to Austria’s yang, the place with spicier cuisine & dance-rhythms, a bit darker in the face.  Scotland seemed to also represent a comparable part of the British imagination (although I suppose Ireland & Wales would fight with Scotland out for that title, such as it is).  French-Canada offers another version of this dichotomy, in its relationship to English-Canada.

I glanced at Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, a piece I’ve played on piano with a violinist I know (her part is much harder of course), and said a quiet “no” to myself, a piece that if anything is a kind of exploration of Scottish music rather than the country or its soul.

I spent a bit longer on Mendelssohn.  I was struck suddenly that the Jewish sensibility too seems like an echo of the Scots, as I think of his music, his characteristic attitude of sadness.  There’s the opening theme to the Hebrides Overture (contrasted with a lovely melody in the major: but ending with the re-affirmation of that tragic minor),…. and the first movement of his Scottish Symphony (#3).     I suppose I am projecting, especially given what I’ve understood of Mendelssohn & his sensibility, who self-identified not as “Jewish” but “Christian”.

And then I remembered Berlioz, who led me to the key influence on the foreign perceptions of Scotland, namely Walter Scott and his novel Waverley.  Nowadays we immerse ourselves in films & books and even video games taking us away from our mundane world.  It’s hard to properly imagine what it felt like, reading Waverley when it appeared.  It may not have been  the first historical novel, but Scott’s romance suddenly made Scotland the coolest, most romantic place in the world (excuse the pun) .  Of course that doesn’t mean that anyone really understood the place or its people.  The idea of Scotland though is what we’re talking about, not the reality.

Waverley seems the perfect image for September 2014, and the results of the referendum.

Young Edward Waverley is a perfect every-man, or every-Scot if you will.  He fights on both sides.  While he pursues a beautiful highland woman named Flora (and is rejected by her) he marries Rose, who represents someone comparatively safe.  That outcome –a flirtation with a high-spirited beauty, but a marriage into the conservative land-owning family reminds me of the referendum itself.  Safety prevailed over romance.

It seems fitting that Berlioz’s Waverley overture is so unexciting.  But perhaps that has more to do with the composer’s development than with the subject.  The introduction is a long preamble reminding me of someone afraid to commit, a good six minutes (in this version) before anything really “happens”.  Was it Waverley or Berlioz having qualms?

It’s so different from the way Berlioz begins his Rob Roy overture.   Of course this piece is about romance without doubts or fears.  We’re galloping into harm’s way in the first minute.

I am glad Scotland did as Canada (or Québec) did, deciding in the end that after sowing some wild oats, we must settle down.  Will there be any regrets, fond looks over the shoulder?  From afar –that is, via the music, novels & art– i have no idea.  It’s all very romantic, and that’s more to do with what i dreamed last night than the morning after.

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