Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society Oral History Project – 2

The Orchestra of The Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society, Aberdeen Music Hall, 28 November 1928

Changing Ideas about Scottish Dance Music 

True to its name, the Aberdeen Strathspey & Reel Society initially performed mostly strathspeys and reels, in addition to a limited number of other tune-types such as slow airs, marches, and jigs. The limited range of dance-types in the society’s repertoire is illustrated by the programme at the society’s first annual concert in the Aberdeen Music Hall on 21 November 1928, which featured nine strathspeys, seven reels, six airs, three slow strathspeys, and one pipe-march, in addition to songs, recitations, and an exhibition of country dances. 

The choice of repertoire reflected ideas about Scottish dance music that became current in the course of the nineteenth century, and which identified the reel and strathspey as so-called ‘indigenous’ tune types, in contrast to tune-types perceived as foreign, such as the waltz or quadrille. This idea influenced collectors and composers of Scottish music, with publications such as The Glen Collection of Scottish Dance Music (2 vols, 1891–95) featuring reels, strathspeys, and – to a lesser extent – jigs, exclusively. 

With the change in the performance context of Scottish music from dance-accompaniment to concert-repertoire and the emerging ‘essentialist’ definition of Scottish dance music as strathspeys and reels in the course of the nineteenth century, the repertoire increasingly came to be recognised less as functional and ephemeral, and more as a culturally significant canon worthy of attentive listening. Figureheads from the history of Scottish fiddle music, such as Neil Gow, Nathaniel Gow, and William Marshall, came to be revered as national icons, and attempts were made to codify or prescribe performance practice through Scottish violin tutors and discussion on points of style in the press.

James Scott Skinner en-route to America
(courtesy of The Lewis Gallery, Portland, Maine and raretunes.org)

The popularity of American dance-types in early twentieth-century Scotland was considered a threat to the hegemony of the strathspey and reel, with Scott Skinner famously announcing on a trip to North America in 1926 that he was going to ‘kill jazz’. When he died, only a year later, he had not achieved his task, and the popularity of such dances continued to rise. Accordingly, other tune-types, such as polkas, waltzes, and two-steps, became increasingly common in the repertoire of the society over time. In stark contrast, strathspeys came to feature less often, partly in response to changing musical tastes and competition from other more popular dance-types, but also due to changing patterns of membership.

Initially, membership to the society was by audition, and members were expected to memorise music for performance, but over the years the requirements to audition and play from memory were dropped. Significant reasons for this change were social and technological, namely, the slow decline of participation in social dancing and the rise of recorded music, which had a chilling effect on the live performance of music in the second half of the twentieth century. While the 1928 generation of members were familiar with Scottish music from attending and performing at dances, this became less common as the century progressed, and members increasingly came to learn Scottish music almost exclusively through the society (it being one of the few organisations – together with radio and television broadcasts – through which to experience it). At the same time, opportunities to perform live were increasingly replaced with pre-recorded music. As the ratio of established players to learners among the society’s membership shifted towards the latter, the more technically challenging tune-types – typically strathspeys –  came to be played less often than more accessible ones. 

Ideas about the repertoire were also influenced by the post-war folk-music revival: prior to 1950, Scottish dance music was categorised as a type of national music – a label repeatedly used by Scott Skinner to describe his compositions – but, from the 1950s onward, it increasingly came to be defined in the context of folk music. One significant benefit of this new perspective on the repertoire was the emergence of many regional fiddle styles, such as those from Shetland, the West-Highlands, and the Scottish Borders, but it was also problematic because ideas about folk music – that it is transmitted by ear, of unknown authorship, and technically straightforward – were not necessarily applicable to much of Scottish dance music (the history of which was well-documented) as practiced by strathspey & reel societies. As Hugh Macdonald notes: 

The concept of a ‘national music’ (a term frequently used by Scott Skinner) with a national style (in fiddle terms) was particularly attractive in Victorian Scotland and it undoubtedly survives in [strathspey & reel societies] and fiddle competitions.

The impact of ideas about folk-music was both positive and negative: the diversity and variety of newly recognised regional fiddle styles did much to boost interest and creative collaboration, but the newly-created binary contrast between folk music and classical music often gave rise to snobbery and pejorative attitudes that impacted negatively (directly and in-directly) on the standing and public perception of strathspey & reel societies. For example, Aberdeen-society conductor, Alec Sim’s, pre-revival artistic credo, that Scottish music should be played ‘with the same care that one would play Bach or Beethoven,’ came to be seen as increasingly anachronistic in the post-revival period, given the emerging gulf between classical music and folk music. From the 1980s, ‘traditional’ came to be used as a more preferable term than ‘folk’ to emphasise the continuity of musical transmission, but it continued to perpetuate a division in the classification of music that had not always existed. 

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