Robert Burns choral settings: from Schumann to MacMillan

The project presents audio recordings and accompanying commentary for twenty choral settings of works by Robert Burns by composers from across Europe since the early nineteenth century.

Visit the project website

Page about the choral setting by Robert Schumann
Page about the choral setting by Robert Schumann

The Centre for Robert Burns Studies and the Chapel Choir at the University of Glasgow collaborated in selecting a number of choral settings of works by Robert Burns which composers from a variety of European countries have produced since the early nineteenth century.

The Chapel Choir recorded performances of these for streaming, and this interactive website provides information about each of the settings and their composers. The project resulted from a chapter for a book entitled The Reception of Robert Burns in Europe, ed. by Murray Pittock and published in June 2014 (Bloomsbury). Dr McCue and the University former Professor of Music Marjorie Rycroft co-wrote the chapter ‘The Reception of Robert Burns in Music’, which explored a variety of different musical responses to Burns’ texts.

When Burns arrived in Edinburgh in November 1786, he found a culturally vibrant city. Here he met James Johnson, the man behind the Scots Musical Museum; and George Thomson – two figures with whom Burns collaborated very closely. Early musical setting of his songs can be found by J. G. C. Schetky and Pietro Urbani, but thanks to Thomson Burns’ works were set by Pleyel, Koželuch, Haydn, Beethoven, Weber, and Hummel. Mostly, tunes would be arranged according to traditional melodies; sometimes they would be composed ex novo. This is similar to what happened for the songs: Burns created some anew, while others were based on older verses.

While the melodies were clearly the link between Thomson’s European composers and Burns’ songs, a growing interest in Burns ‘the poet’ and his texts in translation became the European musical stimulant. It was in fact Burns’ words that made an impact on young Robert Schumann. What Schumann produced was his own musical response to Burns’ texts in translation. Robert Franz was a contemporary of Schumann, yet his settings of Burns’ songs are less known. Franz thought Schumann did not pay enough attention to the text. Franz sought out Burns’ originals, and did not rely on just the translations.

In more recent years, Estonian Arvo Pärt set ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’ for organ and counter tenor in 2000. For the poet’s 250th birthday celebration, Scottish composer James MacMillan celebrated the connections between the Bard and his classical composers with Burns’ ‘Lament of Mary, Queen of Scots’, which had not previously gained musical interest.  Today, ‘Auld lang syne’ is one of the world’s best known songs. Composers and musicians worldwide have found inspiration in Burns’ work right from their initial publication: each musical creation has taken the Bard’s work to different places entirely: linguistically, musically, and culturally – ultimately, they reveal the universality of Burns’ poetic and musical voice.

Main contact: Kirsteen McCue

Developer: Brian Aitken

Funded by: Chancellor's Fund

Subject area: Scottish Literature

Keywords: HistoryMusicScots

Record last updated 2020-01-24