Sor: Variations on a Scottish Theme, op. 40 for solo guitar. The complete preface by Brian Jeffery (1982).

Sor’s variations on “Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon” are nothing less than a small masterpiece. In 1978, for the bicentenary of Sor’s birth, I published them in my edition of the Complete Works for Guitar of Sor, and John Williams played them in the celebratory concert in February of that year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. Alice Artzt included the work on her record Guitar Music by Femando Sor and it was broadcast several times from that record on the B.B.C.; and since then, whenever it has been played, it has immediately caught the audience’s imagination. Before 1978 it was little known: the original edition survives in but two known copies, and my performance of it on B.B.C. Scotland in 1972 was probably the first for very many years. It is certainly the equal of Sor’s famous Variations on a Theme of Mozart, op. 9, and deserves to become one of the standard works of the guitar repertory.

The melody

“Ye banks and braes” is an old tune to which Robert Burns wrote words, and Burns’ version immediately became universally known and popular. There is no doubt that in the early nineteenth century the tune was considered thoroughly Scottish, with its characteristic “Scotch hop”, and in setting it, Sor was taking his part in his age’s Romantic fascination with Scotland.

Burns’ version appeared in 1792, as no. 374 of volume 4 of the Scots Musical Museum.

The words are newly written by Burns, and the intention which he gave them is clearly indicated by the direction of “Slow and tender”. A girl looks at the landscape, and feels a discrepancy between the gladness of nature and the sadness which she herself knows. The Scotch hop is there, for example in bars 3 and 4; but it is the hop of the strathspey, that slow and stately dance which can accommodate equally well the pomp of a clan gathering and the sadness of Burns’ poem.

The origin of the tune to which Burns wrote his words is in dispute. The Scots Musical Museum itself (volume 2, pages 346-8) attributes its composition to “Mr James Millar, Writer in Edinburgh”. But a much more widely current attribution was to the famous Scots fiddler-composer, Niel Gow. When Gow came to publish in about 1794 a book of Scottish dances called A Second Collection of Strathspey Reels (copy: New York Public Library), no. 1 was this very tune, but under the title of “The Caledonian Hunt’s Delight”. Moreover, that collection as a whole was dedicated to “The Noblemen and Gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt”, a fact which gave the tune especial prominence. As “The Caledonian Hunt’s Delight”, and with the attribution to Gow, it has survived to the present day. Yet in fact Gow himself was probably not so much its composer, but rather its arranger; and the source from which it originally came was perhaps not even Scottish, but English. William Chappell, in his Popular Music of the Olden Time, volume 2 (London, 1859), pp. 794-5, gives an eighteenth century English source for it, a version in which there is no “Scotch hop”. According to Chappell, the melody later universally known as “Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon” was not originally Scottish at all, but English, naturalized into Scotland and adopted by Burns and by Gow, and subsequently (its birthplace by then thoroughly consigned to oblivion) taken over by the whole of Europe as a Scottish tune.

Mary Jane Burdett

Sor dedicated these variations in about 1829 to his pupil Miss Mary Jane Burdett, a young lady who, he said, was able to perform them after only 28 lessons with him. He attributed this rapid progress to the fact that she was not only a guitarist but a general musician and specifically a pianist:

A guitarist, who is a harmonist, will always have an advantage over one who is not. Even a tolerable player on the pianoforte (the first of instruments to produce harmony), has already acquired very useful habits in regard to the guitar. – I have recently had a proof of what I have just said, in the rapid progress of Miss Mary Jane Burdett, (daughter of Mr Arthur Burdett), a young lady who plays well on the pianoforte. Engaged in completing her education, she devotes herself to several kinds of study at once, as well the necessary as the agreeable, and consequently cannot give up her time exclusively to the study of the guitar. My principles, and the direction which her ideas have taken, from being habituated to the progression and contexture of pianoforte-music, have enabled her, in twenty-eight lessons, to play my Fantaisie, opus 40, which I have dedicated to her, -a result which I have never been able to obtain in so few lessons from other pupils, who did not play on the pianoforte, and who, with the best inclination, devoted themselves exclusively to the study of the guitar. It is certain that they had previously acquired habits which prevented a free style of playing, and, unfortunately, they had been taught to perceive only notes, where it was necessary to see music. {Méthode pour la Guitare, Paris, 1830, pp. 74-5; English translation adapted from A. Merrick, in the English version published in London in 1832 as Method for the Spanish Guitar, p. 42 [now published in a reprint by Tecla].)

Clearly she was one of his favourite pupils, and it has been possible to find out a little about her. From Burke’s Landed Gentry (1894 edn., p. 249) we learn that she was of the Anglo-Irish landowning gentry, the daughter of Arthur Burdett, Esq., of Ballymany and Ballywater. She was in Paris with her father, finishing her education, a young lady of reasonably high social standing and taking lessons with the principal guitar teacher in Paris at the time, Fernando Sor. Perhaps her origin may account for a certain Celtic connexion: we may imagine, perhaps, Miss Burdett playing to Sor a favourite Scottish air of hers, which Sor then set to the guitar. She married later, but only in 1848, by which time she would have been well into her thirties: and her husband was Lieut.-Col. Robert Brookes, of the 24th Regiment, who unfortunately died the very next year, in January 1849, at the Battle of Chilianwallah in the Second Sikh War.

The variations

Do not play them too fast. The melody is a strathspey, and Burns’ words are sad. The English version begins “Lost is my quiet”, and Burns’ words run “How can ye chant, ye little birds, and I sae weary fu’ o’ care!” Yet at the same time, the sorrow is dignified by the stately dance form, so that the pace must be kept steady and unfaltering. The “Scotch hop” of the theme is echoed at the end of the piece.

The harmonics

In the original edition of this work it is not specified whether the harmonics in variation 3 and the coda are intended to be artificial or natural harmonics. However, in his Méthode pour la Guitare, which was written within one year, or at most two, of the time when op. 40 was composed, Sor expresses a strong preference for natural harmonics over artificial ones. He discusses both, and describes two methods of producing artificial harmonics, but concludes that natural ones are more sonorous and are to be preferred. Moreover, he gives, in his Méthode, a whole piece written entirely in natural harmonics: like op. 40 it is in D major, and like op. 40 it uses the scordatura of the sixth string to D. All the harmonic notes which are used in op. 40 are to be found in that piece, together with the indication of the precise strings and frets at which they are to be found in their natural form. It is evident beyond any doubt, therefore, that the harmonics in op. 40 are likewise intended to be natural harmonics rather than artificial ones, and the frets and strings which have been indicated in this edition for those passages in variation 3 and the coda are the same frets and strings which Sor indicates in his Méthode for the piece in harmonics which he gives there.


The text

Source: Fantaisie pour Guitare seule, sur un air favori Ecossais. Composée et dediée a son Elève Mademoiselle Mary Jane Burdett par Ferdinand Sor, Oeuv: 40. Propriete de l’Auteur. Prix: 3f. A Paris, Chez Pacini, Editeur de Musique, Boulevard des Italiens No. 11. 7 pages. Plate no. 8. (Copies: Barcelona, Biblioteca de Catalunya, and Brussels, Conservatoire).

The work was first published in 1829 or 1830 (for full information on the dating of Sor’s works -and indeed on his life and music in general – see my book Fernando Sor, Composer and Guitarist, Tecla Editions, London, 1977 [second edition, 1994]). A facsimile of the original edition may be found in my edition of Sor’s Complete Works for the Guitar (Tecla Editions). – Another edition was published in Frankfurt by Dunst in 1841 or before (copy: Copenhagen, Royal Library).

In the Introduction, bar 4, slurs have been added to the middle notes of the two chords. In the theme, bar 3, the second half of the bar has dotted rhythm in the original, and has here been altered on the analogy of bars 7, 15, and 19. In variation 3, bar 8, the repeat sign in front of the double bar is omitted in the original edition, doubtless in error, and has here been restored on the analogy of variations 1 and 2. In variation 3, bar 15, second half of the bar, the first F sharp is added on the analogy of bars 3, 7, and 19.

In performance, it may be considered desirable to omit the repeats in the variations.


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