Singing about Mary: Robert Burns and James Hogg

In the first in a series of posts on ‘Mary and Music’, today’s blog post by Kirsteen McCue, Professor of Scottish Literature & Song Culture and Co-Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies (University of Glasgow) examines Romantic-period musical depictions of Mary and explores how they imagine and re-imagine the Queen of Scots at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Mary Queen of Scots was the subject of many songs, poems and musical compositions in the Romantic period. Among the most significant were Robert Burns’sLament for Mary, Queen of Scots’, James Hogg’s 1813 long narrative poem The Queen’s Wake and Donizetti’s powerful 1834-5 operatic Maria Stuarda. Today’s blog focuses on Burns and Hogg and their two very different depictions of Mary in song. 

Robert Burns stained glass window at the University of Glasgow.

Robert Burns’s ‘Lament’ with music (also discussed by Gerry Caruthers on this blog) first appears in the fifth volume of the Scots Musical Museum published just after the poet’s untimely death in 1796. Although the text had appeared a little earlier in the second volume of his 1793 Edinburgh Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, here the song was set to music.

Title page of Rpbert Burns’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect Vol II (1793)
Title page of Robert Burns’s The Scots Musical Museum (1796).

The ‘lyrics’ of the song tell the story of the tragic queen, and if you look closely you can see that Burns’s fine pastoral imagery (with characteristic detail of local flora and fauna) is used to great effect.

Page with lyrics and music for ‘Mary Queen of Scots Lament’. Image from the AHRC-funded Editing Robert Burns for the 21st century project: Prose and Songs as featured in Murray Pittock’s new edition of The Scots Musical Museum Vols 2&3 of the Works of Robert Burns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Notes on the song are in iii, pp. 151-2.

The opening coming of spring in which nature ‘hangs her mantle green’ and ‘spreads her sheets o’ daisies white’ over the ‘grassy lea’, is poignantly balanced by his final verse with the spring flowers the following year bedecking the green mound of Mary’s grave. Elizabeth is depicted as a ‘false woman’ who is both ‘sister and foe’ – a cold- hearted female who has never known, in Burns’s gruesome phrase, ‘the weeping blood in woman’s breast’ and who will be visited by vengeance’s whetted blade.

Burns gives the impression that his ‘Lament’ was created for (and it is certainly dedicated to) his great friend and correspondent Frances Dunlop and her daughters (see Burns’s letter of 6 June 1790: Letters ed. Ross Roy, ii, 28). Two of Dunlop’s daughters married French royalist military émigrés, and one of these, Jaques Henri, died unexpectedly in 1789, leaving behind his pregnant wife, Dunlop’s daughter Susan. The connection with France alongside unexpected or cruel death and infancy certainly resonate with Burns’s text. As Gerry Caruthers notes in his previous blog on the subject, the song is one of a set of contemporary sympathetic literary responses to the figure of Mary and her plight.

Little detail is known about the tune for Burns’s song in the Museum except that it is old! By the mid-nineteenth century the melody is known by the name ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ and, interestingly it is matched, elsewhere in the Museum, with the lyric for Burns’s famous song ‘O my luve’s like a red, red rose’. This may be a deliberate editorial decision: underlining both Mary’s beauty and the immortality of love.

But Burns’s song comes after another much more popular anonymous song entitled ‘Queen Mary’s Lamentation’ – beginning ‘I sigh and lament me in vain’, found in Italian-born Edinburgh based singer/publisher Domenico Corri’s National Airs of c. 1782-3.  This lyric also appeared in the popular musical collection of English, Scots and Irish songs, Calliope of 1788, and Corri kept it for his New and Complete Collection of the Most Favourite Scots Songs in 1790. Burns’s second song editor, George Thomson, overlooked his collaborator Burns’s original lyric, and, when the song was reprinted with a new musical arrangement by Joseph Haydn in 1802, the lyric printed was ‘I sit and lament me’.  All of these settings used a melody by Italian composer Tommaso Giordani (c.1730-1806) and a version of this song was also handwritten by Jane Austen into one of her own music books. The text and melody for the song changed and evolved during this period, and the text alone appeared in numerous broadside and chapbook versions, illustrating its popularity with a much wider readership.

Photocopy of broadside with ‘Lamentation of Mary Queen of Scotland’. Printed by J. Pitts, Andrew Street, Seven Dials, London (various prints from 1819 to 1844). Bodleian Ballads Online: Bod3586. Roud Number V13754. Slip from the Harding Collection Harding B 25 (1054).

The Italian overtones here take us nicely to James Hogg’s 1813 poem The Queen’s Wake, in which Hogg imagines a series of courtiers and bards taking part in a singing competition to impress the Queen; Mary’s favourite singer is none other than her Italian courtier David Rizzio. Rizzio’s place in the history of Scottish music and song is well rehearsed in several dissertations and essays of the period, including William Tytler’s Dissertation on the Scottish Music (published three times between 1779 and 1792). As Gerry Carruthers notes, Tytler’s pamphlet in defence of Mary inspired Burns to create his ‘Epistle’ to Tytler in 1787 and led, most likely, to his ‘Lament for Mary’ thereafter. Hogg’s poem is similarly sympathetic, and responds to later critiques of the Queen. The late Professor Douglas Mack, editor of The Queen’s Wake for the new Stirling/South Carolina research edition of The Collected Works of James Hogg, situates Hogg’s envisioning of Mary in 1813 alongside the recent publication of Thomas McCrie’s Life of John Knox of 1811-12, which includes a most unsympathetic picture of the Stuart Queen. He suggests that Hogg may well be responding directly to this, and his view is endorsed by one of Hogg’s biographers, Karl Miller, who states that ‘The field of reference is Celtic, Catholic and chivalric; synods and presbyteries go unsung’ (Electric Shepherd, p. 92).

Engraving for James Hogg’s 1819 one-volume illustrated edition The Queen’s Wake. From a sketch by Sir John Medina.

There were also commercial and practical reasons behind Hogg’s decision to publish his long narrative poem. In short, he was inspired by the success of his friend Walter Scott and the poet Lord Byron in this medium and wanted to find a way of publishing several songs and ballads on his stacks. He thus decided to poetically create a singing competition or wake – what one of my students in class referred to as Hogg’s ‘X Factor’ and Karl Miller called a ‘Royal Command performance’ – where the bards and minstrels of Scotland compete across three nights for a national prize. The reason for the competition is the return of Mary to Scotland in 1561 and the prize is an object that features prominently in the cultural afterlife of the Queen of Scots and speaks to her love of poetry: Mary’s harp.

Queen Mary Harp, National Museums of Scotland, H.LT.1

Mary features heavily in the introduction to the poem and her love of poetry is clearly central to Hogg’s idea. While she takes a back seat for much of the piece, she does respond directly to Rizzio’s performance which comes first and is given real prominence. He sings the ballad ‘Malcolm of Lorn’ and afterwards, while the Scots singers and audience reflect on his Italian airs and graces, Mary is deeply affected:

From the 1819 edition: The Queen’s Wake: A Legendary Poem by James Hogg

Sadly for Rizzio, next up is the ancient Caledonian bard, Gardyn, who sings the ballad of ‘Young Kennedy’. Ultimately it is this Ossianic bard who, two nights later, wins Mary’s Harp. This figure links nicely to John Gunn, who Julie Holder discusses in her blog. Gunn’s description of the Queen Mary Harp in his 1807 Historical Enquiry Respecting the performance of the Harp in the Highlands of Scotland […] notes that Mary was said to have presented her harp to Miss Beatrix Gardyn, daughter of Mr Gardyn of Banchory. Surely then Hogg’s choice of winner’s name was quite specific. While the ancient bardic tradition wins through, a young bard from Ettrick in the borders (clearly Hogg himself) pleads with Mary to award him too, and she is persuaded and gifts him the Caledonian harp, sending him off into the hills rejoicing and taking forward the songs of Scotland.

Though The Queen’s Wake is all about the impact of songs and ballads in performance, the sound world of Hogg’s songs is a literary one alone. Mary is greeted at the start of the wake by a ‘grey hair’d minstrel’ and it is only his ‘Minstrel’s Song’ with a new musical setting by the American musician T.W. Wiesenthal in 1823 that we’ve been able to find. There is supposed to be another contemporary setting of this song, if Hogg’s own account is to be believed, by an Edinburgh-based Italian-sounding Mr Monzanni, but no one has yet found copy of this.

Hogg relied on the support and artistic mentorship of his border friend Walter Scott; the simultaneous European translations of Scott’s Waverley novels in the 1810s and ’20s famously inspired numerous operatic works across the nineteenth century. His Bride of Lammermuir of 1819 would be the basis of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835 (to this day a standard in the repertoire of global opera houses and coloratura sopranos). And this was at exactly the time Donizetti was also working on his Maria Stuarda – but this story will be told in our second ‘Mary and Music’ blog, so watch this space!

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