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Robert Burns Lives!
The Songs of Burns and the Serge Hovey Archive by Patrick Scott


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

Here in the States, as well as Scotland and Ireland, there have been several staunch supporters during the years of these pages about Robert Burns, including Ross Roy, Clark McGinn, Gerry Carruthers and Patrick Scott.  Patrick, however, has been a main “go to” guy whenever I encounter a problem, need to further understand a topic, or find myself searching for additional information regarding an article or a speech I am working on. When I “bump a stump” or try to clarify something on our web site, Patrick has always been willing to share his perspective with me. He gives sound advice! Simply put, he is one of the “good guys” who goes out of his way to help a friend.

Patrick explained in an email yesterday that “since this article first appeared in the Burns Chronicle (Spring 2012), Dr. Kirsteen McCue of the University of Glasgow has published a valuable assessment of Hovey’s work on Burns, in Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture ed. by Sharon Alker, Leith Davis, and Holly Faith Nelson (Ashgate, 2012). See Robert Burns Lives!, no. 136:
http://www.electricscotland.com/familytree/frank/burns_lives136.htm). “

There are other articles on Robert Burns Lives! by or about Patrick:

Chapter 32, Robert Burns and James Hogg: The Ploughman Poet and the Ettrick Poet (June 11, 2008);
Chapter 43, Patrick Scott’s Immortal Memory delivered at the Burns Club of Atlanta (January 24, 2009);
Chapter 135, A Tribute to Dr. Patrick Scott: Noted Burns Scholar by Frank R. Shaw (February 16, 2012)

Patrick retired recently as Director of Rare Books, University of South Carolina Libraries.  He continues to work with Dr. Ross Roy and the library as research fellow for Scottish collections. It is a real joy to welcome Patrick back to the pages of Robert Burns Lives!.

(FRS: 6.7.12)

The Songs of Burns and the Serge Hovey Archive
By Patrick Scott

The American composer Serge Hovey (1920-1989) devoted a major part of his career to research on the songs of Robert Burns, so it is good news for Burnsians that his archive is to be preserved, at the University of South Carolina, home of the G. Ross Roy Collection of Robert Burns.  Dr. Esther Hovey, Hovey’s widow, had visited South Carolina from California several times for Robert Burns conferences, and talked with Ross Roy about the future of the archive.  This past year, the composer’s son, Daniel Hovey, donated Hovey’s substantial archive—thirty-eight boxes of papers, musical scores, recordings, and books—to the University.

Born in New York, but spending most of his life in California, Serge Hovey was educated as a classical pianist and composer, studying with Hans Eisler and Arnold Schoenberg.  Early home movies now loaded on YouTube show Hovey meeting prominent European exiles such as the novelist Thomas Mann, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the playwright Berthold Brecht, and he wrote music both for film and theater.


In the 1940s, inspired by Schoenberg, Gershwin and others, and in the shadow cast by the war and the Holocaust, Hovey began exploring the multicultural basis of American music, first through his own (half) Jewish heritage and also in African-American culture.  In this exploration, he had the contrasting example of two very different American contemporaries, the composer Aaron Copland who had reworked traditional American folksong for the concert hall, and the field folklorist Alan Lomax, whose recordings in the Mississippi Delta became one of the inspirations for Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies.

Hovey discovered Scottish music when a friend asked Hovey about the indications of the airs printed below the titles in a standard Burns edition.  He later wrote, “once I realized that the tunes were still extant, that they were mostly Scots folk songs, and above all, that they sounded marvelous in conjunction with Burns’s lyrics, I was hooked.”   His first major composition drawing on Scottish song was his Robert Burns Rhapsody: A Scottish-American Fantasy for full orchestra, premiered in Berlin in 1959, which concludes with the chorus singing Burns’s great ode to equality, “A Man’s A Man For A’ That.” 

Soon Hovey set himself to the less-glamorous task of researching the original tunes for the Burns songs, with two kinds of arrangement: simple piano accompaniments for modern performance, and the more complex arrangements used in the well-known Redpath recordings. He traveled in Scotland for several weeks in 1967 (one of several such visits), and it was at that time that he resolved to produce a definitive edition of all 324 songs attributed to Burns. 

When Hovey visited Hamish Henderson at the School of Scottish Studies in 1972, Henderson reported to a British music magazine that Hovey had “arrived with some really beautiful accompaniments” (Melody Maker, September 20, 1972).  Other Scottish musicologists had been discouraging, but Henderson helped Hovey clarify the nature of his project, encouraging him to see his arrangements as a “valid . . . part of the folk process.” Hovey later wrote to Henderson, “if I interpret what you are saying correctly, I am building up a Scottish-American approach, an interesting hybrid plant” (letter in Hovey Archive, September 14, 1972). 

Nonetheless, Hovey’s arrangements of the Burns songs were solidly based in research on early sources, both Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum, and earlier collections.  He was committed also to including the whole of Burns’s song production, including political songs and bawdy songs that had been downplayed or censored in the late 19th century.  As he himself memorably (and revealingly) put it, Burns’s songs without their music are “the songs of Cole Porter without their tunes, Hammerstein without Rodgers, Ira [Gershwin] without George” (Music Journal, December 1975).   In the years that followed, just over half of Hovey’s settings of Burns were recorded by the greatest of modern Scottish folk singers, Jean Redpath (released in seven LPs, 1976-1990). Though much disputed by those who did not understand the twentieth-century American tradition from which he worked, Hovey’s research had a pioneering role in increasing appreciation of Burns’s artistry as a song-writer. 

Despite his own education, Hovey’s musical vision was communal, rather than elitist.  Starting his research when piano-playing was still ubiquitous, he envisioned the settings he provided for the original airs being used by amateur singers and accompanists in homes and communal settings, not just in concert-level performance.   He prepared his research as a series of scrapbooks with historical information, original sources, and the new settings, but for the last twenty years of his life Hovey struggled with Lou Gehrig’s disease.  While working on the last four Redpath-Hovey albums, he was breathing with a respirator, communicating first with a special computer, and then by eye movements.   Jean Redpath recalled “the man was heroic—and that is the word—in how he dealt with his increasing ability” (Boston Globe, January 24, 1991). 

Even with skilled assistance from his son Danel, he never saw his Burns research and arrangements  into published form.  After his death, Esther and Daniel Hovey prepared his settings and notes on 155 Burns songs for publication in The Robert Burns Song Book (2 vols., 1999 and 2001), but much of Hovey’s work on Burns still remains unpublished, as does his second Scottish Rhapsody, composed with computer assistance after his disease prevented him playing a piano or holding a pencil.  

The sixty years since Hovey began his great project have seen a growing volume of scholarly research on the Burns songs. Kinsley’s three-volume Oxford edition (1968), like R. D. Thornton’s selection (1966) and many later editions, printed the airs with the songs.  Low’s reprint of the Scots Musical Museum, and his Songs of Robert Burns (1993), with the music edited by David Johnson, have provided research-based source-texts for scholarly use. Down the road are planned authoritative editions of Burns’s songs for the Glasgow Collected Edition of Robert Burns, to be edited by Murray Pittock and Kirsteen McCue.

Hovey, a practicing composer deeply committed to music as communal inheritance, drew on the historical sources and then-sparse available scholarship, but he conceived his project differently.  His archive preserves not only his unpublished insights into particular Burns songs, but the wider vision of his post-War generation, of Hovey and Lomax and Henderson, that Burns and music belonged to humanity, “the world o’er.” 


Dr Esther Hovey speaking at the University of South Carolina, 2004


Dr Esther Hovey presenting a manuscript score of Serge Hovey’s Robert Burns Rhapsody
to Prof. G. Ross Roy, for the Roy Collection, on Ross’s 80th birthday in 2004


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