Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed.
Glenora Single Malt Whisky

Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.
Scottish Review

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

George Thomson, the Friend of Burns
By J Cuthbert Hadden from The Scottish Review


'MUSICAL Thomson (memorable, more so than venerable, as the publisher of Burns's songs): him I saw one evening sitting in the Reading-room; a clean-brushed commonplace old gentleman in scratch-wig; whom we spoke a few words to, and took a good look of.' Such is Carlyle's reference to George Thomson, speaking of his own visits to Edward Irving at Annan, somewhere about the year 1821. To any one who did not know the circumstances of the case, there would be something misleading in the description of Thomson as 'the' publisher of Burns's songs; for Burns's songs were being published before Thomson had anything to do with the poet, and Thomson's collection contained, after all, but a very small proportion of the lyrics which make up the Burns total in that department of verse. But Thomson has been rather unfortunate in the matter of designations. In Mr. W. K. Leask's recent monograph on Boswell he is referred to as 'the composer' (it is Mr. Leask who buries John Knox in St. Andrews!) while in Sir George Grove's Dictionary of Music he figures as 'the music-publisher of Edinburgh.' In the strict sense of the terms, he was neither composer nor music-publisher: he was an enthusiastic amateur musician, whose hobby was the collection and preservation of national music and song; and it was for this, as well as for the connection with Burns to which it led, that he desired and expected to be remembered. Having recently had his correspondence placed in my hands for editing with a view to publication, I propose in this article to revive his memory and to tell some things about him which will probably give a new interest to the well known letters of Burns addressed to him.

Writing to Robert Chambers in 1838, Thomson, then an octogenarian, declares that he cannot believe himself to be so old as the 'information' regarding the year of his birth would make him out to be. As a matter of fact, he was a couple of years older than even his ' information' led him to suppose. He gives his birth year as 1759, but he was really born on the 4th of March, 1757, as appears from the local registers. His father, Robert Thomson, was then a schoolmaster at Limekilns, in Fife; but soon after George was born the family removed to Banff. Here, as it appears, the dominie had somewhat of a struggle to maintain an increasing family; and after trying 'some mercantile means of enlarging his income,' without success, he, about 1774, resolved upon going to Edinburgh. He became a messenger-at-arms in the capital, but I can find nothing further regarding him.

Young Thomson had reached his seventeenth year by this time, and had received a fairly good education, first of course from his father, and then at the local grammar school. He speaks himself of having learned ' the dead languages' at Banff; and from his correspondence afterwards I find that he could read both French and Italian, in which languages Beethoven and Haydn, notwithstanding that both were Germans, wrote their letters to him. In Edinburgh Thomson got into the office of a Writer to the Signet; and in 1780 he was lucky enough, through the influence of John Home, the author of Douglas, with one of the members, to secure the post of junior clerk to the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Art and Manufactures in Scotland. Not long after, the principal clerk died, and Thomson succeeding to his post, remained with the Board until his retirement in 1839, after a service of fifty-nine years. In his official capacity there is very little of interest to tell regarding him, though one or two circumstances connected therewith may be brought out in the course of this paper. He seems to have found both his work and his superiors entirely to his mind, and no doubt his duties were light enough to enable him to give a good deal of office time to the subject which so engrossed his attention. When he was twenty-five he had entered upon a very happy union with Miss Miller, the daughter of a lieutenant iu the 50th regiment. By this lady he had two sons and four daughters. One of the latter, Georgina, became in 1814 the wife of George Hogarth, the musical critic and historian, and a daughter of that union, Catherine, became, as everybody knows, the wife of Charles Dickens. The novelist's children are thus the great grandchildren of the old gentleman in the scratch-wig whom Carlyle had 'a good look of' at Annan. There is a letter of Burns written to Thomson in July 1793, in which the poet, speaking of the first volume of Thomson's collection then recently published, says:

'Allow me to congratulate you now as a brother of the quill. You have committed your character and fame, which will now be tried for ages to come by the illustrious jury of the sons and daughters of taste—all of whom poesy can please or music charm. Being a bard of Nature, I have some pretensions to second sight; and I am warranted by the spirit to foretell and affirm that your great-great-grand-children will hold up your volumes and say with honest pride : ''This so much admired selection was the work of my ancestor."

It would be interesting to know if Burns's prediction has been fulfilled in this particular. Personally, I am somewhat doubtful!

I have said that Thomson was an enthusiastic amateur musician, and the phrase iu his case covers a great deal more than it usually does in these greedy utilitarian days. It was not his time only that he gave towards the furtherance of the art; he gave much of his means for the same cause, and iu one case of which I shall have to speak he involved himself in a serious pecuniary difficulty simply iu order that a talented girl might not want for a proper musical training. As a musical amateur, his great hobby, apart from his interest in national song, was the violin. In his leisure hours he used, as he puts it himself, ' to con over our Scottish melodies and to devour the choruses of Handel's oratorios, in which, when performed at St. Cecilia's Hall, I generally took a part. ... I had so much delight in singing these matchless choruses and in practising the violin quartettes of Pleyel and Haydn that it was with joy I hailed the hour when, like the young amateur in the good old Scotch song, I could hie me hame to my Cremona and enjoy Haydn's admirable fancies.' Whether Thomson ever possessed a 'Cremona' I am unable to say: the term is sometimes used in a loose way as merely a synonym for violin. But if such an instrument was not among his belongings, it was not because he had made no efFoit to obtain it. In the year 1819 he was trying to sell the copyright of certain compositions which Beethoven had written for him, and in a letter to Messrs. Breitkopf & Hartel, the music publishers of Leipzig, he says:

'I have long wished to possess an old violin of the best quality by Stradivarius or Joseph Guarnerius. If you have a violin of either master of undoubted originality and in good preservation I would give yon all the MSS. of Beethoven above-mentioned in exchange for the violin.'

As the manuscripts ' above-mentioned ' were valued by Thomson at the low figure of a hundred and twenty-five ducats (say £62), it is evident that cremona violins were not then the costly things that they are now, when an instrument ' of undoubted originality and in good preservation' can seldom be procured under £1000. The Leipzig firm, unfortunately, did not care to have the Beethoven MSS., and Thomson, for the time being at any rate, had to do without his cremona. From one of his letters I see that he sent 'Hogg a violin as ' a small return ' for some of the songs the Ettrick Shepherd had written for him.

The St. Cecilia concerts, of which Thomson speaks, were a notable institution in the Edinburgh of a hundred years ago and earlier. Thomson had a good deal to do with them in his time. He calls the undertaking ' one of the most interesting and liberal musical institutions that ever existed in Scotland, or indeed in any country,' and allowing a little for excusable exaggeration, the claim may be admitted. The concerts, to quote Chambers, were attended by 'all the rank, beauty and fashion of which Edinburgh could then boast;' and in addition to the professional performers, ' many amateurs of great musical skill and enthusiasm, such as Mr. Tytler of Woodhouselee, were pleased to exhibit themselves for the amusement ot their friends, who alone were admitted by ticket.' In their first form the gatherings were known as the 'Gentlemen's Concerts.' In Guy Mannering it will be remembered that Scott speaks of Counsellor Pleydell as 'a member of the Gentlemen's Concert in Edinburgh,' 'scraping a little upon the violoncello.' At first the place of meeting was the upper room of St. Mary's Chapel in Niddry's Wynd; but by the year 1762 the Society had so increased in popularity that a hall, named after the patron saint of music, was specially built at the foot of the Wynd. The structure was designed on the plan of the Grand Opera House at Parma, but of course on a smaller scale. Arnot, the historian of Edinburgh, says it was excellently adapted for music, and had a seating capacity of about five hundred. The orchestra, he remarks, is at the upper end ' which is handsomely terminated by an elegant organ.' In its time the building would seem to have been given up to some rather doubtful doings. Its palmiest days were the days when convivial knights-errant used to 'save the ladies' by toasting their idols in a bumper. The deepest drinker ' saved his lady,' and Thomson, speaking of the old place in Niddry's Wynd, declares that the bold champion had often considerable difficulty in ' saving' himself from the floor in his efforts to regain his seat.

The concerts of the Society went on until the spring of 1798, by which time, owing to the attractions of the New Town, it was beginning to be felt that Niddry's Wynd was not quite a convenient locale for a concert hall. Iu addition to that, it appears that the building of the South Bridge was believed to have done harm to the Society's hall; for we find the Improvement Trustees handing over certain areas adjoining the building' 'to the Directors of the said Musical Society, as a recompense for their having agreed to the widening of Niddry Street, by which the entry to the hall was much hurt.' The Society, at anyrate, was formally wound up in 1801, and next year the hall was sold to the Baptists. In 1809 it was purchased by the Grand Lodge of Scotland; in 1844 by the Town Council as Trustees for Dr. Bell's Trust; and now it is occupied as a warehouse. It has, of course, seen a good many changes since George Thomson and other grave amateurs of his time made music within its walls, but enough of the original remains to show how admirably the place was adapted for concert purposes.

It was in Niddry's Wynd that Thomson got his first incentive towards making a collection of national song. On this point it will perhaps be best to quote himself. He says:

'At the St. Cecilia concerts I heard Scottish songs sung in a style of excellence far surpassing any idea which I had previously had of their beauty, and that too from Italians, Signor Teuducci the one and Signora Domenica Corri the other. Teuducci's "I'll never leave thee," and "Braes o' Ballenden," and the Signora's "Ewe-Bughts, Marion," and "Waly, waly," so delighted every hearer that in the most crowded room not a whisper was to be heard, so entirely did they rivet the attention and admiration of the audience. Teuducci's singing was full of passion, feeling and taste, and what we hear very rarely from singers, his articulation of the words was no less perfect than his expression of the music. It was in consequence of my hearing him and Signora Corri sing a number of our songs so charmingly that I conceived the idea of collecting all our best melodies and songs, and of obtaining accompaniments to them worthy of their merit.'

It is certainly not a little curious that the beauty of Scottish song should been first revealed to Thomson by a couple of Italians; but the musical Edinburgh of his day, as indeed it has always been to some extent, was dominated mainly by foreigners. There was Christoff Schetky, the principal 'celloist of the St. Cecilia Society; there was Pietro Urbani, of whom more by and bye; there were various members of the Corri family; there were Teuducci and others—all continental artists, and all more or less intimately associated with the music of the capital; while only the Gows and Stephen Clarke and such like had a footing as representing the native element in art. Teuducci was very fond of singing Scots songs, and there is a unity of testimony to the fact that he sang them uncommonly well. He came to Edinburgh to take part in the St. Cecilia concerts in 1768, and he appeared regularly before the Society for some time after. All the time he was giving lessons in singing; and one of his pupils, it is interesting to note, was the Alexander Campbell who so miserably failed to teach psalmody to Sir Walter Scott, owing to the 'incurable defects' of the novelist's ear.

The Corris were rather a numerous and confusing family, but the one with whom Thomson had specially to do was Natale Corri, a brother of the more famous Domenico, whose wife had charmed him by her singing at the St. Cecilia concerts. Natale Corri was for many years a singing master of reputation in Edinburgh; and Thomson, as it appears, had become security for him to the Royal Bank for a sum of £363. In 1821 Thomson writes to the Directors of the Bank regretting that ' we find it impossible to pay this debt at present, or in any other than by instalments.' Corri and Thomson divided the sum in three bills, payable at twelve, twenty-four, and thirty-six months; but in the end Thomson had to meet the whole amount. Corri died soon after the bills were drawn, and his daughter, Frances, who had subscribed them jointly with her father, now became the object of Thomson's anxious attention. In a letter he addressed to her at Florence iu March, 1824, he reminds her that she had accepted bills to him for £200, ' being one half of the sum which I am now paying for your late father to the Royal Bank here, by instalments of £60 a year out of my very limited income.' He goes on to say that the lady's father had declared to him that ' the whole sum which I am now obliged to pay was laid out by him for your education in London, and that you had assured him iu the strongest terms that you would not permit me to be a loser. . . . You may easily conceive how hard it bears upon me and my family out of a salary of £300 to carry £15 every three months to the Bank.' This letter was sent under cover to Mr. Haig of Bemerside, who was then at Florence, ' with an earnest request to him to endeavour to get the money from her either in whole or in part.' I have been unable to discover whether Thomson ever succeeded in getting the money. Nor does it matter much here : the main reason of my bringing the case forward at all is because of its indirect bearing upon the pecuniary relations of Burns and Thomson, to be afterwards discussed. Miss Corri ought certainly to have been in a position to pay. In this very year when Thomson was writing to her at Florence, a musical critic was able to declare of her that 'she promises in a few years to be one of the greatest ornaments of the Italian stage;' and even before that she was thought good enough to be associated with the great Catalani in a long professional tour through the Continent. But she was in Italy and Thomson was in Edinburgh, and in those days it was more difficult recovering a debt under the circumstances than it is even now.

Having got his sense of the worth and beauty of national song awakened at the St. Cecilia concerts, Thomson was not long in setting to work as a collector and editor. He tells how, before doing anything, he examined all the collections within his reach, and found them ' all more or less exceptionable—a sad mixture of good and evil, the pure and the impure.' Generally 'there were no symphonies to introduce and close the airs, and the accompaniments (for the piano or harpsichord onl}r) were meagre and commonplace, while the words were in a great many cases such as could not be tolerated or sung iu good society.' The collections thus referred to may be identified with tolerable certainty, for the number of such works up to Thomson's time was by no means great. The earliest published collection of Scottish music was the Orpheus Caledonim of William Thomson, and the first volume of that work was not issued till 1725, the second following in 1733. In the 1725 volume Allan Ramsay published about seventy Scottish melodies as a sort of musical appendix to his Tea-Table Miscellany. Thomson was an Edinburgh musician who in the early years of the century went to Loudon, where he acquired some fame as a singer. Burney has a reference to him in his well known History of Music. He says: 'In February [1722] there was a benefit concert for Mr. Thomson, the first editor of a collection of Scots tunes in England. To this collection, for which there was a very large subscription, may be ascribed the subsequent favour of these national melodies south of the Tweed.'

After Thomson, the next collector of any note was James Oswald, who published several sets of ' Scots Tunes,' and finally, in 1759, his Caledonian Pocket Companion. If George Thomson went to him for guidance, he was certainly in danger of going astray. Oswald had no idea of preserving the airs in their original form, but ' decked them out with embellishments in order to display the skill of the singer.' Moreover, with the view no doubt of giving additional celebrity to certain melodies in his collection, he passed them off as the composition of the luckless David Rizzio, who was just enough of a musician to give a plausible appearance to the trick. Oswald's impositions in this way are pointedly referred to in a poetical epistle addressed to him in the Scots Magazine for October, 1741. Scott evidently knew of them, as witness the following from The Fair Maid of Perth: ' It's no a Scotch tune, but it passes for ane: Oswald made it himsell, I reckon—he has cheated mony ane, but he canna cheat Wandering Willie.' Oswald was originally a teacher of music, first in Dunfermline, and then in Edinburgh. About 1741 he settled as a music publisher in London, where he obtained the distinction of 'chamber composer' to George III.

The collections of Pietro Urbani and William Napier came quite close to George Thomson's venture in the matter of date. Urbani's name has survived in certain references of Burns, but for which it would probably have been entirely forgotten. An Italian singer and music-teacher, settled for some years in Edinburgh, he was both a good musician and a good vocalist. He had the merit of being practically the first person who attempted, at great cost, to get up some of Handel's oratorios in the Scottish capital. In January, 1803, we find him making this announcement: ' To the public. For a considerable time past Mr. Urbani has been busily employed in preparing and rehearsing three of the most celebrated of Handel's oratorios, and he is now happy to mention that on Tuesday, the 1st February, 1803, the sacred and sublime oratorio of The Messiah will be performed by the most numerous and perfect band of vocal and instrumental performers which have appeared in this part of the kingdom.' George Farquhar Graham says that the meritorious attempt thus notified ' was not encouraged, and Urbani was ruined.' There may have been losses, certainly, but The Messiah at any rate was such a success that it was repeated on February 15, the concert beginning, as in London, at 12 o'clock noon.' Urbani's name disappeared, however, from the Edinburgh concert programmes not long after this. He removed to Dublin sometime in 1805, and died there in 1816. Burns seems to have met him first in 1793, when he was on his tour iu Galloway. In that year, at any-' rate, the poet wrote to Thomson: ' He is, entre nous, a narrow, conceited creature; but he sings so delightfully that whatever he introduces at your concert [i.e., the St. Cecilia Concerts] must have immediate celebrity.' In the same letter Burns tells Thomson that Urbani ' looks with rather an evil eye' on his collection, which was likely enough, seeing that Urbani and Thomson were both rivals for public favour. It was Urbani who, on being shown by Burns the air of 'Scots, wha hae,' begged him to 'make soft verses for it.'

The first volume of the Italian's 'Selection of Scots songs harmonised and improved, with simple and adapted graces,' etc., appeared about the end of the century. The second volume was entered at Stationer's Hall in 1794, so that the initial volume was probably published about 1792. The work extended finally to six folio volumes, the last volume being published in 1804. It contained upwards of 150 Scottish melodies with their associated songs. The airs were all harmonised by Urbani himself, the harmonies being filled up in notes for the right hand ; and the first four volumes, iu addition to the pianoforte part, had accompaniments for two violins and a viola. The number and kind of instruments were rather novel, but still more novel at that time was the filling up of the harmonies, aud the addition of introductory and concluding symphonies to the airs. Even in the collection of William Napier, the first volume of which was published in 1790, there were no opening or closing symphonies, and the harmony consisted merely of what was called a ' figured bass' for the harpsichord. These 'figured basses' could only be interpreted by musicians, so that in the matter of accompaniments the amateurs of last century were left to shift for themselves.

Napier's was rather an important work. The first volume contained 81 songs, and the airs were harmonised by four professional musicians, who, together, represented a somewhat varied nationality. There were Dr. Samuel Arnold and William Shields, both Englishmen ; there was Thomas Carter, an Irishman; and there was F. H. Barthelemon, a Frenchman, who is described as 'a singular character and a Swedenborgian.' The second volume, issued in 1792, contained one hundred airs, all harmonised by Haydn, who was presently to do so much work of the same kind for Thomson.

Of Johnson's Museum it is hardly necessary to speak, that work being so well known from the intimate connection which Burns had with it. Though the last volume did not appear until 1803, the first was issued as early as 1787, so that Thomson probably included the work among the unsatisfactory collections of which he afterwards wrote. He certainly had a very low opinion of the Museum, though I am not aware that his views on the matter have ever before been made public. In the copies of his own letters in my possession, the work is several times referred to, and always in opprobrious terms. Thus, in a letter dated September 7, 1821, he speaks of it as ' an omnium gatherum in six volumes, containing a number of tawdry songs which I would be ashamed to publish.' It is, he presumes,' as much a book for topers as for pianoforte players.' It was 'brought out in a miserable style, and without letterpress,' and yet, he is pained to add, it has ' had a good sale at seven shillings per volume.' Tirades of this kind are abundant in the correspondence, but there is no need to dwell on the matter. The Museum was Thomson's most serious rival, and one who reads between the lines can see quite well that Thomson was chagrined at having to share with Johnson the honour of having Burns as a contributor. He did not appear to realise that in condemning the Museum, he was to some extent condemning Burns, who, as everybody knows, was practically the editor of the earlier volumes. At the same time, there is no doubt that the Museum did leave a good deal to be desired alike as to the purity and taste of its contents and the unattractive character of its 'get up.'

It was in the year 1792 that Thomson seriously set about arranging for the publication of a collection of national song. At the outset he was not the only moving spirit of the concern. This much, indeed, we learn from the first letter which he wrote to Burns. ' For some years past,' he tells the poet, ' I have with a friend or two employed my leisure hours in collating and collecting the most favourite of our national melodies for publication.' So far as I know, the identity of only one of Thomson's coadjutors has been established. This was the Honourable Andrew Erskine, a brother of the musical Earl of Kellie. Erskine was a well-known wit and versifier of the period, who had settled in Edinburgh after having served for some time in the army. He was on intimate terms with James Boswell, and in 1763 published his correspondence with that prince of biographers. He is described as ' a silent, dull man, much beloved by his friends, and, like David Hume, extremely fond of children.' Unhappily, he was extremely fond of gambling as well, and it appears to have been some losses in that way which led him in 1793 to drown himself in the Forth. Thomson probably looked to Erskine to share with him the financial risks of the intended collection ; but in any case, the former was soon writing to tell Burns that he had been left entirely alone in the carrying out of the scheme. How he went to work in order to get the required songs, we all know from the letters he addressed to Burns, and those sent to him by the poet in reply. With these letters it is quite unnecessary to deal here, so familiar .have they become to the students aud admirers of Burns. It is enough to say that Bums addressed in all fifty-six letters to Thomson. Dr. Currie, in printing Thomson's letters to the poet, remarks that they were 'arranged for the Press by Slr. Thomson.' What the term 'arranged' exactly signifies no one can say, but at anyrate, without having some unmistakeable evidence of the fact, I do not think we are entitled to suggest, as some writers have suggested, that Thomson tampered with the original text of the letters. Why should he '? The insinuation is of course made by those who want to bring out that he dealt unfairly with Burns, but Burns's letters to Thomson are extant, exactly as he wrote them, and they are as clear upon a certain point as even Thomson himself could have wished to make them. Besides, we are entitled to regard a man as a gentleman, until we have proved him to be otherwise, and I see nothing in Thomson's life or in his voluminous correspondence, now in my hands, to suggest that he was ever actuated by anything but the highest principles of honour.

And this brings me to an important point. During his own lifetime, Thomson suffered a good deal from the charge that he had taken an unfair advantage of Burns by accepting so much from the poet without making him any pecuniary return. The charge still hangs about Thomson's name in a vague kind of way, for in matters of this kind the dog who has once acquired an evil reputation is likely to retain it. In Messrs. Henley and Henderson's recently published edition of Burns, the editors, speaking of Thomson's first letter to the poet, and of the reply of Burns declining payment, remark that Thomson answered so-and-so, ' but as he says nothing of Burns' admirable generosity, it is reasonable to infer that the idea of payment would have been unwelcome to his mind.' It is reasonable to infer nothing of the kind. Thomson never sought to take an undue advantage of any one. His letters to his other poetical correspondents, in my possession, show that when they declined money, as, like Burns, they did for the most part, he made them presents, which in some cases must have cost him far more than the recipient's work was really worth. Beethoven and Haydu exacted terms from him in keeping with their exalted position in the musical world, yet when he writes to Hummel and to Kozeluch, nonentities as compared with these giants, he offers them—and says he is offering them—exactly the same terms. Why, then, are we to 'infer' that the idea of remunerating Burns would have been ' unwelcome to his mind.'

As a matter of fact, Thomson did in regard to Burns everything that it was possible for him to do in the circumstances. From the very outset it was his explicit desire to pay Burns. He says so, and there is nothing in his after-conduct to belie his words. When he first wrote to the poet in September, xxx. 9 1792, enlisting his aid on behalf of the new enterprise, he said expressly:

'We shall esteem your poetical assistance a particular favour, besides paying any reasonable price you shall please to demand for it. Profit is quite a secondary consideration with us ; and we are resolved to spare neither pains nor expense on the publication.'

This, surely, is perfectly clear. But how did Burns receive the suggestion? Writing to Thomson immediately after the receipt of his letter, he declares that the request for assistance will ' positively add to my enjoyments in complying with it;' and he adds that he will enter into the undertaking with such abilities as he possesses, ' strained to their utmost exertion by the impulse of enthusiasm.' It is quite apparent that Bums was as anxious to be of use to Thomson as Thomson was to avail himself of his aid. But the poet is even more explicit on the matter. He says:

'As to remuneration, you may think my songs either above or below price; for they shall absolutely be the one or the other. In the honest enthusiasm with which I embark in your undertaking, to talk of money, wages, fee, hire, etc., would be downright sodomy of soul!'

This also was plain enough. But we do not find that Thomson was anxious to take advantage of the fine independent spirit of the poet as thus exemplified. On the contrary, when the first volume of songs was published, containing six pieces from Burns's pen, Thomson, to use his own words, ' ventured with all possible delicacy to send him a pecuniary present, notwithstanding what he had said on that subject/ On this point the original letter, which is dated 1st July, 1793, may be quoted. Thomson writes to the poet:

'I cannot express how much I am obliged to you for the exquisite new songs you are sending me ; but thanks, my friend, are a poor return for what you have done. As I shall be benefited by the publication, you must suffer me to enclose a small mark of my gratitude [the sum sent was £5], and to repeat it afterwards when I find it convenient. Do not return it, for by heaven! if you do, our correspondence is at an end; and though this would be no loss to you, it would mar the publication, which, under your auspices, cannot fail to be respectable and interesting.'

And yet Messrs. Henley and Henderson can 'infer' that the idea of payment would have been unwelcome! Burns replied to this as one would have expected him to reply after reading his first letter to Thomson. This is what he says:

'I assure you, my dear sir, that you truly hurt me with your pecuniary parcel. It degrades me in my own eyes. However, to return it would savour of bombast affectation ; but, as to any more traffic of that debtor and creditor kind, I swear by that Honor which crowns the upright statue of Robert Burns' Integrity—on the least motion of it, I will indignantly spurn the by-past transaction, and from that moment commence entire stranger to you! Bums' character for generosity of sentiment and independence of mind will, I trust, long outlive any of his wants which the cold unfeeling one can supply; at least I shall take care that such a character he shall deserve.'

Proud as Burns was it must have cost him something in the way of self-denial to write this letter. Though his salary as an exciseman was only £70 per annum, he was certainly not so poor as he is sometimes represented to have been. Yet, as his biographers have shown, at this very date, that is to say in July 1703, a few pounds would have been of material service to him. ' It will be readily admitted,' says Mr. William Wallace (Chambers' Burns, iii. 440), ' that Burns could never have been comfortable under the burden of even the smallest debt. Yet there is evidence that the trifle (10s.) due to Jackson of the Dumfries Journal for advertising the sale of his stock at Ellisland was now, after twenty months, still unpaid. It was discharged on the 12th July, probably out of the very money transmitted by Thomson.' All this, however, only shows to better effect the highly honourable sentiment which animated him in his dealings with the Edinburgh amateur. Lockhart and others have expressed their surprise at the poet's persistent repudiation of the pecuniary obligation which Thomson so clearly admitted. They quote Burns as admitting to Carfrae that ' the profits of the labours of a man of genius are, I hope, as honourable as auy profits whatever;' and they remind us that he made no scruples about accepting hundreds of pounds from Creech on account of his poems.

But there was manifestly some difference between accepting the profits of a work published in the ordinary course of business and taking money from an amateur enthusiast, whose pecuniary success must have been felt by Burns to be purely problematical. He had declined to accept payment from Johnson, and afterwards found his justification in the fact that the Museum was not a pronounced commercial success. Was it not as likely—nay, was it not more likely—that Thomson's venture would prove an unprofitable enterprise ? The truth is that Burns declined to write deliberately for money : he would—in a patriotic undertaking of this kind, at anyrate—write for love or not write at all. If his poems brought him a profit—well, they were not written with that profit in view: the pecuniary return was, as it were, but an after-accident, welcome, no doubt, but still not affecting in any way the inception of the work. This was his view of the matter as expressed to Thomson, and he expressed it to others. In a brief memoir of the poet which appears in the Scots Magazine for January 1797, the statement is expressly made that he considered it beneath him to be an author by profession. ' A friend,' says the anonymous writer, ' knowing his family to be in great want [an exaggeration, certainly], urged the propriety, and even necessity, of publishing a few poems, assuring him of their success, and showing the advantage that would accrue to his family from it. His answer was—"No ; if a friend desires me, and if I'm in the mood for it, I'll write a poem; but I'll be d-d if I write for money.'"

What, then, in the circumstances, was to be expected of Thomson further? He had gone as far with Burns as it was prudent for him to go in the interests of his own enterprise; and if he now kept silence on the pecuniary question, it was certainly not because he failed to realise his obligation. When at last he had an opportunity of rewarding the poet he did what was asked of him cheerfully and with alacrity. Burns —ill, and trying to get along on half of his salary as an exciseman, threatened by a lawyer on account of a paltry tailor's bill of £7 9s.—wrote in despair to his cousin, James Burness, and to Thomson. He asked £5 from Thomson, and Thomson sent that sum 'instantly,' he says, 'by the very first post after it was asked.' He has been blamed for not sending more. But remember his position. He was a married man with a young family growing up around him. He was only a clerk, with certainly a great deal less than the £300 a year which we have found he was being paid in 1824. Lord Cockburn speaks of his salary as being at the time 'a very humble income,' but 'humble' is, of course, a comparative term. At anyrate the amount is not likely to have been over £200. Moreover, whatever Thomson expected his national collection to become (and I have the clearest evidence to show that he eventually lost considerably by it), the work was at the time all risk and all outlay. The outlay was growing and grew to be enormous, especially on the musical side, so as to almost justify Thomson's friends iu impeaching his prudence with having anything to do with it. Remembering all this, we cannot fail to see that it was not a situation in which Thomson was entitled to be ostentatious in his donations and to hold himself out as if he were the wealthy patron of this neglected poet. As a matter of fact (and it may surprise a good many people to hear it), Thomson had actually to borrow the £5 which he sent to Burns.

The statement is made in a letter of June 30th, 1843, addressed to Messrs. Blackie, the Glasgow publishers, who were then preparing an edition of Burns. There is a long reference in the letter to Professor Wilson's essay on the poet, in the course of which we come upon this :

'The poet afterwards, in his last illness, condescended on an emergency to ask me for five pounds, and perhaps the Professor thinks I was to blame for not sending more than the sum asked. If this has provoked his ire, I would merely say that I was not then burdened with money, and had to borrow of a friend the £5 I sent. And on consulting two of the poet's most intimate friends whether I should enlarge the sum they both were of opinion that if I sent more than the poet asked there would be a greater risque of offending than of pleasing him.'

On the Athole, then, taking a generous and common-sense view of the situation, I think we must exonerate Thomson from any charge of unfair dealing with Burns. Lord Cockburn put the whole matter very well in the speech which he made on the occasion of the public presentation of a piece of plate to Thomson in 1847. 'We must above and beyond all,' he said, 'remember the kind of man with whom Thomson had to deal. We must consider a man morbidly sensitive upon the subject of what he called his independence, glowing with indignation at every appearance of pecuniary assistance, and boasting, even under the united pressure of disease and poverty, that he was Robert Burxs, who would never ask any pecuniary help, and would scorn it were it offered. Placing the two men in their respective situations, I repeat it as my conviction,' said Lord Cockburn, 'as I believe it will be the conviction of posterity, that our friend on this occasion acted up to the character he has shown upon every occasion—that of a sensible, a judicious, and a liberal man.' Liberal, that is, according to his circumstances. The impression seems to have got abroad that Thomson became a highly prosperous old gentleman, and a kind of post facto criticism of the Burns business has been the result in some quarters. Mr. Scott Douglas says (Burns, vi., 214) that, '.whatever was his financial condition about the period of Burns's death, when poverty was made a plea to shelter him from charges of peuuriousuess in his dealings with the poet and his family he certainly soon thereafter attained a prosperous worldly position.' His correspondence certainly gives no indication of such a prosperous condition—rather the reverse. He is often pressed for money, and wants to sell his copyrights in consequence ; and even as late as 1847 I find from letters addressed to Robert Chambers (which Mr. C. E. S. Chambers has most courteously allowed me to see) that he felt it expedient to try to turn the pictures on his walls into cash. Let us not iu our blind worship of Burus be unfair to Thomson. There was no more enthusiastic admirer of the poet than he, and he gave himself a good deal of trouble in defending the character of the poet from the imputations cast upon it by Allan Cunningham and others. That lie was entirely honourable, I am fully persuaded.

It has been asserted by several of the Burns biographers that Thomson never saw Burns. In a letter of Thomson to the poet, dated May 1795, there is the following sentence apropos of Allan's sketch of ' The Cotter's Saturday Night,' which Thomson was sending to Burns: ' The figure intended for your portrait I think strikingly like you, as far as I can remember the phiz.' The inference is clear enough, namely that Thomson is speaking of some occasion when he had seen or met the poet. But Scott Douglas in printing the letter (Vol. vi. p. 340) appends this foot-note :

'That is to say—"As I remember the phiz in Beugo's engraving from Nasmyth's picture;" for he never saw Burns in the flesh.'

Scott Douglas is entirely in error. In the sixth volume of Hogg's Instructor (1851, page 409) appears a long letter from Thomson, mainly on the old subject of his alleged 'penurious dealings' with Burns. To that letter the following postscript is added by the writer : ' The charms of Burns's conversation may well make us regret that he was not, like Johnson, attended by a Boswell. 1 speak from experience, for I once had the delight to dine in a small party loith him' The italics, of course, are mine. I have been unable to trace the occasion of the meeting, but it was no doubt in Edinburgh at the time of Burns's blaze of popularity in the capital.

In the interests of his collection Thomson corresponded with many other poet celebrities besides Burns. Scott, of course, was on the spot, and the letters to and from him are not very numerous. Sir Walter was always ready with a promise to write for any melody which Thomson might assign him with a view to words; but promise was one thing, performance another and quite a different thing. Thomson writes again and again to urge the peccant Pegasus, and even offers to call at Castle Street to sing over the melody requiring to be mated. The same thing happened with Lockhart; aud in the end Thomson is found declaring that Scott and Lockhart had not a single note of music between them ! Hogg was more pliable (as well as more musical—for did he not play the fiddle ?) and indeed sent Thomson a great deal more than he could use. Byron was tried, and eventually, after sundry urgent reminders of his promise, declared that any attempt to fulfil his promise would be hazardous. Song-writing is not a species of work he undervalues; on the contrary, Burns and Moore have shown that ' even their splendid talents may acquire additional reputation from this exercise of their powers.' But as for himself—well, nothing but his ' most decided conviction that both you and I would regret it could have prevented me from long ago contributing to your volume.' Moure is ' very much flattered ' at the idea of ' being associated in any way with Haydn,' and promises to write several songs, but his letters show more interest iu Jeffrey and the Edinburgh Review (for obvious reasons) than in Thomson's work.

Joanna Baillie, Mrs. Hunter, Mrs. Opie, and Mrs Grant of Laggan, are amongst the ladies whose pens were called into requisition by Thomson. There is much that is interesting in this section of the correspondence, but I will deal with one point only. In the year 1844 there was published the Memoir and Correspondence of Mrs. Grant of Laggan, edited by her son, John P. Grant, then a W.S. in Edinburgh. Now there is before me a letter of Thomson's dated from Brighton, 10th March 1844, and addressed to J. P. Grant, complaining that, while he was almost solely instrumental iu carrying through the publication and subscription of Mrs. Grant's volume of Poems issued after her husband's death, his name and his efforts in the matter have been entirely ignored in the memoir. Thomson says that he was iu fact the editor of the volume—that Mrs. Grant sent him all her manuscripts, which he arranged and put into the printer's hands.' He continues:

'When proofs were sent me from time to time, however, and I had thus to examine every line closely and critically, I found that a good deal of pruning and little alterations and re-touchings were necessary in order to produce a more clear connection of the parts than the original manuscript contained, all which, of course, I regularly transmitted to your mother for her consideration and directions, till at length the volume was completed to her entire satisfaction. And never was man more gratified than when all the subscription papers were returned to me containing the largest number of names that any literary work, with the exception perhaps of Burns's Poems, ever obtained in Scotland.'

I do not suppose that any one reads Mrs. Grant's poems now, but all the same it seems right that Thomson should have credit for what he declares to have occupied all the leisure hours of a twelvemonth.

Having decided upon his plan in regard to the words of his songs, the next question with Thomson was as to the arrangement of the music. And here he decided to go at once to the fountain-head. No second-rate native musician would suit him: he must have his work done by the eminent Continental composers, whose names were familiar to music lovers all the world over. Thomson's correspondence with these notabilities would in itself make an interesting little volume. The most prominent name is, of course, that of Beethoven. When he wrote to the composer in 1803, he had already published arrangements of Scottish airs by Pleyel and Kozeluch, and with the true eye of a man of business, he was now anxious to obtain from a greater and more famous musician than either six sonatas on Scottish themes. Beethoven replied offering to compose the sonatas for three hundred ducats (£150) the lot, but Thomson was not inclined to give more than half that sum, and with an intimation of this fact, the correspondence ceased, to be resumed in 1810 when Beethoven began on the Scottish airs. In passing, it may be remarked that all the artists with whom Thomson established communication showed a fine concern for the commercial side of the business. When Baron Tauchnitz, the German publisher, once asked Thackeray to excuse him for his badly-written letters, Thackeray promptly replied—' Do not be afraid of your English. A letter containing £ s. d. is always in pretty style.' So, in effect, said Thomson's correspondents. Beethoven remarks that he will always state his terms ' with the frankness aud precision which I like in business matters,' asking Thomson to accept the assurance that he is dealing with an artist who yet 'loves to be honourably paid.'

Beethoven, indeed, debates more about his fees than any of the other composers. Thomson, it appears, had asked him to make his accompaniments to the Scottish airs less difficult; but the master replies that ' the task to render them easier is always a worry to me ;' and, in short, the easier the music the stiffer must be the honorarium ! Thomson, with the view of inviting a compromise, told him that Kozeluch was doing accompaniments for ten ducats (five shillings) each, but this made him only sarcastic. ' I esteem myself,' he says, ' something superior to the genre of M. Kozeluch (miserabilis!) and I hope and believe you to possess some distinction that you are able to do me so much justice.' Haydn, the other notable correspondent of Thomson, is not quite so mercenary as to details, but he, too, makes it perfectly clear that he does not mean to work for nothing. It is true that in one letter he expresses regret that ' in this world I am obliged to work for any one who pays me;' but he immediately adds by way of hint that Mr. Whyte (of Edinburgh) gives him two guineas for each air, or double the sum paid by Thomson. In 1802 he dispatches thirty-two airs to Edinburgh, and 'would be very pleased if" you would send me the money quickly, which amounts in all to forty guineas.' At one time he made up his mind not to do any more work for Thomson, ' the price hitherto paid not being in proportion to the time and trouble which his compositions cost him;' and tbe veteran was only mollified by Thomson making him, on the suggestion of the British Ambassador at Vienna, a present of a dozen handkerchiefs, which he specially wanted to get. And speaking of handkerchiefs, Thomson made an awkward mistake when, iu 1803, he sent him some as a gift to Frau Haydn. ' 'Mv poor wife,' wrote the composer, ' has already been three years under the sod.' It is pathetic to find Haydn remarking in 1804 that he would like still before his death to do at least a dozen more airs for Thomson. 'Great things I can no more undertake; my old age makes me increasingly weak.' Haydn lived for five years after this, but his days were passed in a continual struggle with the infirmities of age. Hummel was another of the eminent musicians whom Thomson engaged for his undertakings. He, too, complains about Thomson's low prices, and hopes that Thomson ' will do me justice and raise the honoraire something more.' He is the only one of the great musiciaus who attempts to write in English, aud he makes rather a mess of it, as, from his begging for excuse, he evidently himself suspected. Hummel was a pupil of Mozart, and for some time Beethoven's rival in love matters, having married a sister of the singer Roeckel, to whom Beethoven was also much attached.

It is hardly necessary to say that the accompaniments and arrangements thus provided by the great masters made the most expensive item in connection with Thomson's collection. Unlike the poets, not one of them would work without

pecuniary reward; nor did Thomson ever suggest to them that they should. Even when he askes such comparatively small men as Bishop and R. A. Smith to do something for him he generally sends the honorarium with the request. This is clearly brought out in the correspondence, and I insist on it again in view of the discreditable insinuations thrown at him by Mr. Henley and others. But to return. In my opinion Thomson paid the great Continental musicians quite as much as their efforts were worth, but it was only natural that they should value themselves more highly than it was possible for the lovers of Scottish national music to value them. It is calculated that, at the lowest estimate, Beethoven must have received for his share in Thomson's publications not less than £550 ; Haydn can hardly have had much under £300 ; while the other payments to Weber, Plegel, Kozeluch, Hummel, Bishop, and Hogarth, who all had a hand at one time or other iu the accompaniments, must have run up the total costs of the music alone to considerably over £1000. Even Burns's Jolly Beggars, music by Bishop, cost £60. When we add to all this the costs of production and other incidental expenses, and recall the fact that Thomson kept the distribution of the work entirely in his own hands—a very ineffective business, as I can clearly see—we need not be surprised to find him trying frantically to get rid of his burden, even at an immense sacrifice, and admitting iu a public speech, not long before his death, that he could never get his money back.

The demand for such works, limited even now, was far more limited then, when the number of musical amateurs was much fewer than it is now. Nor can it be said that the collection had all the claims on the public which its editor so frequently urges in his correspondence. In spite of Thomson's very natural opinion to the contrary, the unbiassed critic cannot blind himself to the fact that the Continental masters whom he employed were not altogether happy in their attempts to adorn the Scottish airs. They failed in many instances to catch the characteristic style of the music, and although in some cases they managed to hit the proper vein, their work, as a whole, only proves again that the greater the genius when misapplied, the more signal is the failure likely to be. Even Thomson himself came to see this in the case of Beethoven. In a letter of 1821 he says sadly : ' I have no expectation of ever receiving any benefit from what Beethoven has done for me. He composes for posterity. I hoped that his gigantic genius would bend and accommodate itself to the simple character of national melodies, but in general he has been too learned and eccentric for my purpose, and all my gold ducats have been thrown away, besides the expense of engraving, printing, and paper.' Alas ! not even for posterity did Beethoven and these other masters write in this particular case. The Thomson collections are totally neglected, and although some of Beethoven's arrangements for them have been rescued by his admirers iu Germany, they really survive only in the thematic catalogue of his works. Thomson, as I believe, made quite a mistake in going abroad for his musical work, but his mistake is not so uncommon even in these days, and in any case he suffered the penalty.

Thomson's collection was a large and handsome work in six volumes folio, each volume having an engraved frontispiece, besides smaller engraved embellishments. The first volume was published in 1793, while the last did not appear until 1841! A cheap edition, containing such airs as had been issued up to that time, was published in 1822, in six volumes royal octavo. Thomson also edited collections of Welsh and Irish melodies, but these, the Welsh especially (in 3 volumes), were far from successful. In his letters he is especially severe on the Welsh people for their apathy, but the truth is that Thomson was lacking in the requisite qualifications for the editing of a Welsh collection. He did not know the Welsh dialect; he was imperfectly acquainted with the already-existing stores of Welsh melody; and in the collecting of airs for his work he put himself to a great extent at the mercy of correspondents iu Wales, who might or might not be qualified to advise him. The Irish collection I have not seen, but as the late Sir Robert P. Stewart, the Dublin University Professor of Music, charges the editor with being 'careless or incompetent' in the matter of the text of the airs, I am afraid we must conclude that Thomson was here also on unfamiliar ground.

A few miscellaneous notes may now be gathered together in closing. Scott and Thomson were warm friends, and several of his letters show that he had been in the habit of calling frequently on the great novelist. He was often at James Ballantyne's table along with Scott and other celebrities of the time, and Lockhart tells of one supper at which ' old George Thomson, the friend of Burns,' was ready with ' The Moorland Wedding,' or ' Willie brewed a peck o' mant,' for the benefit of the guests. Thomson appears to have been an excellent 'company' man in this respect. Mr. George Croal, of Edinburgh, tells in his recent reminiscences of having, as a comparatively young man, met him at supper oue evening. Thomson was then an octogenarian, but notwithstanding, ' seemed to be in the full enjoyment of all the amenities of social life.' On the occasion to which Mr. Croal refers, he sang the song of' Muirland Willie ' with great spirit, and with all the humour it demands. At home he was in his element with his fiddle, and he got quite enthusiastic with such of his guests as could take a part with him in his favourite compositions. In a letter to Robert Chambers, he remarks that Mrs. Chambers being musical, he ought to know her; and, inviting the couple to spend an evening with him, he begs that Mrs. Chambers will send some of her music before her, so that he may practise and be in readiness. He was one of the directors of the first Edinburgh musical festival held between the 30th October and the 5th November, 1815, and much of the success of the gathering was undoubtedly due to him. According to the Scots Magazine, the festival created such excitement that ' for many miles round in all directions there was not a post horse to be had on any roads, and before the Festival began, the hotels, inns and lodging-houses were so full that, unless in private houses, there was absolutely not room for another individual.' George Hogarth, Thomson's son-in-law, and at this time a 'Writer to the Signet, was one of the secretaries of this phenomenal festival, so that between them the pair are entitled to no small credit for the successful issue of the affair. Why, it may be asked, should Scotland not have such festivals now?

Thomson died at Leith on the 18th of February, 1851, at the patriarchal age of ninety-four. After his retirement in 1839 he took up his residence in London, but he thought the streets too dangerous for a man of his years, and when his wife died in 1841, he let his house and went to Brighton. Brighton did not suit him either. Writing to his son William, in August, 1844, he says: 'I am weary of Brighton, where there are handsome buildings no doubt, but little else to look at, except the sea, without ships, which are only to be seen dimly in the far offing as they pass up and down the channel: no meadows, gardens, plantations, shrubberies, or any rural scenery, which I long to see again. . . . If I get the house I am in sub-let before winter, we shall be off to good old Scot-laud again, where I shall be much more safe [compared, that is, with Loudon] during the remainder of my evening of life.' He does not forget to add either that in Scotland he can live so much more economically : ' Goals, which Ave get for ten shillings a ton there, cost us thirty shillings here.' A friend from Ireland had told him that there a pair of fowls might be had for sixpence, and lamb at threepence per pound; but then the people in Ireland are ' cruelly governed and oppressed' (Thomson was evidently a Home Ruler), and after all there is no place like 'bonnie Scotland.' And so Thomson returned to Edinburgh. He had laid his wife to rest in Kensal Green Cemetery ' on the spot next to that which belongs to Charles Dickens, Esq.' There now rests also the old gentleman in the scratch-wig, who saw Carlyle as a youth in Annan and did not know that he saw a coming celebrity.

J. Cuthbert Hadden.


Return to Scottish Historical Articles

 


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast