Rob Donn MacKay: finding the music in the songs
Beard, Ellen Leslie
This thesis explores the musical world and the song compositions of eighteenth-century Sutherland Gaelic bard Rob Donn MacKay (1714-1778). The principal focus is musical rather than literary, aimed at developing an analytical model to reconstruct how a non-literate Gaelic song-maker chose and composed the music for his songs. In that regard, the thesis breaks new ground in at least two ways: as the first full-length study of the musical work of Rob Donn, and as the first full-length musical study of any eighteenth-century Scottish Gaelic poet. Among other things, it demonstrates that a critical assessment of Rob Donn merely as a “poet” seriously underestimates his achievement in combining words and music to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The study also illustrates how widely melodic material circulated in eighteenth-century Scotland through aural transmission, easily crossing between languages and between instrumental and vocal music. The thesis includes a musical biography, a review of sources and commentary on Rob Donn, an introduction to relevant theoretical concepts in ethnomusicology and related fields, and a survey of eighteenth-century Scottish music, followed by several chapters analyzing the music of one hundred songs by topic (elegies; social and political commentary; love, courtship and weddings; satire and humor; and praise, nature and sea songs). The study shows that Rob Donn borrowed tunes for 67 of these songs from earlier sources (45% from Gaelic song, 25% from Scots song, 12% from English or Irish song, and 18% from instrumental tunes). It then provides evidence that he composed the melodies of 33 songs, examining in detail how he adapted earlier musical models and created musical settings to reinforce aspects of his poetic message. It also analyzes the musical features of all 100 songs, providing charts summarizing their vocal range, musical meter, scales and tonality. The thesis is accompanied by two appendices, one containing 121 musical settings of the 100 songs, and the other containing their complete texts with English translations (most translated here for the first time).