Piano Variations and Shaping the Foreign Popularity of Scottish Tunes by Sarah Clemmens Waltz

Sarah Clemmens Waltz is currently Associate Professor of Music History and director of the music history program at the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music in Stockton, California. Her dissertation, The Highland Muse in Romantic German Music (Yale University, 2007) explored German interest in Scotland prior to about 1845; an in-progress book project is based on this research. She published a set of Ossianic text-settings with A-R editions (2016) and has articles in Beethoven Forum and Beethoven Journal (the latter concerning Beethoven’s Scottish songs); other work is forthcoming in Music and the Idea of the North (Routledge, ed. Rachel Cowgill and Derek Scott) and Rethinking Mendelssohn (Oxford, ed. Benedict Taylor and Angela Mace Christian). Dr. Waltz has presented research related to this topic at the International Conference on Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain. She is collecting variation sets and other works based on Scottish themes.


The pianist Henri Herz (1803–1888), like many nineteenth-century virtuosi, sometimes used Scottish tunes as the basis for popular piano fantasies or variation sets. These were much more effective in transmitting Scottish tunes abroad, particularly to Germany, than the academic song collections­­ – even considering the participation of Haydn and Beethoven in the latter. Herz had two variation sets on Scottish tunes: ‘We’re a’ noddin’ (in the Op. 39 Trois airs variés pour piano, 1827) and ‘Blue Bells of Scotland’ (in the Op. 71 Récréations musicales, 1834, also published separately). Many pianists, particularly London ones, made many more, but Herz is an interesting case because his usage inspires us to trace (or guess at) the paths of two particular tunes that together run the full gamut of how Scottish tunes gained (or maintained) outsized popularity in Britain and abroad: inclusion in quadrilles for dancing, in stage/opera performances, in virtuoso variation sets, and finally in instrument primers or collections for young players.

The tune ‘We’re a’ noddin’, published in the Scots Musical Museum as ‘Gudeen to you kimmer’ (Johnson/Burns VI: 510), appeared in a few dozen London piano variation sets in the 1820s, most by far between 1822-3 (including sets by Kalkbrenner [1822], Ries [1822], Moscheles [n.d.], Herz [1827], Pixis [1827], and Thalberg [1827] among others). It would seem to have been popularised in its mid-century form by Catherine Stephens, who sang it at Covent Garden in 1822 and who also popularised ‘Charlie is my Darling’ in a Walter-Scott-inspired play Montrose, or the Children of the Mist (music arr. Henry Bishop). Variation sets on ‘We’re a’ noddin’, however, were already trickling in by 1821, perhaps due to its inclusion in a standard set of quadrilles which appeared around the time of Stephens’s performance.

The quadrille was brought to England by Lady Jersey in 1815. Quadrilles were danced to a preferred set of five tunes that would become widely recognised through ballroom exposure, though substitute sets emerged which were equally recognised. Scots song had appeared in the ballroom for some time but solidified between about 1815-1830 under the influence of Edinburgh band leader Nathaniel Gow. During this time the ‘Caledonian Quadrilles’ arose as a set of (somewhat interchangeable) Scottish tunes to the standard dances. Though the ‘Original Caledonians’ (c1822) does not include ‘We’re a’ noddin’, Gow’s version places it in the first position, and many others have ‘We’re a’ noddin’ in position 1 or 2 (Gow’s Second Set, c1821).

No. [2], Favorite Set of Scotch Quadrilles…as Performed by Gow’s Band (c1821), title and first dance, images by Permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

The Much Admired Scotch Quadrilles as Danced at Dalkeith House (c1821), title and first dance, images by Permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

Hart’s Much Admired Second Set of Scotch Quadrilles (1822), title and second dance, images by Permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

These tunes would be in everyone’s ears as they were repeated so frequently over the course of the season, perhaps even twice at the same ball. For example, a program for the Amicable Assembly in Mitchell’s rooms in 1846 shows the ‘Caledonians’ appearing twice out of 18 sets (Richardson, 1960: 110).

Evidently, quadrilles inspired the number of ‘We’re a’ noddin’ variation sets for piano published in London in 1822. Herz’s set, in 1827, might have been merely capitalising on the trend, since he is not known to have travelled to London before 1831. However, Herz may have been more instrumental in popularising ‘Blue Bells of Scotland’, which by the twentieth century had become by far one of the most popular Scottish (or Scottish-ascribed) tunes to be arranged for instruments owing mainly to its appearance in primers or instrument tutors.

Much like ‘We’re a’ noddin’, ‘Blue Bells of Scotland’ (or ‘The Blue Bell of Scotland’) existed in eighteenth-century collections but was ultimately made popular by a stage performance version (here Dorothea Bland a.k.a. Mrs Jordan, in 1800). However, unlike it, ‘Blue Bells of Scotland’ does not appear to have been used in the quadrilles (Lowrie’s The Blue Bell Quadrilles of c1830 does not use the tune). The tune may have received another short-lived boost in the Napoleonic era when it was used for the contrafactum ‘John Bull and Bonapart’ around 1814 (see Gammon, 1989: 668). Herz’s ‘Blue Bells’ variations are simpler than many of his others, and seems to draw a fanfare-like quality from the melodic profile. It is unclear what prompted Herz to use this tune; there were other variation sets in England before his, starting with Haydn’s Six Admired Scotch Airs on his George Thomson setting (Hob. ii, 533); another has been ascribed to Hummel. Still, it is more likely that Herz heard it in London performances that have not left any trace in the historical record. It is also likely that Herz’s use is what really launched the tune’s outsized popularity and landed it in instrument primers. His ‘Blue Bells’ were frequently reprinted in many countries and likely spread the tune’s popularity in America during his multiple tours (1845-1851). An Italian reprint of Herz’s Op. 71 (the original source of these variations) is explicitly subtitled ‘per uso della studiosa giovantu’; Wilhelm Kuhe, a student of Thalberg’s, also had a set of ‘Blue Bells’ variations (Op. 93, Nouveautés du jour, 1863) which was later reprinted as a ‘study on scales.’ The many piano arrangements of and collections involving ‘Blue Bells’ oscillate between indications of ‘brilliant fantasia’ or ‘adapted for the use of students’ – sometimes even both.

By 1900, the piano primer had replaced the ball as the locus of ‘hit songs.’ These were often collected to gratify the young player with the rewards of playing a popular tune while presenting a limited number of challenges; many such books are collections of varied nationalistic flavour, but tend to prefer harmonically bland and tonic-ending tunes. Older and weirder Scottish tunes are expunged or normalised to tonic endings (e.g. ‘The Campbells are Coming’); ‘Blue Bells’ needs none. ‘We’re a’ noddin’, also a simple tonic-ending tune, does appear in easy tutors (e.g. Adam Carse’s Scottish tunes for Young Pianists [1916]) but ‘Blue Bells of Scotland’ was clearly on the rise as representing Scotland in these primers. A music educator in 1922 counted up frequently-occurring tunes in songbooks for American schools and shows ‘Blue Bells of Scotland’ was a staple, alongside ‘Loch Lomond’, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Annie Laurie’ (Ageton, 1922). It is interesting to consider whether touring pianists’ use of Scottish tunes reflected, instigated, or merely perpetuated their popularity; Herz’s ‘We’re a’ noddin’ seems to reflect prior popularity, whereas his ‘Blue Bells’ instigates a second, enduring wave.

Reference list

Ageton, Aura. (1922). ‘The Value of Songs as Indicated by their Choice’, Music Supervisors’ Journal 9/2: 38–41.

Gammon, Vic. (1989). ‘The Grand Conversation: Napoleon and British Popular Balladry,’ RSA Journal 137: 5398.

Richardson, Philip. (1960). The Social Dance of the Nineteenth Century. H. Jenkins: London.

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