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In Praise of... James Oswald

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

We are very privileged to be performing again at Brighton Early Music Festival on 4th November, showcasing our programme of Scottish Baroque programme, in preparation for our project launch this Winter! BBC Radio 3 will be recording our concert for the Early Music Show, and we believe that we will be on air on Sunday 26th November - more details soon...

One of our favourite truly Scottish Baroque composers is James Oswald, who rose from small beginnings in a fishing village in Fife - Crail, not far from St Andrews. Tom and I have visited Crail in winter time, and whilst heart-stoppingly beautiful, Tom declares it remains the coldest place he has ever visited! (He has clearly never been in Braemar in January...) It is unsurprising, perhaps, therefore, that Oswald would find artistic inspiration in his hometown - after all, his father was the town drummer, and later leader of the town waits. But James soon felt he needed to relocate to make the most of his burgeoning musical talents. Around 1734, we find him working as a dancing master in Dunfermline, but soon, finding this enterprise rather low-paid, he moved to Edinburgh. Here he was able to develop a successful career as a composer, publisher/arrange, cellist and of course teacher, teaching the local aristocracy their musical ABCs! He met his first wife, Marion, here and had 4 daughters, some of whom went on to musical careers themselves! This life seemed to have satisfied Oswald in his early twenties, but, always with his eyes on the prize, he announced his departure to pastures new, and is said to have considered moving to Italy to develop his career further.

However, in 1741, at the tender age of just 26, Oswald made his journey to London. It is quite easy to imagine why he made this decision. Edinburgh was very much the centre of musical creation and appreciation in Scotland, and a hub in its own right, but it could not compete with London, the great metropolis, where greats such a Handel were still

performing and there was far more opportunity both for performance and teaching. More importantly, London was the home of music publishing, and as soon as he arrived, Oswald rented a shop on the Strand, where all the great and the good published throughout the eighteenth century. Here he also set up the mysterious (to this day!) society 'The Temple of Apollo', whose members included other London-based composers - which Charles Burney believed was just a way for Oswald to be able to write theatre music at cut rates! In fact, the society published much contemporary Scottish music, and I hope (when at some point I have a little time!) to research this area a little more in preparation for a PhD...

Gradually, Oswald achieved even greater success in London than he had in Scotland, and, no doubt through a great deal of 'networking' (some things never change!) was appointed to teach the children of the royal family. When George III became king in 1761 on his 18th birthday, Oswald immediately was appointed Chamber composer to the King - from which lofty position he was able to publish even more chamber music, and of course gain several more patrons for his ever-popular collection of Scots tunes, 'The Caledonian Pocket Companion'.

Oswald had the ear of many leading London persons of his day, and, following the death of his first wife in 1764, he married Leonora, the widow of a friend, John Robinson-Lytton, who owned the splendid Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. It is very likely that James, like many landowners of his time, would have been fascinated by the new fad for exotic flowers, and the breeding of new varieties from the continent and further afield; certainly the fact that he was able to select 96 different plants for his 'Airs for all Seasons' (and indeed to write music to suit the character or medicinal use of each!) shows that he must have had more than a passing interest. He must have been a compelling character - driven, with a keen eye for fashion, and the ability to take the 'traditional' and make it attractive, distinctive, and uniquely marketable. His talent for assimilating English, Italian, French, and of course Scottish styles is highly impressive, and his second set of 'Airs', published in the early 1960s, certainly show that he was immediately au fait wih the new 'galant' style of the later eighteenth century.

We can only pay a very small homage to Oswald in our programme - we are playing just 5 of his 96 airs - The Crocus, The Narcissus, The Tulip, The Ranunculus, and of course, the Phesant's Eye. In the future, with an expanded ensemble, we hope to record his complete works, but for the moment, don't miss this taster at 1pm at the Friends' Meeting House, Brighton on the 4th November - tickets available here - we'd love to see you there!

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