James Oswald (1710-69) was a Scottish composer from Crail in Fife. He became an important figure in the Edinburgh musical scene, before moving to London, where he became a significant publisher, and chamber composer to King George III. His works combine Scottish traditional-music tunes and idioms with classical structures and orchestration. Robert Burns regarded Oswald as Scotland’s finest composer, and wrote some of his finest lyrics to Oswald tunes – Ae Fond Kiss, for example.
James Oswald was born into a poor but musical family in Crail, a crannied fishing village in the East Neuk of Fife, Scotland, in 1710. The lad’s talent as a musician (fiddle and cello) led him to find work as a Dancing Master in Dunfermline by 1734. There followed six years in Edinburgh – a period which introduced him to the world of publishing – followed in 1741 by a move to London, where he strengthened his absorption of the prevailing fashion for Italian music, and, despite his Jacobite leanings, was eventually awarded with post of Chamber Composer to George III (some argue that he was a Jacobite spy).
Oswald’s gift for lyricism marked all his compositions, whether in the traditional music vein as exemplified in the monumental 12 volumes of the Caledonian Pocket Companion, or when indulging in the new classical style, such as Colin’s Kisses, Airs for the Seasons (96 beautiful horticultural evocations!), and the Twelve Divertimentis for the Guittar (1759).
Oswald’s contribution to the guittar repertoire is at once both unique and profound. While not demanding such virtuosity as a Rudolph Straube [Sonatas for Guittar – (1768) – modern facsimile edition by Chanterelle (1979). ISBN: 3890440274.] or a J.C.Bach [Sonata for the Guittar with an accompaniment for the violin, London 1775, and a Sonata in two movements], his Twelve Divertimentis for the Guittar [Macworth Collection, Vol.258] reveal a master guittarist who accepted and worked within the limitations of the instrument.
Playing through Straube’s music with guittar in hand, one gets the feeling that he often feels frustrated with the instrument and would rather be playing his music on the lute, an instrument with which he is regarded as being one of the late great masters. With Bach, the overiding sensation is that of a musical genius, toying with the instrument. Oswald, on the other hand, while having a genius all of his own, clearly allows his music to grow out of the instrument rather than descending from some great height on to it.
The constant flow of themes and melodic ideas that pepper the Twelve Divertimentis, all have their roots in the tuning and technique of the instrument. In a word, Oswald’s guittar music is organic. If any work can be described as pure guittar music, then the Twelve Divertimentis can surely lay hold to that claim.
Twelve Divertimentis for the Guittar (1759)
My recording of this complete publication – a major work in the guittar canon – is on the Recordings page. Here are facsimiles of each piece and the cover (with permission, Mackworth Collection). Click to enlarge.
How does one listen to Oswald’s guittar music?
That might seem an odd question to some: clearly we just listen and enjoy the music in-itself. Some listeners, however, prefer to place this guittar music in its historical position. For them I offer the following from a guitar-historical perspective.
Oswald was born in the year that Gaspar Sanz, a major composer for the baroque guitar, died. Sanz eschewed ‘development sections’ in favour of a constant stream of new melodies, some self-composed, some based entirely on folk songs and traditional instrumentals. The same could be said of Oswald except that his musical language was not that of the baroque era of Sanz, but of the newly emerging classical school.
Oswald died at the age of 59, some 9 years before the birth of Fernando Sor, who was widely regarded in his own time as the pre-eminent composer for the ‘classical guitar’. It would be wrong to expect Sor-style developments from Oswald’s guittar music.
I prefer to see Oswald as an inheritor of the baroque guitar aesthetic of short character sketches, and as a composer who possessed a remarkable talent of saying a lot with very little. He was, in short, a miniaturist. I think his guittar music is unique in the entire history of the guitar and has been overlooked for far too long. It is never less than lyrical, has some surprising rhythmical subtleties, and, in the Twelve Divertimentis, Oswald created a satisfying five-minute form within which he could explore the unique qualities of this new instrument, the guittar. What on the page often looks like naive and superficial galant affectation, can in performance be deeply moving and very exciting guittar music.
This music does not ‘work’ on modern guitars, it just does not come alive. Oswald understood the guittar better than any other guittar composer of his era. He understood the limitations of the instrument and he worked within them very successfully. Like the guitar music of Villa-Lobos, it just does not transcribe well to another medium, but that does not in any way imply that it is bad music. The wire strings are tuned to a major chord which supplies a harmonic warmth around the sparse but beautifully poised melodic lines. I urge you to play the recording to experience the beauty and vitality of this ‘new’ voice in the world of the guitar (any style of guitar).
Other Publications By James Oswald
Eighteen Divertimento’s For Two Guitars or two Mandelins
Properly adapted by the best Masters
The “Eighteen Divertimento’s For two Guitars or two Mandelins” appears to be Oswald’s first attempt at writing guittar music and is problematical in a number of respects. Oswald the publicist had an eye for the selling power of a good name, and he was renowned in Scotland for taking the names of old, long dead historical figures such as Rizio, Mary, Queen of Scots’ Italian musician friend, and Rorie Dall, the blind seventeenth-century clarsair, to be the composers of some of his melodies, thereby adding an air of antiquity – a guarantee of increased sales. In this occasion, Oswald referred to the less Ossianic gathering of ‘the best Masters’, and it is clear that, as in the case of the Eighteen Divertimento’s, Oswald wrote these pieces himself, for they are very similar in style to, and indeed include movements from, such works as the Twelve Divertimentis for the Guittar, and the Airs for the Seasons.
A Compleat Tutor for the Guittar
“A Compleat Tutor for the Guittar with two Scales shewing the method of Playing in the keys of C & G. To which are Added Eighteen favourite Songs adapted for that Instrument Book 1st London, Printed for I. Oswald, at his Musick Shop on the Pavement St. Martin’s Church Yard, of whom may be had for the Guittar, two Books Divertimentis and ten Songs by Mr Oswald, twelve Lessons by Mr Rush, with great Variety of new Musick.”
Certainly not ‘compleat’ in any way, this publication consists of a single-page explanation of the fingering of a major scale on two instruments in G and C, and another single page explaining note values and rests. It does, however, add an invaluable piece of advice to would-be performers:
“Piano and Forte
They are both extreamly necessary to express the Intention of
the Melody and as all good Musick should be composed in Imita
tion of a Discourse, these two Ornaments are designed to pro
duce the same Effect that an Orator does by raising and falling
It is unusual yet highly appropriate to see dynamic indications being described as ornaments, yet Oswald’s Twelve Divertimentis abound with such indications despite the instrument having a very limited dynamic range, and it is clear from this that the composer wishes the performer to vary the performance as much as is stylistically tasteful, possibly in order to make up for the sameness of tone, key and resonance peculiar to the instrument. I am unaware of Oswald repeating this advice in any other publication for guittar or otherwise.
The remaining eighteen pages are identical to the first eighteen pages of The Pocket Companion for the Guittar and will be discussed below.
The Pocket Companion for the Guittar (The Wighton Collection 32001, Dundee Public Libraries)
The complete title on the front page of this book is:
“The Pocket Companion for the Guittar Containing A favourite Collection of the best Italian French English and Scots Songs Adapted for that Instrument and the Voice London Printed for and Sold by Js. Oswald, at his Music Shop on the Pavement St. Martin’s Church Yard.”
The first of these songs, “From the Man whom I love”, demonstrates a fairly regular feature which appears throughout the publication: the voice part is doubled on a guittar in C, with diads of thirds and fifths and occasional fuller chords, and below the song is an instrumental version for a guittar in G. There are a few inconsistencies between the versions: the dotted rhythms in bars 7 and 8 of the G version are not present in the C version, and the G version has first inversion chords in bar 12, with root position chords in the C version. Both parts end with a short “symphony”. Oswald uses a guittar in G, therefore, in three publications: the Eighteen Divertimento’s, the Compleat Tutor and the Pocket Companion.
Two anomalies are the songs “Corn Riggs are bonny” and “The Lovesick Invocation”. Both have in place of the G version single notes in the key of D. Neither works well on either a guittar in G or C, therefore Oswald either had a third guittar in D or the arrangements are for a different instrument such as a violin or flute. Other keys which make an appearance are C minor (“Sung by Hawthorn in Love in a Village”, “There was a Jolly Miller”) and D minor (“Logan Water”). However, the latter appears only in single notes, with the secondary G guittar now in C for the key of A minor.
The Pocket Companion is a major collection of 141 songs, mostly composed by Oswald, for either voice and guitar in unison – a popular guittar song style – or for solo guittar. The songs are varied, include popular airs by Arne and Pasquali, burlesques and traditional Scottish folk songs, and no doubt appealed to a large cross-section of the amateur guittar-playing public. Two of the most celebrated musical plays of the day, The Beggars Opera and Love in a Village, are well represented, and these versions for guittar anticipate the wash of reductions of operatic favourites to appear for the classical guitar in the nineteenth century. The cult of the virtuoso guitarist had yet to appear, and therefore these versions for guittar were accessible to most competent amateurs.
The Musical Magazine
This collection of songs and instrumentals for various forces includes two “Lessons for two Guittars” and one unattributed song reduction, “Di nuovo ardore”. The first section of the upper part of “Lesson 1” is identical to Divertimento 1, whilst the second section is identical to the “Giga” from Divertimento X, both from the Twelve Divertimentis. The only difference is the dynamic marking of “piano” in Lesson 1 appears as “dolce” in the Twelve Divertimentis. All are written for a guittar in C.