By Elizabeth C. Ford

Macgibbon’s gane, a’ waes my heart:
The man in music maist expert,
Wha could sweet melody impart
And tune the reed
Wi’ sic a slee and pawky art,
But now he’s deid.

—Robert Fergusson, “Elegy, on the Death of Scots Music” (1772)

William McGibbon (1695–1756) was once described to me as the best-known Scottish composer no one had ever heard of; I believe that’s a reasonably accurate assessment. When I first encountered his name in David Johnson’s monograph Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century (2nd ed., 2003), I was left with the impression that his music had faded into well-deserved obscurity. At the same time, I noted that Henry George Farmer in A History of Music in Scotland (1947) spoke highly of McGibbon’s flute duets (published around 1748), though most musicians I spoke to knew only of McGibbon’s collections of Scottish tunes and the one trio sonata of his that has been published a few times in “greatest hits” collections (no. 5 from his set of 1734, headed “In Imitation of Corelli”). I knew that this wasn’t quite good enough for my studies on the flute in eighteenth-century Scotland, so I wanted to see what the rest of his music was like, and if he deserved the reputation he had.

Likely location of McGibbon’s grave, four double paces east of Drummond’s monument near the Flodden Wall, Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.

About a year into my Ph.D. research, I had a chance to go through the papers of the late eminent scholar Kenneth Elliott. Professor Elliott had devoted his career to early Scottish music, founding Musica Scotica, a scholarly society for Scottish music that issues publications and holds performances and conferences. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular among Professor Elliott’s papers; I just wanted to see what he had that might be interesting. Among the many non-music-related papers, I found a folder of old copies of what was obviously eighteenth-century music—likely a trio sonata, with the part name “Traverso primo” at the top. Included in this folder was a note from a librarian at the University of Cambridge about McGibbon, as well as Professor Elliott’s handwritten version of his own edition of the McGibbon’s sonata “In Imitation of Corelli,” with an added viola part. A few pages later, I found a similar version of another sonata that was apparently never published. I felt that unique thrill that a researcher feels when all the hours of sitting on the floor digging through dirty and irrelevant papers pay off: I had found a musicological treasure.

Back in my own office, I stacked all the music in piles and tried to figure out which parts went with which pieces, since nothing was labeled or had title pages. I checked RISM to see what was where and ordered everything. The results were inconclusive. The parts were scattered in libraries around the world, and mislabeled, resulting in the same music being cataloged twice as coming from different sonata publications. Additionally, I found that a group of manuscript sonatas bound with printed McGibbon partbooks in the Library of Congress are likely not, as claimed by David Johnson, by McGibbon. I have my cousin Alex Ford to thank for devoting two weekends and several lunch hours to photographing McGibbon sources at the Library of Congress when they refused to make copies due to fragility. His work not only saved the music for posterity but also allowed me to determine what exactly is what in the LOC’s McGibbon holdings.

Alex Ford, the author’s favorite cousin and McGibbon’s savior, shown in 2013 in the music reading room at the Library of Congress with their copy of the 1740 sonatas.

Once I got to know this music, I was surprised by how misjudged and maligned it was. The compositions are of uneven quality—which comes as no surprise—but in no way should they be regarded as inferior to the work of McGibbon’s continental contemporaries. These sonatas are not difficult music, and they were clearly aimed at the large market of gentlemen amateur players of flute and violin. The writing is generally idiomatic for the flute, though sometimes the composer’s violin playing shows through in the top lines (McGibbon was praised in his time as an excellent violinist). The slow movements generally have great melodic interest, though sometimes the counterpoint is not quite what one might expect.

One particularly distinctive sonata is the sixth from the 1729 collection—the only one of McGibbon’s sonatas that specifically calls for violin instead of flute on the second treble line. This sonata features highly virtuosic and idiomatic violin writing, most notably a long cadenza-like passage in the first movement, and it may give us a picture of the composer’s own violin playing. Concertos by McGibbon are listed in the Sederunt books of the Edinburgh Musical Society, the organization that employed McGibbon for most of his career; while these concertos are presumed lost, it is tempting to think that this unique sonata is a chamber version of a larger work.

Left to right: Allan Wright, Elizabeth Ford, and Aaron McGregor read through Ford’s draft edition of McGibbon’s sonatas.

Since completing my edition of McGibbon’s sonatas, I have given some thought to the question of why McGibbon’s collections of Scottish tunes, and the sonata “In Imitation of Corelli,” are so much better known than his other works and so often regarded as his strongest compositions. I believe it ultimately has little to do with the music itself. The “Corelli” sonata’s “greatest hit” status stems largely from its having been the only one of McGibbon’s sonatas available in modern edition for years. Furthermore, the reference to Corelli provides an accessible point of reference, a lesser-known composer’s nod to a known great. It is a strong composition, but it is not the most interesting of McGibbon’s works. Far more interesting in the same set of trio sonatas are the two sonatas in B minor (nos. 3 and 6), whose very florid slow movements and very lively fast movements show off the one-keyed flute to particular advantage.

Sonata no. 3 in B minor from McGibbon’s 1734 collection, performed by Elizabeth Ford (flute), Andrew Bull (violin), and Allan Wright (harpsichord) in September 2016 at the conference “Women and Education in the Long Eighteenth Century” at the Glasgow Women’s Library, Glasgow.

In the case of the Scottish tunes, their popularity seems linked closely to questions of Scottish identity and conceptions of Scottishness in music. Around the middle of the eighteenth century, after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and the subsequent suppression of Highland Scottish culture by the English government, a romanticized idea of Scotland took hold: it was seen as the country that nearly overthrew the government and was proud even in its defeat. One result of this was an upswing in publications of Scottish national music, which in Edinburgh, at least, greatly outnumbered non-Scottish themed publications. When the poet Robert Fergusson (1750–74) wrote his “Elegy, on the Death of Scots Music” in 1772, mentioning McGibbon by name as a practitioner of a purely Scottish style Fergusson felt was lost, McGibbon’s sonatas were already out of fashion; Fergusson may not have known McGibbon composed sonatas at all.

The modern tendency to prefer McGibbon’s Scottish tunes over his sonatas likely stems from similar reasons, with the added problem of accessibility: many copies of the Scottish tunes survive, but the sonatas only survive in individual, fragmentary parts scattered among different libraries. There is a noted tendency among Scots—likely as a result of centuries of oppression by the English—to dismiss their own culture as somehow less worthy. Because an idea persists that Scottish music should sound Scottish (whatever that means), compositions like McGibbon’s sonatas are regarded as a surprise or a curiosity when the composer’s nationality is revealed. But to take this stance is to gravely misunderstand eighteenth-century Scotland, which was anything but a backwater, either culturally or intellectually; it had stronger ties to Europe than England did, and Scots travelled more freely in Europe than did their southern neighbors. It is high time to look past the Scottish origin of this music and regard it in its larger musical context, alongside the works of McGibbon’s continental contemporaries.

Elizabeth C. Ford’s Ph.D. thesis (University of Glasgow, 2016), “The Flute in Musical Life in Eighteenth-century Scotland,” won the National Flute Association Graduate Research Award. She was 2018–19 Daiches-Manning Memorial Fellow in Eighteenth-century Scottish Studies at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh. In 2019–20 she will hold the Martha Goldsby Arnold Fellowship at the Riemenschenider Bach Institute and the Abi Rosenthal Visiting Fellowship in Music at the Bodleian Libraries. Her monograph on the flute in Scotland, The Flute in Scotland from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century, will be published by Peter Lang Press Studies in the History and Culture of Scotland in 2019.