At the close of a year and to usher in a new one, many mark the New Year’s celebration with a toast of champagne and the singing of Auld Lang Syne. This traditional singing in the Anglophone world is particularly poignant this year as 2013 marks the 225th anniversary of Robert Burns’ poem whose words form the lyrics of the song. Burns had collected some of the lyrics from ‘an old man’ that he had come across and committed it to print as it had not existed in manuscript form previously, adding it to the historically important, Scots Musical Museum, an anthological collection of the music of Scotland published in six volumes at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. This is the version (with slight translated variants into English) which has been in use since 1788, the musical incarnation joining text to music dating from around 1794.
The source of the music itself is also unclear. Some attribute it to the English composer, viola player and song collector, William Shields (1748-1829) who wrote numerous light operas, pantomimes, and ballad operas. A bassoon duet passage written to imitate Scottish bagpipe music in the Overture to his opera, Rosina (1782), is cited as the first recorded instance of the tune.
However, Scottish authorities refute this saying that it existed in several publications of Scottish folk music and dance. Indeed Burns himself wanting to preserve Scottish traditions travelled the countryside, recording and setting examples. One of his sources was Robert Bremner’s Collection of Scots Reels or Country Dances (1760s) which included ‘The Miller’s Wedding’ a strathspey, or type of Scottish dance, which has similar melodic and rhythmic inflections to ‘Auld Lang Syne.’
As a composer Shields was a musical magpie, borrowing from multiple sources (including Tudor songbooks, Russian and Celtic folk music, Italian opera and British folksong whether it was ultimately classified as English or Scottish) but also with a view to preserve musical heritages for the benefit of all the home nations. He edited jointly with Joseph Ritson, the antiquarian, their Select Collection of English Songs (London, 1783) and Scotish Songs (London, 1794). Given his amalgamation and synthesis of using borrowed materials and the fact that Shields lived in and around Durham near the Scottish border, it is possible Shields could’ve well heard it and copied it.
Folk tunes are notoriously difficult to source and attribute. Many are set in a modal system which is different to the harmonic ‘key’ or tonal centre found in much of Western European (and a lot of the rest of the world’s commercial) popular music. Auld Lang Syne is no different in that it is set in a pentatonic mode (limited to 5 different notes) and set to the tune of a traditional folk song, whether this was re-imagined by an English composer or a Scottish poet drawing upon a similar source (Bremner’s strathspey of the 1760s) may never be totally clear.
What is undisputed is that the song was used to mark Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year among other celebrations. This tradition dispersed from Scotland to other parts of the United Kingdom and throughout the world with the diaspora of migrants over the centuries. Its use is not restricted to end of the year festivities as it is sung to mark other cultural and social occasions including graduations, funerals or important farewells.
At a textual level ‘auld lang syne’ translates into English literally as ‘old long since.’ Both singer and listener are invited to reminisce about long term relationships and friendships and with ‘a cup of kindness’ and celebrate cheer ‘for old times.’
“Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot, and old lang syne?”
Long standing friendship is celebrated as a gift of the Scots to the rest of the UK and then the Anglophone world. The significance and importance of that gift becomes evident on the 225th anniversary of Burns’ setting especially when considered in the context of the 2014 Scottish referendum when they may exercise their right of self-determination. Will there not be a 226th time to sing the song as a nation? Or will shared history, language and indeed culture, built around shared values and common ideals prevail as we continue to walk down history together as one nation. One of Burns’ verses exhorts singer and listener alike to take each other’s hand (and yes a pint) for the sake of friendship. It serves truly as a signpost, a marker to reinforce the close and intimate trust and support implicit and explicit between longstanding friends.
‘And there’s a hand my trust friend! And give me a hand o’thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.
Whatever they decide in 2014, the nation will forever benefit from the gift of that friendship, remembered at the close of every year.