Boswell and music

Submitted by Bonnie Shaljean on Tue, 08/02/2011 - 14:14

I am interested in what, if any, connection Boswell might have had with music - did he play an instrument? I'm trying to find out as much as I can about his musical activities (if there were any) and related interests. He writes in his Hebridean journal about singing a verse of a song in Erse, but that seems to be more focused on his abilities in the language (or the determination of a lady to teach him some) than the music itself. There are assorted other references to music, but I've seen nothing that indicates he played it himself.

But... I have a nagging half-memory of reading somewhere about Boswell playing a (?) violin, though this may be a mis-conflation with something else. Any help out there? Thanks!

Bonnie Shaljean

Wed, 08/03/2011 - 16:04

I should perhaps explain a bit more about why I'm asking this question -

There's a tune in the Gow Collection of traditional Scottish/Irish music (c.1796 though it could also be later) which is supposedly "composed & communicated by Mr James Boswell" and another one in the John French Collection (1801) titled "Mr James Boswell's Jig". These are both Scottish sources, more or less contemporaneous with JB's lifespan, so I was wondering if they could have come from our Boswell, or else his son (for whom I can't find any hard evidence or references either).

But I've seen nothing substantial so far. It's always possible that the jig-playing James Boswell is someone else entirely: Publishers of that period were certainly not above being ambiguous when crediting their music if the contributor had the same name as a famous person - it helped them to sell more books. Normally they gave no attributions at all in these old collections, so to have something flagged as being composed and communicated by a specific individual is unusual, and smacks a little of advertising.

But it's beginning to look less and less likely that our Mr Boswell is the originator of these pieces. Surely when he was discussing the playing of musical instruments with Johnson, he'd have made some mention of his own experience in that field? Or some scholar would have commented on it by now? I'm going to keep looking anyway, and will be grateful for any findings.

I have just browsed quickly through some of the books in my Boswell library, and have only found few clues concerning this.

1) Boswell did play the flute, at least occassionally. He reported in a letter he sent to Rousseau on October 3, 1765 that while visiting Florence, Italy in August of that year, he had met "one of the best teachers of the flute in Europe, [Nicolas] Dothel, a Lorrainer. He gave me several lessons, and started me on a good plan of study." Later on in the letter he wrote that "[in Siena, a] 'professor' of music, who had very fine taste, came to me every afternoon, and we sang and played fine airs on the flute. Little by little I shall come to know something of music. I can already amuse myself with it tolerably. I lack application, but that will come."

In October 1765 Boswell travelled to the island of Corsica, where he trekked into the islands' mountaineous interior and ended up staying for some time in the camp of the rebel general Pasquale Paoli, whose lifelong friend he became. The following extract is from his ”Journal of a Tour of Corsica":

One day they [the Corsican rebels] would needs hear me play upon my German flute. To have told my honest natural visitants, ”Really, gentlemen, I play very ill,” and put on such airs as we do in our genteel companies, would have been highly ridiculous. I therefore immediately complied with their request. I gave them one or two Italian airs, and then some of our beautiful old Scots tunes: ”Gilderoy”, ”The Lass of Patie's Mill”, ”Corn rigs are bonny”. The pathetic simplicity and pastoral gaiety of the Scots music will always please those who have the genuine feelings of nature. The Corsicans were charmed with the specimens I gave them, though I may now say that they were very indifferently performed. My good friends insisted also to have an English song from me. I endeavoured to please them in this too, and was very lucky in that which occurred to me. I sung them ”Hearts of oak are our ships, Hearts of oak are our men.” I translated it into Italian for them, and never did I see men so delighted with a song as the Corsicans were with the Hearts of Oak. 

I further found a remark in a preface to a modern edition of his Corsican journal, stating that he played the violin, but I have not found any original source explaining it any further.

2) Concerning the tunes in the French and Gow collections I have found nothing to substantiate anything in my own books on Boswell (I haven't looked through them all, though). However, I did find this webpage,, which seems to explain the origin of the tune in the John French collection (unfortunately without giving any further sources). John French, apparently, was a composer from Cumnock near Auchinleck, who dedicated several of his compositions to James and his wife. Which is not surprising, considering that Boswell was himself rather fond of singing and dancing, which is evident from his journals and letters, and he was probably also a patron to several of the local composers.

Boswell wrote some songs himself, particularly in his youth, but those published were mainly written as comments to current events, such as the Douglas Cause in 1767.

James had two surviving sons, Alexander and James. Alexander was by all accounts the more musical of the two brothers, and some of his compositions were published. One of these, as far as I remember, is the Irish-style song Shelah O'Neal. James (the younger) was more into literature.

So there are various possibilities, I think, with regards to who wrote what. I think it probable that French is the composer of at least the tunes in "his own" collection, and may be the composer of the one in the Gow collection as well. However, given Boswell's own interest in music, I shouldn't be surprised if at least the Gow one isn't really is one of his own amateurish compositions made to be performed for some private occassion or other, and which then made its way into the Gow collection. It may also be mis-attributed to James, whereas it was really written by his eldest son, Alexander.

I hope this helps answering some of your questions. I'd be very interested to know if you discover more information about this.

Best wishes,

Thomas Frandzen

All that information is incredibly helpful! I've drawn a blank everywhere else so I really appreciate your detailed answer. I will certainly report back if I find anything more. Many, many thanks -  Bonnie

In case it's of interest to anyone, a music manuscript from 1812 compiled by Elizabeth Ross of Raasay has recently gone online as a free PDF download. It is relevant here because on their tour of the Hebrides, Boswell & Johnson stayed in the very house where this music was set down, and it was her ancestors whom Boswell met and wrote about.

THE ELIZABETH ROSS MANUSCRIPT Original Highland Aires Collected in Raasay in 1812 By Elizabeth Jane Ross

Edited by Peter Cooke, Morag MacLeod and Colm O'Baoill for the University of Edinburgh School of Celtic and Scottish Studies on-line publications, 2011. 

It's probably easiest to let its Introduction speak for itself: 

Compiled around 1812, this is the earliest unpublished collection of Highland vocal and instrumental music and unique in that it apparently represents the wide-ranging musical repertory known to Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of one Hebridean island, Raasay, including the aristocratic Highland home of James MacLeod, laird of Raasay. ... 

We have little information on life in Raasay house during the time that Elizabeth Ross was living there but it was probably still the hospitable, happy and musical home about which both Johnson and Boswell had written so enthusiastically during their travels around Scotland in 1773, some forty years earlier. ... 

Tune No. 27: Morag ['S i luaidh mo chagair Mòrag - Morag is the theme of everything I say] This tune has evidently been popular since the mid-late eighteenth century though most published versions, while similar to ER's, have been modified to suit accompanying harmonies. The earliest known mention of the air is linked to an anonymous verse attack on Samuel Johnson in Gillies' 1786 collection, pp.173–179, where the verse is there said to be "Eir fonn. 'S i laoigh mo chagair Morag, &c."

Many thanks to my friend Keith Sanger of Edinburgh (who is cited in this book) for bringing it to my attention.


grf2012 (not verified)

Sun, 02/12/2012 - 00:12

I'm fairly new to Boswell, but very interested and am reading Boswell's London Journal at the moment and on Wednesday 2nd February, 1763, Boswell states "I read, wrote, and played on my violin with unusual satisfaction".