Tobias Hume: gallus viol player, Scottish soldier

First published in The Herald on 4 June, 2014

A soldier, a musician and a bit of a mystery, Tobias Hume is an extraordinary figure in Scotland’s classical music history – and yet we know next to nothing about him. He lived and worked around the turn of the 17th century; that much we can deduce from his two published volumes of viol tunes, First Part of Ayres (1605) and Captaine Humes Poeticall Musicke (1607). By his own description he was a military man first and an artist for pleasure: “My Profession being, as my Education hath beene, Armes,” he wrote; “the onely effeminate part of me, hath been Musicke”. Life as a soldier meant that he travelled a lot – Russia, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, probably more – and travelling means that it’s hard to keep track of him. He turns up in Polish records from the 1620s and is mentioned in the court papers of Queen Anne of Denmark. Any real details of Hume’s life are tantalisingly sketchy. We don’t know where or when he was born, or where he spent a good 20-year chunk of his life, or why he ended up a pauper who had to forage snails for food among the nettles. Thankfully his music has been better preserved than his life story.

Needless to say, all of this makes Hume a magnet for inquisitive-minded musicians who like a rummage through the dusty archives. Jordi Savall is one such: the great Catalan viol player has championed Hume’s music for decades, always with that inimitable, whimsical Savallian flair. Now a new album from Concerto Caledonia – the Glasgow-based specialists in early Scottish music – shines fresh light on this most eccentric, gallus and evasive of early Scottish composers.

There’s one fact that Concerto Caledonia intend to set straight from the outset. “Grove’s Dictionary of Music describes Hume as an English composer,” says the group’s founding-director David McGuinness, wagging his finger reprovingly. “So it’s no coincidence that the album cover shows our man decked out in tartan bunnet under the title Captaine Tobias Hume: Scottish Soldier.” This isn’t about petty nationalism, says McGuinness, nor is it simply a nod to an Andy Stewart line. “It’s about reclaiming one of our artists and reversing a tendency in classical music to make Scotland’s historical stuff invisible. It’s about broadening our sense of cultural identity. We don’t know our own heritage nearly well enough, so sometimes it’s necessary to shout about it.”

And shout they do. The album is raucous, bawdy, boisterous, sassy. Many of the tracks are straight-up dance tunes, infused with a party spirit that Hume might have picked up in Poland, Hungary or France. One song (Thomas Walker is the group’s brilliantly gung-ho tenor) extols the intoxicating qualities of tobacco: Love often sets men by the eares, the lyrics brightly declare, so doth tobacco.

“Hume obviously liked to enjoy himself,” says McGuinness with a grin and a shake of the head, full of admiration for this brilliant young Turk of the 17th century. “There’s this great bravado about him. He wrote music for pleasure – that much always shines through. Plus he was an inventor. At one point he writes that if you want to hear the viola da gamba in its true majesty you should add three extra strings to its bottom range. Now, that’s a bonkers idea: you would actually have to rebuild the instrument and add a peg box. Crazy! But Hume had this desire to push beyond the boundaries of what was possible, and I like that.”

McGuinness describes him as a maverick, a radical. “If he’s always been painted by music history as a slightly unstable eccentric, maybe that’s because he drew on a load of diverse, cosmopolitan influences from his travels. It’s not been possible to pin him down. Some of his music has real emotional depth and is structurally very complex. Other pieces are just throw-away bits of fun.”

We do know that Hume played the viol: that sweet-voiced predecessor to the cello that was brought over from France in the 1500s and for a period became instrument of choice for Scotland’s noble classes. (A wealthy family would have kept a chest of viols in their sitting room and played together of an evening for entertainment – think the renaissance equivalent of watching telly together nowadays.) McGuinness suggests that Hume would have also sung the vocal parts to his songs while accompanying himself on the viol. Judging by the staggeringly wide range in some of the songs, he must have been no mean crooner.

He was also no mean chancer. It’s possible that he knew Queen Anne of Denmark from having sailed to Copenhagen in the retinue of James VI; certainly he found favour in her court. Anne herself played the viol and Hume dedicated many of his most intimate works to her (her favourite song, he claimed, was ‘Tickle me quickly'; how literal its title is anyone’s guess). Then again, almost everything that Hume wrote is published with some royal dedication or other. “It’s quite possible that he would have published the same tune several times, each one with a different dedicatee,” McGuinness explains. “That way he could earn a patronage fee several times over.”

Meanwhile all around him the cultural world was in radical upheaval, everything changing at different rates in different places. Opera had just been invented in Italy; London’s composers were steeped in verse anthems and lute songs. This was the cusp of the renaissance and baroque, and transient characters like Hume could forge their own path. For McGuinness, that unruliness is a major part of the appeal. “Often when we were recording this album I’d be thinking, what is he doing?,” he laughs. “Hume’s logic is impossible to follow, but somehow it holds together in its own weird and wonderful way. I’d love to know how he wrote the stuff. Sometimes it seems like he was making it up as he went along.”

Captain Tobias Hume: A Scottish Soldier is out now on Delphian. Concerto Caledonia play Hume as part of the Cottier Chamber Project (Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow) this Sunday. www.cottierchamberproject.com

Highlights of Cottiers Chamber Project 2014

  • Mr McFall’s Chamber play Polish tango (Friday)
  • Shostakovich string quartets performed by the Maxwell, Fejes, Daniels Beard, Glasgow and Edinburgh quartets (June 7-16)
  • The Shetland Bus – aka fiddler sisters Bethany and Jenna Reid (Saturday)
  • Concerto Caledonia play Tobias Hume (Sunday)
  • Rothschild’s Violin – a chamber opera by Veniamin Fleishman performed by Co-OPERAtive Music Scotland (Sunday)
  • Solo Bach from musicians including cellist Alison McGillivray and violinists Alexander Janiczek and Cecelia Bernardini (June 9-20)
  • The SCO winds play Mozart and Beethoven (June 10)
  • Pianist Alasdair Beatson and violinist Catherine Manson play Beethoven (June 10-11)
  • RSNO musicians play Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (June 15)
  • Alexander Janiczek and Philip Higham play duos by Martinu, Schnittke and Ravel (June 17)
  • Moishe’s Bagel (June 20)