Hector MacAndrew.


Am Bratach No. 210
April 2009


The touch of a master

Hector MacAndrew: Legend of the Scots Fiddle. Greentrax Recordings Ltd, Cockenzie Business Centre, Edinburgh Road, Cockenzie, East Lothian EH32 0XL. £11.85.

As a boy I was familar with the fiddle playing of Hector MacAndrew (1903-1980), thanks to my father, writes DONALD MACLEOD. A player himself, my father was horrified when a neighbour called in while a MacAndrew broadcast was playing over the air waves exclaiming: "You're just as good yourself!" He thought he was paying my father a compliment. Far from it: it was tantamount to sacrilege. Another MacAndrew devotee, Willie Morrison of Durness, told me of a similar experience he had had, and of his identical response.

Hector MacAndrew was not only admired by Scottish country folk like Willie Morrison and my father, people who knew how a strathspey and reel should be played, but by musicians from other traditions who had only the sketchiest idea of what the national music of Scotland was about. Yet somehow they sensed he was the embodiment of a music tradition.

I remember calling on Hector at his Cults home while on a trip to Aberdeen. The evening before, a member of a German string quartet had called. Hector casually remarked on this in passing, as though it were a normal occurance. I'm pretty sure it was. Another time I visited Hector, I found him fuming at the BBC. Lying on the table was a letter they had just sent him proposing that he turn up at very short notice at one of their London TV studios to record a programme with the classical violinist, Yehudi Menuhin. Hector wouldn't budge, not because he had anything against Menuhin — far from it — but for the simple reason that the BBC had expected him to jump when they said so. The national broadcaster never got their programme. After that Menuhin went on to record a BBC TV spectacular and made several LPs with the leading jazz violinist, Stephane Grappelli.

MacAndrew had met Menuhin before and held him in high regard. They had helped judge a large Scottish fiddling championship, organised by the BBC, and had appeared together in a television programme in which the classical violinist received lessons in strathspey and reel playing from MacAndrew and had played (very beautifully) Niel Gow's Lament on the Death of this Second Wife, Menuhin had visited Hector and his wonderfully hospitable wife, Elsie, in their home and the two men had played and talked together. "Who taught you to bow like that?" was one of the first questions Menuhin had asked. They went on to exchange views on other string players, agreeing that Fritz Kreisler was the "Daddy o' them a'", the greatest violinist they had heard. Menuhin himself had an extraordinary gift. At the age of thirteen he played three concertos at a concert in Berlin which the great theoretical physicist Albert Einstein attended. Einstein is reputed to have exclaimed at the end of the concert: "Now I know that there is a God!" Einstein was an amateur violinist. Of all the music that Hector played to him, it was the airs from Captain Simon Fraser's Knockie Collection that captivated Yehudi Menuhin.

Hector MacAndrew owned a Pietro Guerneri violin, which I believe was given to him by a well-off patron. It had a small crack. He told me that Menuhin had offered to take him to WE Hill & Sons, then the leading violin shop in London, to have it repaired. It seems that unless you enjoyed a certain status in the classical music world, you couldn't enter its portals!

Hector MacAndrew, like some famous fiddlers of the past, straddled the world of strathspeys and concerti with ease. James Scott Skinner (1843-1927), the self-styled "Strathspey King", liked to give the impression that he was the first classically-trained "fiddler" in Scotland, but this is far from the truth. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, you could say there was a "crossover" music culture and Durness-born Patrick MacDonald (1729-1824) is a good example of a musician at home in both camps.

MacAndrew had started playing the violin at the age of four. His father, gardener and personal piper to Lord Leith at Fyvie Castle, also played the fiddle, but it was from his grandfather that Hector learned the art of strathspey bowing. I remember him telling me that MacAndrew's Orchestra, led by his father, provided the music for local dances in his early days. The history of fiddling in the family went back to James Mackintosh of Dunkeld, the last pupil of Niel Gow, who taught Hector's great, grandfather, Peter (1805-81). Although he didn't play the instrument himself, his piping pedigree went back even further and was even more illustrious, although less well known. Hector was a descendent of Charles MacArthur, the most eminent member of the clan that supplied pipers to the Lords of the Isles. Interestingly, one of the piobaireachd attributed to Charles is Murray of Abercairnie's Salute while one of Niel Gow's best known slow airs is The Lamentation for James Murray Esq of Abercarney. James Murray was a brother of the Duke of Atholl and a lover of Gow's playing. Leading pipers like the Bobs of Balmoral, John D Burgess and Donald MacLeod were Hector's friends. His father, also Peter (1867-1951), was a Gaelic speaker from Moulin, Perthshire, who had moved to Aberdeenshire to work. The other great (Aberdeenshire) fiddler of Hector's generation, Bill Hardy, also had Perthshire connections.

The classicial training that MacAndrew received over three or four years when a young man was courtesy of JH Alexander. Alexander, who lived in Edinburgh, was a director, I believe, of a seeds company. He had heard Hector play and encouraged him to study further. The upshot was that Hector moved to a gardening job in Linlithgow so that he could be near Alexander, and begin studies with him. It was a piece of great good fortune since Alexander had been taught to play the violin by Joseph Massart at the Paris Conservatoire. Massart had once performed Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata with Liszt and among his students in a career at the conservatoire spanning almost half a century was Fritz Kreisler. Kreisler, in fact, had been a fellow student of Alexander's. Hector recalled Alexander telling him that "little Fritz" had been the star pupil of the class.

Hector's violin playing would have made strides under the tutelage of JH Alexander and it would be at this time he joined the Reid Orchestra, attached to Edinburgh University. I recall another MacAndrew buff, Donald Goskirk of Dornoch, telling me that Hector even played the extremely challenging Paganini caprices in what you might call his "classicial" period. Donald, a former violinist with the BBC Scottish Sympony Ochestra, and now leader of the Highland Chamber Orchestra, composed the Lament for Hector MacAndrew.

Hector was taught to play the piano too, a skill he passed on to his wife Elsie, whom he taught to accompany him. Although not a keen pianist himself, he was very particular as to how Scots fiddle music should be accompanied and he was often dissatisfed with the staff pianists the BBC foisted on him at their Aberdeen studio. But one he did get on with rather well was a "wee Irish man", Julian Dawson. Dawson went on to become associate conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Scottish Opera and is presently conductor of the DePaul University Opera, in the States. At that time Hector was barred from using his regular accompanist, Sandy Edmonstone, for broadcasting, probably the consequence of a trade union agreement. Edmonstone, Elsie's nephew, was, and no doubt still is, a first rate piano accompanist, though primarily an organist.

Hector probably felt that Scotland's fiddle music did not always enjoy the status it deserved. And he didn't like being patronised. The American folk music collector, Alan Lomax, turned up one day with his film camera, and asked Hector to dress up in nicky tams for the shoot. He was turned down. It was farm labourers rather than gardeners like Hector who wore nicky tams. I think you could say that Lomax got off on the wrong foot and Hector probably ended up regarding him as a phoney.

MacAndrew never sought fame or fortune, preferring to play for friends, though he made many radio broadcasts, apparently from as early as the 1920s. He probably suffered from stage fright, a terrible affliction in a solo musician. If so, he was in good company. The world famous concert pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, who died in 1989, had to be pushed onto the concert platform on more than one ocasion, according to his biographer, Glenn Plaskin. You never knew how well Hector would play, especially in the recording studio. For instance, he would sound quite scratchy one time; another time authoritative, pure velvet. Probably nerves played a large part. At his best, Hector was very intense and passionate, emotions difficult to turn on and off like a tap. According to his friend, the late Bob Munro of Thurso, you knew Hector meant business when his "broows were doon"!

But I'm not convinced that Hector always played at his best by the fireside, so to speak, as claimed by Florence Lowie in an interesting note that accompanies Hector MacAndrew: Legend of the Scots Fiddle. The well-balanced recordings on this CD were made "by the fire" on a domestic or semi-professional reel-to-reel Telefunken tape recorder about sixty years ago by Lowie's late husband, Mackie Burns, and though there is certainly good playing, I feel that it doesn't stand comparison to that of his best BBC recitals, and his earliest LP, in particular. I do like his rendering of Lady Anne Hope's Favourite, a slow air attributed to Niel Gow, and the selection, Mar Castle, Miss Laura Andrew and The Hawk, the latter a hornpipe by James Hill, who also composed the High Level Hornpipe.

The syncopated tripets in strathspeys like Lady Mary Ramsay, the rubato, the perfectly judged slides, and the pregnant pauses in the slow airs are just a few of the characteristics one associates with MacAndrew's playing. You could depend on him to come up with great settings of tunes, often gleaned from an instrumental tradition of which the composer and concert pianist, Ronald Stevenson, considered he was probably the greatest exemplar. His beautiful phrasing, he admitted, was a natural gift.

This is a much needed CD of Hector MacAndrew's playing - the first ever, so far as I know. Accompanying him on the piano are his son, Pat, and Sandy Edmonstone. The notes that go with the CD were compiled by Pat, Hector's pupils, Gregor Borland (from Abriachan, Loch Ness-side), Jane Davidson and Douglas Lawrence, Lawrence's pupil, Paul Anderson, Bobby Harvey, and Florence Lowie, who may or may not have been a pupil, depending on whose evidence you accept! They provide lore of the man and his music, a truly exceptional musician who gave such a lot and asked so little in return from the country that gave him birth.

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