Thomas Alexander Erskine

(1732 -1781)

Thomas Alexander Erskine

Scottish composer. Thomas Alexander Erskine, sixth earl of Kellie, was the eldest son of Alexander, fifth earl of Kellie, by Janet Pitcairn, daughter of the celebrated physician and poet. The earls of Kellie were a branch of the Marr family, ennobled through the favour of James VI. and I., which was acquired by the services of Sir Thomas Erskine of Gogar, in protecting his majesty from the machinations of the earl of Gowry and his brother. A memoirist writes that "the composer's father, though possessed of a kind of rude wit, was always deemed a person of imperfect intellect, of which he seems to have been himself aware. Being confined in Edinburgh castle for his concern in the insurrection of 1745, he one morning came into the room occupied by his brethren in misfortune, showing a paper in his hand. This was a list of persons whom the government had resolved to prosecute no further, and while his lordship's name stood at the head, on account of his rank, it was closed by the name of a Mr William Fidler, who had been an auditor in the Scottish exchequer. 'Oh, is not this a wise government?' cried the earl, 'to begin wi' a fule and end wi' a fiddler!' On his lordship's death, in 1756, he was succeeded by his eldest son, who seems to have inherited the wit of his father, along with the more brilliant genius of his mother's family."

Erskine was a bright and talented child and youth, but rather than distinguishing himself in some public post appropriate to and consistent with his exalted rank, he insisted upon devoting himself almost exclusively to music. Burney writes, in his History of Music, that "the earl of Kellie, who was possessed of more musical science than any dilletante with whom I was ever acquainted, and who, according to Pinto, before he travelled into Germany, could scarcely tune his fiddle, shut himself up at Mannheim with the elder Stamitz, and studied composition, and practised the violin with such serious application, that, at his return to England, there was no part of theoretical or practical music, in which he was not equally well versed with the greatest professors of his time. Indeed, he had a strength of hand on the violin, and a genius for composition, with which few professors are gifted."

In the age during which Erskine flourished, it was unfortunately deemed an almost indispensible mark of a man of genius, either in literature or music, to devote himself much to the service of Bacchus. Hence this young nobleman, whose talents might have adorned almost any walk of life, identified himself with the dissolute fraternity who haunted the British metropolis, and of whom there was a considerable off-shoot even in Edinburgh. Thus he spent, in low buffooneries and debaucheries, time which in the opinion of his fellow-countrymen might have been employed to the general advantage of his country. He managed nonetheless to compose a considerable quantity of music, which, in its day, enjoyed a high degree of celebrity, though it was later generally regarded "to be deficient in taste and feeling."

Erskine Minuets

"In his works," said a later writer, "the fervidum ingenium of his country bursts forth, and elegance is mingled with fire. From the singular ardour and impetuosity of his temperament, joined to his German education, under the celebrated Stamitz, and at a time when the German overture, or symphony, consisting of a grand chorus of violins and wind instruments, was in its highest vogue, this great composer has employed himself chiefly in symphonies, but in a style peculiar to himself. While others please and amuse, it is his province to rouse and almost overset his hearer. Loudness, rapidity, enthusiasm, announced the Earl of Kellie. His harmonies are acknowledged to be accurate and ingenious, admirably calculated for the effect in view, and discovering a thorough knowledge of music. From some specimens, it appears that his talents were not confined to a single style, which has made his admirers regret that he did not apply himself to a greater variety of subjects. He s said to have composed only one song, but that an excellent one. What appears singularly peculiar in this musician, is what may be called the velocity of his talents, by which he composed whole pieces of the most excellent music in one night. Part of his works are still unpublished, and not a little is probably lost. Being always remarkably fond of a concert of wind instruments, whenever he met with a good band of them, he was seized with a fit of composition, and wrote pieces in the moment, which he gave away to the performers, and never saw again; and these, in his own judgment, were the best he ever composed."

Reputedly having much impaired his constitution by hard living, Erskine visited Spa, from which he was returning to England, when he was struck with a "paralytic shock" upon the road. Being advised to stop a few days at Brussels, he was attacked by a "putrid fever," of which he died at that city, on the 9th of October, 1781, in the fifty-first year of his age.

As noted, he was a pupil of Stamitz in Mannheim (1753-6), and subsequently became a successful composer in Edinburgh, writing many overtures and symphonies. At first he used the Mannheim style, and he is often credited with introducing it to the British isles following his return to Scotland in 1756; a decade later, this tyle gained great currency in London. Erskine's later works, including six trio sonatas (1769), show a wider range of techniques. He was the most important Scottish composer between the late 16th century and the late 19th.

A Partial Thomas Alexander Erskine Discography | a href="VIIJBritainAfter1730.html" target="_top">VIIJ: Music in Britain after 1730