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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Clarke, Stephen (d 1797)

Clarke was an Edinburgh musician and music teacher whom James Johnson had brought in to harmonise the airs for his Scots Musical Museum. In 1787, when Burns became involved in the project, Clarke was organist of the Episcopal Chapel in the Cowgate, Edinburgh. After his death, his son William continued the work.

Clarke seems to have been somewhat indolent, even careless. Burns's letters abound in expressions of exasperation at him. To begin with, it was 'Clarke, the well-known musician, presides over the musical arrangement' when Burns was writing to James Hoy on 20th October 1787, announcing his involvement in the Museum. Writing from Ellisland on 19th June 1789, Burns told Johnson: 'Mr Clarke and I have frequent meetings and consultations on your work'. In July 1792, Burns undertook to get Clark to come to Drumlanrig to give singing lessons to two of the M'Murdo girls, Clarke seems to have ignored the first request, and on 16th July Burns followed it up with a humorous letter: 'Mr Burns begs leave to present his most respectful Compliments to Mr Clarke, Mr B some time ago did himself the honour of writing Mr C respecting coming out to the country to give a little Musical instruction in a highly respectable family, where Mr C may have his own terms, and may be as happy as Indolence, the Devil and the Gout will permit him. Mr B knows well that Mr C is engaged so long with another family; but cannot Mr C find two or three weeks to spare to each of them? Mr B is deeply impressed with, and awefully conscious of, the high importance of Mr C's time, whether in the winged moments of symphonious exhibition at the keys of Harmony, while listening Seraphs cease from their own less delightful strains; or in the drowsy hours of slumbrous repose, in the arms of his dearly beloved elbow chair, where the frowsy but potent Power of Indolence, circumfuses her vapours round, and sheds her dews on the head of her DARLING SON — but half a line conveying half a meaning from Mr C would make Mr B the very happiest of mortals.'

Burns's quippery had its effect, and Clarke went to the M'Murdos. The visit resulted in some songs for the M'Murdo girls, including, 'There was a lass and she was fair'. Burns told George Thomson in July 1793; 'Mr Clarke, who wrote down the air from Mrs Burns's woodnote wild, is very fond o fit; and has given it a celebrity by teaching it to some young ladies of the first fashion here.' Thomson, however, disliked the air, which was subsequently lost! From a footnote to another letter to Thomson in the same month, it would seem that Clarke was now also teaching in the family of Patrick Miller of Dalswinton.

In later letters to both Johnson and Thomson, references to Clarke's indolence abound. Once, he even went so far as to lose a song-packet altogether, not all of which Burns could replace from memory.

Today, Clarke's harmonisations in the Museum seem rudimentary. But they are at least more lastingly acceptable that the florid accompaniments Thomson got out of Beethoven, Haydn, Pleyel and the others, which delight us now solely as period pieces. Furthermore, Clarke's treatment conforms to the criterion of taste in such matters laid down by the 18th Century musical historian Hugo Arnot: 'The proper accompaniment of a Scots song is a plain dropping bass, on the harpsichord or guitar. The full chords of a thorough bass should be used sparingly and with judgement, not to overpower but to support and raise the voice at proper pauses.'

Clarke's other publications included a set of Sonatas based on Scots Airs. Burns passed on his copy to Maria Riddell, saying they were 'of no use to me'.

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