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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Urbani, Pietro (1749 — 1816)

Born in Milan, he came to London as a young man. He went to Glasgow in 1780, and to Edinburgh in 1784, singing Scots songs, teaching, and composing. In 1785, an opera of his, The Siege of Gibraltar, was produced in Edinburgh. Between 1792 and 1794, Urbani published his Selection of Scots Songs... Improved and with Simple and Adapted Graces, which Henry Farmer, in his History of Music in Scotland, calls 'a highly meritorious piece of work, which was, in addition, scored for strings'. George Thomson, his rival editor, called it 'a water-gruel collection'. In 1795, Urbani went into the music publishing business in earnest, with a partner, as Urbani and Liston, at 10 Princes Street, Edinburgh. But between 1806 and 1809, the business failed, and Urbani, who had already last money trying unsuccessfully to promote the oratorios of Handel in Edinburgh, went to Dublin, where he died destitute.

Burns seems first to have met Urbani in 1793, and again at Lord Selkirk's estate at St Mary's Isle, during the Galloway Tour of 1794. (The poet must certainly have heard of him during his winter in Edinburgh.) At any rate, in April 1793, Burns was sending to Maria Riddell 'a new Song, which I have this moment recd from Urbani.' Thomson was asked: 'Is, Whistle and I'll come to you my lad, one of your airs? I admire it much; and yesterday, I set the following verses to it. Urbani, whom I have met with here, begged them of me, as he admires the air much; but as I understand that he looks with rather an evil eye on your WORK, I did not chuse to comply. However, if the song does not suit your taste, I may possibly send it to him. He is, entre nous, a narrow, contracted creature; nit he sings so delightfully, that whatever he introduces at your concert must have immediate celebrity.' On 28th August 1793, when Burns sent Thomson 'Scots Wha Hae', he put a postscript to the letter: 'I shewed the air to Urbani, who was highly pleased with it, and begged me to make soft verses for it; but I had no idea of giving myself any trouble on the subject, till the accidental recollection of that glorious struggle for Freedom, associated with the glowing ideas of some other struggles not quite so ancient, roused my rhyming mania.'

'Soft verses', indeed!

In a long letter written to Thomson in September, Burns said, of 'Todlin Hame': 'Urbani mentioned an idea of his, which has long been mine; that this air is highly susceptible of pathos.... I pointed out some verses that were unknown to him, to give them a trial for celebrity. Clarke told me what a creature he is, but if he will bring any more of our tunes from darkness into light, I would be pleased.'

Johnson was more accommodating to Urbani that was Thomson. Burns wrote to Johnson on 29th June 1794; 'Pray will you let me know how many, and what are the songs Urbani has borrowed from your Museum.'

The friendship between Burns and Urbani came to an end a few months later. Urbani, encouraged, no doubt, by his borrowings from the Museum, apparently told Alexander Cunningham that he had got the poet to collaborate fully with him. From Dumfries, Burns wrote angrily to Cunningham in the autumn of 1794: 'Urbani has told a damned falsehood. I made no engagements or connections with him whatever — after he and I had met a Ld Selkirk's, we lived together three or four days in this town, and had a great deal of converse about our Scots Songs. I translated a verse of an Italian song for him, or rather made an English verse to suit his rhythm, and added two verses which had been already published in Johnson's Museum. I likewise gave him a simple old Scots song which I had pickt up in this country, which he had promised to set in a suitable manner. I would not even have given him this, had there been any of Mr Thomson's airs, suitable to it, unoccupied. I shall give you the song on the other page. Urbani requested me to lend him a hand now and then in his work — I told him, and told him truly, that such was my enthusiasm for the subject, had I met with him previous to my acquaintance with Mr Thomson, I would most gladly have lent him any assistance in my power, but that now, until Mr T-'s publication was finished, I could not promise anything: however, that at a future period, when the humour was on me, I would chearfully write a song for him. He hinted, I remember, something about using my name in an advertisement, which I expressly forbade. One thing he may mean; Johnson, I know, has given him full permission to anything I have written in the Museum. Beyond that, he had no right to expect, and for his impudence, shall never receive any assistance from me.'

So ended Burns's friendship with Urbani. The song 'on the other page' was 'O my Love's like the red, red rose', which, Burns told Cunningham, was the only 'species' of song about which he and Thomson disagreed: 'What to me appears the simple and the wild, to him, and I suspect to you likewise, will be looked on as the ludicrous and the absurd.'

The song first appeared in Urbani's Scots Songs, 1794, to an original tune. In his publication, Urbani explained that: '... the words of the RED, RED ROSE were obligingly given to him by a celebrated Scots Poet, who was so struck with them when sung by a country girl that he wrote them down, and, not being pleased with the air, begged the Author to set them to Music in the style of a Scots Tune, which he has done accordingly.'

The first three stanzas of the song appeared in the Museum, 1797, to the Gow tune 'Major Graham', the tune Burns himself specified. It also appeared in Thomson's Original Scottish Airs, 1799, 'improved' by the insensitive editor to fit Marshall's 'Wishaw's Favourite', a tune of double measure (i.e. 'And fair thee weel awhile' became 'And fair thee weel a little while'!)

The 'Red, Red Rose', however, only achieved popularity when matched to 'Low down in the Broom', and air which first appeared in the Caledonian Pocket Companion. Burns's words and the air 'Low down in the Broom' were first brought together by the Paisley composer and editor, Robert Archibald Smith, in his Scottish Minstrel, published in 1821.

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