This work which is dedicated to Michael Diack, one of the composer’s publishers, was completed early in March 1955. The composer regards Robert Burns as one of the greatest of poets, and has expressed the hope that his own enjoyment of the work of the remarkable Scotsman, as reflected in this music, will encourage others to read him. The overture has a well-defined programme, though one’s response to it is by no means wholly dependent on the literary background.
Tam O’Shanter, commonly accepted as one of the poet’s finest works, is the grimly humorous legend of a hard drinker who ignores his wife’s warning that he will one day be “catch’d wi’ warlocks” for his misdeeds. Late one momentous night, in tempest and roaring thunder, he sets out recklessly from the inn and drives his mare, Meg, on the homeward road. When they reach the haunted kirk, they witness a wild orgy of witches and warlocks, with many ghastly trimmings that Burns catalogues in detail:
Wi’ mair o’ horrible and awfu’
Which ev’n to name wad be unlawfu’
One dancer, wearing a garment “in longitude tho’ sorely scanty” (a cutty-sark in the native Doric), pleases Tam so well that he cries out “Weel done, cutty-sark!” In an instant all is dark, and the hellish legion pursues him. If he reaches the bridge he is safe, for the fiends cannot cross running water. He escapes narrowly – but his gallant mare loses her tail, which had been grasped by a witch. The moral, embodied in the last lines of the poem is that one should remember Tam O’Shanter when tempted by thought of drink and cutty-sarks:
Now wha this tale o’truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son tak heed
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam O’ Shanter’s mare.
The overture begins slowly with string unison forming a background for characteristic woodwind and brass quips that establish the atmosphere. Clarinets put in a bagpipey drone fifth; piccolo whistles a fragment of melody with a Scottish flavour; bassoons with inebriated rhythm and copious “Scotch snap”, able along; muted brass slithers in glissandi (a recurring device). Soon, with growing velocity, Tam is on his wild ride into the storm. Lightening flashes and thunder roars, with gong, cymbals, and drums much in evidence. Tam gallops harder and harder, cracking his whip. Brass and drums suddenly lead to shivering string tremolos, and Tam watches the impious dance. Burns tells us that this is no new cotillion from France, “but hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys and reels”. The Scottish character of the music is evident. “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” cries Tam, in a trombone solo that all but articulates the words – and the devilish hunt is up. It comes to a sudden end and there is a short scud of woodwind solos (Tam disappearing in the distance) ending in a high trilling note on the first violins. Flutes and clarinets, perhaps sarcastically, point the moral of the story and with a terrific flurry, the overture ends.
Tam O’Shanter was first performed at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert on 17 August 1955, with Malcolm Arnold conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It was received with tremendous enthusiasm, and was, without doubt, the most popular novelty during the 1955 season of Promenade Concerts. The composer is at pains to point out that, whereas the earlier overture Beckus the Dandipratt is not descriptive but merely a musical impression, Tam O’Shanter is very definitely programme music.