|Jean Carignan, Quebec, Canada|
The three pieces of music contained in the Carrignan medley; The Laird o’ Thrums Strathspey, The Laird of Drumblair Strathspey and The Gladstone Reel are all written by one of the greatest fiddle-composers of all time, the Scotsman James Scott Skinner.
Born in1847 in Aberdeen, Scotland and who also coincidentally shares my own birthday of August 5th, Skinner began composing for the violin at age 17, and in the end of his career, some 600 compositions mostly published by himself create a unique accomplishment in the world of fiddling. Reportedly Skinner went bankrupt with his publishing efforts as a business man, but his pieces are some of the most performed repertoire in Scottish folk music circles.
Skinner learned the violin and cello from his older brother and often played bass lines on the cello at dances when he was very young. He was accepted into a 6-year apprenticeship at age 11 to further his violin and cello studies in Manchester and performed throughout Britain as a child. Still in his teens, he took part in a Highland dancing competition in Ireland, winning first prize in the “Sword Dance” accompanying himself on fiddle and beating John McNeill, an acknowledged champion.
In the 1870s, Skinner performed concerts in Scotland and began to include his own compositions of Scottish fiddling repertoire in addition to the virtuoso violin pieces by Niccolo Paganini and others. In 1893 he toured the United States and Canada with wellknown piper and champion Highland Dance Willie MacLennan and by 1899 he was one of the very first Scottish musicians to be recorded. His well documented recording career lasted from 1905 to 1922. In 1911 he performed at the opening of the London Palladium and in 1925 was a top bill on five tours of the U.K. In 1926 Skinner returned to the United States to enter a reel and jig fiddle competition but had differences with the pianist and perhaps the rules of the contest and strode off the stage to default. But the legacy of his original pieces endured, inspiring the greatest fiddlers to come after him like Jean Carignan.
French-Canadian fiddling is one of the most exciting and virtuosic string styles in the Americas. It blends Scottish repertoire, particularly Strathspeys and other dance tunes, with elements of French and Native American styles. It is a beautiful example of musical cross-pollination, and one of its greatest practitioners is the fiddler Jean Carignan.
“Ti-Jean” Carignan was the ultimate folk violinist. He incorporated classical technique seamlessly into his renditions of French-Canadian, Irish, and Scottish tunes. Walking a fine line between “violin” and “fiddle” music, he achieved the best of both worlds. For the most part, Carignan avoided playing in higher positions in the interest of maintaining the “folk” quality of his music, but he fearlessly tackled spicatto bowing, pizzicato, 16th-note runs, and dramatic dynamic variations.
Carignan was born in 1916 in Lévis, Québec. His father, trained on the fiddle by a local Native American musician, performed at parties and dances throughout the Eastern Townships. Carignan picked up the fiddle and imitated his father’s regional style at a young age, but he also became inspired by early 78 rpm recordings of a number of other fiddlers, including Joseph Allard (a fellow Canadian), Michael Coleman and James Morrison (natives of Ireland), J. Scott Skinner (Scotland), and classical great Jascha Heifetz (Lithuania/U.S.). In spite of his father’s strong skepticism, Carignan pursued music vigorously and became a professional performer in his teens.
The way Carignan infused classical technique and sensitivity into his Irish, Scottish, and French-Canadian repertoire was unprecedented; however, his boldness came at a cost. The Québecois political movement of the 1960s and ‘70s coincided with the revival of folk traditions throughout the province, and Carignan was highly criticized for performing repertoire that wasn’t “native.” Apparently, he lost some close musical friends over the issue, but he defended his artistic choices, and indeed, he ultimately developed a style that spread far wider than the borders of Québec. He created his own musical language, and he spoke it with great fluency.
Carignan’s fiddling came to the attention of classical violin great Yehudi Menuhin, and the two recorded together and appeared as a duo on a number of television and radio broadcasts. The admiration Menuhin had for Carignan was apparent to all who witnessed their collaboration. “In his hands,” Meunhin once said, “the violin is a universal folk instrument with a creative vitality, a dynamic expression of its own…shaped by Jean’s own lively, inventive intelligence.”
The Strathspey – one of the Scottish dance forms that Carignan mastered – originated in the “strath,” or valley, of the River Spey in Northeast Scotland. As with most traditional dance forms, the tempos at which Strathspeys are performed have increased over time, especially as they have migrated from the dance hall to the stage. They are in 4/4, like reels, but their reliance on the “Scotch snap” gives them an altogether different groove. This dotted rhythm is short-long: a quick downbow followed by an aggressive upstroke that sustains longer. (You may recall that this is the opposite of ragtime, which utilizes a long-short bowing rhythm.) Strathspeys also utilize spicatto (bowing “off the string”) to accentuate the rhythmic pulse.