Thomas Erskine -The 6th Earl of Kellie

Thomas Alexander Erskine, the 6th Earl of Kellie (Kelly), Lord Pittenweem, Viscount Fenton or "Fiddler Tam" to many was born at Kellie Castle, Fife on 1st September 1732, Thomas Erskine was the first born to Alexander Erskine, the 5th Earl of Kellie and his second wife, Janet Pitcairne, the daughter of renowned physician, poet and Jacobite sympathiser Dr Archibald Pitcairne. Although titled the family were rather poor and have been described as "Bohemian".
At an early age the young Thomas developed a passion for music and began to learn violin probably under the tutelage of Thomas Pinto who regarded the budding violinist as not very good at this early stage. Thomas Erskine attended the Royal High School, Edinburgh for two years but his education ended with the 1945 Jacobite Uprising. His father, the 5th Earl, had fought with the Jacobite army at Preston, Falkirk and Culloden and was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle for three years, when he was deemed not a threat.
Musical activities and composition benefited from the more stable social and economic situation during 18th century Britain resulting in the widespread founding of musical societies and promotion of concerts. At the same time, Scotsman John Broadwood introduced his modern pianos which were to become fixtures in many of the wealthier family households into the early 19th century. Many major cities saw the influx of foreign musicians; Handel, Mozart then Haydn were all resident in Britain at some point during the 18th century. Edinburgh was no different and also attracted foreign musicians, especially Italians like Francesco Barsanti and Domenico Corri. Edinburgh Musical Society was founded in 1728 and provided musical concerts throughout the 18th century to its' members. Thomas Erskine joined the Edinburgh Musical Society aged 17 as Lord Pittenweem, continuing his violin and general musical studies. He closely studied contemporary orchestral composition, works by Barsanti in particular.
Having eagerly followed musical developments and advances in Europe, Erskine set out in 1752 on the Grand Tour where his intention was to take advantage of any situation to develop his musical skills. He visited Mannheim, where the court orchestra practiced revolutionary orchestral techniques and resident composers wrote music which would be played by the orchestra. The young Erskine was energetically enthused by what he had discovered and on meeting the Bohemian (Czechoslovakian) composer and violinist, Johann Stamitz he began a few years of intensive musical enlightenment both instrumentally and in the art of composition, embracing the Mannheim techniques such as sudden whole orchestra crescendos and the separate treatment of the wind section. He shut himself away to master his violin playing and soaked in as much as he could from Stamitz. Stamitz, who contributed greatly to the development of Sonata Form, was to later greatly influence both Mozart and Haydn. It was a great tribute to Erskine that Stamitz published his 'Six Grand Orchestra Trios Opus 1' in August 1755, dedicated to "The Right Honourable Lord Pittenweem".
Erskine's concentrated musical advancement during four years at Mannheim and also probably a year in Paris with Stamitz was to come to an abrupt end when his father died in 1756, causing him to return to Scotland to assume the title 6th Earl of Kellie.
Kellie quickly established a reputation as a composer of note with his works often being heard at London concerts. Tobias Smollett, the Scottish author, poet and surgeon when writing of life in Edinburgh in August 1775, commented."There is one nobleman whose compositions are greatly admired". Another critic wrote "While others please and amuse, it is his province to rouse and almost overset his hearer. Loudness, rapidity, enthusiasm announce the Earl of Kelly." Unfortunately his reputation for gambling and high living was also gathering notoriety.
One of Kellie's friends, James Boswell, the famed diarist, noted on Thursday 20th October 1762 that he had borrowed five guineas from Kellie at the Kelso Races adding "the romantic conceit of getting it from a gamester, a nobleman and a musical composer". The pair often dined together although Boswell was dismayed by Kellie's non-religious and anti-cleric statements. Boswell also noted in his diary on October 6 1764 from Cassel, Germany "At six I went to the Comedie. On entering the house I was surprised to hear the Orchestre play one of Lord Kelly's concertos. They however played it very ill." 'The Maid of the Mill' was performed in New York 1769, St. Petersburg 1772 and Jamaica 1779 thus expanding Kellie's reputation. Despite Thomas Robertson in his book 'An Inquiry into the Fine Arts' describing Kellie's music as "the fervium ingenium of his country bursts forth; and elegance is mingled with fire.", there is only one surviving truly Scottish piece 'Largo' which is based on the ballad 'The Lowlands of Holland'. Kellie has been criticised by others of relying too heavily on and even copying European composers. Captain E. Topham in Edinburgh, May 1775 "Lord Kelly, whose admirable talents and genius in this science have been corrupted and restrained by his poorly copying the compositions of other masters." Topham went on to suggest that he composed better when he was drunk. "I refer you to these wilder compositions, where his proper genius has broke forth, where his imgination heated by wine, and his mind unfettered by precept, and unbiased by example has indulged itself in all of its native freedom."
His involvement with the Edinburgh Musical Society continued in 1756. He was Director from 1757 to December 1765 when he possible never paid his subscription fees and was described as "is gone out of the Society". He was re-admitted in June 1767 and became Deputy Governor from 1767 until his death in 1881. Although professional musicians were available, he often played the first violin part himself. His works were often placed at the end of concerts because he was playing and was afforded the opportunity for an encore. After his death, none of his chamber music was played at concerts probably because he had led the chamber group. Charles Burney was to praise Kellie's musical skills by saying: "His ear was so correct, and his perception so acute, that in the midst of a turbulent and tumulteous movement of a symphony of twelve or fourteen parts, if any instrument failed in either time or tune, though playing a difficult part himself, he instantly prompted the erroneous player with his voice, by singing his part without abandoning his own." The Edinburgh Musical Society built a new hall, St. Cecilia's Hall in Niddry Street in 1762. Robert Mylne was the architect and was an old school friend of Kellie's, a fellow freemason and it seems likely that Kellie played a part in the construction as he was Director at the time. St. Cecilia's, with it's oval shaped concert room is the oldest purpose built concert hall in Scotland and second oldest in Britain. Due to his Kellie's reckless lifestyle he fell into a mound of debt and had to sell all his estates in 1769 except the Kelly mansion. At this time his health was also suffering and he made various trips to spas on the continent to find relief from his ailments. His dissolute lifestyle had affect on his appearance developing a particularly ruddy complexion which one observer remarked that he would be able to ripen cucumbers by looking at them. It was on his return from a continental trip in November 1775 that he narrowly escaped death when his ship was wrecked in the English Channel.
Kellie's escape from the jaws of death coupled with the passing of his mother in June of the same year appeared to have had a sobering effect upon him. Boswell noted "he was more sedate and well balanced, and not like Mount Vesuvius, as my uncle the Doctor, described him formerly." Kellie's untimely death in 1881 also occurred following a continental spa visit. On the road to Brussels he suffered a paralytic stroke and was advised to remain in Brussels until he recovered. However he was seized by "a putrid fever" and died on October 9th. His obituary in 'Gentleman's Magazine' recorded "he was one of the finest musical composers of the age, and esteemed by the cognoscenti as the first man of taste in the musical line, of any British subject". Acknowledging his sizeable reputation as a devotee of Bacchus, it added "he loved his bottle but was a worthy social character."
Despite his fondness of the fairer sex he never married nor had any children and his title passed to his brother, the Honourable Major Archibald Erskine. He was given a memorial concert by Edinburgh Musical Society on December 21 1881 and for three weeks after the concerts ended with a performance of one of his overtures.
Henry Erskine summed up his relative : "Still, it is certain, that of all the boisterous free livers of the age, no-one was so free or so boisterous as Lord Kellie. His rough good nature is said to have been very attractive to men younger than himself; and to them his manner of life was dangerous in a high degree, in an age when a coarse joviality was apt to be looked upon as a sign of good fellowship."


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