Thomas Erskine, classical music composer

Thomas Erskine


Thomas Alexander Erskine, 6th Earl of Kellie (1 September 1732 – 9 October 1781), styled Viscount Fentoun and Lord Pittenweem until 1756, was a British musician and composer whose considerable talent brought him international fame and his rakish habits notoriety, but nowadays is little known. Recent recordings of his surviving compositions have led to him being re-evaluated as one of the most important British composers of the 18th century, as well as a prime example of Scotland's music.

His mother, Janet Pitcairn, was the daughter of a celebrated physician and poet. His father Alexander Erskine, the 5th Earl of Kellie, was incarcerated in Edinburgh castle for supporting the Jacobites in the 1745 Jacobite Rising. Thomas attended the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and around 1752 left for Mannheim in Germany to study under the elder Johann Stamitz and returned to Scotland in 1756 as a virtuoso violinist and composer, nicknamed "fiddler Tam". He began propagating the modern Mannheim style, of which he was to become widely acknowledged as the leading British exponent. Six of his three-movement "Overtures" (Symphonies) were published in Edinburgh in 1761. James Boswell borrowed five guineas from Erskine on 20 October 1762, and on 26 May 1763 took him on a visit to Lord Eglinton's in London, where the overture the Earl composed for the popular pastiche The Maid of the Mill (at Covent Garden in 1765) became exceptionally popular. In 1767 the Earl returned to Scotland, where he became a leading light of the Edinburgh Music Society, acting as deputy governor, and as an able violinist directed the concerts in Saint Cecillia's Hall in Niddry's Wynd, Edinburgh.

An active Freemason, he was elected the fourth Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the Ancients at London in 1760 and served in that office for six years. He also served as the twenty-fourth Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland from 1763 to 1765.

His dissolute life style extended to founding an (all-male) drinking club, and reportedly the playwright Samuel Foote advised Kellie to put his red nose into his greenhouse to ripen his cucumbers! He tended to compose on the spot and absent-mindedly give music away without further thought for it. His health suffered and he visited Spa, Belgium, but while returning was "struck with a paralytic shock" and while stopping for a few days at Brussels was attacked by a "putrid fever" and died at the age of 51.

Until the 1970s only a small number of his compositions was thought to survive, though the discovery in 1989 of two manuscripts containing chamber works at Kilravock Castle has doubled the number of his surviving compositions - notably with nine trio sonatas and nine string quartets. Interest in him was recently revived by John Purser, among others, and a CD of his works has now been made.

Composer Title Date Action
Thomas Erskine Five Favourite Minuets 10/06/2010 Play Add to playlist