Biography:John French

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John French

 Given name:     John
 Middle name:     
 Family name:     French
 Place of birth:     Cumnock, Ayrshire
 Place of death:     Cumnock, Ayrshire
 Year of birth:     1752
 Year of death:     1803
 Profile:     Composer, Musician
 Source of information: djvu.txt

Biographical notes

Little is known of John French, fiddler-composer of Cumnock, Ayrshire, who was born in 1752, and who died in the year 1803.

Robert Burns knew John French and it is thought that the composer played the fiddle for the dance classes reluctantly attended by the poet as a young man in Ayrshire. Burns evidently held his musicianship in esteem, and mentioned him in a handwritten note addressed to Provost Edward Whigham of Sanquhar [printed in The Works of Robert Burns, vol. 2, 1895], which reads in part:

Mem. — To get from John French his sets of the following old Scots airs — (1) The auld yowe jumpt o'er the tether. (2) Nine nights awa, welcome hame my dearie. (3) A' the nights o' the year, the chapman drinks nae water. If Mr Whigham will, either of himself, or through the medium of that hearty veteran of original wit, and social iniquity — Clackleith — procure these airs, it will be extremely obliging to — R. B."

French was also a friend of James Boswell, Dr Johnson’s amanuensis, and the composer dedicated many of his compositions to him and to his wife. These, and other, of his compositions were issued in a Collection of New Strathspeys, Reels etc., dedicated to Mrs Boswell of Auchinleck. The volume was published in Edinburgh by Gow & Shepherd in around 1801, "for behoof of Mr French’s widow and children", which suggests that the composer had recently died, and that his family may have been left in needy circumstances. There are no composer attributions in the volume, but it is considered that much of the music was composed by French himself.

The following sketch appears in Warrick's The History of Old Cumnock (1899, pp. 288-290):

John French's claim to remembrance rests on his musical abilities. He was a violin player of considerable merit, and composed Strathspeys and Reels, which have not altogether passed out of sight. At social gatherings his presence was always welcome. At kirns he was a great favourite.

In early life he followed the trade of shoemaking, but, as his reputation increased, he devoted his time wholly to music. Various stories are told of this self-taught genius. On a certain occasion the Earl of Dumfries laid a wager with a guest, that a Cumnock man could play a hundred different tunes on the violin without a pause and without the score. French was sent for and at once began the task, which he completed successfully. Doubtless, the Earl handed him the wager.

At another time, in Ayr, he met Neil Gow, who recognized in him a formidable rival. An assembly of some kind had gathered together, at which both Gow and French had a part to play. The Perthshire man, however, with a mixture of frolic and envy, poured some boiling water into the belly of French's instrument, rendering it useless for the time at least. Sir Alexander Boswell, who happened to be present, was jealous of the reputation of his humble neighbour. He quickly mounted his horse, rode at full speed to Auchinleck House, and in an incredibly short time returned, carrying a Strad, which he handed to French for his use during the rest of the performance. Tradition asserts that Gow did not secure all the honours that night.

After French's death, which occurred in 1803, in the fifty-first year of his age, a number of his compositions were published for the behoof of his widow and children. They bear the title : A Collection of New Strathspeys, Reels, etc., for the Pianoforte, Violin and Violoncello, dedicated to Mrs. Boswell of Auchinleck. There are sixty-four pieces in all. Many of them have local names, either of places or persons. Thus one of the Strathspeys is called Lugar Banks, and another Cumnock Fair. There are also to be found Mr. James Boswells Jig, Mrs. Hamilton of Sundrun's Reel, The Monkton Lasses, and The Weaver.

French harboured no ill-will towards his fellow-player at Ayr, for he gave to another tune the significant title, John French's Compliments to Mr. Nath. Gow. In all probability he met with the younger Gow as well as with Neil. Testimony to the sterling character of his productions is borne by the fact, that Mr. Godfrey, the celebrated bandmaster, has incorporated into his Lord of Lorn Lancers one or two of French's airs.

Like many of his profession, it is to be added with sorrow, this able musician was too convivial in his habits, and frequently indulged heavily in strong drink. French is buried in the churchyard on the Barrhill Road, not far from the entrance gate.