Monday, 3 November 2008

Sir Alexander Mackenzie in Sussex: November 1908

I found an interesting note about Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s peregrination around Sussex in November 1908 – exactly one hundred years ago. It is hard to imagine how popular Mackenzie was at that time. I guess that his name is little known to the vast majority of music lovers and is known by only a handful of pieces to the enthusiast of British music. I conclude the review with a short biography of the composer.
It is interesting to note that most of the works are currently available on Hyperion CDs.

The tour started on October 29 when the composer visited Tunbridge Wells to conduct his compositions at a concert promoted by Mr. Francis J. Foote. A number of Mackenzie’s works were heard including the Astarte Prelude from Manfred, the Pibroch Suite for violin and orchestra and the ‘breezy’ Britannia Overture. The soloist was a certain Mr Hans Wessely. The nights programme also include a tone poem for orchestra entitled Elaine, which was composed by Foote himself. Schubert’s B minor Symphony was also performed. Mackenzie conducted the entire programme as Foote was indisposed, due to illness.

At Devonshire Park, Eastbourne on November 12 the composer once again conducted his Britannia Overture and the Prelude and Ballet Music from his opera Columbia. In addition two movements from the new Suite for violin and orchestra were given – Celtic Legend (No.1) and Alla Zingara (No.4.) The soloist at this event was Sidney Freedman who was at that time the leader of the Duke of Devonshire’s private orchestra in Eastbourne! The remainder of the concert included Debussy’s Prelude L’Apres midi d’un Faune and a Haydn Symphony.
The reviewer notes that both concerts were “a great success, and the distinguished visitor was very warmly received.”

On 25 November Mackenzie was in action again. This time the venue was at the Dome in Brighton with the Municipal Orchestra. The programme contained the Astarte Prelude, the Second Scottish Rhapsody ‘Burns’ the Britannia Overture, a ‘larghetto’ and ‘allegretto’ for ‘cello and orchestra and the Pibroch Suite for violin and orchestra. Finally three of the composer’s songs were included: Lift up my spirit to thee, What does little birdie say and finally We’ll all make holiday. Surely this last number was appropriate for the South Coast’s premier seaside resort?

A brief biographical note on Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847-1935)
Mackenzie was a Scottish composer, who was educated at the Royal Academy of Music, (of which he was later to become the Principal) He had further studies in Germany, where he made the acquaintance of Franz Liszt. (Unlike most of his English contemporaries he was brought up to music as a fiddler and an orchestral player rather than as an organist.)
He was an indefatigable organiser both in London and in Scotland and an adventurous conductor. As a composer he endeavoured to blend Scottish nationalism, with advanced German romantic expression. Examples of this fusion are The Cotter's Saturday Night, to a text by Robert Burns, set for chorus and orchestra, his Scottish Rhapsodies and his Pibroch suite for violin). He wrote oratorios which were perhaps less successful , musically and technically than his orchestral pieces, good deal of effective theatre music. He also composed two operas (The Cricket on the Hearth, 1902, and The Eve of St. John, 1924) and much chamber music. Among this is a well worth playing Pianoforte Quintet in E flat Op. 11.


choirguy said...

Dear John France

This is not primarily a comment on your piece about Sir Alexander Mackenzie, but the time has come to let you know how much I appreciate visiting your blog from time to time. When I do drop by I read each post back to the first one read on my previous visit. Always entertaining and informative, and sometimes surprising!

Surprises? Well I left the UK in 1968 and have resided on the west coast of Canada ever since. I was at school in Cheltenham during the 1950's and because of annual attendance at the then Cheltenham Festival of Contemporary Music I had a somewhat skewed idea of what British 20th century music was all about! My recollection of Harrison Birtwistle (other than his programme portrait, wherein he had the appearance of a slightly nervous pigeon peeking out from an enormous polo neck sweater) is that his music was uniformly "ungrateful." I have not to this day come across anything of his that I might listen to that would cast him in a more favourable light (have not heard anything, period.) The much praised operas sound totally scary! Peter Maxwell Davis, although at the time the choirmaster & music director at Cirencester Grammar School, seemed to be fiercely atonal, dodecaphonic and/or aleatoric. Now I do have a CD of his that includes Orkney Wedding & Sunrise. I have no way of knowing when his output became more or less "Musical." Even Richard Rodney Bennett presented some difficulties to a teenage ear! Walter Goehr was much like the unpalatable H.B. There were many more whose names have passed beyond my ken and from whom I imagine the world has not heard much.

Your surveys of what else was happening in British music in those days, and later, is where the surprises live - clearly not all serious and seriously appreciated composers did not abandon melody and/or intelligible structure.

Music I liked - ANY Malcolm Arnold, William Walton, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, some Tippett and Britten and much more. I am currently expanding my taste in English music by following the rule that if it is British, Orchestral and put out by Naxos, I'll buy it. In that wise I am getting the symphonies of William Alwyn into my collection, and much else. This is a new habit, adopted since I began reading your Blog.

To finally respond to the post - earlier this year on the Cdn Broadcasting Corporation' FM network I have heard and enjoyed a Piano Concerto by Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Bless his cotton socks as my Granny used to say - I wish I could hear more of him, oh, and Bliss, and Bax, and Moeran and Boughton....


Alan Ryder

John France said...

Dear Alan,

Thnak you for your very kind words. They are indeed encouraging! I am glad to hear that you are buying the Alwyn Symphones! They are superb works. Fortunatley there are now three cycles available.
Hope the weather is nice in Canada.

choirguy said...

Oops - I meant Alexander Goehr; Walter the conductor was his old man.

Can you do a piece on Havergal Brian one of these days?