Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1847-1935): Benedictus Op.37 No.3

I was delighted to hear Sir Alexander Mackenzie's fine and moving orchestral work Benedictus on Classic FM on Sunday morning. This is a work that out Elgar's Elgar in many ways. I remember someone telling me that it reminded them of Mahler. A few years ago I wrote a short programme note for the English Music Festival for this work. I republish this below.
Alexander Mackenzie's Benedictus for full orchestra can be heard on Hyperion CDA66764 It also features on YouTube.
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Even the most superficial hearing of Alexander Mackenzie’s Benedictus for orchestra will surely reveal a work that challenges the depth and beauty of many a better known piece by Sir Edward Elgar. Yet the historical reality is that it is more likely that it was Mackenzie who influenced Elgar than the other way around!
Whilst on an extended furlough in Italy, Mackenzie had composed this work as one of a series of six pieces for violin and piano. The third movement had initially been called Benedicite - which translated loosely means ‘Bless you!’ The original set of pieces was premiered by Lady Hallé.
In the same year he made an arrangement of this piece for small orchestra – omitting the heavy brass. For the orchestral transcription, he changed the title to Benedictus – which simply means ‘Blessed.’ Typically, the main tune is delivered by the first and second violins with the other instruments being used with subtlety and effect. It is the beguiling main theme that surely makes this work both deeply moving and memorable.
Sir Henry Wood was impressed with this work – he had introduced it into the 1895 Promenade concert season. Wood refers to it as “a charming piece… the delicate colour effects of the woodwind accompanying a string melody reveal a master hand.” I think that listeners nowadays would tend to hear it as being less charming and more profound- but would still recognise the competence of the composer.
Mackenzie told the story that “last year, during the Jubilee (Queen Victoria) festivities, a gentleman asked to be introduced to me, and on shaking hands with me he said ‘I want to know you: our band plays your Benedictus twice a week at Hong Kong!’ ” John Purser tells us that it was in fact the local Police Band that had this enthusiasm for the composer’s piece!
Sir Alexander Mackenzie wrote a vast amount of music including seven operas, more than a dozen large scale choral works, many tone poems, songs and piano pieces. Yet of all the works that he produced the Benedictus has remained the best known – at least with concertgoers who are aware of his name.

With thanks to the English Music Festival where this was first published as a programme note in 2008

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