Tuesday, 21 June 2011

John Blackwood McEwen: Scottish Rhapsody - Prince Charlie

John Blackwood McEwen is rather like the district of Galloway - an undiscovered country. Both deserve to be much better known. A few brief notes about the composer's life and works are in order. Born in the Border town of Hawick in 1868. Studied at Glasgow University - gaining an M.A. - then at the Royal Academy of Music under the tutelage of Ebenezer Prout, Tobias Matthay and Frederick Corder. Held posts as choirmaster and organist in Glasgow and in Lanark. Founded Anglo-French Music Publishing Company. Taught harmony and composition at the Athenaeum at Glasgow. Moved to Royal Academy of Music in London teaching the same subjects. In 1924 he succeeded Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie as Principal of this institution. He retired in 1936. He was author of a number of books and articles. McEwen died on the 14th June 1948.

All one’s instincts tell you that Scottish Rhapsody - Prince Charlie will not be a success. For one thing, Bonnie Prince Charles, Charles Stewart, ended his days ingloriously in Rome. However, his pretension to the throne generated an entire industry in Scotland - especially in the poetry and song departments. McEwen uses a number of tunes to evoke the memory of this 'hero'. It is a fantasy based on a strange funeral version of 'Charlie is my Darling', although it reappears in more traditional guise later. Other tunes are less well known but equally poignant - especially the extremely reflective 'Wae's me for Prince Charlie' & 'The Gypsie Laddie'. As a Scot myself I declare that it would bring a tear to a glass eye. This is actually a well constructed piece - defying all negative expectations of 'Tartanry'. Why is it not a popular encore?

John Blackwood McEwen: Scottish Rhapsody - Prince Charlie can be heard on CHANDOS CHAN 9880 although I believe that it is only available as MP3 or in the second-hand shops.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this first appeared.

1 comment:

James Letham said...

Prince Charlie is, indeed, a fine piece of music and, like many other pieces by this neglected composer, deserves to be much better known. Andrew Sherwood (professor of Violin at Trinity Laban) and I have programmed several pieces of McEwen (two poems, Sonata no.4 and Sonata. no.6 and Prince Charlie)and have really enjoyed getting into the real meat of the music - something which takes time and effort if the true essence of these pieces is to be discovered. An underrated genius.

James Letham