Thursday, 3 April 2014

Marcus Dods: Highland Fantasy

I was delighted to hear Marcus Dods' delightfully evocative Highland Fancy on Classic FM the other day. It is rare to hear music that muses on the landscape of Scotland unless it is Hamish MacCunn’s ubiquitous Land of the Mountain Flood Overture, Mendelssohn’s great ‘Scottish’ Symphony or the Northampton composer Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Scottish Dances’ or ‘Tam O’ Shanter Overture’.
Marcus Dods was born in Edinburgh in 1918, but like many Scots he moved ‘furth’ of the border. Educated at Rugby School and King’s College, Cambridge he was later to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music.  Dods was best known as a conductor, holding posts at the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Between 1947 and 1951 he was assistant music director for the Rank Organisation where he worked under Muir Mathieson. Between 1972 and his early death in 1984 he was chief conductor of the London Concert Orchestra.
There appears to be little original music by Dods in the music catalogues. Most of the entries are for arrangements of folksongs and Gilbert & Sullivan. This may not be the full story, and perhaps there are many manuscripts hidden away in someone’s loft. However around 1965 he wrote his Highland Fancy for his wife, Deirdre Lind who was at that time principal oboe in the BBC Concert Orchestra. Hardly surprisingly, it features her instrument.
The Penguin Guide to Compact Disc Yearbook 2000/1 describes this piece as 'amusing'. Colin Scott-Sutherland on MusicWeb Internationals refers to it as a ‘frivolity.’ It is an opinion with which I disagree. I accept that there is a touch of humour here and there, but to my ear the general tenor of this piece is one of gentle melancholy. I accept that from the opening bars the oboe is busy with a jaunty tune. Yet as this short work progresses, there is some romantic moments that paint a lovely picture of distant hills and mountains seen in the gloamin’.  It is very much a Scotsman’s view of his native land viewed from afar –in Dods’ case the streets around the Angel of Islington.
Marcus Dods Highland Fancy is given an excellent performance ASVWHL 2123 ‘The Land of the Mountain and the Flood’ with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by John Wilson. It may well be that this recording has been deleted but it is still available second-hand (at a price).

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