MusicWeb International reviewer Jonathan Woolf stole my thunder on this composer. Let me explain. Until receiving this present disc, Charles O’Brien was little more than a name to me. I had never knowingly heard any music composed by him. As part of my review of an unknown/unfamiliar composer I always listen to the CD once-through without reading the liner notes or doing a web search. It is part of my ‘Innocent Ear’ approach. Maybe not a good idea, but it is my way. After the final track had died away, I thought:’ O’Brien’s music sounds as if someone had discovered a pile of lost scores by the Greenock-born composer Hamish MacCunn’ famous for Overture: The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. I then read Woolf’s review – ‘There’s the famous School of Stanford – but what of the School of the short-lived Hamish MacCunn?’ That’s the very thought that occurred to me as I listened to the orchestral music of Charles O’Brien…’ So I cannot claim this comparison as my own, nevertheless, it is an admirable rule of thumb for judging the quality of music in this CD. It is worth recalling that O’Brien was a Scottish composer, in spite of being born in Eastbourne. And he did take lessons from the ‘senior man’ in Edinburgh. At bottom line this is music from a composer who as influenced by the romantic school of music but who was tinged with a number of indigenous felicities.
Volume 1 of this collection included the massive Walter Scott-inspired overture Ellangowan, op.12 (1909) derived from Guy Mannering and the Symphony in F minor, op.23 (1922). The present CD includes some shorter, but equally interesting, pieces of music. I should point out that I have now listened to Volume 1.
I began my review with the early Mazurka and Berceuse (1898). They were written when the sixteen year old composers was at George Watson’s School in Edinburgh. Mann points out that they were originally piano pieces that were orchestrated by person or persons unknown. The orchestral score is initialled C.C. so it is possible that it was fellow school mate Cecil Coles (1888-1918) who had obliged O’Brien. The Mazurka is a pleasant little piece that could have been composed by Eduard or Josef Strauss. The Berceuse’s scoring had to be reworked by Mann as ‘C.C.s’ original was ‘so problematic.’ The end result is a charming piece of light music.
I moved on to the Scottish Scenes, op.17. And yes, MacCunn had written a two piano pieces entitled Scottish Scenes: ‘In the Glen’ and ‘In the Ingleneuk’ in 1914. Charles O’Brien’s evocation of the Caledonian landscape was produced around the same time, between 1914 and 1915. Once again, they were originally conceived for piano, and were subsequently orchestrated by the composer as late as 1929 for a BBC broadcast. I love Mann’s comment on the work’s integrity: “O’Brien’s image of Scotland didn’t come from the top of a shortbread tin. His is a country of ruggedly beautiful, sometimes inhospitable landscapes…”
The three scenes present musical pictures of Scotland. ‘Moorland’ is dark and brooding, yet with an unexpected warmth for such a dramatic landscape. The ‘Voice of the Glen’ is like a Celtic mother calling to her children from afar. He uses a characteristic pentatonic melody (black notes only) in the string section. However, the mood does change: he utilises a ‘shrieking piccolo and swirling harp’ to create something evocative of strife between clans or the gross indignity of the Highland Clearances. The mood of the opening is restored and brings the movement to a close. ‘Harvest Home’ is a Scottish country dance. All the stops are pulled out for this vigorous and vivacious finale.
Charles O’Brien has succeeded in giving a musical portrait of Scotland that does not depend on clichés from the music hall or cinema screen. Admittedly, there are a number of Scotch snaps and melodies that nod to Scottish folksong. Yet, he has managed to absorb the landscape into his heart and soul.
The next piece I explored was the powerful concert overture The Minstrel’s Curse. It was first performed at the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh on 3 December 1905. It is a programmatic piece of music based on a poetic ballad by the German author Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862). The story relates how two wandering minstrels, one old and the other young, arrived at a grim castle surrounded by ‘blooming flowers and ornate fountains.’ The tenant of the castle is a king who is despised as a tyrant. The minstrels enter the grand hall and play for the king and his queen. The monarch’s jealousy is aroused when his wife presents the young minstrel with a rose for performing so beautifully. He strikes the young man dead. The elder singer curses the tyrant and his castle, resulting in eternal desolation. There is no memory of the sovereign, his demesne or his deeds. ‘That is the minstrel’s curse.’
O’Brien has been almost literal in his following of the story, and the liner notes give a verse by verse analysis of the music’s progress. The musical language used to portray this story is that of Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Liszt.
I loved this ‘concert overture.’ I can understand Paul Mann’s contention that it may overstay its welcome, nevertheless the music is always interesting, exciting, dramatic and disturbing. The listener can always dump the programme from their mind if it helps them to enjoy this symphonic-sized movement. Just imagine the idea of the work depicting the power of beauty and wisdom triumphing over evil.
The last work I listened to was the first in the track listing – To Spring: Concert Overture, op.4. The work was premiered at the Edinburgh Music Hall on 24 March 1906, and was later taken up by Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth. The key of the work, B flat major, is the same as Robert Schumann’s magical evocation of the season in his Spring Symphony. Certainly, it is easier to hear echoes of the River Rhine in this overture than intimations of the Firth of Forth. Although let us not forget that Schumann claimed to have been inspired by ‘springs of love’ rather than snowdrops and daffodils. Whatever the inspiration for O’Brien’s work, it is a delightful, if a little old-fashioned, overture. It deserves its place in the repertoire.
Influences by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Tchaikovsky in this music there may well be. I have noted above the ghost of Hamish MacCunn visibly hovering over these scores. Although there are definite echoes of these composers, it is Charles O’Brien’s individual voice that comes through in these works.
The booklet notes by Paul Mann are fascinating. It is an essay-length discussion of these works that requires to be read. It includes notes about the conductor and the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra. The Latvian orchestra plays with enthusiasm and seem to have a definite flair for evoking the mists and sceneries of Scotland. I cannot help feeling that it is a sad reflection on attitudes to British music that Charles O’Brien’s rediscovery has had to go the beautiful country of Latvia: why was it not possible for one of the Scottish orchestras to ‘take him up.’
This is an excellent CD dedicated to an undiscovered Scottish composer. I understand that there are a few more orchestral works that ought to be recorded. I look forward to Volume 3.
Charles O’BRIEN (1882-1968)
‘To Spring’: Concert Overture, op.4 (1906)
The Minstrel’s Curse: Concert Overture, op.7 (1905)
Scottish Scenes, op.17 (1915, orch. 1929) ‘Moorland’, ‘Voices in the Glen’ and ‘Harvest Home’
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann
Toccata Classics TOCC 0263
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.