A few months ago I reviewed Volume 2 of Charles O’Brien’s orchestral music (Toccata Classics TOCC 0263) for MusicWeb International. One of the works included on that CD was ‘Scottish Scenes’, op.17. I concluded that O’Brien’s evocation of the Scotland did ‘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.’
This short orchestral suite was originally composed for piano between 1914 and 1915 and was subsequently orchestrated in 1929 for a BBC broadcast. At about the same time (1914) O’Brien’s mentor, the better known Hamish MacCunn had composed his ‘Two Scottish Scenes’ for piano: the two movements were ‘In the Glen’ and ‘In the Ingleneuk’. Whether O’Brien was influenced by this, is a moot point, but it does seem highly likely.
There is a little disparity in dates between the liner notes for the piano music and for the orchestral works CD. The former suggests that 'Scottish Scenes' was composed in 1917. The latter sometime between 1914-1915. Until Charles O’Brien scholarship catches up, this will no doubt remain a minor mystery.
‘Scottish Scenes’, op.17 consists of three character pieces: ‘Moorland’, ‘Voices in the Glen’ and finally ‘Harvest Home’.
‘Moorland’ is a little tone-poem that manages to portray the Scottish moorland as dark and brooding. However, the middle section has some sunlight on these remote moors, represented by a heartbreakingly beautiful melody. The composer uses typically Scottish pentatonic melodies (black notes on the piano) to give ‘local colour.’ He also features Scotch Snaps (inversion of dotted notes, where the short note is played before the long) as well as the occasional whole tone melody to create an impressionistic effect. I feel that these are Lowland moors such as those in Galloway rather than the remote Highlands.
The second piece, ‘Voices in the Glen’ manages to reflect the bad and sad days of the Highland Clearances where entire households and villages were moved off the land in favour of sheep. Many emigrated to Nova Scotia, Australia and New Zealand. A ‘Highland Clearance’ has been defined as "an enforced simultaneous eviction of all families living in a given area such as an entire glen.”
O’Brien has created an evocative ‘keen’ which suggests a lament for a way of life lost and left behind. The music begins with a typically pentatonic folksong before moving into the minor key. It opens into a massive use of arpeggios at the climax. Surely this reflects the strife between clans and the indignity of the clearances. Once again the lament returns, this time the melody is decorated with filigree passages in the right hand, before the music closes. It is as if the singer is calling to her children from afar.
The final piece, ‘Harvest Home’ is a precipitous reel that moves along at a terrific rate. The middle section makes use ‘bagpipe drone’ effects in the left hand. All the stops are pulled out for this bright and vivacious finale.
It is interesting to note that Hamish MacCunn had included a piece called ‘Harvest Dance’ as the third of his orchestral ‘Highland Memories’, op.30 which was composed during 1896 for performance at the Crystal Palace. This was also published in versions for piano, piano duet, organ and violin and piano.
Paul Mann’s comment in the liner notes for the orchestral suite are equally relevant to the piano work: “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…”
Charles O’Brien’s Scottish Scenes, op.17 for piano can be heard on Toccata Classics TOCC 0256. It can also be accessed on the Naxos Music Library site for those with library access.