Thursday, 22 March 2018

Celebrating Hamish MacCunn’s 150th Anniversary

Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916) is best known for his overture The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, which is often heard in concert halls, Classic FM and on CD. This work regained popularity in the 1970s when it was used as the theme tune to the BBC television series Sutherland’s Law. Apart from this, his music remains virtually unknown at present.
Hamish MacCunn’s romantic-sounding music, which also includes songs, part-songs and piano pieces, owes much to Mendelssohn, Grieg, Dvorak and Wagner in its style. The earlier works are marked by a considerable use of Scottish literary themes and musical devices. Later compositions tended to explore a wider range of inspiration, but towards the end of his life MacCunn began to rediscover his Celtic roots once more.

Brief Biography of Hamish MaCunn:
  • Born at Greenock, Scotland on 22 March 1868, son wealthy ship-owner: his mother Barbara had once studied piano with William Sterndale Bennett.
  • Headed down to London to take up an open scholarship at the Royal College of Music, aged only fifteen.
  • Studied with Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford.
  • Resigned the course, without a degree.
  • First major performance was at the Crystal Palace in 1885 with the ‘Cior Mhor’: Overture (now lost). 
  • Produced several once-popular cantatas including Lord Ullin's Daughter, Bonny Kilmeny, The Lay of the Last Minstrel and The Cameronian's Dream.
  • Appointed Professor of Harmony and Compositon at the Royal Academy of Music in 1888.
  • Married, in the same year, Alison, the daughter of Scottish painter John Pettie (1839-1893)
  • Commissioned by the Carl Rosa Opera Company in 1889 to write the opera Jeannie Deans which was first performed in 1895.
  • Appointed in 1898 as conductor with the Carl Rosa Opera Company
  • Taught composition at the Guildhall School of Music
  • Died on 2 August 1916, aged only 48.

Five Key Works:
These works are available on CD or download. There are several other works that demand interest and a possible professional recording.
  • The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, Op.3.
  • The Ship o’ the Fiend, Op.5
  • The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, ballad, Op.6.
  • The Lay of the Last Minstrel, op.7 for soli, chorus and orchestra.
  • Highland Memories, op.30 for orchestra or piano.

Key Bibliography:
  • Janey Drysdale (probably) The Dunedin Magazine (Volume 2 No.2) March 1914)
  • Henry George Farmer, A History of Music in Scotland (Hinrichsen, London 1947)
  • John Purser, Scotland’s Music: A History of the Traditional and Classical Music of Scotland from Early Times to the Present Day (Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh 1992)
  • Jennifer Oates, Hamish MacCunn (1868–1916): A Musical Life (Ashgate, Farnham, 2013)
  • Alasdair Jamieson, The Music of Hamish MacCunn (AuthorHouse UK, 2013)

There is only one CD totally dedicated to MacCunn’s music:
Hamish MacCunn, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, The Dowie Dens of Yarrow, The Ship o’ the Fiend, Jeanie Deans (excerpts) and The Lay of the Last Minstrel BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins, HYPERION CDA66815, 1995.

And finally, if you have only time to hear one work:
Yes, you’ve guessed it - The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. However, all three overtures are worth hearing. And Highland Memories are absolutely charming too.

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