John Blackwood McEwen is not one of the United Kingdom’s best-known composers. Even in his native Scotland he is too little appreciated. A good selection of his music has been recorded, and based on this, he is a composer to be reckoned with. His music can be romantic and sometimes impressionistic with references to Scottish musical tradition. He is never in thrall to ‘tartanry’ or ‘sentimentalism for its own sake.
Brief Biography of John Blackwood McEwen:
- Born in the Scottish Border town of Hawick on 13 April 1868.
- Graduated MA at Glasgow University in 1888 and studied music there until 1891.
- Appointed choirmaster at St James Free Church, Glasgow followed by a similar position at Lanark Parish Church.
- Entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1893.
- Returned to Scotland in 1895 taking up the position of choirmaster at South Parish Church in Greenock,
- Taught piano and composition at the Athenaeum School of Music in Glasgow (now The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland).
- Recruited in 1898 by Sir Alexander Mackenzie to the post of Professor of Harmony and Composition at the RAM.
- Founded (with others) the Society of British Composers in 1905 and later the Anglo-French Music Publishing Company.
- Appointed as Principal of the Royal Academy of Music in 1924, succeeding Sir Alexander Mackenzie
- Knighted in 1931.
- Died at his home in 25 Abercorn Place, St John's Wood, London 14 June 1948.
Five Key Works:
These works are all available on CD or download. There are several other works that would appear to demand interest and possible professional recording.
- Concerto for Viola and orchestra (1901)
- Grey Galloway: A Ballad for orchestra (1906)
- Solway Symphony (1911)
- Prince Charlie: A Scottish Rhapsody for violin and piano (1920)
- Where the Wild Thyme Blows for orchestra (1936)
- Janey Drysdale (probably) The Dunedin Magazine (Volume 3, No.3) in 1915
- 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)
- Alasdair Mitchell, Edition of selected orchestral works of Sir John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948), 2002.
If you can only listen to two CDs of McEwen’s music:
- McEwen, John Blackwood, Three Border Ballads: Grey Galloway, The Demon Lover, Coronach, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Alasdair Mitchell, Chandos 9241, 1993.
- McEwen, John Blackwood, A Solway Symphony, Hill o’ Heather, Where the Wild Thyme Blows, Moray Welsh (cello), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Alasdair Mitchell, Chandos 9345, 1995.
And finally, if you have only time to hear one work:
Where the Wild Thyme Blows for orchestra (1936)
This work is a subtle balance of impressionism and romanticism owing something to the bleakness of Gustav Holst’s Egdon Heath. Despite the title being a quotation from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which contrasts ‘A wood near Athens’ with the Forest of Arden in Warwickshire, McEwen’s work is an ideal evocation of the Scottish landscape. I do not know what part of the country lies behind this work, but I guess that I would plump for The Gegan rock in East Lothian.