Macbeth: Symphonic Poem was composed by the largely forgotten Henry Hugo Pierson. It was written in 1869 at a time which traditionally has been regarded as a downbeat period in English musical history – ‘The Land without Music’. This work categorically disproves the sentiment of that myth.
Henry Hugo Pierson, originally spelt ‘Pearson’, was born in Oxford in 1816. After a good classical education at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge he studied music in England and Germany. In 1844 he accepted the post of Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. However, most of his life was spent in Germany, where he died in Leipzig in 1873. He wrote several works in different genres, but he is noted for his choral music, songs and stage works. Grove mentions only a handful of pieces for orchestra besides the present work. These include a Hamlet: funeral march, and a handful of overtures, including a Romantic Overture, Romeo and Juliet and The Maid of Orleans. The Romeo and Juliet Overture was recorded on Hyperion CDH55088.
There are several things that need to be said about this present work. Firstly, although the composer annotated his score with quotations and ‘stage directions’ it is not necessary to follow the plot of ‘The Scottish Play’ to appreciate this work. Secondly, the orchestration is impressive; without going overboard it is fair to say that Pierson was a master of his art. Thirdly, this is a major work lasting some twenty minutes. At the back of my mind was the fear that the interest of the music could not be maintained. Somehow, the residual prejudice that exists about ‘Victorian’ music made me doubt whether the invention and integrity of this composer’s tone poem would hold up. The reality is that from the first note to the last, Pierson holds our attention. There are considerable mood changes to catch the imagination - from the witches’ incantations through Lady Macbeth’s death. We also hear the marching English army and a musical representation of the ‘dagger’ scene. The only problem is that much of this music is frankly quite beautiful as opposed to sinister or macabre: and one would be tempted to put Duncan, Banquo et al to one side and just enjoy the tunes. Yet, the piece does work as a tone poem and deserves our consideration. It is a minor masterpiece and the sooner we hold up our hands and recognise this, the better. Pierson, along with George Alexander Macfarren, Arthur Sullivan, Frederick Corder and possibly Sir Alexander Mackenzie are considerable composers and must not be relegated as also-rans under the overpowering shade of Sir Edward Elgar.
Henry Hugo Pierson: Macbeth: Symphonic Poem can be heard on Lyrita SRCD318 played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth.