Monday 31 March 2014

Frederick Delius: In a Summer Garden

This was one of my earliest discoveries of Delius in particular, and English music in general. I remember buying the old Decca Eclipse (ECS 634) version of this piece played by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anthony Collins. This record was released in 1972 was a ‘re-mastering’ of original recordings made in 1953. It included a splendid evocation of Paris, The Song of a Great City and the more intimate Summer Night on the River.   This recording of In a Summer Garden has remained my favourite version of this work for over forty years. Fortunately it has been released on CD and download.  
Just the other day I found out something I did not know about this work: the composer associated two quotations with the piece. The first is inscribed on the score and is two beautiful lines from Sonnet LIX from The House of Life by the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1822):
‘All are my blooms: and all sweet blooms of love
To thee I gave while Spring and Summer sang’.
This sonnet, ‘Love’s Last Gift’ was set by Ralph Vaughan Williams as part of his song cycle The House of Life.
John Masefield commenting on this sonnet (LIX) has suggested that it is a ‘proud utterance.’ Love tells the poet that all ‘growth and flower and fruit are Love’s very own, and that all these things had been given in Spring and Summer.’ However there was a catch, all these things end with Autumn, which hints at a worse time to come. The sonnet concludes by a defiant act from the poet –there is a final gift, a bright leaf of laurel, over which no winter has power.’
The second inscription was printed on an early programme for the work:-
‘Roses, lilies, and a thousand scented flowers. Bright butterflies, flitting from petal to petal. Beneath the shade of ancient trees, a quiet river with water lilies. In a boat, almost hidden, two people. A thrush is singing in the distance.’ This is unattributed to any writer and may well have been the creation of the composer.
In a Summer Garden is dedicated to the composer’s wife, Jelka Rosen.

I have always regarded this work as an impressionist piece of music: using the musical equivalent of the technique Pointillism. Yet, maybe it is less of a nature study than a love poem.
Peter Warlock has written about In a Summer Garden:-
‘The title might mislead those who look for objective impressionism in Delius' music. The summer garden is no more than the background, the setting of his mood; one feels indeed that this work has a more intimate and personal programme than most of its kind. Yet, to the external eye, it appears to be built up of thematic scrappets that might well have been suggested by whispers of wind and the colloquy of birds. Certain passages suggest a kind of musical pointillism as though the luminous effect of the whole were attained by a thousand little points of light and colour’.

Friday 28 March 2014

Dame Ethel Smyth: ‘Woman’s Music Scorned’

On January 10 1922 Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) wrote a letter-article for the Daily MailShe had recently been created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in recognition of her work as a composer, a suffragette and writer.  The content needs no gloss, save to say that Smyth’s music has not yet been recognised to any great degree. However, there are a number (19) of CDs currently featuring a good cross section of her work.  [JF]
The Daily Mail editor provide the following brief introduction:
The foremost woman composer of our own or any other age, Dr. Ethel Smyth, who contributes the following article is a daughter of the late General J.H. Smyth. She has written two symphonies, an opera, The Wreckers, a comic opera The Boatswain’s Mate and a Mass in addition to many shorter works.

By Dame Ethel Smyth, Mus.Doc
In at least half of many kindly Press notices concerning an honour recently bestowed on me comments in this style are to be found: ‘Her music is less well known than it deserves.’ ‘Recognition has come late in the day.’ ‘She is better known abroad than in her own country.’ It is a case of ‘now or never’ if I draw attention as I have often been tempted to do, to the following facts, which I think many people will be surprised to learn:-
For 30 years I have vainly hoped that some work of mine might be accepted for performance at one of the great provincial musical festivals. It has not happened yet.
On no important and representative occasion whether in London or abroad, has a work of mine figured among the works of British composers.
Except Sir Henry Wood and Mr. Dan Godfrey, not a single orchestral conductor now operative touches my work.
The curious part of it is that I cannot complain of the Press. From the very first their recognition has on the whole been generous. And when my work is played, no one would deny that the public likes it. So do orchestras. But the trouble is it is hardly ever played!
Here are two recent incidents, typical of what has gone on all my life:
Last September a friend connected with Hereford pressed my claim for belated inclusion in a festival programme on Dr. Brewer, the conductor of the coming Gloucester [Three Choirs] Festival. He reported that the idea was favourably entertained and advised me to write at once. I did so; sent testimonials as if I were an unknown chauffeur looking for a place, and pleaded, if better could not be had, for eleven minutes in a four-days scheme.  No reply.
I wrote again; still no reply. I suppose the authorities knew that in due season I should learn from the newspapers (as I have) that my request has once more been turned down.
Last summer I suggested to a friend that the London Symphony Orchestra might perform me occasionally (an excellent habit of theirs in the days of Nikisch and Sir Thomas Beecham). Later I was not surprised to learn from a member of the committee that the thing was practically settled, date, work and all, and was merely awaiting the assent of Mr. Albert Coates, who was daily expected home from abroad. Shortly afterwards, the London Symphony Orchestra scheme for this season came out, and my work was not included.
In conclusion, I will mention one more pregnant fact. The only conductors who have given a hearing to Dorothy Howell [1898-1992] and other gifted women of the rising generation are Henry Wood and Dan Godfrey.

The Daily Mail 20 January 1922

Tuesday 25 March 2014

England’s Piano Sage: The Life and Teachings of Tobias Matthay Stephen Siek

Many years ago I discovered a copy of Tobias Matthay’s The Act of Touch in all its Diversity (London, 1903) and his Relaxation Studies…in Pianoforte Playing (London, 1908) in a second-hand bookshop. I recall flicking through these books looking for some inspiration to help me improve my piano playing. I was disappointed. It seemed to be all words and little music. I resolved to return to my Smallwood Tutor and whatever exercises and studies my teacher deemed necessary to my ‘progress.’ I never thought about Matthay again until I discovered his bewitching piano solo ‘On Surrey Hills’. It had exactly the kind of title that appeals to me, so I hunted around the ‘net to find out if Matthay had written any more pieces in this genre. There were a few – A Summer Day-Dream, Elves, Summer Twilights and A Mood Fantasy (In Late Summer at Marley).  I was lucky enough to find a ‘hard’ copy of this last piece.  It all seems very promising.
In the last couple of years I have had pleasure in reviewing a number of CDs from APR Records. These are explorations of the recorded legacy of pianists from ‘The Matthay School’ featuring Myra Hess, Harriet Cohen and Moura Lympany. Other CDs in this series include Irene Sharrer, Eileen Joyce, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson.  As part of those reviews, I explored some of the available literature and was surprised to find a whole stable of pianists that had studied with Matthay – York Bowen, Sir Clifford Curzon, Vivian Langrish and Eunice Norton.  My original view that Tobias Matthay’s books were merely ‘verbose psychologising’ probably needed revising.

A few biographical notes about Tobias Matthay may be of interest.  He was born on 19 February 1858 to German parents; however he became a naturalised British citizen.  In 1871 Matthay entered the Royal Academy of Music to study with William Sterndale Bennett, Ebenezer Prout, Arthur Sullivan and George Macfarren.  Five years later, he was appointed sub-professor and then from 1880 full professor of advanced piano at the Academy. As well as teaching he was also a recitalist.  In 1893 Matthay married Jessie Kennedy, who was sister of the great Scottish singer and composer Marjory Kennedy-Fraser.  He opened his own private school in 1900 where he was able to teach his performance theories as explained in his The Act of Touch and other volumes. Branches of the Matthay School were established in many towns in Britain and in other countries including the United States. Mid-century, there were a number of challenges to Matthay’s pedagogic ideas, especially from his one-time pupil James Ching. However, whatever one’s views were of these technical matters, the proof of his success lies in the number of pupils that went on to become celebrated pianists. It is probably fair to suggest that he communicated his ideas on a one-to-one basis rather more effectively than in his books. Tobias Matthay died at his beautiful house, High Marley Manor in 1945, aged 87.
England’s Piano Sage: The Life and Teachings of Tobias Matthay by Stephen Siek represents the first comprehensive study of the teacher/composer.  There is very little available information about Matthay. In 1945 The Life and Works of Tobias Matthay by his wife, Jessie Henderson Matthay, was published. This book had been largely completed in 1937 shortly before she died:  it is more of an ‘affectionate family chronicle’ rather than a scholarly analysis of his life, teachings and musical compositions.   Other notices are more fleeting. Grove manages less than 250 words. There is no entry in the National Biography. Most references to Matthay would appear to be oblique ones in the biographies and autobiographies of his students such as that by Moura Lympany or Harriet Cohen’s Bundle of Time. A major source of information is included in exhaustive liner notes to the above mentioned CDs all written by Siek: so there is no better person to have written the present volume than him.

Stephen Siek is professor of piano and music history at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.  His career has included regular appearances as a recitalist, a chamber musician and a lecturer on music in the United Kingdom and the States. He has contributed many articles to respected journals such as the American Music Teacher, the Piano Quarterly and American Music. He has written a number of entries for the Revised New Grove. Siek is currently President of the American Matthay Association which is a flourishing organisation.  Of particular interest is the author’s period of piano studies with Frank Mannheimer, who was a ‘favored’ pupil of Matthay, and also a 15-year period, with Denise Lassimonne, who was Matthay's adopted daughter.

Stephen Siek’s massive book is a largely chronological study of Tobias Matthay’s life and achievement. Each chapter advances the story towards the rather sad ending when, after his death, the premises of the Matthay School were disposed of.   
A considerable part of the text is dedicated to expounding the ‘Matthay Method.’  The author has set this ‘method’ in the context of contemporary piano ‘pedagogy’ in England and abroad. This is quite difficult stuff for the reader to get to grips with: I am not sure I have succeeded. However a number of markers can be set down to help the reader. Firstly, Myra Hess has stated that there was no ‘method’ as such. Secondly, it is helpful to approach the ‘teaching’ by examining its antithesis: Paderewski once wrote that ‘the fingers must be worked until they are cramped and exhausted and started again when they have rested.’  This idea of virtue in painful practice was one of the mores that Matthay was working against. Hess wrote that ‘the whole plan (of Matthay’s teaching), which reverses that of the conventional ‘piano tutor’ is based on the aim to make music, that is, to produce the right sound; before the …mind is diverted to tackle other intellectual problems.’ It was necessary to ‘stimulate…the innate feeling for rhythmical contrasts and accentuation.’ The old idea that finger and wrist gymnastics were the be-all-and-end-all of technique was to be abandoned. New ideas of ‘muscular relaxation and elasticity, utilisation of arm weight, rotary movement of the forearm’ were to be used.’  Unfortunately sentences from Matthay’s works have tended to obscure rather than help the student: - ‘the action and freedom of forearm rotation’ and more enigmatically, ‘the instantaneous relaxation of superfluous pressure.’  I guess that one needs a teacher to expound these: they do not make much sense just reading them.
 One of the sections of the book that deeply interested me was the informed discussion about the rivalry between Myra Hess and Harriet Cohen (two of my greatest musical heroines).  Some of this I have already come across, such as Arnold Bax’s duplicity in dedicating works to ‘Tania’ (Cohen) but having the premieres given by Hess.   Another interesting line of exploration is Denise Lassimonne. Lassimonne was born in Camberley, Surrey in 1903 of French parents. She studied piano with Matthay at the Royal Academy of Music. After the death of her father she was adopted by the Matthay family. Denise Lassimonne seems to have left precious few recordings of her piano playing, however, there are some compositions and several books including the tribute volume Myra Hess by her friends (1965) and a short study of Tobias Matthay’s teaching methods, Opening the Shutters (1961).  Other musicians beside Matthay’s pupils that are examined in some detail include Frederick Corder, Alexander Mackenzie and John Blackwood McEwen. Importantly, the book details Matthay’s ‘fall from grace’, his arguments with McEwen and his eventual departure from the Royal Academy of Music.
Scarecrow Press have produced an impressive volume. I could argue that the font size is just a little small for older eyes; however I guess that it was a trade-off between the number of pages and the text size.  The author has chosen to use chapter endnotes which are fine; however there are a considerable number so the reader needs to keep a finger or a marker in place as they read. For example, Chapter 5 ‘…Scottish Interlude’ has some 123 notes over six pages.  An essential list of abbreviations is provided at the start of the book which typically refers to a wide range of primary sources including Matthay’s key texts. There are some 30 photographs included in the text as opposed to plates. This has led to a certain diminution of quality and sharpness, however I imagine it would have made the book much more expensive. Whatever the case, these photographs are of considerable historical interest and help the reader situate Matthay in his artistic milieu.   I was particularly interested in the photo of Matthay’s gorgeous house at High Marley Rest.  Included in these photographs are a number of the teacher’s protégés.  A few diagrams have been included representing some of Matthay’s ‘scientific’ concepts for improving the ‘Art of Touch.’  Interestingly there are more than fifty musical examples given in the text, many from Matthay’s pedagogic works as well as his recital pieces.
I was surprised to find that the list of Tobias Matthay’s works – both literary and musical was only ‘selective.’ As a neophyte in Matthay studies it would have been helpful to have had a near-complete listing. I do not know whether these represent the vast majority of his work or whether there are reams of undiscovered material. I am guessing that ‘selective’ is used simply as a means of avoiding criticism if something worthy was to turn up in the future.  Was there enough information available to have provided a discography? I know of a handful of recordings of Matthay’s playing: there may be more. An appendix including the text of Matthay’s brief ‘The Nine Steps towards Finger Individualization through Forearm Rotation’ is printed. This is a ‘distillation’ of his teaching.  There is an excellent ‘selective’ bibliography of secondary sources which includes many of the autobiographies and biographies of his pupils and associates. A good index rounds off the ‘tools’ part of this book.

I enjoyed reading and perusing this book. If I am honest, I found the ‘pedagogical’ part of this text very hard going – to the point where I largely gave up. However, I am not an aspiring concert pianist and the study of music teaching is not something that I wish to specialise in.
This book is not going to inspire me to read Matthay’s treatises, however it will encourage me to explore the legacy of his pupils with greater interest and understanding.  For someone who majors in performance technique this book is a treasure trove. There is also much to interest the specialist of English music: Matthay’s compositions for piano and orchestra are explored in some depth. The other day I leafed through many of his piano works at the Royal College of Music: I was surprised just how interesting they look. I do hope that someone will want to explore them in the near future.
Looking at the achievements of Matthay's pupils, and their affection and respect for their teacher, this volume is essential for all musical historians to understand what personality traits and pedagogical accomplishments this admiration is based on. I guess that most readers will use this as a ‘source’ book whilst investigating one or other of Tobias Matthay’s many pupils: it will certainly be my main use of it.
Perhaps the most telling sentence in this book is when Stephen Siek describes the enthusiastic support given to him by a member of staff at the Royal Academy of Music, but who then warned, ‘unfortunately most of our students would know the name ‘Matthay’ only because of a classroom in our building which bears his name.’ It is a sad commentary, however Siek has done much to situate Matthay back into the fabric of 20th century British musical history. He allows the reader to feel immense warmth and sympathy for a man who many have never heard of, or, like myself imagined as a frosty pedagogue in his ivory tower. People may disagree with, or criticise Matthay’s achievements, however, due to the many historical recordings of Cohen, Hess, Curzon et al, his legacy is there for all to hear. For me, Matthay’s achievement is summed up by Myra Hess who wrote that before she had lessons with Matthay she had ‘just played. Now she began to think.’
The last word must go to Matthay himself: when he was with one of his pupils in the dressing room prior to a recital, his single sentence of encouragement was quite simply ‘Enjoy the Music.’

Scarecrow Press Inc. 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8108-8161-7

Saturday 22 March 2014

The Complete Organ Works of Herbert Sumsion -Volume 2

The proceedings open with a tantalising work. The ‘Prelude and Aria’ (1940) began life as an orchestral overture ‘In the Cotswolds’ which received its first performance at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival in 1930. The liner notes suggest that this work had some considerable personal significance for the composer as he frequently mentioned it as being part of his oeuvre. A number of the overture’s themes were worked into the organ piece.  Curiously, although the title suggests two divisions, the work is actually in ternary form.  It was edited by Basil Ramsey for inclusion in a proposed ‘Book of Organ Pieces’: it was never published.  This is a restrained work that, like much of Sumsion, makes an ideal entry voluntary.  However, the thought of the ‘forgotten’ overture still teases me…
The ‘Cradle Song’ was composed in 1954 and explores a restrained mood that is less of a ‘lullaby’ than an ‘elegy’. It is one of the loveliest pieces on this CD.

Looking at the ‘works list’ in Wikipedia, which was created by Diane Nolan Cooke, reveals that Sumsion wrote a number of pieces in genres other than the organ and liturgical choral music. There is the above mentioned overture. Also for orchestra is an Idyll: At Valley Green, a tone-poem (?) Lerryn and a Romance for string orchestra.  There are two Piano Trios, a Sonata in C minor for Cello and Piano, one for Violin and Piano in E minor as well as a string quartet.  Two works were issued for cello and piano, By the Lake and A Mountain Tune: the latter being also arranged for string orchestra (1946).  Both pieces were dedicated to the composer’s wife, Alice. In 1955 Sumsion transcribed them for organ.  They are well-wrought pieces that have considerable depth and sometimes a restrained passion.  
The ‘Sarabande and Interlude’ were composed for inclusion in Oxford University Press’s A Second Easy Album for Organ. (Not that easy I hasten to add, at least for me) These two pieces cleverly combine old English dance forms with the influence of Herbert Howells. They are a pleasure to listen to: restraint and introspection are the basic moods here.

It is good that this second CD of the Complete Works of Herbert Sumsion included his arrangements of Vaughan Williams and J.S. Bach.  The ‘Carol’ and ‘Musette’ were extracted from RVW’s rarely heard Suite of Viola and Small Orchestra which was composed in 1934. Sumsion made the organ arrangements four years later.  Both pieces transcribe well for organ and represent a synthesis of the two composer’s moods and styles. It is no secret that the older composer was a major influence on Sumsion.  One of Vaughan William’s loveliest minor works is the Two Hymn-Tune Preludes for small orchestra, premiered at the Three Choirs’ Festival in 1936.  A good version of the original work can be heard on EMI CZS5739862 with Richard Hickox and the Northern Sinfonia of England. Herbert Sumsion has faithfully presented the mood of these works in spite of some technical difficulties presented to the organist.
The transcription of Bach’s aria ‘Komm, Süsser Tod’ is virtually note for note the original. Cooke suggests that the only additions are the two-bar introduction and a few passing notes in the pedals. It was originally intended for the above-mentioned book of organ pieces by Basil Ramsey.
Herbert Brewer was a major influence on Sumsion’s career. For one thing, he studied with Brewer for a number of years and he succeeded him as director of the Three Choirs Festival in 1928. It could be argued that the two Brewer arrangements included on this disc are merely makeweights. However, the world would be a worse place without these two realisations of Elgar’s music. The first is the deeply introspective and highly emotional ‘Prelude and Angel’s Farewell’ from The Dream of Gerontius. This is a difficult piece for the organ as the original scoring does not transfer easily to instrument.  The second is the charming, ‘light’ Chanson de Matin which works ideally for organ. Originally devised for violin and piano this piece has been arranged for just about every combination of instruments imaginable. It is perfect here on the organ of St. David’s Cathedral.

The final work on this excellent CD is the ‘Air, Berceuse and Procession’ composed in 1960. Diane Nolan Cooke suggests that this is the nearest that Sumsion came to writing an Organ Sonata.  It is the longest piece for the instrument in the composer’s catalogue.  The opening ‘Air’ is quite airy in its mood and almost dance-like in character.  The following ‘Berceuse’ is, as its French title implies, a Lullaby. I am not sure that that this music implies a baby being sung to sleep: it is more of Sumsion’s ‘landscape’ music reflecting on the Cotswolds.  The finale of this ‘sonata’ is a ‘Procession’ which is really a good example of a recessional march. This ‘Procession’ was played at Herbert Howells’ funeral in 1983, ‘serving as an appropriate testament to the lifelong friendship between the two men.’  Stylistically the ‘Air, Berceuse and Procession’ does not really belong to the late ‘fifties’/early ‘sixties’: there is no suggestion of sharp dissonance, tone rows or other contemporary devices in Sumsion’s music.

Organ enthusiasts will be delighted with the notes detailing the complex and intriguing history and specification of the St David’s Cathedral instrument. This Father Willis organ has been subject to a number of rebuilds and partial relocations within the building since it was built in 1883.  The original case was criticised as being ‘a poor exhibition of woodwork and paint.’ Subsequent work included a new case, the addition of a 32ft Open Wood pipes in the South Transept and electro-pneumatic action. The organ now has four manuals and fifty-four stops.  Thirty-one of the original Willis stops have survived as the basis of the present instrument. The latest rebuild was carried out by Harrison & Harrison: it was dedicated on Sunday 15 October, 2000. 
The sound of this splendid instrument is well-captured by the Priory recording engineer Neil Collier. The liner notes by Diane Nolan Cooke are a model of their kind. She is clearly the leading authority on Sumsion currently writing.

Daniel Cook was until recently Organist and Master of the Choristers at St David’s Cathedral. He had a significant involvement there with the Cathedral Festival. In September 2013 he was appointed to the post of Sub-organist at Westminster Abbey. He is also currently artistic director of Mousai Singers who have lately released a fine album of British music with a ‘Welsh Connection’.  Cook has recorded a number of CDs for Priory Records, including the complete works of Herbert Brewer, Charles Villiers Stanford (on-going) and a selection of music by Walter Alcock.

Herbert Sumsion’s music is basically melodic, conservative and always pleasing to the ear. The musical impact of his musical teachers, friends and fellow composers such as Elgar, Parry, Brewer, Stanford and Howells can be heard in these work. Sumsion’s great contribution to British organ music is that he has managed combine influences from these sources into a credible and often moving language of his own.  Daniel Cook has brilliantly and creatively reflected this fusion in his playing. Combined with Volume 1 of Herbert Sumsion’s organ music this set makes a splendid tribute to a fine, but sometimes neglected British composer. 

Track Listing:
Herbert Sumsion (1899-1995)
Prelude and Aria (1940) 
Cradle Song (1954) 
Allegretto (1954) 
Intermezzo (1955) 
Saraband and Interlude (pub.1975)
Carol (Ralph Vaughan Williams) arranged by Sumsion (1934/38) 
Musette (Ralph Vaughan Williams) arranged by Sumsion (1934/38) 
Eventide (Ralph Vaughan Williams) arranged by Sumsion (1936/38) 
Dominus Regit Me (Ralph Vaughan Williams) arranged by Sumsion (1936/38) 
Aria ‘Komm Süsser Tod’ (Johann Sebastian Bach) arranged by Sumsion
Prelude and Angel’s Farewell from ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ (Edward Elgar) arranged by Herbert BREWER (1865-1928) (1900/03) 
Chanson de Matin (Edward Elgar) arranged by Herbert BREWER (1889/1904)
Air, Berceuse and Procession (1960) 
Daniel Cook (organist)

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Alun Hoddinott ‘Toccata alla Giga’ for Organ

Alun Hoddinott was one of the most significant Welsh/British composers of the second half of the twentieth century. His musical output was considerable and covered virtually every form and genre from opera to his ten symphonies. He was born in Bargoed, Glamorganshire on 11 August 1929. After an education at Gowerton Grammar School he went up to University College in Cardiff.  He was a founder member of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. After university he studied with the composer Arthur Benjamin. Apart from composing, Hoddinott held a number of academic posts including lecturer in music at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, and then as Lecturer, Reader and Professor of Music at University College, Cardiff. In 1967 he co-founded the Cardiff Festival of Music with the pianist John Ogdon. Alun Hoddinott died on 11 March 2008
Hoddinott’s musical style was eclectic. He embraced serialism and aleatory music, jazz and popular idioms through to his ‘nocturnal’ moods characterised by dense chromaticism and ‘brooding’ Celtic intensity.

The ‘Toccata alla Giga’ Op.37 No.1 was composed in 1964. It was commissioned by Oxford University Press for the first album of Modern Organ Music which was duly published in 1965.
The first performance of the piece was given in the Santa Maria la Real de La Almudena Cathedral, Madrid in the same month as the manuscript was completed –July 1964. The organist was Bryan Hesford, who was also the editor of the published score. The same performer gave the UK premiere at the Parish Church of St. Mary, Little Walsingham on 12 August 1964.  The work has received only a single recording by Huw Tregelles Williams (BRAN B1202) on the Brangwn Hall organ issued in 1980. This has not been re-released on CD or download.  There was a proposed recording by Robert Munns; however I can find no trace of this having been published.
The ‘Toccata alla Giga’ was Hoddinott’s first major essay for the organ. He was to contribute a small number of fine works for the instrument over the following years including the Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, Op.51 (1967) and the Symphony No.7 for Organ and Orchestra, Op.137 (1989). The important Sonata for Organ, Op.96/2 appeared in 1978: it is the only organ work by the composer to be currently available on CD. [Great European Organs Volume 44 Jane Watts, Priory Records 1993 PRCD389] 
The same year as the ‘Toccata alla Giga’ was composed saw Hoddinott’s ‘Intrada’ for organ, Op.37 No.2 and the ‘Sarum Fanfare’ Op.37 No.3 which were also commissions for Oxford University Press.

The key to ‘Toccata alla Giga’ work lies in its title.  A ‘toccata’ is typically a piece of music designed to create the impression of an improvisation and to display the technical skill of the performer. It is often characterised by elaborate runs, complex and/or repetitive figurations, full chords and sometimes sections of imitation. It is not unusual for the tempo to be relatively free and at the discretion of the player.  The ‘alla giga’ part of the title means ‘played like a ‘jig’ or ‘gigue.’  Interestingly this ‘baroque’ form derived from the Irish or English ‘Jig’. The ‘giga’ is the Italian version, and is often styled as being non-fugal with running passages over a harmonic basis. The ‘giga’ is invariably written in 3/8, 6/8, 12/8 or sometimes 6/4 time. Hoddinott has chosen 6/8 throughout. Organists will be reminded of Bach’s (spurious) ‘Fugue alla giga’, BWV577. Although this is clearly not the exemplar for the present work both pieces are based on the characteristic ‘jig’ rhythm.  
Formally, the ‘Toccata alla Giga’ work has an ABA structure. There is a short three-chord introduction which is answered by the main ‘giga’ figuration.  The basic cell from which much of the music is derived is two dissonant, staccato chords followed by a unison ‘chord’ on C#. This phrase is repeated a number of times with various harmonies throughout the piece.  
The middle section of the Toccata is an elaboration of the second part of the introductory phrase. This is presented in a number of guises and rhythmical variations which build up to a crescendo preceded by a running passage in unison on the ‘great’ organ. The opening cell is presented at ‘double-forte’ before the ‘jig’ figuration is presented again. After a number of unison scales the work ends loudly with a reiteration of the opening chord sequence. The pedal part is active for less than half of piece’s duration. The melodic pattern is typically based on two falling semitones.
There are a number of possible registrations for this Toccata. The composer has asked for full organ on both Great and Swell with an added ‘mixture’ on the Choir organ. The chordal pattern requires ‘full reeds’ which are then put ‘off’ for the ‘giga’ figures. Hoddinott has called for flutes in the middle section, which sounds particularly effective with the mordents and trills. Although this piece requires a 16´ pedal, the composer explicitly states that a 16´ stop must not be used on the manuals ‘throughout.’  It would be possible to play this Toccata relatively quietly on wood stops.
The ‘Toccata alla Giga’ is difficult and requires an excellent sense of rhythm to bring off the intricate variations and permutations on the 6/8 time signature that the composer has devised. Accuracy is required in the unison passages and the playing of the ornaments. Registration need to be carefully handled to reflect the use of the reed stops.
Corliss Richard Arnold in his Organ Literature: Historical Survey (Scarecrow Press: 1995) has written that this Toccata has a ‘…powerful sense of snap and drive’. P.F.W. (Music & Letters, October 1965) has declared that this Toccata is ‘a real piece of music –a quick 6/8 jig, more or less atonal, un-halting, quick, fresh, scherzo-like.’
There is certainly a need for a new version of Alun Hoddinott’s ‘Toccata alla Giga’ on CD. This could well be coupled with the other works for organ solo.
John France February 2014 ©

Sunday 16 March 2014

Eileen Joyce: Cyril Scott’s Lotus Land for piano.

On 14th April 1937 Eileen Joyce made a recording of Cyril Scott’s (1879-1970) best known piano piece, ‘Lotus Land’ for Parlophone records. It was issued on a 12ʺ 78 rpm record (E11333) and was coupled with ‘Danse Negre’ by the same composer as well as the ‘Tarantelle’, which was reputedly by Harry Farjeon. It was priced 4/- (20p). Shortly after this session she went on tour in the English provinces.  
‘Lotus Land’ Op.47 No.1 was published in 1905 by Elkin and was given its première by Percy Grainger in the same year. The venue was the Bechstein Hall (now the Wigmore Hall) in London on November 15.  Op.47 No.2 was the piano piece ‘Columbine’ which was composed and published at the same time.
The Gramophone (October 1937) reviewer noted that Cyril Scott’s music is rarely played ‘these days’ and suggests that its ‘obvious weaknesses should not blind pianists to its pleasant qualities.’  It is a sentiment that still stands today.
He suggests that Eileen Joyce brings a ‘warm, if not voluptuous, tone, a delightful certainty of attack, and a sensuous excitement in what she is playing’ to ‘Lotus Land’’. He considers that Scott has ‘drunk… at the fountain of Debussy’ and this mood infuses the piece.  The recording is deemed to be excellent.
Christopher Howell reviewing the remastering of ‘Lotus Land’ for MusicWeb International (March 2012) issued on APR 7502 has suggested that Eileen Joyce ‘seems a bit impatient… [and the piece loses] its sultry decadence.’ Historically, Howell has noted that ‘Scott set down similar performances himself in 1928, with the difference that his pianism was no longer in good shape – if it ever was – and the results are messy’.  He wonders if Joyce knew these early recordings and took them as ‘evidence of the composer’s intentions and simply saw it as her business to realise those intentions with superior pianism…’
From my own point of view, I enjoyed Eileen Joyce’s performance of ‘Lotus Land,’ however I do not feel that she quite brings off the voluptuous, incense laden, sultry mood that the piano score demands.  I agree with Christopher Howell that is just a little too fast. However I imagine that this had much to do with trying to squeeze two pieces onto one side of a 78 rpm disc. For a modern recording I would recommend Leslie De’ath’s version on Dutton Epoch CDLX7150.

Eileen Joyce playing Cyril Scott’s Lotus Land (as well as the Danse Negre and Farjeon’s Tarantelle) can be hear on APR Records (APR7502) and on Testament 1174.  It can also be heard on YouTube

Thursday 13 March 2014

Some Early 20th Century British Violin Sonatas

I recently posted John Ireland’s reply to the letter by the violinist Marie Hall in the Daily Mail on January 20 1922. Hall had bemoaned the shortage of British violin sonatas: Ireland had mentioned a number by active British composers. I have listed all the works in the genre written by each composer however note that only those before 1922 would have been known to John Ireland and should have been known to a violinist of the competence of Marie Hall.  With the exception of John Blackwood McEwen (four recorded only) all these sonatas are currently available on CD or download.

Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
Violin Sonata No.1 (1910, revised 1915)
Violin Sonata No.2 (1915, revised 1922)
Violin Sonata No.3 (1927)
Violin Sonata in F major (No.4) (1928)

Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
Sonata in B major for violin and piano, Op. Posth. (1892) [This would have been unknown to John Ireland]
Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano (1905-14)
Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano (1922-23)
Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano (1930)

Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor Op. 27 (1908)
Violin Sonata No. 2 in F major  Op.50 (1917)

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Violin Sonata in E minor, Op. 82, in 1918, 

Eugene Goossens (1893-1962)
Violin Sonata No.1, Op.21 (1918)
Violin Sonata No.2, Op.50 (1930)

John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948)
Ireland notes that McEwen had composed two violin sonatas. Actually by 1922 there were five examples.
Sonata No. 1 in E major for violin and piano (1913)
Sonata No. 2 in F minor for violin and piano (1913–1914) [recorded]
Sonata No. 3 in G for violin and piano (1913)
Sonata No. 4 ‘A Little Sonata’ in A major for violin and piano (1917)
Sonata No. 5 "Sonata-Fantasia" for violin and piano (1922) [recorded]
Sonata No. 6 for violin and piano (1929) [recorded]
Sonata No. 7 in A minor for violin or viola and piano (c.1939) [recorded]

Cyril Scott (1879-1970)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 59 (1908)
Sonata ‘Lirica’ for violin and piano (1937)
Violin Sonata No. 2 (1950)
Sonata ‘Melodica’ (1950)
Violin Sonata No. 3 (1955)
Violin Sonata No. 4 (1956)

Tuesday 11 March 2014

William Lloyd Webber Centenary (11th March 1914)

When the musical achievement of Andrew Lloyd Webber in the world of West-end Musicals and his predilection to collect theatres and pre-Raphaelite paintings is considered, it is hard to realise that his grandfather -William's father- was in fact a self-employed plumber. William was born into a respectable but quite poor family on 11th March 1914 in London. Lloyd Webber senior was an organ enthusiast - it was his hobby to travel around the country inspecting as many church and civic hall organs as he could afford to visit. Soon his son was accompanying him on these adventures.
William began his career as a teen prodigy: by the age of fourteen he was giving recitals at a number of prestigious venues throughout the United Kingdom. He broadcast on the infant BBC whilst still a teenager.

It was almost inevitable that after winning a scholarship to Mercers School he would progress to the Royal College of Music. It was there that he was fortunate enough to study composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Strangely, the elder composer’s musical style was not to make a huge impact on the younger man. William Lloyd Webber received his Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists in 1933 aged nineteen.

It was about this period that William began to compose music. His first performed work was a Violin Sonatina which is now lost. The first surviving composition is the Fantasy Trio. Curiously, this may have been written for the famous Cobbett chamber music prize: the Phantasy (with a P) was a popular form in the first four or five decades of the last century. There are examples by Bridge, RVW, Britten, Hurlstone and many others. Lloyd Webber spells it Fantasy (with an F) so it is a moot point as to whether it was meant to be entered into the competition.  It is interesting that it fulfils Cobbett’s criteria - a single movement work under 12 minutes in length.
This is an attractive piece of ‘rhapsodic’ music which is quite advanced for its time. It is certainly not in the ‘English Pastoral’ school as such. Neither is it Webern - rather more 'late' Frank Bridge or Alban Berg. The general mood is reflective - even if there are some astringent harmonies and progressions. It is well-composed with the parts lying satisfactorily for the instruments. We are fortunate to have this interesting Trio - it was deemed to have been lost but Julian Lloyd Webber found it in a pile of music by other composers in his late father's estate. So it was rescued from oblivion.
The Serenade for Strings is one of the loveliest works in the string orchestra repertoire: it is on a par with Edward Elgar’s and Lennox Berkeley’s pieces of the same name. Lloyd Webber's example has a slightly more complex history than these other two works. The three movements were composed nearly thirty years apart. It was begun in 1951 and completed in 1980. Yet, it is a work that is unified: there is no hint that it is composite. The Barcarole, Romance and Elegy are all romantic without being overbearingly sentimental.
Three Spring Miniatures were originally composed for the piano in 1952. They are ‘light’ music: well-written, full of fun, poetry and lightness and a delight to listen to.  Their naïve titles that do not express the flawless artistry of their design - Gossamer, Willow Song and Treetops: they are surely images of the countryside imagined by a townie.

William Lloyd Webber's masterpiece is his orchestral work, Aurora (1951). It is the only piece that the composer would talk about: the only one that he seemed to have enthusiasm for. It is quite definitely a love poem - Julian Lloyd Webber admits this in his interview with Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International.  Yet it was a love-poem written in the abstract: it was not inspired by any individual – although, tantalisingly, Julian states that he cannot be sure of this! The listener has to put to one side any feelings of derivation. It is true that echoes of Rachmaninov, Delius and Sibelius can be detected. The opening of the piece has been described as being like ‘Bartok smoothed over by Vaughan Williams’. But it is of little account. William Lloyd Webber was not a trend-setter: he did not intend to break new ground. He used vocabulary that was already available and appealed to his emotions. This is a skilfully composed piece of music with well-wrought structures, harmonies and orchestral colouring. Aurora could be described as being ‘sumptuous’. It is instructive to quote some of the composer's own words in connection with this piece:-
'Arriving from the East in a chariot of winged horse,
Dispelling night and dispersing the dews of the morning
Aurora was the roman goddess of the dawn.’
This short tone-poem attempts to portray the inherent sensuality of her (Aurora’s) nature. If this were the only piece of music written by William Lloyd Webber it would be a considerable achievement.

There is a limited catalogue of orchestral music by Lloyd Webber. It may be that the odd piece will turn up in the future - just like the Fantasy noted above was found by serendipity. There is a youthful symphony which was composed for an examination. I asked Julian if it still exists and he assured me that the manuscript survives.
There are rumours that he planned a piano concerto - but this never materialised. A Nocturne for Piano & orchestra was composed, but it was lost by the publisher. There is also a tantalising glimpse of an orchestral piece he was working on shortly before he died.

William Lloyd Webber was organist and choirmaster at the great Anglo-catholic shrine - All Saints, Margaret Street. He held this post from 1939 until 1948. Church music was to play an important part in his catalogue. Lloyd Webber could easily and quickly compose an anthem or introit for liturgical purposes: he was good at harmony and counterpoint and had an ear for a fine tune. In spite of this fluency his son Julian feels that his heart was not in writing ecclesiastical music.
There was a ten year gap in his church musical directorship duties between 1948 and 1958.   In that latter year he took up the post of Director of Music at Methodist Central Hall: it was a long way theologically and liturgically from All Saints Margaret Street. Whilst working at Methodist Central Hall he composed two settings of the Latin Mass: the Princeps Pacis – ‘Prince of Peace’ (1962) and the Missa Sanctae Mariae Magdalenae (1979), works that would not have been comfortably at home in that institution. The conclusion drawn is that the director’s job was an economic necessity and that he was largely indifferent to the type of churchmanship.
Other religious works composed over the years include an oratorio on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, The Divine Compassion for tenor, baritone, chorus and organ, two or three cantatas, thirteen or so anthems and three Christmas carols.

William Lloyd Webber’s organ works are a rather mixed bunch. They range from the technically complex to the relatively straightforward and from profound music to the ‘intermezzo’. Yet the entire corpus allows us to see the consummate skill of the composer. There is never a note too many. Lloyd Webber is reputed to have said to his pupils, 'Why write six pages of music, when six bars will do?' The organization and balance of these works are always satisfying. There are a number of pieces designed for practical purposes - the Nuptial March and the Solemn Procession. The Chorale, Cantilena and Finale is as good a concert piece for organ as one finds in the literature.

One of the glories of English Music in the twentieth century is the songs. Most listeners will know at least some of the fine numbers that have been composed by John Ireland, RVW, Benjamin Britten, Gerald Finzi and Ivor Gurney. Very often they are settings of poetry by English poets. William Lloyd Webber has contributed a small but perfectly proportioned corpus of songs.  Most of them date from the 1950s and are written in what would then have been regarded as an old-fashioned style. He set a number of well-known poets and not a few unknowns. Lloyd Webber’s songs always reflect the mood of the words. In fact, they are a perfect blend of words and music.
Oddly, the only piece dedicated (but see Nocturne below) to Julian was a song - The Forest of Wild Thyme -it was composed c.1951 and warns of the dangers and hardships that a child may have to endure - perhaps a somewhat morbid idea - but also one that was exercising the mind of a proud father in the aftermath of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War.
Having mentioned Julian it is worth noting two pieces that William Lloyd Webber wrote for the cello and piano or harp. The Nocturne was derived from his oratorio, St Francis of Assisi and is a lovely soliloquy for the cello. It is heart-warming to know that the composer gave this work to his younger son shortly before he died. There are also Three Pieces for Cello and Piano of which two have been recorded.  These are ephemeral pieces - for younger players - they have titles like 'In the Half-light' and 'Slumber Song.'
It is unfortunate that William Lloyd Webber did not write a Cello Concerto. If he had, it would have joined those by Moeran, Finzi, Bridge and Elgar in the fairly limited (British) catalogue of that particularly gorgeous form. It would also have given his son a possible masterwork to present to the musical public at large.

It is important to understand the sense of disillusionment that entered the composer's soul in the early 1950's. This led him to give up composing and dedicate himself to musical education. Music had changed since the Second World War. Serialism had become the ‘accepted’ structural principle for composing music. New voices were being heard in Europe and from America.  It appeared that music having any vestige of a tune was derogatorily regarded as being 'conservative' with a small 'c'. William Lloyd Webber felt that he could not compete with the new music:  his works were being ignored and were not receiving performances. A composer writing music that was seen as ‘dated’ would not be the best guarantee of a steady income. When the two boys were born there was a need to have tis security. So he applied for, and got, a job at the Royal College of Music teaching harmony and counterpoint where he had a string of famous pupils including John Lill and Julian Bream. Lloyd Webber gave two lessons to Malcolm Arnold, deputising for Dr Gordon Jacob. Apparently, Sir Malcolm rated these two lectures higher than the rest of his time spent at the RCM!
Another character trait of William Lloyd Webber was his lack of ambition. He was not inclined to push his music into the forefront: he was not a self-publicist. Lloyd Webber would not try to arrange performances of his music – nor did he contact concert promoters or ring around editors of the musical press. So for a period of nearly 20 years his voice was virtually silent. He continued his directorship at Methodist Central Hall and was appointed as Director of the London College of Music in 1964. In his final years he had begun to compose again, most importantly the ‘Missa Sanctae Mariae Magdalenae’. William Lloyd Webber died in London on 29th October 1982.

William Lloyd Webber was one of nature's romantics. One cannot imagine him writing neo-classical or serial music. He loved the moods and impressions prompted by the landscape. He had a city dweller’s view of the romance of the country. Yet it impressed him and he tried to recreate that mood in many of his works. There are a number of styles apparent in his works: - the Anglican Church organ loft, English Pastoralism, Delius and the ‘big’ romantics like Rachmaninov and Fauré. But he was no mere writer of pastiche. All these elements are obvious in his music, but he brought his own gifts: skilful structure, memorable tunes, delicious harmonies, sumptuous orchestration and an excellent understanding of his medium, whatever it was.

John France (2002/2014) ©  (With thanks to MusicWeb International where this essay first appeared)

Friday 7 March 2014

Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916): A Musical Life Jennifer L. Oates

Unusually, my first encounter with Hamish MacCunn was not with the ubiquitous overture The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. Many years ago I discovered an attractive Valse (from Two Dances for piano, 1912) by this composer who appeared to have a name straight out of Sir Walter Scott or John Buchan. At that time, I had been reading Buchan’s novel Huntingtower written in 1922. This book featured a Glaswegian detective with the improbable name of Dickson MacCunn, so the surname at least was familiar. I looked up ‘Hamish’ (Gaelic equivalent of James) in Grove at the Glasgow Mitchell Library and discovered that he was a Greenock-born composer: like me, he was a Clydesider. It was not until a couple of years later that I came across the recording of Sir Alexander Gibson (HMV ASD 2400) conducting the legendary overture and then heard it regularly on television as the theme tune to Sutherland’s Law (1973-76).  Since that time there has been a major retrospective of MacCunn’s music from Hyperion, another CD dedicated to his part-songs and a number of minor works included in various recitals. This reflects my total listening experience of Hamish MacCunn’s music: I imagine that this is the case for most enthusiasts of British music from the ‘long nineteenth century.’

Jennifer L. Oates’ Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916): A Musical Life serves a number of important purposes. Firstly it successfully presents the life and works of the composer in largely chronological order. Secondly, the book situates MacCunn’s achievement in the context of the first stirrings of the so-called English (British) Musical Renaissance led by Parry, Stanford and Alexander Mackenzie and soon to include composers as diverse as Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge and eventually Britten. And finally, there is a detailed examination of the influence of ‘Nationalism’ and of things ‘Scottish’ or the ‘Celtic Twilight’ on the composer’s achievement and ultimate disappointment.   The significance of this book is enhanced with a complete catalogue of MacCunn’s works, an extensive bibliography and detailed indices.

A few biographical notes about Hamish MacCunn may be of interest.  He was born at Greenock, Scotland on March 22 1868. His father was a wealthy ship-owner and his mother Barbara had once studied piano with William Sterndale Bennett. After much musical encouragement at home, MacCunn headed down to London to take up an open scholarship at the Royal College of Music, aged only fifteen. He studied with Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford.  He did not gain a degree there as he resigned the course, unimpressed with the qualifications, the teaching (except Parry) and the attitude of the staff who snubbed him socially.  
His first major performance was at the Crystal Palace in 1885 with the ‘Cior Mhor’: Overture (now lost). He built on this success with three further orchestral overtures or ballads based on Scottish topographical or literary themes: the well-known The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, Op.3, The Ship o’ the Fiend, Op.5 and The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, ballad, Op.6. The same period saw performances of the cantatas Lord Ullin's Daughter, Bonny Kilmeny, The Lay of the Last Minstrel and The Cameronian's Dream. In 1888, aged twenty, he was appointed Professor of Harmony at the Royal Academy of Music.  The following year MacCunn married the Scottish painter John Pettie’s (1839-1893) daughter, Alison.  In 1889 the Carl Rosa Opera Company commissioned the opera Jeannie Deans which was first performed in 1895.  This was followed by Diarmid in 1897, which was not a box-office success.  In 1898 he became conductor with the Carl Rosa Company and also held posts with the Moody-Manners and the Beecham Companies. MacCunn taught composition at the Guildhall School of Music from 1912 until his early death on August 2 1916, aged only 48.
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.

Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916): A Musical Life fills an important gap in the history of British music. Readers have been overwhelmed with volumes dedicated to exploring every detail of the life and times of Edward Elgar. Fewer books have been written about Parry and Stanford; however their accomplishments have been re-evaluated in recent years.  The group of Scottish composers who feature in the ‘renaissance’ have been largely ignored. There are no studies in print (a few theses have been published) examining the achievement of Learmont Drysdale, Frederic Lamond, Alexander Mackenzie, William Wallace, Hamish MacCunn and John Blackwood McEwen.
An examination of the literature concerning Hamish MacCunn is telling. Until 2013 there had been no major study of this composer available in print. Historically most of the references to him had been chapters or notices in books, articles and newspapers. The earliest substantial reference appears to be J. Cuthbert Hadden’s article ‘Scottish Composers and Musicians: Hamish MacCunn’ in The Scottish Musical Monthly (December 1893). This is not cited in Oates’ bibliography.  The first formal notification is in the Brown-Stratton British Musical Biography (1897) and later in the second edition of Grove (1904-10). The first major essay is Janey Drysdale’s 'Scottish Composers: Hamish MacCunn' The Dunedin Magazine ii no.2 (March 1914) which was based on notes provided by the composer.  Substantial references to MacCunn appear in Farmer’s A History of Music in Scotland (London, 1947/1970), and John Purser’s Scotland's Music (Edinburgh, 1992). Other good sources of information include George Bernard Shaw’s collected music criticism and A.M. Henderson’s Musical Memories (Glasgow, 1938). It is surely just a coincidence that 2013 also saw the publication of Alasdair Jamieson’s The Music of Hamish MacCunn, Author House UK Press. This is based on his thesis published in 2007.  

The basic plan of Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916): A Musical Life is quite straightforward. The chapters are presented in largely chronological order. After an important introduction there are sections on MacCunn’s early life and musical achievements in Greenock leading to his move to London.  It is facile to divide MacCunn’s career into ‘periods’ however it is convenient. As noted above, the London years between 1887-1890 were largely devoted to the orchestral works and a number of important cantatas all based on Scottish themes.  For the next five years he was engrossed in his two major operas, Jeanie Deans and Diarmid which forms the basis of chapters 3 and 4.  It is a generalisation to write, but not far from the truth, that by the time he was thirty, most of his important compositional achievement was complete. The last two chapters deal with his later works and his career as a teacher and conductor.  In this last period, MacCunn’s music expanded into areas not directly inspired by the ‘Celtic Twilight’. The main text concludes with a chapter entitled ‘The Potential Saviour of Native Music: Appraisals and Conclusion.’
This book is not simply an examination of Hamish MacCunn as a composer.  A great deal of effort is put into exploring his important contribution as a teacher and a conductor. For example, a number of pages are devoted to the part he played in promulgating a Scottish College of Music which did not find fulfilment until some years after the composer’s death.
Musical historians wishing to investigate the various stylistic and social trajectories implicit in late 19th and early 20th century music will find that Jennifer Oates’ book supplies useful tools to help understand the place of Scottish art-music as seen through the prism of a London-based musical culture often centred on South Kensington and the Crystal Palace. This detail will be of considerable interest to cultural and political historians of the period. Finally, the wealth of musical examples and analysis will be helpful to performers who may be encouraged to take up Hamish MacCunn’s music in the 21st century.

Looking at Jennifer Oates’ exposition of The Ship o’ the Fiend gives a good idea of the detailed but not forbiddingly technical analysis of the music. She begins by comparing the work’s ethos to that of the Mountain Flood. The earlier work is largely ‘painted impressions’ of the Scottish landscape whereas The Ship tells the tale of the old Scottish ballad ‘The Daemon Lover.’ She outlines the plot of this story, originally printed in Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. She relates this imagery to the genre of tales that tell of a man returning from the dead to reclaim the woman he loves. The actual version that inspired MacCunn was found in Allingham’s Ballad Book (1887). Oates then draws some similarities with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Overture.  After a largely descriptive analysis of the music, she cites a number of early reviewers who had mixed opinions of the work. Bernard Shaw ‘did not care for the overture’ but the Monthly Musical Record was impressed by this ‘powerful piece of tone painting.’ There were contemporary suggestions that MacCunn should now turn his hand to ‘abstract music’. It is an impressive study of an excellent piece. I was pleased that she did not become highly technical in her discussion and indulge in detailed ‘Schenkerian’ analysis of this work.  This would have spoilt the broad-based, but essentially scholarly, musico-historical appeal of this book.

Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916): A Musical Life is a well-produced book which is typical of Ashgate Publishers. The paper quality is good, the binding is strong and the font is clear and readable. I am pleased that footnotes rather than endnotes have been provided. I always read them (or at least glance at them) so I am grateful for not constantly having to turn to the end of the chapter or book. The ‘scholarly’ nature of the argument requires many footnotes with these often taking up more than a third of a page.  A selection of rare photographs has been included in the text rather than as a separate section of plates: this does mean a diminution of quality. There are a number of tables illustrating the structure of some of the music. Many musical examples are given throughout the text which are clear and helpful in the development of the musical analysis. Finally, there is an essential list of abbreviations presented at the front of the book that covers ‘special collections’ ‘journals and newspapers’ and other frequently quoted sources.  This is especially useful bearing in mind the considerable number of references to manuscript material given throughout the volume.

An essential part of this book is the ‘exhaustive’ catalogue of Hamish MacCunn’s ‘Complete Works’. Oates has wisely chosen to present this by genre and then chronologically within the genre. I again take as an example the less-well known tone-poem The Ship O’ the Fiend. This work was assigned Op.5 by the composer. The manuscript (MS 3365) is dated 18 June 1887 and is deposited at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. The date of publication by Augener is not specified in this present listing: Jamieson and World Cat give it as 1890.  No mention is made here of the important new version of this score (along with Mountain Flood and Dowie Dews edited by Jennifer Oates in 2010). The date of the ‘Fiend’s’ premiere, 18 February 1888, at the Crystal Palace and the first Scottish performance on 24 December 1889 are cited.  Interestingly, Jamieson (2013) writes that the premiere was at St. James’ Hall, London on 21 February 1888. I found a reference in the Morning Post (16 Feb 1888) advertising The Ship o’ the Fiend (first time of performance) at the St. James’ Hall as Jamieson stated. The review in the contemporary Musical Times seems to confirm this date.  Oates does not give the orchestra or conductor (in this case the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer). It would have been helpful to have given orchestral ‘scoring’ and the source of the text, although this latter is noted in the analysis of the work. Other versions of this overture were produced including an arrangement for piano duet by Marmaduke Burton and one for string orchestra by Adam Carse.  These are not noted.
The ‘Select Bibliography’ defies the adjective in its title. Running to some 17 pages of close text this is conveniently divided into three sections: ‘Manuscript Sources’, ‘Printed Primary Sources’ and ‘Secondary Sources’.  There can be little that has been written about Hamish MacCunn that is not detailed here.
I was disappointed with the Discography.  I would have expected this to have been presented by ‘work’. What Oates has done is to list all the CDs (no other media) that have been released featuring Hamish MacCunn’s music. She has not stated what particular work(s) have been recorded.  So for example, Seriously Scottish: Music from Contemporary Scotland published by the Scottish Arts Council in 1999 has Effie’s beautiful aria ‘Sleep for the day is done’ from Jeannie Deans alongside 38 other tracks by a diverse group of other musicians including folk and rock.  The reader is required to search the internet to find out what has been recorded on each disc. Alasdair Jamieson has not included a discography in his book, however, there is a brief listing given in his thesis.
The book concludes with an excellent index which includes comprehensive references to MacCunn’s life and music.

Jennifer Oates is a musicologist who specialises in 19th and 20th century music. She is currently Associate Professor at Queen’s College and the Graduate Centre CUNY and is also Head of the Music Library at Queen’s College.  Oates has a particular interest in Scottish art music, Granville Bantock and the present composer. She has produced a scholarly edition of the three surviving MacCunn overtures and is working on an edition of his songs. There is an important contribution about MacCunn in Ashgate’s Europe, Empire and Spectacle in Nineteenth-Century British Music (2006): her work will be featured in a fascinating-sounding collection of essays entitled The Sea and the British Musical Imagination which is forthcoming in 2015.

I am not quite convinced by the conclusion that the main reason that MacCunn ‘failed’ was that he refused or was unable to respond to the currents of modernism that were raging in the musical world in the Edwardian years at home and abroad. I concede that MacCunn’s compositions are largely based on the success of the ‘romantic’ overtures and cantatas of his early years. I do not believe that it is always valid to judge a composer by his or her reaction to passing fashions and fads. Hamish MacCunn’s music is impressive, colourful and evocative of a long-past era. Those works that I have heard are fine examples of their genre.  

It may be argued that MacCunn did not attain this dreamed-of ‘renaissance’ of Scottish music. His later exhausting years were fully occupied with conducting and teaching rather that composing. After his early successes the inspiration of many of his compositions went much wider than ballads, misty glens and Sir Walter Scott. Yet the Musical Times may have judged the matter wisely when the reviewer mused ‘…who is to say that something isn’t Scottish unless it contains snaps, drones and dialect?’
Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916): A Musical Life is a significant study of the life and career of the composer. Jennifer L. Oates has produced a comprehensive examination of the man in all his guises – teacher, opera conductor, composer, protagonist for the re-awakening of Scottish art music and family man. The author has not produced a ‘hagiographical’ study, but has presented the man in his complexity. The fact that he did not achieve his ambition to become the ‘Saviour of Native Music’ is not avoided.  The analysis of music plays an important, but not top-heavy part in this text.  Alasdair Jamieson’s book concentrates on MacCunn’s music, whereas Jennifer L. Oates has majored on the cultural milieu of the composer’s achievement.  Readers who are fortunate enough to possess both Oates’ and Jamieson’s book will be inclined to compare the relative merits.  These two books are complimentary rather than competitors.  However, for a detailed assessment of Hamish MacCunn’s entire musical and personal achievement, Jennifer Oates’ book is the place to start.

Music in 19th Century Britain
Ashgate Publishing Company
ISBN: 9780754661832
£65:00 (Ashgate Webpage £58.50)