IT is not usual for a 10-year-old lad to be taken by his father to study music in Germany and, on being left there in the ducal town of Sondershausen, told that he will never see his father again.
That was what happened to one of Scotland’s greatest composers and one of Edinburgh’s most distinguished and unacknowledged citizens, for his father was ill and knew he was dying. Was it cruel of him to leave the lad alone on the edge of the Harz mountains, apprenticed to Kapellmeister Stein? No, it was not. It was a selfless gift of a future for a talented boy who rose to eminence in European music, admired by Liszt, Busoni, Hans von Bülow, Pablo Sarasate and Edward Elgar; was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1895 and made Knight Commander of the
Victorian Order by King Edward VII in 1922 and, to this day, is shamefully neglected by his own nation.
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We may have a less enthusiastic opinion about these honours nowadays, but for a composer, and a Scottish one at that, they represented a level of recognition which, in his case, could not have been more thoroughly deserved.
In fact I’m virtually certain that Alexander Campbell Mackenzie is the only Scottish composer ever to have made it on to a cigarette card – Wills’s cigarettes to be precise, and the older readers amongst us will remember driving past the factory on the A8 east of Glasgow. But tobacco, just like the KCVO, has lost its cachet.
So when I write about the Scottish composer Mackenzie and you ask “Who he?” I have to start pleading for your attention and listing all the famous people who thought well of him, down to a tobacco company. Sad.
I’ve been following Alan Riach’s articles over the last weeks, with their focus, naturally enough, on the great and often neglected heritage of Scottish literature – and Alan has mentioned music now and again: but if you want to study neglect, then Scottish classical music is a classic example and, were it not for some (note this) London-based CD companies, the bulk of their major works would be unknown.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a piece of Unionist propaganda. On the contrary: it is a call to arms for us to recognise and promote our own heritage; but it is a sad reality that when I ask even the most aware of Scottish artists, in any medium other than music, to name a few Scottish composers, they can only name a very few, and some cannot name any. The same applies to the bulk of our historians.
It does not help one’s street cred as a composer to be knighted, and it does one even less good to be principal of a great musical institution such as the Royal Academy of Music in London. Mackenzie was its Principal for 36 years, and if you have ever sat an Associated Board exam in music, you may thank or curse Mackenzie for having made it possible, for it was he who overcame the rivalries between the principle music institutions of the time to establish an international standard still sustained today. As a result, Mackenzie is regarded as academic and old-fashioned when he was anything but.
As a student, he turned up unprepared for a piano exam and improvised a piece. The then principal, Walter MacFarren, asked him what it was and Mackenzie declared it to be a Schubert Impromptu. It was no such thing, but he got away with it. His cantata The Rose of Sharon is based upon the only truly sexy book in the Bible – The Song of Solomon. Its presence in the Bible is usually explained as a kind of parable for the love of the Church for Christ and Christ for the Church: but Mackenzie got rid of that part of the libretto so that, in his own words “any suggestion of a religious basis disappeared”.
Few have heard more than a few examples of this incredibly alluring and sensuous piece, and then only in specially commissioned broadcasts. It is a tragedy, for this is an expression of the most accomplished love. It doesn’t suffer from the usual desperate strivings and endless struggles to reach a brief ecstasy: rather it is a consummate and relaxed engagement full of physical assurance and sweetness. No wonder the chorus masters of those days shied away from it. It offended their religious and puritan sensibilities. So if you have heard that Mackenzie was a musical conservative, think again.
Mackenzie was not a nationalist. He was born in 1847 and died in 1935, spending most of his life in England. His was not a fertile environment for thoughts of national independence. But in his music he was as proud as any nationalist of his own country and her traditions. He knew those traditions intimately and frequently exploited them with sensitive intelligence in his music, often drawing inspiration from Robert Burns whose work as a collector and arranger Mackenzie himself continued, after his own fashion.
Mackenzie’s dad was a violinist, both classical and traditional, who led and conducted the Theatre Royal orchestra in Edinburgh, where the young Henry Irving was building his acting career. The older Mackenzie was also the composer of the tune The Nameless Lassie for his friend James Ballantyne’s lyrics – a beautiful song recorded memorably by Kenneth MacKellar.
When Mackenzie’s father died in 1857, James Ballantyne published a memorial poem:
While Scotland mourns her minstrel gone,
And all our breasts with sorrow thrill,
Let’s pray that his young orphan son
In time his father’s place may fill:
And thus our country still shall be
The home of simple melody.
Ballantyne added a note: “Mr Mackenzie’s eldest son, a boy of ten years of age, inherits his father’s musical talent, and is being educated in Germany.”
There, he was one of the first to become familiar with the music of Wagner and Liszt, then in the avant-garde of European classical music. Virtually orphaned, there was no money to support Mackenzie in Sondershausen, but such were his talents that he was supporting himself from the age of 11 as a second violinist in the ducal orchestra.
When he eventually left Germany for Edinburgh and then on to study in London, he had to re-learn English – or perhaps one should say Scots, for he never lost his Scottish accent and was affectionately referred to as “Mac”.
Mackenzie knew more than most about Scottish music and was well aware of the meanings of accompanying lyrics and their historical background. Here he sets us a still relevant musicological challenge:
In 1847 many staunch Jacobites could still express themselves strongly … Poets and composers (such as Lady Nairne) had kept a fascinating tradition alive and the glamour of Scott was over it all.
Incidentally be it said that the purely Jacobite melodies of that period have an unmistakable essence of their own and differ considerably from the rest of our national tunes. How this came to pass has always been an interesting puzzle to me.
JS Blackie dedicated his book Scottish Song of 1888 to the much younger Mackenzie, who, like Blackie, was a thorough-going nationalist in these matters, revealing it strongly in acknowledgement of the dedication of the book:
I appreciate to the full the honour in being associated with one whose life has been devoted to his country’s literature and music. I am eager and anxious that Scotland should take her place among the musical nations, and within the last few years I have been led to believe that this hope will be realised.
I do hope from time to time to add a little contribution to Scotch Music, I mean in this popular way and apart from the more elaborate work to which, of course, I am devoted.
By “the more elaborate work” he means compositions such as the Pibroch Suite, Scottish Concerto and the Scottish Rhapsodies, works of astonishing beauty, power and humour in which he blends the traditional and classical with consummate skill, but equally proud to claim that:
A tune of my own, evidently so racy of the soil as to have been accepted as a genuine antique of long forgotten parentage, was innocently reproduced as such, and for some years I have enjoyed the pleasure of hearing myself played and whistled “incog”.
In 1900 John Glenn dedicated his Ancient Scottish Melodies “With Permission” to Mackenzie. But Mackenzie’s interest in his native music was not exclusively home-grown. In his The Life of Liszt, Mackenzie notes:
A firm belief in nationalism in music urged him to give an initial start or an additional impetus to it in every country. With prophetic finger he pointed to Russia’s great future, and all the composers of that country, from Glinka to Tschaikowsky, enjoyed his help. But Greig, Smetana, Saint-Saëns, besides many smaller men, had his personal aid and encouragement.
So Mackenzie was part of a Europe-wide movement in which national musical characteristics were encouraged, rather than being subsumed into the amorphous internationalism represented in modern society, in particular by the profound immoralities of our financial system.
Nationalism does not mean chauvinism and, with the First World War, Mackenzie was far from being the only Scottish composer to be distressed by the cultural ironies of the situation. Helen Hopekirk, the virtuoso pianist and composer from Portobello, had studied in Germany: Fredrick Lamond (another virtuoso pianist and composer and son of a Glasgow weaver) also studied in Sondershausen, and was a favoured pupil of Liszt’s and had been a champion of Brahms’s piano music in Germany and Vienna; and Cecil Coles had studied in Germany alongside Richard Strauss, but died as a stretcher-bearer in northern France.
But all of that is a story for another day. Meanwhile, there is a simple personal commemoration due to this great composer, so rich in lyricism, so skilled in orchestration, so giving in spirit; that he be accorded the fame and performance time that his music merits, for he represents for our nation, one of our highest musical achievements.
You can get several of Mackenzie’s major works on the Hyperion label, including The Scottish Concerto, the Violin Concerto and Pibroch Suite, the overture The Cricket on the Hearth, the Benedictus, the music for Twelfth Night, the music for Coriolanus, the Burns Rhapsody, and the overture Britannia, either as CDs or as downloads of complete works. www.hyperion-records.co.uk/ci.asp?c=C379.
The Pibroch Suite was also wonderfully recorded by Rachel Barton Pine and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Cedille Records CDR 90000 083: the Prelude to Colomba (a major opera by Mackenzie) is on Heritage & Legacy RLPOLIVE RLCD301: The Little Minister overture is on Overtures from the British Isles, Chandos CHAN 10797: the glorious Piano Quartet was recorded by the Ames Piano Quartet on the Albany label, TROY910/11: the String Quartet in G, played by the Edinburgh Quartet, is on Scottish String Quartets Meridian CDE 84445: and Scenes in the Scottish Highlands, played lovingly by Ronald Brautigam, is on Essentially Scottish, Koch Schwann 3-1590-2 H1.