LAST week I protested that few Scots, even educated ones, could name more than one or two Scottish composers of so-called “classical” music.
Hamish MacCunn would be one of those, and some might even be able to name his most famous work Land of the Mountain and the Flood.
It’s a powerfully evocative concert overture, very Scottish, and composed when MacCunn was just 18. Older readers might recognise the music as it was used for the BBC television series Sutherland’s Law in the 1970s. Perhaps that explains why there are two full-length studies of MacCunn in print and none of Alexander Campbell MacKenzie or any of his other contemporaries.
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But it does not explain why,on the centenary of MacCunn’s death, that, as far as I know, nothing major is planned by any of our state-subsidised bodies to mark it.
The title Land of the Mountain and the Flood is a quotation from Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel which MacCunn also set to music with decisively patriotic fervour.
“Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
O Caledonia! stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
Land of the mountain and the flood . . .”
As far as MacCunn was concerned, there was going to be no last minstrel while he was around to do something about it. But MacCunn’s greatest tribute to Scott was his opera Jeanie Deans, based upon The Heart of Midlothian. More of that anon. Meanwhile, here is how MacCunn started his brief autobiography, written for Janey Drysdale in 1913. Janey’s brother, the composer Learmont Drysdale, had recently died and his sister worked hard to promote his and other Scots’ music.
“I arrived at Greenock on the 22nd March 1868, at 15 Forsyth Street, accompanied by a twin brother, who was afterward christened William – I being labelled James at the same matinée . . . When we were six months old, the aforesaid William left me to complete the duet as a solo, there being apparently nothing but ‘tacet’ for him after his piping little prelude.”
In this delicately laconic manner, was MacCunn covering up a sense of loss; a loneliness present throughout his life at the death of a twin brother? As a teenage music student in London he had felt his isolation deeply, hurt by the snobbery of many of the staff, and seeking from Hubert Parry – the only one whom he truly admired as a man and musician – a level of friendship and hospitality which Parry was quite unable to give, his wife being a bed-ridden hypochondriac. Drysdale, like MacCunn, was sensitive and even touchy. Drysdale fell out with MacKenzie and the Royal Academy of Music, and MacCunn fell out with the Royal College of Music, both in London. The two composers were of a younger generation, perhaps more socially radical, but also emboldened by the success of MacKenzie, Parry and Stanford – a Scot, Welshman and Irishman – who had worked their way into the heart of the British establishment.
Drysdale died too young to make his name but MacCunn’s success was considerable. He had many commissions and his operas had extended seasons and toured the country. With the noble exception of Opera West and a revival in New Zealand, his outstanding contribution to the genre has not just been neglected, but ignored. Jeanie Deans has been described as a masterpiece and “the finest serious opera of the late Victorian period”. Scottish Opera has yet to stage it.
MacCunn was the son of a Greenock shipowner. Greenock seems to have been a fertile breeding ground for composers – McGibbon, MacCunn and Wallace. Both MacCunn’s parents were musical and their son wrote his first piece of music at the age of five. At 12, he was composing an oratorio, but it was left incomplete as he got more fun out of fishing and sailing. At 15, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London and there he stayed. He was a dashing young man who married the daughter of a Scottish painter, Pettie, who has immortalised him both as Bonnie Prince Charlie and as the victorious suitor for a young lady who was the Petties’ governess. The painting is called Two Strings To Her Bow and is held in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery.
MacCunn was handsome and debonaire, but if you’re looking for a composer who can shoot straight from the hip, he is your man. Here he is in interview with George Bernard Shaw, who started off by asking who was MacCunn’s favourite composer:
“You might as well ask me which I like best, my arms or my legs.”
Or did he (as was Wagner’s practice) write his own words for setting to music?
“I have not the vocabulary. I can find music but not words. Besides, if I write the book, you will be expecting me to paint the scenery too, on the same principle.”
Finally, Shaw – aware he was meeting his match – wrote: “I at last had the hardihood to ask Mr MacCunn for his notions of press criticism.”
“‘I think,’ said the composer, fixing his eye on me to indicate that he felt confident of my approval, ‘that criticism, above all things, should not be flippant, because if it is, nobody respects it’.”
WHAT of MacCunn’s musical style? Well, he could pull large tufts from Wagner’s mane (for which he was criticised by an appalled Royal College of Music teacher). But alongside that is the rugged grandeur and heart-warming lyricism that speak most clearly through the broad Scottish inflections of his music, as broadly Scottish as are Wagner’s inflections Germanic. In Jeanie Deans, MacCunn was able to blend the two. The plot is anything but Victorian. Scott’s Heart Of Midlothian tells of Jeanie Dean’s successful pleading for a pardon for her sister, mistakenly accused of murdering her bastard child. The love which led to that pregnancy and, ultimately to the reuniting of the lovers, is expressed with compassion and compelling intensity. When it was revived in Ayr, it moved Michael Tumelty, The Herald’s music critic to write that “the music is frankly astonishing ... The act one duet between Effie and Staunton is not far short in its style and effect of the great Siegmunde and Sieglinde duet from Valkyrie.”
Jeanie Deans is not MacCunn’s only opera suffering from inexcusable neglect: “About 1895, the then Marquis of Lorne (now the Duke of Argyll) suggested to me that the old Celtic legend of ‘Diarmid and Grania’ would make a good subject for an opera. I wrote this work, to the Duke’s libretto, and it was produced, with much interest and excitement and success, at Covent Garden Opera House, by the Carl Rosa Company, on the 23rd October 1897 … . ‘Diarmid’ had afterwards an extended tour in the provinces, remaining in the company’s repertoire for some years. In 1898, Queen Victoria commanded a performance of selections from the opera at Balmoral.”
This is what the leading musicologist, Nicholas Temperley, wrote about it: “It is a staggering piece of work for a British composer of only twenty-nine writing in 1897. It shows that MacCunn was completely aware of all that was going on around him: the influence of Richard Strauss is considerable, and in several places the score anticipates Debussy’s Pelleas et Mélisande.”
I can add to that, thanks to the fact that I was able to secure a recording of a substantial section of the work, specially made by BBC Scotland for my 2007 radio series Scotland’s Music. But be aware that this required financing the scanning of the manuscript full score, the production and checking of parts – and the recording has only ever been heard on Radio Scotland. What the score reveals is not only music of great beauty, but of dramatic power, built into substantial structures with that directness of expression so characteristic of the man and his music. I have done what I can, but in the presence of such outstanding music, I remain ashamed that I have not been able to do more. For example, MacCunn composed well over 100 songs, including many of great beauty with settings of Burns and other Scottish writers, alongside many arrangements of Scots song. Like MacKenzie, MacCunn was steeped in the tradition, and the following opinion of The Broom O’ The Cowdenknowes is typical of the man: “This is undoubtedly an air of one strain only. The editions containing the second strain, (simply a slight melodic variation of the first) and the interpolated bars at the end are certainly spurious and bad at that.”
MacCunn died of throat cancer in London in 1916, far from Greenock and Arran where he had met his wife and where he loved to holiday and to fish, and past which the clippers of the MacCunn shipping line had sailed. What he gave us was a triumph of musical self-confidence: an assurance that we can be who we are without apology. He was far from flawless, but he is glorious. Whisky and temperament, gold and mercury, they are there in the music as they were in the man.
Here is a list of MacCunn’s music on CD or download. A special BBC Radio Scotland recording of excerpts from his opera Diarmid can be accessed at the Scottish Music Centre.
Songs: O Would That I Could See Again, I Will Think Of Thee My Love, Piano solo: In The Glen. Scotland’s Music, Linn CKD 008
Orchestral Overtures: Land of the Mountain and the Flood, The Ship o’ The Fiend, The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, Opera: Jeanie Deans (excerpts), Oratorio: The Lay of the Last Minstrel (excerpt). Hamish MacCunn, Hyperion CDA 66815
Land of the Mountain and the Flood. Encores You Love, Halléhandord CD – CFP 4543
Six Scotch dances, Valse. The Scottish Romantics Divine Art CD 2-5003
There Is A Garden, It Was A Lass, O Where are Thou Dreaming, Soldier Rest, Madrigal, O Mistress Mine. Sae Fresh and Fair Scottish Romantic Choral Songs, REL Records RECD550
Highland Memories. Scottish Orchestral Music ASV WHL 2123
The two studies on MacCunn are The Music of Hamish MacCunn, by Alasdair Jamieson, from authorhouse, 2013; and Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916) A Musical Life, by Jennifer L. Oates from Ashgate, 2013.
MacCunn in his own words ...
Just in case you’re thinking that MacCunn’s Scottishness was simplistic, here is what he wrote to Janey Drysdale in 1911 on the dangers of cultural narrow-mindedness:
“never seem to get much further than an enthusiasm for the too familiar ‘Scots wha’ hae’ order. Or else they incline the other direction of a rather useless and irrelevant insistence . . . on ‘snippets’ of legendary particulars as to fairies, fairy beans, rowan trees, ‘bogles’ & such-like, common to all nations whose commerce with Scotland & Ireland has fired the Celtic imagination. It is, perhaps, little wonder that, betwixt the heroic & melancholy splendour of ‘the Gaelic’ as presented in Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ and the domestic humans & incidents of Burns, the general public is quite in a ‘smirr’ as to Scottish poetry & music generally.”