WHERE do Scottish composers come from? The answer is “all over”. I could list them from Orkney to Sprouston: Skye to Glasgow, but of the three composers in this series, McEwen (1868-1948) was the one most clearly responsive to his birthplace. MacKenzie was Edinburgh born, MacCunn a son of Greenock, but McEwen was not just a Borderer; his music breathes the Borders as does no other, except of course the Border ballads themselves. McEwen’s Three Border Ballads are orchestral – Grey Galloway, The Demon Lover, and Coronach – but he spent only a short period of his life actually in the Borders: perhaps that explains his longing for that country, so very much itself, and which he expressed movingly in work after work; including the Solway Symphony, and the string quartet Threnody which sets that ancient Borders melody The Flowers of the Forest with such deep feeling and simplicity.

The Battle of Flodden, which The Flowers of the Forest commemorates, was on the 9th of September 1513, four hundred years before the outbreak of World War I. By April 1916 when McEwen composed his Threnody, The Flowers of the Forest was being played over and over in memory of the many thousands of Scottish dead, and indeed, the dead of all nations. It is the tune that is played at the end of Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song, the music printed in the book at his insistence. As for McEwen, at the end of his personal copy of the published score of Threnody, he wrote out the whole of Jane Elliot’s poem by hand. The poem ends:

“We’ll hae nae mair lilting at the ewe-milking:

Loading article content

Women and bairns are hameless and wae,

Sighing and moaning on ilka green loaning –

The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.”

The melody of The Flowers of the Forest has a wide range typical of Scots song. McEwen’s setting is marked con espressione ma semplice and it is accompanied by the simplest of pentatonic chords with heart-breaking dignity and infinite tenderness. Traditional musicians will only play this tune at funerals and memorial services, which, in essence, is what the Threnody quartet is. It was dedicated to Dora D’Arcy whose husband was killed at Ypres in 1916.

What was happening in France must have had peculiar relevance for McEwen, who was deeply influenced by French music and literature and who had spent months in the Côte d’Argent recuperating from insomnia. There he composed his Vignettes from La Côte d’Argent, and his “Biscay” Quartet – of which more below. What these works demonstrate is McEwen’s vivid musical response to French Impressionism, and the connections between his music and visual art in general should be widely heard and exhibited. They were once – but not in this country.

When in 1993 the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam put on an exhibition of Scottish artists contemporary with Van Gogh, they also put on, in the museum, concerts of Scottish music, one of which was devoted to McEwen, Drysdale and Lamond, for which they invited me over, and another given over to songs by FG Scot, William Wallace (like McGibbon and MacCunn a son of Greenock) and McEwen. What could be more natural? So forgive me if memory has failed me and I am unable to point to anything remotely equivalent in Scotland. How well would not Kellie (6th Earl of) go with Alan Ramsay? Or Thomson with Wilkie and Lauder? Or MacKenzie with McTaggart? Or … but the list is a long one so I’ll close it for now with McEwen alongside Peploe and Cadell, never mind the French Impressionists.

Here is what McEwen had to say about being Scottish:

“I assume that the word ‘Scottish’ applied to a composer has a significance which is more than merely geographical and that the musicians who are banded together under this designation have something individual to say and are able to say it in a way … peculiar to their race, associations, and outlook.”

But how Scottish was McEwen himself? He was born in the Borders to a Calvinist minister but mostly reared in Glasgow and largely employed in London. Did he miss Scotland? Oh yes. None more than he. You can hear it as an ache in the heart in Hills O’ Heather, for cello and orchestra, beautifully played by our own Moray Welsh, or in his last orchestral work, Where the Wild Thyme Blows, composed in Cannes in 1936, but totally and utterly in the Borders. This last realises such a sense of distance and nostalgia that it is almost impersonal: but McEwen had a strong notion of Scottish individuality, as he writes to Henry George Farmer in 1947:

“I think that there is something in the Northern attitude to life and its work and problems, that prevents the promotion and growth of any kind of ‘school’ in which the works of one member are practically indistinguishable from those of his fellow nationals …”

Individualistic and private McEwen may have been, but his music reveals a very great deal.

The underlying meaning of the last movement of the Biscay Quartet is a delightful example, for which McEwen himself offered the clue. The work was composed at Cap Ferret near Arcachon, where McEwen was on compassionate or medical leave from the Royal Academy of Music where he taught under its Principal MacKenzie. The reason given was insomnia, but for insomnia I suspect one should read depression, for Arcachon in those days provided support for people with depression and other mental illnesses. In the case of La Racleuse, however, McEwen had most likely found a better source of recovery.

The racleurs were women who raked up cockles from the mud of the Arcachon basin, so they might not strike one as obvious subjects for musical portraiture; but McEwen’s music is such a jaunty, affectionate and delightful portrait that I always suspected there was more to it than met the eye – for it surely meets the ear, with its swagger, cheek and tenderness. My suspicions were justified when I came across a note by McEwen about the three movements of the Biscay Quartet, which reads:

“The titles [Le Phare, Les Dunes] attached to these are self-explanatory, although that of the last movement, ‘La Racleuse’, bears a significance which is clear only to those who have personal knowledge of the region.”

Intrigued, I contacted the Alliance Française in Glasgow and got a reply from a native of the Côte d’Azur that in 1913 the term implied that La Racleuse’s income was supplemented by an even older profession. The movement is stylishly French and beautifully textured; full of the melodic and harmonic wit which Poulenc (then a teenager) was later to pursue with such verve. What role La Racleuse might have played in McEwen’s recovery is delightfully implied in the music and we need say no more about it.

Over the years I have had the chance to revive many wonderful forgotten works – sometimes even the composers themselves, also forgotten; but in the case of McEwen, the man we have all to thank is Alasdair Mitchell, supported by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust and the Chandos label. Alasdair not only wrote his thesis on McEwen; he brought out editions of major orchestral works and conducted and recorded them with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

We have practically nothing recorded of major choral works by Scottish composers. No MacKenzie Rose of Sharon, no MacCunn beyond excerpts: but we do have McEwen’s Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. It is a wonderful work which well deserves a chance to vary the Christmas diet of Bach or Berlioz or Corelli. The libretto is by John Milton, and McEwen has matched the mystery and dignity of this great religious poem with sensitivity and joy. Religious joy? Yes, even we Scots can do it; even the son of a Calvinist minister. There are so many prejudices to wipe away. Alasdair wiped them away by rescuing this work (and others) from oblivion, reconciling differences between the full and vocal scores, creating parts and – wait for it – thereby directing its world première almost 100 years after its composition. McEwen never heard it.

I can’t express to you on paper just how beautiful and subtle is McEwen’s music – and also immensely entertaining. I often find myself thinking of him in relation to Robert Louis Stevenson. Drama, wit, and that subtle, gentle and yet probing irony of The Child’s Garden of Verses, for McEwen too is capable of a deceptively light touch. His Piano Sonatina was composed for the Final Grade of the Associated Board piano exams; so it’s for talented children, but it’s as full of poetry, delicacy and humour as any of his larger works. He doesn’t speak down to learners, he speaks up to them.

McEwen was to succeed his boss, Sir Alexander Campbell MacKenzie, as Principal of the

Royal Academy of Music in London, and McEwen too was knighted. Please don’t hold it against him!

His was a voice full of life but also full of thought and, above all, full of beauty.


Here follows a list of McEwen’s works on CD or available for download.

Grey Galloway, The Demon Lover, Coronach. McEwen Three Border Ballads, Chandos CHAN 9241

Solway Symphony, Hills O’ Heather, Where the Wild Thyme Blows. Chandos CHAN 9345

Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. Chandos CHAN 9669

Scottish Rhapsody “Prince Charlie”, (violin and orchestra version) Cedille Records CDR 90000 083

Violin Sonatas 2, 5 (Sonata-Fantasia) and 6, and Prince Charlie, a Scottish Rhapsody (violin and piano version). Chandos, CHAN 9880

Sonata in E minor, On Southern Hills, Vignettes from La Côte d’Argent, Three Preludes, Four Sketches McEwen Piano Works Chandos CHAN 9933

Four Sketches, Sonatina, Three “Keats” Preludes, On Southern Hills, Five Vignettes, The Scottish Romantics, Divine Art CD 2-5003

Biscay String Quartet (1913). Scottish String Quartets, Meridian CDE 84445. Also recorded by the London String Quartet, Music & Arts CD1253.

Quartet No. 16 “Quartette provençal” in G ma, 1936; Quartet for Strings No. 7 “Threnody” in Efl ma, 1916; Quartet No. 4 in Cmi, 1905; “Fantasia” for String Quartet, No.17 in Csh mi, 1947 String Quartets volume 1 Chandos CHAN 9926

Quartet No. 13 in C mi, 1928; Quartet No. 3 in E mi, 1901; Quartet No. 6 Biscay, in A ma, 1913 String Quartets volume 2 Chandos CHAN 10084

Quartet No. 8 in Efl ma, 1918; Quartet No. 2 in A mi, 1898; Quartet No. 15 A Little Quartet ‘in modo scotico’ 1936 String Quartets volume 3 Chandos CHAN 10182

The Links O’ Love, Weep No More. Sae Fresh and Fair Scottish Romantic Choral Songs, REL Records RECD55


Built for speed…

PERHAPS the most unusual musical portrait ever penned is that of McEwen’s La Rosière of 1913. This was the name of a boat – but not just any boat. Forget the Franco-Scottish composer Erik Satie calmly sailing in Sur un Vaisseau which he composed for piano in the same year:

McEwen’s portrait is of one of the new motor speed-boats, and in 1913 that was new indeed.The piece is for solo piano and it starts off on just one stave of music – but don’t be fooled! It’s fast and fiendish – very fast and very fiendish, and it clearly tickled McEwen’s own fancy to the extent that he even published a photograph of La Rosière at the end of the piece.

I remember asking Kathron Sturrock to learn it up at the last minute for a BBC Radio Scotland broadcast, which she did with great panache. You can hear it splendidly recorded by the, alas, late Geoffrey Tozer on the Chandos label CD of McEwen Piano Works.