THAT Scotland is so central in the works of Ronald Center (1913-73) testifies to the truth that a county can be as big as a country or indeed a continent if the minds that inhabit it are open and aware. Here, John Purser introduces the work of this major Scottish composer, another unfairly neglected figure in the cultural life of our nation.

HERE we are in Aberdeenshire once more – this time in Huntly and once again with a neglected Scottish composer, Ronald Center, a contemporary of Geraldine Mucha (see The National, November 14).

These two held in common a quality of modesty that no doubt served them well as human beings but not so well as composers.

The conductor Walter Susskind (no shrinking violet that one) declared that Center was “the most modest composer I’ve ever met”. James Naughtie studied piano with him when he was a lad in Huntly.

“I didn’t realise how lucky I had been.” He knows now.

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Fortunately, just as Mucha has her champions in her son and the Geraldine Mucha Archive, so Center has the indefatigable Dr James Reid-Baxter to whose work this essay is much indebted.

Center was born in Aberdeen in 1913. His father was a stone cutter at the granite quarry in Rubislaw. Granite dust is notoriously dangerous – Italian stone carvers call it cativo (wicked) – and in 1941 Center’s father died a slow death from silicosis.

There had never been much money, and certainly not enough to send young Ronald to university, but his music-loving father ensured he had lessons in piano, organ and conducting. His music teachers were Willan Swainson and, for piano, Julian Rosetti, a Polish musician who had studied with Paderewski and who brought European string quartets to Aberdeen.

This is significant, as Center scarcely ever left Aberdeenshire but nonetheless had the experience of the latest European music in the most demanding of musical forms. Initially, Center was an apprentice dispensing chemist but he was soon making a living as an organist, choirmaster and conductor at the Gallowgate Church and later at High Hilton Kirk, both in Aberdeen.

He was a very private man and surprisingly little is known about him but come the Second World War, he was briefly in the army from which he was discharged in 1941 on health grounds In the same year he provided piano accompaniment for the soprano who was to become his wife. He and Evelyn Morrison were married in 1943 and moved to Huntly where Center at first taught music at the Gordon schools, and then privately.

Center was a true Aberdonian.

The National: Joan Eardley’s painting The Sampson ChildrenJoan Eardley’s painting The Sampson Children

He does not say things twice that only need to be said once. Concision is one of the hardest things to achieve in music but that does not mean that he could not be rhetorical.

His cantata Dona Nobis Pacem starts off with menacing drums and the work as a whole is one of arresting spiritual uncertainty – a kind of harbinger of Britten’s War Requiem in its mixture of texts and dramatic musical insistences. Impressive too is the late Requiem which can be heard on YouTube.

Performances of this work have taken place in Bogota, Colombia. How far do we have to travel to hear our own music live? Largely a cappella, this is full of drama, the choral writing occasionally stretching its conventions and with a powerful and beautifully poised central soprano and piano setting of the Recordare. The introduction of the piano adds stylistic depth to the piece which does not make too many demands on the chorus.

CENTER’S piano music includes the atmospheric Sonatine, small scale but intense and menacing. In less demanding vein is Children at Play from the Suite. If you were looking for an appropriate image of children for this remarkable movement, you could do no better than Joan Eardley’s painting The Sampson Children.

The Centers had visited Eardley at Catterline and her work made a profound impression on them. Center was a teacher and although he had no children of his own, this music penetrates to the heart of childhood – it is both haunting and disturbing.

It swings in mood from nursery to playground, from the world of Peter Pan to the cruel ritualistic world of the Lord of the Flies, with almost obsessive childish militarism – and then back to a world of innocence that stares you wide-eyed in the face, demanding not to be questioned.

“Wry, always very wry” is how Ronald’s wife Evelyn described him. The music surely bears that out.

Characteristic of his subtle economy are the enchanting Bagatelles. There are six of them and they tell their own extraordinary and wide-ranging story. The first is a mysterious hymn which introduces a tune that is all innocence, easy-going, but somehow nostalgic. All this in just two minutes.

The second bagatelle is an obsessive little thing, energetic and cruel but exciting too. At its heart, a bitter off-key cynical waltz. Two and a half minutes this one. The third one takes its time. It is all serenity and calm until a horrific central outburst. The calm returns as though nothing had happened. This is a magic pool into which one looks at one’s peril.

Back to brevity. Number four chases the air like a cat trying to swat a butterfly – entertaining to watch, entertaining to listen to. I have no idea which of them wins but one of them surely does!

With the fifth we return to the insouciance which sports with innocence, goes briefly on the rampage, and then slyly returns to where it started, as though butter wouldn’t melt in its mouth. So how does the story end? With a romp, that’s how.

But, like children at play, it suddenly stops with its thumb in its mouth and then races out of the playground. Enchanting? Really? Yes, but think carefully about the word. Some enchantments are terrifying and it takes acts of extraordinary love to break them. In their understated way, that is just what these Bagatelles do. They slip in and out of the world of enchantment and they do not hide the dangers, even the horrors.

Thankfully, surrounding these is a generous psychological insight, full of forgiveness. It is hard to write about such subtle and refined beauty, such skill and even wisdom, especially when it is all contained in a set of miniatures. Just get the CD and listen.

With Center’s string quartets we enter a world of the highest compositional achievement. The first (1955) starts in uncompromising mood, aggression and unease prevailing, its brief jaunty tune near the start sounding decidedly ironic at the stark end.

The second movement is a Scherzo (Italian for a joke) and opens with pizzicato – plucked strings, but it too is aggressive and its folk-like elements, as much mid-European as Scottish, are challenging. They may be occasionally light-hearted, but they are decidedly assertive.

The slow movement is intense, dissonant, and almost chorale-like in its steady, tragic pace, and later canonic discipline.

Just in case you’re asking, a musical canon or round has one part imitate the other exactly. You may have joined in singing one like Frere Jacques or Row, row, row your boat. It is indeed a discipline when it comes to more complicated musical lines. In fact we musicians commonly put canons into reverse, overturn them, or make the imitation go twice as fast as the music it is repeating.

IF you want to hear the notion carried to virtuosic extremes, listen to Bach’s Musical Offering. Center knew all about Bach, not just at the keyboard but conducting Bach’s B Minor Mass “a work which caused one local minister ... to complain of too much popery. For Ronald Center, whose devotion to Bach and knowledge of his (Lutheran) history was so precious, this was a last straw. He changed churches.”

That’s Jim Naughtie again, giving us an insight into just how significant classical music could be for choir, church, conductor – for the whole town.

The Finale of Center’s first quartet blends folk tradition with dissonant rhythmic energies, remarkable for its thrust and the assurance of the writing. Compared with the learning experiences of most composers, Center was self-taught. The outstanding quality of his work just goes to show that if it’s in you, it will find a way out, given half a chance.

Equally assured is the second quartet (1962-64). Center’s life experiences were largely focused on his native Aberdeenshire, so the international idiomatic awareness of his work – partly influenced by two Polish musicians he knew there – is testimony to the truth that a county can be as big as a country or, indeed, a continent, if the minds that inhabit it are open and aware.


However, Scotland is also prominent in Center’s work. Alasdair Grant, noting Center’s admiration for the work of the artist Joan Eardley, has written: “The juxtaposition of rural north-east land and seascapes and industrial city found in Eardley’s work mirrors the tensions between folk dance and mechanistic drive heard in Center’s string quartets.”

Were one to seek a contemporary parallel, the work of Malipiero would be as apposite as that of Bartok but this music creates its own world and deserves respect entirely in its own right. This is borne out by the remarkable idiomatic world of the third quartet (1967). This piece is cast in seven movements, in essence variations on a 12-tone row, but this does not preclude a pervasive lyricism which has none of the self-consciousness of the Second Viennese School. Grant writes of the final Allegro Feroce, “ ... there is a tragic humanity behind the apparent mechanistic formalism of the 12-tone writing that dominates the work.”

This is equally true of the Espressivo second movement, a siciliano, or Sicilian shepherd song, with strong tonal leanings. It is followed by a delicate and enigmatic Andante. The last movement is a complex of emotions, moving from aggression through contemplation to a beautiful “consolatory” cello solo and evolving into a deeply tragic coda. What makes these quartets of Center’s so outstanding is the uncompromising strength of the writing, be it savage or tender.

Alasdair Grant in his liner notes for Ronald Center Chamber and Instrumental Music, Volume Two, believes that these works have “their rightful place alongside comparable works by the likes of Barber, Bartók, Britten and Shostakovich.”

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Like Geraldine Mucha and Erik Chisholm, both of whom have appeared in these columns in previous essays, Center brought together European and Scottish elements in his music.

As James Naughtie commented, he had “a temperament and a taste that encompassed the traditional musical cadences of Scotland”

and he made many arrangements of Scots songs for his wife.

Among several works awaiting their re-awakening are a Symphony and a solo cello suite, listed in the one major article on Center’s music by James Reid-Baxter in a long-ago issue of Cencrastus magazine. There are useful liner notes in the Deveron arts CD. Center’s day is yet to come, but with music of this quality, come it will.

Recordings of his work are available as follows:

  • Instrumental and Chamber Music Volume One: Music for Solo Piano, (Includes Piano Sonata, Six Bagatelles, Three Études, Pantomime, Sonatine), Christopher Guild, Toccata Classics TOCC 0179
  • Chamber and Instrumental Music Volume Two: Complete String Quartets – 1, 2 and 3, The Fejes Quartet, Toccata Classics TOCC 0533
  • Center of Huntly (Includes Violin Sonata, Piano Sonata, String Quartet No,2) available from Deveron arts
  • Piano Sonata and Six Bagatelles on Piano Music from Scotland, Olympia OCD 264
  • String Quartet No. 1. Saltire Quartet “Under the Hammer”, Mirabilis Records MRCD 961
  • The Dona Nobis Pacem can be heard on Soundcloud User 452585564
  • The out-of-print vinyl LP Ronald Center Altarus Records AIR-2-9100 is not available in this country.