John Purser continues his series on Scottish composers at war with an examination of the life and work of William Wallace

LAST week I gave an account of Erik Chisholm’s World War II experiences and his disturbingly apposite opera, Simoon. This week it is the story of a composer whom war effectively silenced, though he survived it physically unscathed. His silence is tragic, for his music is profound and inspiring. The composer was William Wallace, born in Greenock in 1860, the son of a surgeon in Glasgow’s Western General, and who studied there himself to become an eye surgeon. He designed the cover of his song Carmen Glasguense, showing a student with mortarboard, and the Hebrew letter Shin which became a secret symbol between himself and his fiancée – of which more later.

Of course with such a name, when it came to the 600th anniversary of the execution of William Wallace on the 23rd of August 1305, Wallace had to be the composer to commemorate that horrific event in our history. He did so with a quite wonderful dignity and a depth of understanding of its national significance. The music took the form of a symphonic poem, opening in dark brooding tragedy but bursting into defiance and ultimately revealing Scots Wha Hae Wi’ Wallace Bled without any of the all-too-frequent vulgarity, not to mention insincerity, with which it is sung by people who would not give their nation so much as a nose-bleed. Back in 1305 William Wallace had been betrayed by his own people into the hands of the English who executed and dismembered him, displaying his mutilated parts and making up in thoroughness what they lacked in chivalry. But the symphonic poem is a rousing piece, contrasting thoughtful poetry with military energy, bold and defiant: and if it leaves something unsaid, that is because in 1305 the leader did not live to enter his promised land, and in 1905 his namesake’s music carries with it the sense of a destiny yet to be fulfilled.

Wallace’s William Wallace was first performed under the baton of Sir Henry Wood on the 19th of September 1905 at the Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts. An earlier symphonic poem is a wonderful evocation of Dante’s Beatrice in The Passing of Beatrice – a vision of beauty and purity. It was followed by a portrait of François Villon and this too was a symphonic poem entitled simply Villon. A French critic described it as “étonnante de justesse”, which is saying something as Villon is an iconic figure in French culture, and for anyone who was not French to get truly under the skin of such a compelling character as Villon and do it in music is indeed astonishing.

If my subject is the effects of War, with Wallace we have to start with Love, otherwise you will not understand what the war took from him and therefore from us. It did not kill either him or his beloved Ottilie, but it seems to have killed his muse and what that meant to them both is hard to say, for the true love story of William Wallace and Ottilie MacLaren is one of the finest examples of a beautiful and high-minded relationship – and we know this not only from their own works, he as composer, she as sculptor, but from their love letters, bound in calf-skin by William himself, and now in the National Library in Edinburgh.

Wallace was a complex character to whom composers and musicians in general owe a particular debt of gratitude, for it was he who, almost single-handedly, represented their interests in Parliament during the drafting of the Copyright Bill of 1911. He virtually lived in the House of Commons for months and was severely cross-examined by the Board of Trade Committee. The fact that composers’ copyright interests with respect to the new media of recordings and transmission were respected is largely owing to his efforts.

HE was also a painter, playwright, music critic, wonderful letter-writer and, of course, a surgeon, in which capacity he must have exercised the utmost art and subtlety, for he rose to be in command of all ophthalmic cases in Southern Command in the First World War. But far more than that, he was one of our finest creative artists whose own Creation Symphony has, as far as I can tell, yet to be heard in public in Scotland. It is a highly ambitious work, and nowhere more so than in the opening of the last movement, celebrating the creation of humankind and also his own love, triumphant and absolutely thrilling.

Wallace was a highly literate man in several languages, but France – Paris in particular – had a special meaning for him, for it was in Paris that his beloved Ottilie was studying sculpture with none other than Rodin. Ottilie MacLaren became Rodin’s assistant, and is reliably reported to be one of the few who resisted his seductions. Rodin admired her greatly.

No such support existed for Wallace as a composer. In changing course from medicine to music, despite having already qualified, he alienated his surgeon father to such an extent that, when he left after a particularly bad row, his mother wrote to him:-

“My dear Willie, It wrung my heart to see you go last night in such a state & with such cruel words ringing in your ears & mine – the only thing I can say is, try to forget them – bitter though they be – & unjust though they are. Ever my dear son, your truly grieved mother.”

His father discontinued payment for William’s composition lessons with Mackenzie and Corder in London; and William’s enforced separation from Ottilie – it was nine years before they were able to marry – must have added to his sense of isolation. Meanwhile, Ottilie’s father continued to oppose the relationship:

“I have a very good opinion of Mr Wallace’s talent and industry, and it is only the fact of his having taken up a rather unremunerative profession that makes the difficulty.”

It was not easy. Ottilie admitted that Wiliam had given her a lift “out of a pretty deep hole”, and William at one time thought he was in a Hell he could never get out of. But “Music, the Heavenly Maid, my intangible goddess hasn’t left me after all.”

He referred to Ottilie as “diamond eyes”, an image that was to take on a cosmic light in the second movement of the Creation Symphony with the creation of the stars the moon and the sun, stately and ethereal. He again used the letter Shin as a signature at the end of each movement. The name of the letter means “song” and it looks like a letter “W”, but for Wallace it stood for the personal name “Shelomith” meaning “peacefulness”, a Biblical name he used in his play The Divine Surrender. He also gave it to Ottilie because the character in the play represents the spirit of the Law, but looking for “a more human interpretation”. The letter also represents the eye and has symbolic associations with the number six – the number of days of the Creation and particularly associated with the creation of Man.

The Creation Symphony starts with a depiction of Chaos – not the noisy idea, but in Wallace’s own words, “deep very mysterious and weird – sullen . . . when I think of it I seem to see your patient fingers making Kosmos out of the Chaos clay.”

Chaos was to come soon enough in the form of the First World War. Ottilie joined the Wrens and William returned to eye surgery and took only three weeks of leave throughout the entire war. He personally processed 19,025 cases, making a detailed statistical analysis which contains some revealing moments: “There is little to note in the first three groups of the above table. Only one case of gonorrhoeal infection of the conjunctiva was seen, contracted innocently by an NCO who was splashed in the face with urine from a soldier whom he was attempting to restrain from making water in a hut.”

He published The Vision of the Soldier with Special Reference to Malingering – a fascinating study of human psychology — and Opthalmic Cases seen during a period of four years in the RAMC. He also made many watercolours of the cases he dealt with and left them to the Royal Army Medical War Museum – but despite my best efforts, no trace of them has been found. Ottilie wrote “He is so busy that we only see each other in the evenings when we’re both worn out.”

When it all came to an end in 1918, William aged 58 and no doubt utterly exhausted, had ceased to compose.

He was a painter, had published The Divine Surrender and books on Wagner and Liszt, had composed a number of masterpieces with scant encouragement and no family support, had married against the wishes of his father-in-law, had pursued the wrong career in the eyes of his father, and had given himself utterly to everything he did. I love his music and admire him beyond measure.

AS for Ottilie, her fine bust of her father is in the Faculty of Advocates and another fine bust by her of John Scott Oliver was recently exhibited in Edinburgh. Other examples of her work are in private hands, and she also designed war memorials, but I have yet to trace them.

William and Ottilie’s love endured through it all. It is enshrined in their letters and Wallace enshrined it in the symphony, putting Ottilie’s secret sign at the end of each movement and using number symbolism which equates them with Adam and Eve in the Creation of their own making.

Let Ottilie have the final word: “Wallace, if ever I can cut myself a path up to that loftier place which your imagination has prepared for me it will be you who will have put me there.”

There are two CDs of Wallace’s music. William Wallace Hyperion CDA66848 has four of his symphonic tone poems: Sir William Wallace, Villon, The Passing of Beatrice and Sister Helen. William Wallace Hyperion CDA66987 has the Prelude to the Eumenides, three movements from the Pelléas and Mélisande Suite, and the Creation Symphony. Valerie Carson wrote a thesis ‘A Protean Spirit’ William Wallace: Artist, Composer and Catalyst for the University of Durham in 1998. I am indebted to her work for many insights.

An Enduring Love

Ottilie MacLaren, was born in Edinburgh in 1875 and her father, John MacLaren, was Scotland’s Lord Advocate. Ottilie was a sculptor – perhaps led in that direction by the help moulding clay would give to her hands which were rheumatic from an early age.

It seems she and William met and fell in love on holiday in Switzerland in 1895 when she was 20 and he 36. Her father’s disapproval meant that they had to carry on their relationship in secret for many years.

We can get some idea of what William must have felt for this beautiful young woman, from his music for Maeterlinck’s love-story of Pelléas et Mélisande.

They sustained their love through their long-enforced separation by writing lengthy letters, sometimes two a day. Here is just a taste of their correspondence:

Ottilie: “You have hitherto seemed to read the unspoken –sometimes unformed, thoughts which lay in my heart and which my lips could not utter. Read there now the passionate gratitude which I can find no words for.”

William: “Here and there I see thy sweet sign as a little prayer to the dear one who rules all my thoughts and thou art so much with me, I am so much part of thee that I can’t conceive of the most ordinary event taking place without the thought in my mind of thee somehow concerned in it.”