The Hebridean Connection

by Vincent Budd

16th October 1996 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of one of Britain's most unjustly neglected composers: an Englishman of Scottish ancestry he not only composed some of the finest British music of this century, but also had an intimate and fruitful musical relationship with Scotland and with the culture of the Hebrides.

Sir Granville Ransome Bantock was born in London in 1868, the son of an eminent and innovative Scottish surgeon and gynaecologist, and after refusing a proposed career in the Indian Civil Service, entered the Royal Academy of Music in September 1888 to begin life in the art for which he felt the more obvious and immediate calling. A highly produc- tive and precocious talent his compositions were already being performed publicly while he was still a student, and he was soon involved in the musical society of his time. With characteristic enterprise he ed The New Quarterly Musical Review in 1893, which he edited until 1896. An early appointment was as Director of Music to the Tower Orchestra, New Brighton (then a very different place from what it is now), which he transformed with his singular vigour and vision from a local band satisfying the usual light and popular musical diet of the time into an orchestra with a national reputation, playing modern classical music. Although he often attacked the stilted mentality of musical academia and condemned the paralysing examination system upon which it was based, Bantock became Principal of the Birmingham and Midland Institute School of Music in 1900 and eight years later accepted, on Elgar's retirement, the appointment of Peyton Professor of Music at Birmingham University, which he held until 1934. While at the same time tutoring at the Royal College of Music, he was then involved in full time examining at Trinity College of Music, becoming Chairman of the Board at the start of the war: in fact, when he died he had been an examiner for some 50 years. Amongst numerous other musical appointments Bantock was also President of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir under Sir Hugh Roberton - who called him "the Laird" - and they made a number of recordings of his arrangements back in the age of the 78: and to continue the Scottish link, he was also given an honorary Doctorate of Music by Edinburgh University. He was knighted in 1930.

As well as being naturally steeped in the Classical and Romantic repertoire Bantock was a great champion of the music of his day and of one of contemporary composers at both home and abroad. Notably he was the first conductors to perform the music of Sibelius in Britain, at a time when it was more or less unknown in this country. Obvious kindred spirits and great friends, Bantock so generously entertained the Finnish master on on his first visit to England in 1905 that he 'never made the acquaintance English coinage'. Two years later Sibelius dedicated his Third Symphony to Bantock and when the Bantock Society was first formed in November 1946 Sibelius became its President.

A highly cultured man, Bantock spoke several languages and studied Latin and Greek, and even Persian and Arabic. He was a broad-minded and full-hearted character, genial and kindly, generous to a fault, seemingly almost childlike in his enthusiasnis and unending curiosity, and in many ways a radical, perhaps maverick figure, especially when one considers the cultural strictures and punctilios of his age. His friend Elgar, 11 years his senior, once called him an 'arch heretic': perhaps more famously, he described him 'as having the most fertile imaginative brain of our time' and in 1909 Elgar dedicated the second of his Pomp and Circumstance Marches to GB. Indeed in his day Bantock was considered by some as great a musical figure as Elgar and why this is no longer the case is more a question of the whims of cultural fashion and the promiscuity of human reason than anything to do with the possible adverse quality of his music. In his musical autobiography Vaughan Williams spoke of his regret in not having been his pupil, as Elgar had suggested, since 'what Bantock did not know about the orchestra is not worth knowing'. His advocacy though is not dependent upon some critical okay-by-association ploy, and despite all the pitiful remarks made about GB's music down the years (not least by a certain Peter J. Pirie), its enduring and commanding glory stands by itself majestic, mighty, and magnificent for all to hear.

Amazingly however, over the past few decades Bantock has gener- ally only really been known, if at all, for a small number of works, which occasionally appeared on collections of English music, such as the delightful overture Pierrot of the Minute and Fifine at the Fair. And yet he was a prolific composer and left behind an awesome oeuvre of music, often writing on a grand and ambitious scale, sometimes expressly programmatic, reflecting the breadth and colour and beauty of his musical imagination. He travelled extensively as a conductor and was open to all kinds of musical influences, continually inspired by a number of different cultural forms and fascinated by exotic and heroic themes. Classical Antiquity and the Orient, for example, were integral elements of a good proportion of his output. The ineffable and exquisitely powerful Pagan Symphony may be seen as a musical vision of Arcadia and the score is suitably prefaced with a quotation from Horace, as is his Third Symphony, The Cyprian Goddess, subtitled Aphrodite in Cyprus. The Sappho Songs for contralto and orchestra also invoked the Goddess of Love. On the other hand, such works as the colossal setting of Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, Songs of the East, The Fire Worshippers, Four Chinese Landscapes, Persian Dance, Oriental Dance, and Oriental Serenade all looked eastward and paid homage to a faraway culture - even if, as frequently repeated, they were written in Birmingham. Similarly, literature and poetry supplied him with much appropriate material for his compositions and he produced such works as Dante and Beatrice, Pilgrim's Progress for soli, chorus, and orchestra, The Curse of Kehama after Southey's oriental tale, and the dramatic tone poem King Lear, as well as settings of Browning, Tennyson, Blake, and Burns and music for Greek plays. His wife Helena Schweitzer, the subject of her husband's Helena Variations, was also a poet and he composed a number of settings of her verse. There were too chamber works, instrumental pieces, and music for brass band (including Labour March or Festival March, written for Keir Hardie).

However, his ancestral home provided just as deep a spiritual motivation to his music as the passions of a broad and cultured imagination. '...the blood of Scotland flowed in his veins ... a rich racial tradition, which, in his heart, he cherished', Hugh Roberton once wrote, and Celtic mythology and Hebridean folk music in particular became a plentiful spring of musical inspiration. He was a friend of the much (and so often unfairly) maligned Marjory Kennedy-Fraser and her collections of Songs of the Hebrides (1907, 1917, 1921) became a continual source of thematic material (they delighted Tovey and Roberton too and Boughton's opera The Immortal Hour was inspired and composed around many of the songs of Volume One). Over the years and almost to the end of his life Bantock produced a whole series of works that made use of Scottish legend and Kennedy-Fraser's albeit sometimes heavily corrupted versions of Hebrid- ean folksong. These included the Hebridean Symphony, (1913), The Sea Reivers (1917), The Seal-Woman (1924, a two-act opera with a libretto by Kennedy-Fraser, who sang the role of the 'Old Crone' in its first performance), the Celtic Symphony (1940), and Two Heroic Ballads (1944). Other pieces also looked to Scotland for their inspiration, such as Scenes from the Scottish Highlands for string orchestra, a Scottish Rhapsody for orchestra, Coronach for strings, harp, and organ, a Celtic Poem for cello and piano, Three Scottish Scenes for piano, and Pibroch for cello and harp or piano. There were too arrangements for a whole number of Scottish and specifically Hebridean songs, notably Sea Sorrow, based upon An Bron Mara, one of the airs taken from the chanting of Mary Macdonald in Mingulay, and successfully recorded many years ago by the Orpheus Choir.

Further descriptive but long since unheard compositions like Island Enchantment, Lure of the Isles, and Storm at Sea equally reveal the kind of imagery that helped make Bantock's music so striking and expressive and indeed in some ways very much in accord with the musical sensibilities and fancies of our own age. It is a great pity that Bantock was never asked to write for the cinema (as, for instance, Vaughan Williams, Walton, and Arnold did so effectively later) and it would only need his music to be used in a successful film or TV series or even (God forbid) an advertisement, for his music to see a complete renaissance and to undergo its long awaited reappraisal. Intriguingly titled works such as Love's Awakening, Romantic Episode, Desert Caravan, Cobweb Castle, and Twilight Memories have not to my knowledge been played in public in many a year and sadly remain unavailable to a whole generation of music lovers.

Fortunately, however, there is now a growing number of superb re- cordings of the music of this little-known genius and those that make use of Hebridean folksong and evoke the landscape and spirit of the Gael - for all the possible cheerless opprobrium of the cultural purist and the over- heated verbiage of an obsessive fault-finding folklorist - are amongst the finest of all.


The sublime beauty, the dreamy simplicity, and rich succinctness of the Celtic Symphony make it nothing less than a miniature musical masterpiece. Sea Longing, An Ionndrainn-Mhara, collected from Anne Monk of Benbecula (and in fact one of the five piano settings in the second of Kennedy-Fraser's volumes that Bantock did himself), provides central thematic inspiration: but this is no deeply felt lament corrupted into some sentimental and nostalgic salon piece. The slow, enchanting opening is followed by a brilliant and fiery Allegro and after another moving passage of evocative desideratum delightfully gives way to the vibrant and spirited rhythms of a reel and a scherzo-like section before the wonderful apotheosis and the introduction of the harps: but the dominant mood is one of yearning and romantic lyricism all wrapped up in the luscious colours of the string orchestra. It is the music of bliss, magical, a reverie amid the profane. More prosaically it is music to stand easily, proud and confident alongside Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending, Elgar's Introduction and Allegro and Serenade, and Howells' In Gloucestershire and Concerto for String Orchestra. In other words, it shines amidst the musical jewels of 20th century British music. If you like the great works of VW and Elgar and others, or say the music of Sibelius, then you could not possibly be disappointed with this sweeping and sumptuous, majestic one movement symphony, or, having said that, with the musical language of Bantock as a whole. It might well be argued that the only real reason such a monumental piece of music as the Celtic Symphony has failed to remain an abiding and well-loved piece of the orthodox classical repertoire (it certainly could not be because of its musical content) is the suggested use of six or more harps. Though there is never any accounting for the vagaries of cultural taste and the bizarre judgmental officiations of critical musical fashioableness, it is hard to understand how such eminently adorable music could have been ignored for so long. When one considers that the symphony was produced in 1940 when he had very much fallen out of favour and this once designated revolutionary character was regarded as 'old hat' by the younger generation of arbiters of taste and value, the continual myopia of our beau monde once again truly reveals itself for what it is - a quite arbitrary and laughable encumbrance upon the essential spirit of musical creation and the vitality of the human soul.

The Hebridean Symphony seems to be much more highly regarded by the critics who like their music ranked and filed, if only for the fact that it is a larger scale work and thus perhaps broader and varied and more powerful in its emotional appeal. First performed in Glasgow as early as 1916, it is indeed more capacious, louder, and possibly for some less immediate and more demanding (though as if these were necessarily musical virtues in themselves) than the Celtic Symphony: but repeated and empathetic listening produces an utter sense of hallowed musical brilliance which once more puts all killjoy musical clannishness and petty critical (Halliwell-style) appraisal to shame. Ernest Newman saw it as a wonderful depiction of 'the emotions imaginative men feel in the lone seas ... At its best it is surely the most beautiful sea music ever written'. Like the 1940 Symphony and The Cyprian Goddess the work is cast in one movement, but through its different sections makes superb and integral use - if not always explicitly - of various Songs of the Hebrides. The Seagull of the Land-under-Waves, heard early on, is a somewhat altered version of the lament Ho Roinn Eile and was given to Kennedy-Fraser by Frances Tolmie, the Gaelic song collector from Skye -  Marjory regarded it as one her favourites and indeed Newman proclaimed that Schubert himself had never written a more perfectly satisfying or more haunting melody. Kishmul's Galley, like An Bron Mara gathered from the singing of Mary Macdonald, is a rendering of the waulking song attributed to Nic Iain Fhinn of Mingulay and refers to the MacNeil of Barra's galley. In the final section the Harris Love Lament can be heard another song obtained from Tolmie, it was originally composed by Anne Campbell for her betrothed, Captain Allan Morrison, drowned on his way to their wedding and called Ailein Duinn, 0-hi, Shiubhlainn Leat, Brown-haired Alan, with Thee I Would Go. Listen carefully and The Love Wandering, An Seachran-Gaoil, an ancient Celtic song, In Hebrid Seas, Heman Dubh, an old waulking song, and The Sea Tangle or The Sisters, An Sgeir-Mhara (comprising four different songs according to Kennedy-Fraser) can also be heard. All these songs are brilliantly crafted by GB into a dazzling array of symphonic musical grandeur. The enchanting and exhilarating and more vigorous middle portions of the work reach to a spectacular use of the brass and there is a memorable, climactic three- and four-note motif, lifted from the famous Highland pipe tune Piobaireachd of Domhnall Dubh (apparently originally composed in 1431 to celebrate the first battle of Inverlochy), which is repeated again and again on the trumpets until, finally giving way to the wonderfully wistful passages of the closing sections and returning once more as if full circle to the haunting atmosphere of the opening - as magical as anything Delius ever wrote. It is a musical marvel.

The Sea Reivers, first performed in 1920 and also currently available on CD, is based, as the title suggests, on another of Kennedy-Fraser's arrangements (also echoed in the 1916 symphony) called A Hebridean Sea Reiver's Song, Na Reubairean, collected from Penny Macdonald of Eriskay. Less than four minutes long, it is the second of the Two Hebridean Sea Poems (the other being Caristiona, a version of a slow waulking song, again obtained from Tolmie, originally called Caoidh Mathar, A Mother's Mourning). It is sometimes said, seemingly solely on the unexplicated (and as yet unconfirmed) assertion of Grove V, that the work was originally intended as the scherzo section of the Hebridean Symphony. Whatever its particular intentions or the reliability of the transcription of the original nature of the Gaelic song, it is yet another brilliant and exciting display of orchestral inspiration, a gorgeous picaresque musical tableau of the dareful deeds of local pirates.

The equally short Heroic Ballads, which Bantock completed in November 1944, continue the Celtic connection and are once again built on songs from the Kennedy-Fraser's collections. The first uses Cuchullan's Lament for his Son from Volume Two, which was taken from the singer Duncan Maclellan by Kenneth Macleod, Kennedy-Fraser's collaborator. The second, Kishmul's Galley from Volume One, as we have seen, had already been used to brilliant effect in the much earlier Hebridean Symphony. The orchestra conjures up two vibrant musical moments that even the most hardened, pedantic, and puritanical of folk traditionalists and classical autocrats would be hard-pressed not to appreciate and enjoy.

The Seal-Woman is sadly not available on CD as yet. Kennedy- Fraser had a particular fascination for seals and for tales of the 'selchie' or seal-folk and the work is based upon a legend of ill-fated love first related to her on Eriskay. It is the story of an islander who meets, falls in love with, and marries a seal-woman, only ultimately to lose her as she retums once more, unable to resist the longing of her nature, to "the cool cradling sea", leaving behind both her husband and her daughter, Morag. It is subtitled a Celtic Folk Opera and with the exception of one song (Alan Doon) it makes continual use of seal and mermaid airs and other Hebridean songs taken from Kennedy-Fraser's collections, most notably as forms of thematic characterisation: for instance, the Love-Wandering refrain is heard returning through the work as the isleman's love leitmotiv; The Seal-Woman's Croon, An Cadal Trom is associated with the seal-woman's mortal love for the islesman; and Seal-Woman's Sea-Joy, Mire-Mara is a song used complete but whose melody is also employed to identify the seal sisters' yearning for the sea. In total nineteen Hebridean folksongs are used in some form, though sometimes, it must be said, without any apparent direct relevance to the overall plot. Originally mooted one weekend in 1917 at the composer's home, the opera was finally completed in 1924 on Bantock's fifty-sixth birthday and opened at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre that same year to full houses and to generous and appreciative reviews. Unfortunately since the '20s it has only intermittently been revived by local operatic companies. Perhaps for more modem tastes it seems too much infused with some of the now seemingly quaint cultural caprices of its time, and certainly today is easy prey for hungry and uncompromising musicological vultures. Nonetheless, though undoubtedly of modest pretensions with a small cast of eleven (one of which is silent) and using only basic orchestral forces, it is a charming and graceful, beautifully crafted work full of exquisite and touching and at times rapturous melodies ornamented in a delightful and delicate orchestral tapestry. It surely cannot be too long before this enchanting musical treasure receives the sympathetic and fitting production it so obviously deserves and is retumed to the catalogue in a performance that properly reveals its humble but noble radiance.


Given the current trendy taste for all things Celtic (a veritable buzz- word of the day) and at a time when Gaeldom has become a critical sacred cow and Gaelic culture eagerly eulogised and idealised almost without question, it is surely a suitable season for the music of Bantock to acquire a greater and more general appreciation once more, and his Hebridean- influenced work given the respectful and sympathetic audience it so obviously deserves in the land of its inspiration, unburdened of the obsessive and dour stipulations of some revered aesthetic purity; certainly, at the very least, given the same critical courtesy that is so obviously accorded traditional songs interpreted and newly performed by, say, the originally innovative Runrig and the superb Capercaillic, and revealed for what it is masterly music, period. Like great music of whatever type and form it has matured with time and it can once again be received and enjoyed by free- thinking and unprejudiced sensibilities; indeed perhaps more fully appreciated in this later age without the cultural blinkers of its creative contemporaneousness. Just as Birtwistle's recent music might well one day - if it is played at all - seem like some very time-bound fashion and anachronistic fetish for the disharmonious, an archaic negative anti-musical language which speaks almost entirely to itself and be utterly dismissed by a new generation of critical judgements and priorities, so perhaps Bantock's music might still be for many, in its own particular way, a lasting solace, an inspiration, a beautiful, harmonious, unifying, and positive expression of the varied and ever-changing spiritual power of music.

Although mention is often and quite justly made of other English composers, such as Malcolm Amold and Peter Maxwell Davies in historiographies of Scottish music, no mention is ever made of Bantock who so effectively used the native folksong of the Hebrides (however unauthentic his sources are judged to have been) and who in fact produced some of the most exalted orchestral and instrumental transmutations of the music of Scotland. The pervading critical depreciation of Bantock and indeed of so many fine British composers of the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century (such as Howells, Bridge, Boughton, Berkeley, Brian, and Dyson, and Scottish composers like Mackenzie, McEwan, Wallace, and MacCunn, to name but a few who immediately spring to mind) is truly hard to fathom. It is a cultural folly that is only now beginning to be rectified. As Bantock himself once remarked: 'the Russians want only Russian music, the Germans rarely think highly of anything that is not German, the French specialise in their own music, but over here ... !'

At present there are only a few (but nonetheless outstanding) com- mercially available recordings of Bantock's music. Nonetheless, more are promised and broadcasts of his work are becoming increasingly common: the choral a capella symphonies Vanity of Vanities and Atalanta in Calydon, now available on CD (Albany TROY 180), were broadcast on Radio 3 in October 1995 by the BBC Singers under the baton of Simon Jolly. Bantock did conduct some recordings of his own music on 15th November 1945 in the Kingsway Hall: these originally appeared on 78s of course, and although only one piece, Comedy Overture: the Frogs, appeared on a Paxton 10" mono LP, it is hoped that they will eventually be transferred to CD. His music was also occasionally performed and recorded by other British conductors of his generation and after, and his music was once much more freely available than it is now - Beecham's 1949 famous and slightly edited recording of Fifine at the Fair (partly funded by the Bantock Society incidentally) is still out on 'EMI Classics' and an Intaglio CD of live recordings of the Hebridean and Pagan symphonies from the '60s under Boult and Handford respectively is also now available again. More recently, the late Norman Del Mar conducted Bantock's choral and orchestral symphonies and Omar Khayyam, and recorded Pierrot of the Minute (on Chandos in a compilation with Bridge and Butterworth). Sir Edward Downes has performed his work as well (a recording of the Pagan Symphony has just been issued in the budget 'BBC Classics' series with Bax's Tintagel and Northern Ballads 2 and 3) and is the Bantock Society's third and current President. There are too a couple of chamber pieces (the Third Violin Sonata and a Pagan Poem) and a few works arranged for brass band on CD. Although a recording of The Seal-Woman is not commercially available at the moment, some years ago the opera was performed in London under the direction of Joseph Vandernoot and there is talk of it being put on again next March and - like so much of the composer's work - it should find its way onto CD in the not-too-distant future. With even more recordings in the pipeline for 1997 perhaps Bantock's time has come round again and this fascinating and awe-inspiring musical character, whom Brook once described as 'one of the most lovable men in the whole realm of music', will at last be accorded his own due in the history of the music not only of England but also of Scotland and of the land of the Gael.

I'll leave the tale of the 'Perth Express' to Sir Hugh Roberton. One of my other favourite stories about GB comes at the end of H. Orsmond Anderton's book published in 1915: 'His favourite recreation is chess. One night he was playing late with a friend, and had occasion to go upstairs for a book. While finding it he forget all about the game, and went to bed; and his friend waited downstairs in growing bewilderment, till at last, finding everything silent, he was obliged to let himself out at 1 a.m. and go home'. Made me smile for days - though Myrrha, in her own portrait of her father, would have us believe that it was not the lapsed memory of a preoccupied artist that had the friend left alone: 'My father had suddenly found the game tedious ... He delighted in playing unexpected tricks upon his friends and only the wise learnt to detect, in time, the twinkle in his eyes, and escape unscathed'.

This is a slightly expanded and corrected version of an article, originally written for a local readership, published in the April and May issues of An Canan, the monthly arts supplement of the West Highland Free Press.

The author wishes to acknowledge the help of Ron Bleach and Dr. Cuillin Bantock in the production of the article.

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