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Cyril Scott as Composer-Pianist and Author, with some Recent Perspectives
by Leslie De’Ath

It is reassuring to see a revival of interest in the music of Cyril Scott (1879-1970), and the beginnings of perhaps a substantial reappraisal of his accomplishments, both musical and otherwise. Brief and localized flurries of interest in his music have occurred from time to time, and a society, albeit short-lived, was formed in the 1960s with the aim of promoting his music. Online resources have raised public awareness of just about everything in life, and there now exists an informative website maintained by the family, outlining the life, philosophies, and oeuvre of Scott.

From one point of view, the neglect of Scott is inexplicable. It is not simply that he garnered a considerable reputation as a composer in the first quarter of the twentieth century, both at home and in Germany, or that he wrote an immense amount of music, most of which found its way to publication at that time. He was a figure in musical history like no other, whose life and accomplishments fit no common mould, and offer many fascinating and unusual details. Some of his ideas and interests, considered outlandish in his day by many, have been vindicated by the passage of time, and it is noteworthy that, at the time of writing, over twenty of his books have been reissued and remain in print. His own personal interests encompass several apparently unrelated disciplines, and he is perhaps the most prolific and indeed successful author of any major composer, at least in areas other than music. He published forty books (only four of which are on music) and hundreds of other articles in no fewer than six quite different fields of inquiry, including homeopathy, occult philosophy, poetry, literary translation, theology, humour, ethics, and music. Had he never written a note of music, he would still be considered an author of period stature and of some continuing influence in these areas. He is perhaps the only composer who has written two autobiographies - published forty-five years apart. He authored a book that was banned in 1921 shortly after publication, as his then wife, Rose Allatini, also did. It is an irony that, judged by the yardstick of publication, his non-musical accomplishments have been to date more enduring than his musical ones. The compositions that enjoyed wide dissemination were the piano miniatures and songs published by Elkin, Schott, and Forsyth. The larger works by which Scott wanted his musical legacy to be remembered have remained mostly unpublished, and in many cases still await a first performance. A full appraisal of his musical accomplishments is hampered by this unfortunate reality. The inaccessibility of so many substantial works means that our understanding of his true contribution to the literature is still in its infancy. A modern life-and-works has not appeared, and indeed would be a daunting endeavour, arguably best undertaken as a collaborative effort between experts in the several fields in which Cyril delved. Sensitive yet dispassionate assessments of Scott’s contributions to homeopathy, occultism and philosophy are wanting, as is a study of the complex and arcane relationship between his non-musical interests and his compositions. The only biographical portrait to have appeared in print is A. Eaglefield Hull’s study of 1921, which presents an uncritical account of the first half of Scott’s life and musical output. (In this respect, there are parallels with the extraordinarily long-lived Leo Ornstein, who like Scott was touted as an enfant terrible at the beginning of the twentieth century, only to be forgotten about after the First World War. Both composers wrote prolifically and iconoclastically for the piano in the first quarter of the century. Ornstein was temporarily renowned, or infamous, for a series of works that were considered avant-garde in 1910, and the only biography to have appeared has been Martens’s of 1918.)

I am privileged to count among my acquaintances Cyril’s son Desmond, who has lived in Canada since 1957. He and his wife Corinne are long-time residents of Toronto. Desmond claims no musical expertise unto himself (“as so often happens, these things skip generations”), but he is astute in all things artistic, including his father’s music, and in fact has pursued an enviable career as an actor, theatre director, and sculptor. He is a graduate of Cambridge University in English literature and of the London Old Vic Theatre School. His work as a sculptor derives from his theatre experience, and it has been presented in several solo and group exhibitions in North America and the Netherlands. His particular interests are Alberto Giacommetti, Samuel Beckett and Shakespeare - and of course his father. His professional acting training and experience renders him a compelling speaker, and he has toured many parts of the world delivering engaging talks on his father. Upon the death of Cyril’s second partner, Marjorie Hartston Scott, in 1997, Desmond became the administrator of his father’s estate, and thus the contact person for matters such as unpublished works and rights.

The recent revival of interest in Cyril Scott’s music is taking several forms, including CD releases, the renewed availability of long out-of-print scores, and the first academic conference symposium devoted to Scott. The tireless effort of Desmond Scott in promoting the music and writings of his father has been a major catalyst in this process. Scott has had to wait until the 21st century for the first commercial recordings of his symphonies, string quartets, chamber music, and many of the piano works. I am writing this article in consequence of my personal involvement in this renascence-that of recording all the piano works for Dutton Epoch.

The SIMS Conference held in Melbourne, Australia in July 2004 included a commemoration of the 125th anniversary of Scott’s birth, at which six papers were read and his music was performed. The colloquium was presided over by Desmond Scott, who provides an overview of the contributions in the BMS Newsletter No. ??. He also presented a perspective on his father from the unique vantage point of a family member. Frances Gray presented a lecture-demonstration on Scott’s poetic/pianistic cycle, Poems. Allan Clive Jones told of the checkered history of the guitar Sonatina written for Segovia in 1927 and thought lost until it turned up amongst the famed guitarist’s effects in 2001. Bianca Rooman, who has been working on a monograph on Scott, spoke of the composer’s association with Grainger. Laurie Sampsel shared some of her encyclopedic bibliographic knowledge of Scott with a presentation of the later history of Lotus Land, tracing the lotus’s journey into popular culture by playing recorded interpretations (which exhibit varying degrees of tastefulness and ingenuity) by various groups from the 1950s onwards. And I read a paper on the piano sonatas, parts of which have been refashioned for the present article.

The quantity of large Scott works that remain unpublished and (to my knowledge) never performed is disarmingly large. The list includes symphonic poems, a cello concerto, a double concerto for violin and cello, a Concertino for bassoon, flute and strings, a Passacaglia festevole for two pianos and orchestra, a Sinfonietta for organ, harp and strings, a Hymn of Unity for soli, chorus and orchestra, a string quintet and a second piano quintet, three (of four) violin sonatas, a fourth symphony, two piano trios, and two string trios. The list becomes much longer if one includes works that have received no public performance since the premiere given at the time of composition.

The list at this link classifies Scott’s book-length published writings. Those still in print or available on demand are asterisked. For a comprehensive list of these and all other writings, see Laurie J. Sampsel’s Cyril Scott: A Bio-bibliography (2000, Westport, CT, Greenwood).

In addition to the books and many published articles, Scott also wrote several unpublished plays, set several of his own poems to music, and wrote the libretti to his four operas. He was, incidentally, also a visual artist and designed much of the furniture in his home himself.

Several of the books listed above have become, for want of a better word, classics to those interested in esoterica (especially the Initiate trilogy) and alternative medicine (especially the Cider Vinegar and Molasses booklets), and even today there are many who know of Scott as the author of these volumes rather than as a composer.

Scott’s writings reveal a person widely-read, ahead of his time in many respects, and very much a product of his time and place in others. They are characterized by a particular combination of self-effacement and self-absorption, quaint of conceit at times, and often remarkably perceptive. Sincerity, not skepticism, pervades everything he wrote. His contentions are often provocative, and for some beyond the pale in their credulousness. His lively discourse is very quotable, if not often quoted. A sampling from Scott’s writings at this link will provide some small measure of the man.

In his books Scott railed against the moral repressiveness of the Victorian age. In his poetry and in some of his music however he was inextricably a part of the artistic aesthetic of that period. He always retained a predilection for the sensibilities of the pre-Raphaelites, which made itself evident primarily in his poetry and his home surroundings, but also sometimes in his music. Predictably, Scott’s writings have been enthusiastically embraced by those in sympathy with his ideas, and dismissed summarily by those who are not. He was criticized both during his lifetime and since for “spreading himself too thin”, in the sense of taking an active interest in many fields of inquiry, and having the courage to publish as an authority in all of them. As the world increasingly awoke to the apparent merits of specialization, his interest in widely divergent disciplines outside of music was viewed by many with suspicion. This had implications for his compositional career as well, and he felt the aspersions of those who felt that anything less than single-minded dedication to musical composition could only result in inferior creativity and workmanship. The accusation of all-round Renaissance charlatanism was too easily made by those who had not taken the trouble to comprehend his writings fully, and was abetted by Scott’s own accessible writing style, borne of his dislike of complex verbiage for its own sake.

Scott’s Occultist beliefs are difficult to summarize, and easy to misconstrue. It would be presumptuous here to attempt an exegesis of its essential tenets, but it can be said that at various times in his life, he came across a variety of people and of spiritual stances that had profound effects on his beliefs. After a Church of England upbringing and a few early adult years of agnosticism that he later viewed as mere vanity, he turned his attentions variously to Vedantism, Theosophy, Christian Science, Spiritualism, Hinduism, and ultimately to Occultism. His writings are replete with references to Seers, Initiates and Yogis who he had met and sought guidance from. One of them, “T.E.J.E.”, is the dedicatee of The Adept of Galilee, “that joyous, wise and beautiful Soul, who was with the Adept of Galilee in the days of His Ministry.” Most of that volume is nothing less than a narrative rewrite of the Gospel story, based upon Scott’s view of Christ as a Yogi. He believed that Christ’s message had been “mutilated” (his term) over the centuries by ecclesiastic practitioners of what he called “Churchianity”. He had a Platonic mistrust of the senses as the path to Truth. What he learned from Annie Besant, Koot Hoomi, Nelsa Chaplin, and the other “enlightened souls” he met led him to the belief that most of humanity functions in a state of perpetual childishness, with selfishness, jealousy, and vanity as prime motivating forces. In his books on ethics and spiritual philosophy, he repeatedly focuses on the idea of man’s essential childishness, and suggests paths to overcome it.

Scott’s lifelong friendship with Percy Grainger dated from their fellow-student days in Frankfurt (1896-99), as two of the five British members of the so-called ‘Frankfurt Group’. A chronicle of their friendship, with edited correspondence, would be an important contribution to both Scott and Grainger scholarship. Scott was in his own more ascetic, fastidious, cloistered way, just as colourful a character as Grainger-less extreme in some ways, and more in others. Although they pursued very different career paths and life styles, the bond remained close, and they continued to correspond throughout their lives. They were both too frank with each other to mince words, and the private correspondence is occasionally spiced with friction. Scott refers to Grainger’s “intense love of argument”, and he had reservations about Grainger’s notions regarding the constitution of the museum he built and endowed in Melbourne. Scott to my knowledge never in print confronted head-on the issue of Grainger’s “blue-eyed” Nordic-supremacy racism. Grainger for a time complained of Scott having stolen his idea of “irregular music”, and he avoided playing any of his important works for Scott, for fear of compromising his intellectual property. Throughout his life, Grainger was haunted by the conviction that he and others of the Frankfurt group had done their best, most vital work as composers prior to 1900, and everything subsequent from the pen of each, including himself, was sterile and worthless. After Grainger’s mother’s suicide in 1922, Scott claimed that he had made contact with her on an astral plane, and offered to act as intermediary between Rose and Percy - a well-intentioned gesture that strained the relationship between Percy and Cyril for a time.  

More than once in his writings, Scott refers to Grainger’s misfortune of having derived his fame from a few peripheral trifles at the expense of his larger, more serious compositions upon which he should be truly judged. He might have been writing also of himself. Scott once pointed out that Grainger’s “child-likeness manifests itself in a most sentimental attachment to things which appear to possess no value, such as highly and most offensively immature manuscripts of my own (I regret to say), which he hugs to his heart in the manner a child hugs a broken toy... I can never bet back these tattered swaddling clothes of my musical infancy in order to destroy them...”

In 1909 Grainger wrote to his mother, “Poor little Cyril is not at all well. He doesn’t understand at all how to keep healthy, and that’s a shame for him. I hope he won’t die; but it seems to me life appeals to him terribly little.” Scott didn’t begin publishing on alternative medicine until he was in his late fifties. Although not entirely vegetarian himself, Scott managed to convince the naturally athletic Grainger of the benefits of a meatless lifestyle.

Both composers knew just how different they had become in the years since Frankfurt, even though they remained lifelong friends. Their career paths, respective musical aesthetics, and Weltanschauung veered in directions that eventually became antipodal. Grainger the pragmatist, the opportunist, and vital child of the earth; Scott the recluse, the self-abnegator, and devotee of the astral plane and the spiritual unity of all souls. Perhaps Grainger summed Scott up best when he wrote in 1911, “What a loyal person he is though, so pure and un-selfinterested and artist from first to last.”

Scott and other pianists
Scott enjoyed a fine reputation as a pianist and improviser at the piano, and had studied for five years as a youth in Frankfurt with one of Germany’s finest piano pedagogues, Lazzaro Uzielli. After returning to Liverpool, he set up shop as a music teacher, and gave piano recitals.

He recorded twenty-three of his own compositions on piano rolls between 1928 and 1930. They reveal a pianist with a strong sense of colour and mood, and his playing displays a sympathy with the French school of pianism. In the extant recordings he is not always bound to the constraints of a regular pulse, and at times is free with his own published markings.
Scott’s two autobiographies are remarkable in the importance he assigns to descriptions of his friends and acquaintances, and to anecdotes about his associations with them. More non-musicians than musical colleagues are represented, which is perhaps not so surprising, given his abiding interest in fields of inquiry outside of music. Nevertheless, they are valuable for his insights into prominent composers and other artists whom he knew, such as Debussy, Ravel, Stefan George, Paderewski, and Bernard Shaw. Although not as renowned as Grainger’s, Scott’s career as a performer took him throughout England for premieres of his own works, and also on a successful six-month concert tour to North America in 1920-21. Both he and Grainger enjoyed careers as composer-pianists, and at least in Scott’s case, the reputation that preceded him rested more on his fame as a composer than as a concert soloist. Grainger, in spite of his numerous assertions regarding his hatred of the piano, harboured the more serious aspirations of the two as an internationally recognized performer.

Scott was a personal acquaintance of several famous pianists of the time, including Esther Fisher, Walter Gieseking, Alfred Hoehn, Ignaz Paderewski, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Evelyn Suart, and of course Grainger. Moiseiwitsch was the dedicatee of Rondeau de concert and Russian Dance, and Suart the dedicatee of Scherzo. His two largest solo piano works, the Op.66 Sonata and the Deuxième suite, were dedicated to Hoehn and Debussy respectively. Scott met Evelyn Suart - a pupil of Leschetizky and a Christian Scientist - in 1902, and Suart soon became an avid exponent of his piano works. Scott credits her with two important factors in his life: his long-standing “unclouded association with the firm of Messrs Elkin & Co., and my equally long interest in metaphysics.” Scott’s acquaintance with Benno Moiseiwitsch, also a student of Leschetizky, prompted the writing of one of his most technically ambitious piano works, the Rondeau de concert. Through Moiseiwitsch’s wife, the Australian violinist Daisy Kennedy, Scott was introduced to Alma Mahler in 1913. Moiseiwitsch’s daughter Tanya, incidentally, was a prominent scenic and costume designer, and helped found the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Ontario, designing the thrust stage for that theatre in 1953 - a theatre where Desmond Scott has exhibited his sculptures.

Scott met Paderewski once during his early Liverpool years. Paderewski was performing in town, and Cyril was invited to an after-concert reception at which the great pianist said to him, “There is something in your face which impresses me - I should like to see that Piano Concerto.” The work in question was an early concerto (Op.10) which, to Scott’s relief, Paderewski never performed. The composer reworked a melody out of it into An Evening Hymn for voice, violin and piano. He withdrew the concerto and claimed to have destroyed it, although the holograph still resides in the Grainger Museum.

Scott was to all accounts a prodigious improviser at the piano. It is noteworthy that the composer himself speaks little about this in his writings, other than to say that he would resort to extemporising on those occasions when he couldn’t recall how his compositions went. We rely largely on the testimony of those musicians who had heard him improvise, such as Esther Fisher, A. Eaglefield Hull, and Grainger. There are a few recorded examples of his improvising and a few interviews extant, in addition to the recordings on which he performs his own piano works and songs.

Perhaps the most vivid description of Scott's improvising is found in his first autobiography (My Years of Indiscretion, p123), as recalled by Heddie Gardiner, Balfour Gardiner's sister-in-law. The Gardiners had frequent soirees at their home, and Scott writes that "on one occasion my behaviour, to say the least, was eccentric. She [Mrs. Gardiner] had invited some friends of a particularly non-Bohemian type to dinner, and had asked me beforehand if I would play. This I promised to do; but when the time came, felt I had dined far too well and was not in the mood, so that a good deal of persuasion was necessary to induce me to keep my promise. Finally, I went with a rather bad grace to the piano and started to play -- not Wagner, as I so frequently did, but modernised versions of "The Honeysuckle and the Bee," and "Hello, my Baby," followed by "Finiculi, finicula," "After the Ball," "Louisiana Loo," and many others, ending after about forty minutes with a loud and scandalously harmonised version of "God Save the King," preceded by an improvised fugue on "Sailing Away." But that was not all; when I had played my last chord, I got up from the piano, and without looking at anybody or saying a word, walked straight out of the room."

Esther Fisher had occasion to concertize with Scott as a duo-piano team on several occasions. His Theme and Variations for two pianos, and a Concertino for two pianos and orchestra issued from that collaboration. Fisher describes his pianism in Recorded Sound 61 (January, 1976):

“What an excellent pianist he was! I believe an erstwhile pupil of Chopin, on hearing him play, remarked that he had a touch like Chopin’s - and that I can believe. He had great facility, sensitivity and flexibility, as well as brilliance. Glissandos were no trouble to him at all. His subtle rubato was another feature which made his style very personal. He was a born artist; one could tell that at once. I don’t think he practised regularly, but as he composed at the piano, he was always playing. I was very impressed, and felt that this music had a strange beauty, and was haunting and hypnotic.”

The Piano Music, the Sonatas, and Grainger
Two extended studies of Scott’s piano music exist - Ian Parrott’s Cyril Scott and His Piano Music (1991, Thames Publishing), and Thomas Darson’s dissertation, The Solo Piano Works of Cyril Scott (1979, City University of New York). Both are useful guides in different ways, although neither deals with some of the thornier issues surrounding the music, such as matters of chronology, manuscript study, comparison of various versions of the sonatas, and the relationship between Scott’s philosophical beliefs and his piano music. Parrott’s slender volume is a source of much detail not available elsewhere, although it appears to have been written in some haste, and reads rather like note-taking at times.

Scott is the most significant composer for the piano in Britain between Sterndale Bennett and Sorabji, and probably wrote more for the keyboard between 1900 and 1920 than any composer except Scriabin. The only other British composers who wrote extensively for the piano during that time are Frank Bridge, York Bowen, Arnold Bax, and John Ireland. Scott also wrote a number of concertante works for piano and orchestra, and although his Concerto No.2 has been recorded twice, it has yet to be published. A champion of Scott who recorded both concerti and Early One Morning in the 1970s was John Ogdon.

Arguably Scott’s most fundamental compositional trait is his imaginative, complex approach to harmonic colour. It is this aspect of his writing that prompted Grainger to call him a “perpendicularist”. He is without precedent in this regard, at least among British composers, and even comparisons with Delius (like those with Debussy) are usually inapt. It is a feature that, like his essentially Romantic spirit, is fundamental to his aesthetic, and informs the music from all periods of his life. The piano in his home had stencilled on one side the Indian saying, “Melody is the cry of Man to God”, and on the opposite side, “Harmony is the answer of God to man”. His harmonic experimentalism was undoubtedly symbiotic with his improvising, and many passages in his piano works bear the imprint of such spontaneous, empirical creativity. As a performer, one often has the sense that notes and chords arise from considerations of digital convenience rather than from their function in a rigidly codified harmonic language.  

Scott’s output for piano resists easy categorizing. While certain tendencies repeat themselves and serve to give his music a loose stylistic hallmark, there is much overlap between any labels one might attempt to superimpose upon the roughly 215 individual pieces he published for solo piano. There are concert works marked by bravura writing (Rondeau de concert, An English Waltz, Sonata No.1, Handelian Rhapsody), works based on non-Western themes with exotic musical elements (Indian Suite, Soirée japonaise, Sphinx), Impressionist works (Poems, Deuxième suite, Rainbow Trout), didactic works and pieces for children (Album for Girls, Young Hearts, Zoo: Animals, Modern Finger-exercises), folk-song and patriotic works (Cherry Ripe, The Wild Hills of Clare, Britain’s War March), drawing-room miniatures (Notturno, Vesperale, Suite...in the Old Style, Summerland, Twilight-tide), and later, modernistic works employing quartal harmonies and abstract musical ideas (Pastoral Ode, Sea-marge, Sonata No.2, Sonata No.3). Many works inhabit two or three of these categories, or border these rather contrived lines of demarcation.

It is often difficult to date the composition of Scott’s works precisely, because he was not fastidious in recording such things, and many manuscripts have been lost or destroyed. Nor, to judge from Ernest Austin’s comments on the matter, was he entirely fastidious in the legibility of his manuscripts as submitted to the publishing firm Elkin. In 1904, Scott had entered into a long-standing and happy association with that firm. Austin was a copy editor for a time, and states that the published result was occasionally his personal “best guess” as to the intentions of the composer. Robert Elkin expected Scott to contribute regular short songs and piano pieces of at most moderate difficulty, that would appeal stylistically to a large general amateur audience. Scott complied and, for better or worse, it is this agreement that established his reputation as a composer of short miniatures, at the expense of any reputation he might have achieved for his larger, more important works. Pieces were sometimes issued separately, and sometimes in sets of two to five. The reputation of composers has generally been in direct proportion to those published works most widely disseminated, which in Scott’s case includes Lotus Land, Danse nègre and Lento (from Two Pierrot Pieces), and the songs Lullaby and Blackbird’s Song. Scott himself declared that his association with Elkin sealed both his fame and his undoing. It is tempting in consequence to dismiss all the Elkin miniatures as trivial drawing-room nothings tossed off upon command for an indiscriminate market. Closer inspection of these piano pieces however reveals some interesting surprises. They are not always so “miniature”, and are often harmonically recondite, interpretively elusive and occasionally technically demanding.

Scott’s most significant works for solo piano are the sonatas and the Deuxième suite. The Suite and the Op.66 Sonata both approach a half-hour in duration. Grainger was an ardent proponent of the Op.66 Sonata, which he played many times in public and declared it to be the finest piano sonata of the 20th century. It has not been without its detractors however. One of the few writers to have given Scott any attention in recent times, Guy Sacre roundly condemns much of his piano music in his enormous, unabashedly opinionated La musique de piano (1998, Paris).

The Sonata (1909; written in 1908) is imposing in its size, musical ideas, and technical demands. The only work comparable in dimension and fecundity of invention is Benjamin Dale’s Sonata in D minor of 1905. Scott’s sonata is in four continuous movements, culminating in a fugal Allegro. The writing is harmonically lush in a post-Romantic idiom, often reminiscent of Richard Strauss. The incessant changes of metre are ground-breaking for the time, and serve to accommodate Scott’s technique of thematic transformation through a myriad of rhythmic transformations. In this regard, and structurally, the sonata has an affinity with Liszt’s sonata. Scott’s thought process, however, further blurs the underlying structure, giving the impression more of a symphonic poem or rhapsody than a multi-movement sonata. The fugue subject of the fourth movement is unusually chromatic. His Deuxième suite of 1910 ends with a much longer, more ostentatious fugue based on a similarly chromatic subject. In the sonata fugue, the unfolding of the counterpoint works remarkably well, and the movement culminates in the re-introduction of themes from the other movements. In Scott’s own words, structural unity in a multi-movement sonata can be achieved if “the free-fantasie section of the Finale be treated as an arena for all previous themes to re-enter, and so disport themselves once more before their final exit.” He likens this procedure to that employed in epic forms of literature. [Monthly Musical Record 47 (May 1, 1917), p104-05]

Scott once spent an evening with Stravinsky, who was generous in his praise of the works of Scott that he knew. On that occasion he took out the Op.66 sonata and played Scott what he thought to be the best passages. Although no works of Scott are dedicated to Stravinsky, the Barbaric Dance from his ballet Karma, bears a close resemblance to passages in The Rite of Spring.

The Grainger Museum in Melbourne houses Grainger’s undated working copy of the 1909 version of the Op.66 Sonata. This document provides particular insight into the technical aspects of Grainger’s pianism. Pedal markings, fingerings, and interpretive annotations abound, and several cuts are indicated which distinguish between “Scott cuts” and Grainger’s own. Of the six Grainger cuts to the first, second and third movements, three are large, and in total 150 bars are removed, reducing the playing time according to Grainger from 25 ½ minutes to 19. Practical considerations were presumably involved, and at one point in the second movement he indicates a “small cut” and a “big cut” over the same passage, giving himself the flexibility of creating a duration tailored to the needs of different concerts. His freedom with the original score in this regard is consistent with his approach to the earlier Op.17 Sonata (dedicated to Grainger in 1901), which Grainger truncated by half and published under Scott’s name as the Handelian Rhapsody.

Grainger’s imaginative and unusual approach to pedalling, derived from his studies with Busoni and from his own fertile imagination, is distinguished principally by a very liberal use of the middle pedal. The use of all three pedals in the Op.66 sonata is indicated throughout in great detail in his personal copy. Distinction is consistently made between each of them, and release points are fastidiously notated. At one point, all three pedals are indicated to be employed simultaneously. The sound that results from a precise adherence to his markings is lush, orchestral, and entirely convincing. Characteristically, Grainger’s approach to pedalling was both iconoclastic and entirely practical-a “common-sense view of all pedalling”, so to speak. In my own recording of this sonata, I have been strongly influenced by Grainger’s own performance strategies.

One of Grainger’s trademarks - the handkerchief glissando - appears in this working copy. At the head of the score, Grainger has printed in large letters, “SILK HANDKERCHIEF - lay silk handkerchief at right end of keyboard for glissando on page 29. Throw handkerchief into lap at end of run.” At this climactic moment of the sonata, Grainger indulges in a bit of showmanship. Since the passage is a black-key glissando, it also has the common-sense advantage of minimizing injury. Apparently he had not yet concocted the elastic device that retracted the handkerchief into the cuff of his sleeve.

Presumably Grainger continued to showcase the original version of the sonata when he returned to it in the 1950s. A letter written to Scott in 1951 adulates the 1909 version: “I am utterly bowled over by the beauty, the originality & the mental liveliness of the music. I mean the texture of the harmonies, the voice-leadings, the non-architectural flow of the form, the easy but brilliant pianistic style-so typical of your incomparable improvisings.” But the impulsive Grainger two years earlier had stated in confidence to Scott, “I never liked the Sonata, Op.66, personally, but what a Leistung it is.”

Scott’s revisions to the Op.66 sonata as republished by Elkin in the 1920s are indeed singular. They are copious, and explore an intense level of detail. The two versions of Hindemith’s Das Marienleben are analogous in transformation, at a basic level of comparison. Many changes Scott made are perplexing, and at first glance appear to be an attempt to graft a new level of harmonic complexity upon a lush Romantic score that is arguably better off left alone. If familiar with the original, one is initially impressed by what has apparently been lost rather than what has been gained. Scott’s revisions are fourfold. First, additional notes are added to chords, to create even more vertical elaboration, in the form of seconds and ninths, and sometimes non-tertial chord structures. These changes often seem harmonically arbitrary, and at times are scarcely noticeable, given the largely chromatic language already present in the original. Second, a greater sense of pulse is created in some bars by the regularizing of time signatures, such as 17/16 turned into 4/4. Third, entire passages have been rewritten or drastically altered. Scott provides a new truncated bridge to the third movement, for instance, replacing an 18-bar passage with four newly composed bars. The third movement Scherzo contains most of the revisions of this type, although a tranquillo passage in the middle of that movement oddly remains completely untouched. The fugal fourth movement also remains more or less intact, apparently because of the linear writing. Fourth, a sense of tonal centre has often been rendered more abstruse through changes in harmonic progression. This disorientation applies also to melodies, in which individual notes have been chromatically altered--often perplexingly so, since the post-Romantic core of the piece is still so strong that they simply sound out of place. A diatonic melody in which only one note has been chromatically raised or lowered occurs frequently enough in the revision to be considered manneristic.  

There is a copy of the 1909 Elkin edition of this sonata in Desmond Scott’s possession that contains copious, meticulous red-pen revisions in the composer’s hand. It appears to be a fair copy intended for Elkin’s 1920s revised publication. However, the published revised version is different in many details from this copy, implying perhaps that this may be an intermediate revision that was superseded by the published version, or perhaps it is an even later revision. Grainger speaks of an otherwise unknown third version of the sonata in a revealing unpublished letter to Scott in 1956 (printed as Grainger wrote it):

“ As to the piano sonata, I do not find any great changes from the second to the third version. The great change was from the first to the 2nd edition. I don’t suppose you will ever understand my attitude to your sonata or that I will ever understand your attitude. For you it is a work of art, & naturally you are highly justified in making it as good as you can - by revisions or otherwise. For me the sonata gave me the opportunity, as a teacher, to get many copies of a major work of yours sold. But that I could only do as long as I could present it as a study in progress - especially progress in free rhythms. But when you regularised the irregular rhythms (notably on page 7) you were repudiating the things I was giving the sonata to pupils for. So much for me as a teacher. Much more serious was my defeat as a composer. I so badly wanted Australia to get the credit for having invented fast-moving irregular rhythms (here again is my evil nature - always wanting one group to triumph over another) & as long as your first edition stood there was I as the originator in 1900, then you, my friend & associate followed in 1908, with Stravinsky coming later. But when you uprooted your irregular rhythms in the second edition there I stood with no bridge between me & Stravinsky - nothing to show that the practice had some connection with me & my fellow-genius-friends. I was so happy, that irregular rhythms had come out of NATURAL PROGR[E]SS (my 1899 study of prose rhythms in speech, the rhythms of that woggley Italian train in Jan 1900) & was not what Balfour called CEREBRAL. We cannot help being what we are. You are a great creative genius, & I am a musical historian. Love to you both
Percy”

Grainger applauded the unconstrained, irregular flow of the rhythm of Scott’s earlier version of the sonata, at the same time taking credit for its invention. Of course neither composer was the first to experiment with changing metres, but the real innovation in this sonata was the pervasiveness of its application. In 1909, the continuous four-movement plan unfolds over 582 bars, during which the time signature changes no less than 497 times, and 29 different time signatures are represented. When Grainger complained of Scott’s rhythmic regularization in the later edition, he exaggerated. This version still contains 444 changes of metre and 24 different time signatures.

The complex history of this sonata has yet to be unravelled. From an analytical standpoint, the many attempts at revision form a perplexing knot garden. It is easy to equate constant revision with aesthetic uncertainty. I think it more likely in this instance that Scott knew exactly what he wanted to do, even if the process was empirical and intuitive and the result bewildering. In the years between the two publications, Scott’s musical style had changed remarkably. The alterations are in keeping with the harmonic style of other of his works from the 1920s and 1930s. It might be argued that the attempt to graft a newer language onto an already musically convincing original was a miscalculation, but that is distinct from incertitude. This revised edition has met with a crashing silence. No-one has recorded it, and I know of no documented public performance.

Scott’s two later essays in the piano sonata present no problems of chronology, and exist in only one version each. The autograph manuscripts correspond precisely with the published scores, and show little reworking of material. We enter a new world of tonal adventurousness in these sonatas, with quartal and tertial harmonies freely mixing.

The first of these, called Second Sonata, is an intriguing, little-known work composed in Rye in 1933 and published two years later. A single movement of imposing dimensions, its well-differentiated sections are unified by the presence of thematic recurrence and development, with a substantial recapitulation of the opening material later on, much in the manner of textbook sonata form. From the first bars, we are in a new world of tonal ambiguity, far from the exuberant Romanticism of Op.66, or the Impressionism of the Deuxième suite or Lotus Land. Quartal harmonies are now much more in evidence, and co-exist freely with complex, fluctuating tertial harmonic structures. Impressionist gestures are evident in places however, intermingling with occasional passages of virtuosic figuration in the style of his earlier keyboard writing. Colour and texture are important elements now, and the writing displays the likely influence of Scriabin, whose music and vision Scott was familiar with, and admired. The musical, aesthetic and philosophical parallels between Scott and Scriabin have occasionally been noted by commentators. Scott held Scriabin in high regard, and saw him as a unique figure in music. He felt that Scriabin’s “predilection for the idiom of Chopin was based on psychological reasons rather than on musical ones; from an ultra-refinement, and hence subtilising of the human element, Scriabin passed into the non-human, and so ultimately became the greatest exponent of Deva-music that so far has been born.” (The Influence of Music on History and Morals, 132) He likened Scriabin to Debussy in some ways, but said that “Scriabin was in touch with a higher stage of the Deva-evolution than was Debussy.” (Music: Its Secret Influence Throughout the Ages, 134) In the Second Sonata, the technique of frequently changing metres is combined with a new Scriabinesque rhythmic feature-that of polyrhythms, such as six against seven. The ubiquitous 1-4-7 chord, singled out by Scott as a trademark in his later autobiography, Bone of Contention, is related to Scriabin’s mystic chord. Near the end of the sonata, a passage is significantly marked ‘Estatico’. A visionary quality pervades much of the piece, and one senses a strong connection between Scott’s occult philosophical beliefs and the musical content here. The sonata was dedicated to Walter Gieseking, who according to Scott sight-read the manuscript “straight off, making hardly a mistake”. This sonata and the Deuxième suite are two seminal British piano works of the twentieth century that have remained inexplicably in total, undeserved oblivion until the appearance of recordings in 2004/5.

Scott’s last sonata was the Sonata No.3, published in 1956. The writing is now less flamboyant, and even more harmonically abstract, with much sparer textures than in the earlier sonatas. Scott divides the work into three movements - unconnected for the first time in his piano sonatas. The unifying device of quoting from earlier movements in the final movement is found again here. Traces of Scott’s Romantic roots can still be found in its more lyrical, wistful passages. The work’s critics have found it “a lesson in what happens to a composer who overworks a fashionable idiom in his youth. You cannot construct a sonata out of short, very rich harmonic progressions of not more than two or three bars each, with not much logical connection between them, coupled with purely decorative and non-structural passages.” (Peter Pirie, Music & Letters, 1956) But by comparison with the earlier sonatas, history has been kind to this one, having been reissued by Elkin and reprinted in an issue of the British Music Society Journal in 1983, and having been commercially recorded four times.

Scott’s four piano sonatas span 55 years of a creative life - years that saw radical changes in musical style and aesthetic throughout Europe. In hindsight it seems ironic that the 1909 sonata was received with extremes of both acclaim and denunciation, while the more harmonically radical later sonatas were not. In fact they were largely ignored, because by the 1930s Scott was viewed by many as passé, or as having run out of creative steam. His made-to-order Elkin piano miniatures and songs retained their popularity with the gifted amateur, while his more ambitious creations by which he would have been remembered remained unknown, and are only now emerging. By all accounts Scott was a formidable pianist throughout his life, and his creative output in all media was channelled through the mind of a pianist. The stylistic diversity of his four sonatas encapsulate his life’s journey as a composer.

Leslie De'Ath

 



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