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A man whose time has come again?


Desmond Scott

Cyril Scott was truly one of the more remarkable men of his generation. Far ahead of his time in many ways, in others he was inescapably a product of the Victorian age in which he grew up. As John Ireland his friend and exact contemporary wrote to Scott in 1949 "You were the first British composer to write music which was non-academic, free and individual in style and of primary significance. Long before I could write anything in the least worthwhile you had made a great reputation in England and on the Continent".

His music, though certainly the most important, is only one aspect of his enormously varied creative output.

He wrote the lyrics for many of his songs and the libretti for his operas.

He published forty books; on alternate medicine, ethics, religion, occultism, psychology, humour and music; wrote two autobiographies forty years apart and six volumes of poetry. Many of the books he wrote remain in print today and one trilogy in particular, The Initiate, written in the 1920s was optioned just recently for a film and continues to be translated into other languages, the latest being Swedish and Romanian.

In his staunch advocacy of alternate medicine decades before it became mainstream Scott was again ahead of his time.

His poetry on the other hand is very much of the period, deeply romantic and infused throughout with a Pre-Raphaelite sensibility.

In the same mode he designed some of his own furniture, trying, as he said, to make his lodgings look as much like a monastic cell as possible. More practically, he later devised a unique piano. It was a regular upright but with a sloping front replacing the lid to form a broad writing desk leaving him space beneath to play on and compose.

As a hobby he also painted - two of them can be seen on the covers of recent CDs.

Aware that some people felt he was spreading himself too thin, he defended himself in his later biography Bone of Contention, (1969) by saying: "Holding the belief that the more subjects one can, within reason, become interested in, the less time and inclination one has to be unhappy, I will make no excuses for what the friends of my music call my versatility, and its detractors the dissipation of my energies (for) in a sad plight is the composer who has no sideline or pastime to turn to during those desolate periods when musical ideation gives out, leaving but that painful sense of emptiness and frustration so familiar to all creative artists."

Scott was born in Oxton, near Liverpool to a middle class family in 1879. As his son, I truly find it hard to realise that I’m intimately connected to someone who, as a student in Frankfurt heard Clara Schumann play and remembered his teachers taking the day off to go to Vienna for Brahms’ funeral.

He was born into a world we wouldn’t recognise today, except through costume dramas on the BBC. It was a world of the horse and carriage and cobbled streets, a world without cars, planes, radio, TV, computers, CDs or the Internet. The last time I saw him we sat in front of the TV together and he watched a man land on the moon. That’s quite a change in one lifetime!

Scott’s father was a businessman involved in shipping whose chief interest was the study of Greek. His mother played the piano "with a certain superficial brilliance, and had even written a waltz which somehow got into print." (Bone of Contention)

As a young child he was abnormally sensitive and precocious, bursting into tears at any music that affected him. He played the piano almost before he could talk, picking out tunes from the barrel organs heard in the street outside.

When he was 12 his parents sent him to the Conservatory in Frankfurt to study piano where he was the youngest pupil accepted up to that time. He stayed there for eighteen months, came home, decided he was more interested in composition than in teaching or being a concert pianist and returned to the Conservatory when he was not quite 17.

There at one time or another he met Norman O’Neill, Balfour Gardiner, Roger Quilter and the one he remained closest to, Percy Grainger, the five musicians becoming collectively known as the Frankfurt Group.

Grainger became not only an especially good friend but also a tireless advocate of Scott’s music, playing his compositions, in particular the Sonata No. 1, all over the world. He was also extraordinarily generous to him. During WWII, having earlier become an American citizen and with restrictions on taking money out of the country, he insisted that Scott be given all his British royalties and after the war lent him his cottage in Pevensey Bay rent-free for two and a half years.

Success came early for Scott. His First Symphony was performed in Darmstadt in 1901 and his Second under Henry Wood in London two years later.

It took one hundred years, though, before his next Symphony, The Muses, had its first hearing in 2003!

For the first quarter of the last century he was in the forefront of modern British composers, hailed by Eugene Goossens as ‘the father of modern British music’ and admired by men as diverse as Elgar, Debussy, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky.

By the time he died in 1970, however, he was remembered by the general public for little more than Lotus Land (1905) and small piano pieces such as Water Wagtail (1910), which at one time, according to Lewis Foreman, was used as the signature tune to the Test Match broadcasts on the BBC!

What caused such a sharp decline is hard to assess. Musical tastes change. Avant garde can easily become vieux jeu. Maybe Scott’s highly individual style, which to listeners more accustomed to the work of Stanford and Parry would initially have appeared radical and ‘modern’, began to seem dated.

Or, maybe Diana Swann was right when in a perceptive article for the British Music Society in 1996 she wrote, " ... Perhaps too much hope was pinned on him at a point when England’s fading Imperial importance craved a compensatory and valuable place in European music."

Another possibility, as she noted, was that after WWI, "English music was encouraged to progress only along the folksong/Tudor revival/Christian agnostic path" and the new composers finding favour had all been trained at the Royal College or Academy of Music.

Scott, not part of the club, had studied in Frankfurt, was un-English in many ways, believing in occultism and reincarnation and dressed outlandishly in velvet jackets instead of Harris tweeds!

A more important consideration is that he became suspect as a serious composer because of the huge number of popular miniatures he produced. These were written at the request of his publisher, Elkin, which as he said, sealed both his fame and his undoing. Yet as Leslie De’Ath in his liner notes to his recent Dutton CD of the Suites and Miniatures says: "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."

During the 1930s Scott was still considered of sufficient importance for there to be performances of several large-scale works including the Festival Overture, which had won the Daily Telegraph prize and the tone poem Disaster at Sea as well as smaller pieces like the Harpsichord Concerto, the Ode to Great Men and the 2nd Piano Sonata. With the exception of the Harpsichord Concerto, however, none of them was very favourably received.

Some of the criticism of his music is revealing. ‘Meaningless’, ‘pointless’ ‘shapeless’, ‘not moving toward a climax’ occurs again and again, indicating, perhaps, that the musical idiom of the day favoured more goal-oriented works than his.

Of the Festival Overture there was one London critic who did describe it as "a most accomplished piece of writing, decidedly personal in style and temperament, somewhat slight in matter, for all the fullness of the scoring; the music of a composer of more taste than self-assertiveness, more grace than passion". but it was outweighed by negative comments from the other papers. Reviews for Disaster at Sea were worse. Composers are notoriously unappreciative of other composers and it was Constant Lambert who said of it: "It would be easy enough to pillory this work did one not wish to forget about it immediately."

Speaking of critics, I can’t resist quoting this charming letter from Ernest Newman, the great Wagner scholar and pre-eminent music critic of the day. I don’t know if he was referring to this piece or some other work that had recently been savaged but he wrote to Scott: "Don’t take that appalling drivel too seriously! What is one to say about a new work that comes and goes in a moment, and of which one doesn’t know a note in advance and in connection with which one cannot even be sure that it is sounding as the composer meant it to sound?"

Scott revised Disaster at Sea and renamed it Neptune. Seventy years later, in 2004, it was issued on the Chandos label along with The Muses Symphony and the Second Piano Concerto. Now how different the notices were!

Peter Dickinson, writing in the Gramophone, headed his review "the warmest of welcomes for a remarkable discovery in 20th-century British music" and Calum MacDonald in the BBC Music Magazine praised the extraordinarily imaginative orchestration and described the CD as "an important act of restitution" and "an eloquent case for fine music, unnecessarily consigned to oblivion without the courtesy of a hearing,"

The 1930s, despite the critics, turned out to be extremely busy for Scott. The Muses Symphony, Disaster/Neptune, the Cello Concerto, Harpsichord Concerto, Concerto for two Violins, the Mystic Ode and the Variations for two Pianos were all composed at this time.

A brilliant pianist, in 1934 he performed the Rachmaninov 3rd Piano Concerto at a concert in Harrogate, which between the two wars was a noted musical centre. This concert was a rarity for him, because though he performed frequently he tended to play only his own work. The critic praised his breadth of technique, sensitive touch and his understanding of the piece.

As for writing, he was equally prolific. 1932 saw the publication of the last volume of his Initiate series; 1933 Music, Its Secret Influence Through the Ages and The Vision of the Nazarene, 1936 An Outline of Modern Occultism and The Greater Awareness, 1938 Doctors Disease and Health and in 1939 he published not one but three books the same year on totally different subjects. The Ghost of a Smile, which is dedicated to the three surviving members of the Frankfurt Group, (Norman O’Neill had died in 1934), is on humour, Man Is My Theme is on the childish behaviour of adults and Victory Over Cancer Without Radium or Surgery on one of his favourite topics alternative medicine and diet.

The 1940s, by contrast, and the WWII years in particular were not good. Scott did publish two books, Health, Diet and Commonsense in 1940 and The Christian Paradox; What Is As Against What Should Have Been in 1942 but he left his London home when the war began, moved from one set of lodgings to another in Somerset and Devon, was without a piano and composed nothing. He worried about his finances, became ill and depressed and in November 1942 wrote to Grainger that he felt death to be near. It was the low point of his life. He was 63. Two years later, though his health had improved, he was saying he would never write another note of music. Impossible for him to be idle, though, he turned to writing plays, ten original manuscripts and adaptations of ‘The Moonstone’ and ‘Barchester Towers’ and after a lapse of 40 years returned to writing poetry.

After the war he moved to Sussex, first to Grainger’s little Pevensey Bay house and then to Eastbourne. He began to compose again. He still had another twenty five years to live.

By the late 1940s the BBC had written him off entirely and considered no major work of his to be worth programming which put the Music Director Sir Steuart Wilson in an awkward position when asked to talk at Scott’s 70th birthday party. "His speech" writes Scott "was a masterpiece of eloquent evasion. Ingeniously avoiding any allusion to my work or merit as a composer, with consummate skill he contrived to give the impression that he was saying nice things about me, when actually he believed there was little nice, musically, that could be said". (Bone of Contention)

Scott was undeterred. During this latter period he wrote constantly, producing not only a number of chamber works, Trios, Quartets and Quintets, but also major works including his only full length opera, Maureen O’Mara, the Fourth Symphony, which is to be recorded later this year, the Second Piano Concerto, a Concertino for Flute and Bassoon, a Sinfonietta for Organ, Harp and Strings and a large unpublished secular oratorio Hymn of Unity, which more than any other work with the possible exception of the Mystic Ode, expresses his deeply felt philosopy, that of Unity in Diversity. His final composition, a revision of an earlier Danse Song for Vocalise and Piano, he completed with failing eyesight, hardly able to hold the pen, three weeks before he died on the final day of 1970 at the age of 91.

In 1977 Sir Thomas Armstrong, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music and President of the shortlived Cyril Scott Society said in a BBC Radio 3 broadcast: "Cyril Scott didn’t care whether his music was performed or published; he would have liked to have it performed, he would have liked to have it published, he was glad when it was performed. But he went on writing knowing there was little chance of a symphony finding performance. He went on writing day after day. He was a marvellous example of the dedicated creative artist."

He also continued producing books; Medicine, Rational and Irrational, The Tragedy of Stefan George, on the German poet he met when in Frankfurt, Man, the Unruly Child, Simpler and Safer Remedies for Grievous Ills plus the two enormously popular pamphlets on Black Molasses and Cider Vinegar. These little books sold in their hundreds of thousands all over the world, bought largely by people who had no idea the author had ever written a note of music!

In the years immediately following his death there were isolated voices such as Norman Demuth, Christopher Palmer and Stephen Lloyd, deploring what they described as the inexplicable neglect of Scott but their protests resulted in few recordings and fewer still live performances.

Now, however, a new generation seems eager to explore the music afresh.

Has the wheel turned and his time come round once again?

Interest has been sparked by several events occurring close together. The first was the publication in 2000 of Laurie Sampsel’s outstanding bio-bibliography of Scott, the first to gather together all the compositions, writings and discography. The second, undoubtedly, was the decision by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust, spurred on by their administrator Bernard Benoliel and trustee Bruce Roberts to fund the production of works, some of which had not only never been recorded before but had never even been performed! Chandos, delighted with the CD’s reception last year, has now decided to record all the major works. As I mentioned earlier, the Fourth Symphony with Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Philharmonic was recorded last month and will be issued next year The disc also includes the 1st Piano Concerto and Early One Morning both with Howard Shelley. To my mind, Early One Morning is one of the most delightful of Scott’s compositions, ranking with such quintessentially English pieces as The Banks of Green Willow, The Lark Ascending or On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. The following year the same orchestra and conductor will record the Festival Overture, the Cello Concerto with Julian Lloyd-Webber as soloist and the Violin Concerto, soloist yet to be announced.

Another event was the remarkable discovery of the Sonatina for Guitar which Scott had written for Segovia in 1927 but which had since been thought irretrievably lost. Performed in 2001 by Julian Bream at the Wigmore Hall and later recorded by the German guitarist Tilman Hoppstock and the Mexican Carlos Bernal the work was described by Allan Clive Jones in the Guitar Magazine as ‘one of the summits of the guitar’s repertoire in the 20th century’.

Dutton Epoch which has already issued the Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet and three of the String Quartets has begun recording all the solo piano music with the Canadian pianist Leslie De’Ath. With the exception of Scriabin, Scott wrote more music for that instrument between 1903 and 1910 than any other composer in the world, making the recordings a major commitment for Dutton. De’Ath’s first double CD of the Suites and Miniatures is already out, so are the four Sonatas and the remainder, comprising over a hundred works, will be issued at regular intervals.

Another example of renewed interest was the International Musicological Seminar in Melbourne last July where there were six papers on Scott, dealing with different aspects of his music and his friendship with Percy Grainger.

There is also an extensive website at designed by Scott’s granddaughter Amanta Scott which gives a complete list of both compositions and books.

The swings in fortune during and after his lifetime he would undoubtedly have put down to Karma, in which he firmly believed. But perhaps there is a simpler answer, an answer he supplied himself. Writing a chapter in a book on John Ireland, who at the time felt himself to be neglected, he said, "The truth is, I suggest, that whether a given composer is neglected or not is largely a matter of fortuitous circumstances."

Fortuitous circumstances may continue to play a part in whether the wheel continues to turn in Scott’s favour but one thing is certain: For the first time there is finally material readily available for a fair and knowledgeable assessment to be made.

© Desmond Scott, 32 Belcourt Road, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4S 2T9

[This article first appeared in the October 2005 issue of the ISM
Journal and appears here courtesy of the author]

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