A Short Biographical Sketch
by Stuart Scott
Hamish MacCunn, born on 22 March 1868, was a composer, conductor and teacher of great merit. Pupils who studied with him during the short time he was at the Royal Academy maintained that he was a born teacher of charming and unselfish character. He gained a high reputation in London musical circles as well as in countries abroad and expressed his Scottish heritage of poetry and romance more successfully than any of his predecessors. Many of his works exhibit a folk music element and MacCunn had a genuine love of Scottish folksongs but he disliked imitations and detested songs like ‘Wha Wadna Fight for Charlie’ or ‘Within a Mile o’Edinburgh Toun’.
As a child MacCunn had no doubt heard his mother perform folksongs at the family home, ‘Thornhill’, 41, Ardgowan Street, Greenock. She was not only a singer but a pianist too and a pupil of Sterndale Bennett. His father, James, was an amateur cellist, a well respected shipowner in Greenock and at home Hamish and his brothers (the younger one was organist at the old ‘Free Mid Kirk’) received much encouragement. James would praise and purchase all of his son’s childhood compositions which must have been a great incentive to the young Hamish. From a very early age Hamish had shown musical promise taking an interest in the piano and writing simple melodies by the time he was five years old. Two years later he was playing the piano and the violin reasonably well receiving piano lessons from, Mrs. Liddell, a local teacher and violin lessons from Mr. Calvert, music director of Greenock’s old Theatre Royal. His general education however, took place at Greenock Academy, the old Kilbain Academy and Graham’s Collegiate School. In preparation for a college career, Mr. Poulter, a well respected music master of the area, gave him lessons in piano, organ, harmony and composition but in spite of all his educational work Hamish was not a dull boy. Good times were to be had sailing in Rothesay Bay and trout fishing in Arran, the Cowal burns and around Arrochar. It is reported that at the age of twelve he started work on an oratorio which was never finished because of the attraction of these youthful activities. However, the attraction of a career in music soon gained the upper hand and in 1883 he won an open scholarship to the newly established Royal College of Music in London.
MacCunn made good progress at the College where he studied piano with Franklin Taylor, viola with Alfred Gibson and composition with Hubert Parry and Charles Villers Stanford. He made such good progress in piano studies that Franklin Taylor suggested training him for a soloist career and he was such a good ‘all-rounder’ that he played violin and viola well enough to take part in string quartets and the College orchestra receiving praise for his playing on one occasion by the great violinist, Joachim. Whilst at the RCM many seeds were sown for future blossom. MacCunn’s early works, The Moss Rose and Cior Mhor were performed at Crystal Palace by Augustus Manns in 1885; his composition professors, Stanford and Parry who set very high standards in technical competence, influenced MacCunn’s own teaching methods in later years and in 1886 John Pettie RA painted a remarkable portrait of him in just four hours. The meeting with Pettie was later to prove of benefit and advantage to both men and was the start of a long and close association of mutual admiration.
At the end of his College course MacCunn produced the work that was to assure him of a place on the musical map. On 5 November 1887 his Overture: The Land of the Mountain and the Flood was given its first performance by Augustus Manns at Crystal Palace. This was his first major success with the public and brought him lasting fame. George Bernard Shaw heard the overture at a later concert in 1890 and called it “a charming Scotch overture that carries you over the hill and far away”. The work was obviously inspired by lines from “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” (Canto V1 ii) by Sir Walter Scott –
O Caledonia! Stern and wild
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Land of brown heath and shaggy wood
Land of the mountain and the flood
Land of my sires! what mortal hand
can e’er untie the filial band
That knits me to thy rugged strand!
MacCunn’s music shows the same romanticism as Scott’s Waverley, Rob Roy or Lady of the Lake and its easily remembered opening cello theme with lilting rhythm and Scotch snaps along with its lyrical second theme first heard on violins produced an atmosphere which greatly appealed to his audiences. This prompted MacCunn to write other orchestral works of similar character and in 1888 his orchestral ballad, The Ship o’ the Fiend was performed at the Henschel Concerts on February 21 followed by the Ballad Overture: The Dowie Dens o’Yarrow at Crystal Palace conducted by Augustus Manns on October 13 and MacCunn conducted The Ship o’ the Fiend overture himself at the concluding concert of the Halle season (1888-1889) in Manchester.
Around this time John Pettie arranged two orchestral concerts in his studio with an orchestra of sixty players (a large orchestra for a private house) which provided entertainment for two hundred and fifty guests. MacCunn conducted his own overtures and works by other composers. His conducting career had begun and his orchestral works showed unmistakable hallmarks, much originality and masterful orchestration. He quickly followed his orchestral works with a series of choral works on Scottish subjects gaining more success and his attention to Scottish themes brought about his reputation as a ‘national’ composer, a situation with which MacCunn was quite satisfied at the time but later was to find frustrating.
The cantata Bonny Kilmeny Op. 2 was first performed at Paterson’s Concerts, Edinburgh in 1888, repeated by Manns the following year and was considered a choral masterpiece. The beauty and enchantment of the work is apparent in the opening bars where the young girl goes up the glen –
The nuts frae the hazel tree that swung
To gather as she softly sung
Sweet hymns of holy melody
For Kilmeny was pure as pure could be
Lord Ullin’s Daughter Op. 4 soon followed Bonny Kilmeny and was performed again by that staunch advocate Augustus Manns at Crystal Palace on 18 February 1888. By the end of the year the final piece of the choral trilogy, Lay of the Last Minstrel, was commissioned and performed by the Glasgow Choral Union on December 18 and repeated by Manns the next year. It contains dramatic scenes and one critic wrote that it was “difficult to surpass and shows a masterful treatment of all the resources of the full orchestra”. All of the early choral works are highly suitable for amateur choral societies being dramatic and effective and are still performed by such bodies from time to time.
MacCunn continued to write choral works in a similar vein and The Cameronian’s Dream Op. 10 (Paterson’s Concerts, Edinburgh 27 January 1890) although a success with the public received a vicious attack from G.B. Shaw who had previously received a performance of Lord Ullin’s Daughter well. However, MacCunn’s music was always well received by critics in Europe and America where the choral compositions were popular at the turn of the century. MacCunn’s reply to Shaw’s attack came in the form of another choral piece, Queen Hynde of Caledon given by the Glasgow Choral Union on 28 January 1892. Although times were both busy and successful from a creative point of view there was a need to earn a larger income and in 1888 MacCunn was appointed Professor of Harmony at the Royal Academy of Music, London, a post he held until 1894. There were other posts too and in 1892 he had been appointed conductor of the Hampstead Conservatoire Orchestral Society so now time was diverted between the three activities necessary to earn a living – composition, conducting and teaching.
In 1889 whilst on holiday at Corrie in Arran, Hamish met Alison, daughter of John Pettie, a well known member of the ‘Glasgow School’ of painting, who had already painted a portrait of MacCunn three years before. It was once believed that Pettie’s picture, “Two Strings to her Bow”, now housed in Glasgow Art Galleries, embodied the likeness of his own daughter out for a walk with two gentlemen, one of whom was Hamish MacCunn but in fact Mrs. J.C. Dunlop of Glasgow identified the girl in the picture in 1941 as Miss Margaret Thallon, a governess in both the MacCunn and Pettie families. Miss Margaret Thallon herself contacted the Glasgow Art Galleries in 1945 and she identified the girl in the picture as herself, the dark-haired youth as Hamish MacCunn and the second gentleman as Alec Watt who was a neighbour and close friend of the Petties and sat for other paintings too. It would seem that this is correct as Miss Thallon died in 1948 aged 84 and therefore would have been about 23 when the picture was painted. “Two Strings to her Bow” is not the only picture in which Hamish MacCunn was to appear. He sat again for Pettie as the figure on the bed in “Challenged” and for “The Violinist” and other subjects. A glance through Pettie’s list of pictures with titles such as The Flageolet, The Minstrel, The Trio, The Rehearsal, The Solo, The Musician, A Song Without Words, etc., shows his interest in and love of music but perhaps he was best known at the beginning of the century for his picture “The Sword and Dagger Fight”. Though never a practising musician Pettie was devoted to music learning the flute and piano.
Music and musicians were inspirations for his work and he loved best of all to paint to the accompaniment of a piano duet such as Hamish MacCunn and his cousin Andrew Ker would sometimes play for him. When they were tired he would encourage them to play more. In fact Pettie was always a source of encouragement to MacCunn through undaunted enthusiasm for his talent.
In 1889 Hamish married Alison Pettie at St. John’s Wood Presbyterian Church, London and there was a huge reception at the bride’s home, “The Lothians” attended by many distinguished artists and musicians. Alison was fond of singing and more songs and ballads flowed from her husband in the years that followed creating a new era in song accompaniments. The marriage produced a son, Fergus, who took part with the London Scottish Regiment in the charge at Messines and later was in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. MacCunn now introduced his new father-in-law to people in musical circles which resulted in a portrait of Augustus Manns amongst others, who had in turn introduced MacCunn to the musical public.
It gave Pettie great pleasure to be brought into close contact with the musical world and made possible many musical evenings in his studio at “The Lothians”. Even before his daughter’s marriage Pettie had organised concerts at his studio as a vehicle for MacCunn’s music, attended performances elsewhere and was keenly interested in Hamish MacCunn’s progress and dreamed of his success as a composer. In 1883 Pettie sent a Christmas card to his wife from Birmingham where he had attended a performance of an early work by MacCunn and inscribed it, “The Monster Orchestral Concert performed at Birmingham in 1889, sketched by a Royal Academician who was present on the great occasion”. The card illustration showed the successful MacCunn conducting a huge orchestra with authority. Indeed, Pettie’s dream came true. Before he was 25 Hamish had four overtures, five cantatas and a large number of songs and part songs to his credit. He was respected in musical circles and conducted his own works regularly. It was also curious that 4 June 1889, the year of Pettie’s dream, was to bring the marriage of his daughter to the composer.
The early orchestral and choral works show a good sense of drama and therefore it was a natural progression for MacCunn to turn to opera in both his creative work and conducting career. In the 1890s he was conducting the Carl Rosa Company and directed the first performance in English of Wagner’s Tristan at the Lyceum Theatre in 1898. He also took on work with the Moody Manners Company and after Arthur Sullivan’s death conducted light opera at the Savoy until 1905 during which time he directed long runs of Edward German’s operas including Merrie England. It was once reported that during the rehearsals for the first London performance of Waltz Dream by Oscar Strauss, the production required an extra number for one scene and MacCunn quickly supplied one from his own pen. We are told that no one noticed it until the composer arrived and wondered where it had come from but by all accounts he was not displeased with the melody.
Production of operas established his reputation as a conductor and he took on more and more opera work and his own creative output decreased because of it. Most of his composition work was completed by the time he was thirty and opera company work was a necessity for an income and left little time for composition. In a letter to A.M. Henderson, MacCunn once complained – “My literary practice for the last five months has consisted of writing luggage labels – at which I am really expert!” A busy London life and demanding tours took their toll but for his labours he became renowned as an assured and efficient professional admired for his tactful treatment of singers and musicians.
By far the most important aspect of MacCunn’s creative work during the 1890s was the production of his two operas, Jeanie Deans and Diarmid. They are dramatically powerful and show excellent handling of orchestral forces. Jeanie Deans first performed at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh by the Carl Rosa Company on 15 November 1894 is based on Scott’s ‘Heart of Midlothian’ with a libretto by Joseph Bennett. It was performed again in London two years later and since that performance critics have been consistently cruel, even though the concert-going public and Queen Victoria, who asked for a private performance of extracts from the operas at Balmoral in 1898, were pleased to hear more. The first London performance of Jeanie Deans prompted the Musical Times to announce: “The Scottish flavour in the music is judiciously minute, being almost confined to two national dance tunes … and the dialect is fortunately no more conspicuous”. But who is to say that something isn’t Scottish unless it contains snaps, drones and dialect? In spite of such criticism Jeanie Deans remained in the repertoire until after the First World War and was revived again by Iain Whyte in 1938 at Edinburgh with some success. It was not seen in the theatre again until the Glasgow Grand Opera Society staged it as their contribution to Festival Year 1951 with Joan Alexander in the title role. The performance was broadcast by the BBC and partly funded by the Arts Council and Glasgow Corporation.
At the time it was written Jeanie Deans was the only opera by a Scottish composer to use native literature and on the occasion of the 1951 Festival production it was appropriate that a Scot made her operatic debut in the title role but once again everyone except the critics seemed pleased to hear the work again. The Times described it as “a grand opera … so far ‘after’ Verdi that it is not grand enough.” There is much to recommend the work however, and one should point out some beautiful solos such as Effie’s lullaby, Jeanie’s appeal to the queen and some short songs given to Madge Wildfire as being significant contributions to the operatic repertoire. The Scottish folk character of the first act, mentioned by the critic of the Musical Times, gives way to a much broader idiom in the second act and choral work is kept to a minimum throughout. It has been suggested that perhaps a more extended closing scene with a greater choral climax would have had gainful effect pleasing critics in particular but one doesn’t have to look too far to find rich orchestral textures and much experienced choral writing in this work, especially in the fourth act.
Jeanie Deans and Diarmid had taken up eight years of MacCunn’s time with little financial gain and from 1900 onwards he viewed his artistic career in a new light. Although never forgetting his native Scotland he found that a broader outlook was necessary in his creative work in order to gain success and a reasonable income at the same time. The first work to show his new outlook was The Masque of War and Peace produced at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1900 for the benefit of the Guards War Fund quickly followed by an opera called The Golden Girl in 1905 and The Wreck of the Hesperus for chorus and orchestra. Three years later the Pageant of Darkness and Light was produced and during this period of composition he was also conducting touring opera companies again. In 1910 Sir Thomas Beecham asked him to conduct for the season and still MacCunn was composing all manner of smaller works including piano pieces, chamber works and songs.
Although he might have appeared to be something of a ‘workaholic’ he found time for recreation now and then sailing boats on the Clyde which he knew so well as a youngster, playing golf at Wembley where he got round in ninety and running up breaks of sixty or so in games of billiards. In the last five years of his life the pace did not slacken and from 1912 onwards he took opera classes at the Guildhall School of Music as well as teaching privately and continued his conducting with another season for the Beecham Company in 1915. In the latter years his creative work returned to Scottish subjects delivered as a final note of defiance to critics no doubt but above all these works stand as a final statement of intent and expression of his national heritage. Kinmont Willie, The Jolly Goshawk and The Death of Parcy Reed produced after the composer’s death by the Sheffield Amateur Music Society under Sir Henry Wood in 1920 are all representative of his final statement and worthy choral compositions. MacCunn was an exhausted man when he died at his London home on 2 August 1916. Earning a living and later ill health had prevented his art reaching its full maturity and even a last hope of creating some kind of national school or tradition was prevented by war when in 1914 he was nominated Principal of a proposed musical academy in Edinburgh which never came to fruition.
Although MacCunn’s musical language was inherited from Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms – a tradition which it will be remembered that his own teachers were moving away from – he had the reputation of a ‘national’ composer. In 1916 one writer in a tribute to the composer said, “The world of music recognises in his compositions a new note impressively and distinctly Scottish and marked by a grace and beauty which promised much. Several of his works were of such excellence that they gave rise to the pleasant hope that upon them would be raised a Scottish national school of composition”.
With the passage of time and the dramatic decline in the number of concert performances of his music, many people today have difficulty putting that statement into perspective but I am convinced that consciously or unconsciously MacCunn played an important part in bringing all that is Scottish to the attention of the public and formed the basis of a national school of composition in that he led the search along with Wallace, Drysdale and McEwen all born in the 1860s, for a Scottish identity in music which has never been equalled since. All four of these composers had to travel far for their higher musical education since there was no music college in Scotland at that time and all lived most of their lives in London. In spite of this each of them continued to use subjects of Scottish interest for their art and went to their native ballads, romance and legends for inspiration. They were proud of their heritage, as we must be in turn in trying to understand their art, using their music and building on it for the future. Hamish MacCunn and his compatriots had something significant to say through their music and it is still worthy of the listener’s attention today.
And it is through listening as much as any other approach that we are most likely to find clues to his personality as there are few to be found as far as written evidence and recorded memories are concerned. But if we examine closely not only his music but private letters and biographical incidents we find that Hamish MacCunn was a man with a passionate belief in Musical Education in Scotland, having advocated the setting up of a College of Music in Edinburgh run by Scots for Scots, and although he had an apparent ‘workaholic’ approach to professional life he was a family man who found time for good family relationships and leisurely pursuits at regular intervals for regeneration of ideas and inner strength.
In sitting for his father-in-law as a model on a number of occasions he assisted in the furtherance of the artist’s activities and the arts in general. There was never any hint of the vain desire to appear in a painting and there is no evidence to suggest that he ever mentioned his modelling to anyone else.
MacCunn was a man with such faith in his fellow countrymen and in a confidential letter to Professor Blackie dated November 1890, he made an appeal to Scottish musicians everywhere to rally in support of his advocacy for a College of Music in Scotland by quoting the lines –
“Old harp of the Highlands, how long hast thou slumber’d
In cave of the corrie, ungarnished, unstrung!”
Indeed his selection of literature for musical setting serves well to underline his general sentiments regarding his native land but on a more personal level the letters also give a good indication of his qualities. MacCunn had written passionately about the formation of a Scottish College of Music in the Dunedin Magazine (May 1913) and it was this journal which prompted him to write to Learmont Drysdale’s sister on 7 January 1916, shortly before his death.
His strength of character and concern for others shines through the lines of this letter. Beginning with apologies and great concern that he had fallen in arrears with his subscription to the Dunedin Society he then went on to describe in a clear, sensible and almost dispassionate way, the illness of his last days – “I am very seriously and dangerously ill. The trouble is cancer of the throat … I suffer very little except in swallowing. And my voice is almost entirely gone. But God is good and I know that whatever is to be will be right. And I don’t think I am at all afraid”. The closing thoughts of the letter are directed towards others and the lines seem to be detached from and disregard what has gone before – “Will you please remember me most kindly to your brother and accept my warmest good wishes for the New Year. With kindest thoughts I am always sincerely yours …”
So even in those uncomfortable final days MacCunn was not thinking of himself but of his friends and fellow countrymen working for an artistic cause encouraging them in their work as he had done all his life. An incident related by A.M. Henderson in his “Musical Memories” (Glasgow 1938), involving MacCunn as a young man serves well to illustrate his never ending encouragement and sympathetic approach to others often less accomplished than himself. Henderson, aged 14 was staying for a short holiday at Bannatyne’s Hotel, Lamlash. The Bannatynes were both hospitable and musical people and their house was one of the few which possessed a good piano. Some of Henderson’s relatives regarded the young lad as a promising composer-pianist and on hearing that MacCunn was staying at Corrie, arranged for the boy to perform his masterpieces before him. Instead of dismissing the lad with a ‘thank you’ or bursting into laughter MacCunn took the time and trouble to go through the pieces showing him how he might improve. Although A.M. Henderson in later life described this meeting as a comic episode in his career it does serve as proof of MacCunn’s forbearance and kindness of heart.
It is clear that Hamish MacCunn had a charming, sincere and unselfish personality which reveals itself in his music to all those who care to listen.
© Stuart Scott 2010