Hamish MacCunn

August 18, 2010

Hamish MacCunn

Hamish MacCunn was born in Greenock on the 22 March 1868.

He was the second son of wealthy shipbuilder and merchant, James MacCunn. From a young age he showed musical promise, composing melodies at 5 years old, and at 12 he started an oratorio.

He was educated locally at Greenock Academy, then Kilblain Academy, then Graham’s Collegiate School before winning a scholarship to the new Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry.

By 1887 he had produced his first overture Cior Mhor and it was performed to great success at the Crystal Palace, London in the same year.

In 1889 he composed probably his best known work Land of the Mountain and the Flood.

Like other Scottish composers of the Victorian age, his work was recognisably Scottish, indeed MacCunn’s works were probably the most influenced by Scotland, to the extent that he was almost regarded as Scotland’s national composer of the time.

From 1888 to 1894 he became a Professor at the Royal College of Music. It is said that his hectic schedule of composing, conducting and teaching contributed to his early death at the 2nd August 1916 aged only 48.

His manuscripts and published works were donated to Glasgow University by his widow in 1951.

Selected works are :-

Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC SSO covers MacCunn’s works including The Land of the Mountain and the Flood :
Murray McLachlan performs Valse and Six Scotch Dances :
Queens College, New York State perform selected Partsongs :
A book of MacCunn’s Overtures by Jennifer Oates is also available :
A short (24 page) biography by Stuart Scott is available from the Scottish Music Centre :

Recent article by The National newspaper on MacCunn is Here:


John Blackwood McEwen

August 17, 2010

John Blackwood McEwen

Sir John Blackwood McEwen was born in Hawick in 1868 on the 13th April.

He studied first in Glasgow University (gaining an MA in 1888) and then at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 1895 he was appointed choirmaster of Greenock South Parish Church, and also began teaching at the Athenaeum School of Music in Glasgow. In 1898 he was invited back to the RAM as Professor of Harmony and Composition. He became the Principal of the Royal Academy in 1924 and held the post till 1936.

He co-founded the Society of British Composers in 1905, and was knighted in 1931. He was also awarded an Honorary LLD by Glasgow University in 1933. He donated his manuscripts to the University and founded the McEwen Bequest to encourage works from other Scottish composers. He died in London on the 14th June 1948.

Selected works :-
String Quartets : Vol 1 Vol 2
Vol 3
Piano sketches by Murray McLachlan :
Border Ballads :
Violin Sonatas :
Piano Sonata and Sonatina :
Solway Symphony :
Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity :
His book The Thought of Music is also available :


Cecil Coles

August 16, 2010

Cecil Coles

Cecil Coles was born in Kikcudbright, 7th October 1888. Educated at the George Watson School in Edinburgh, he won a scholarship to the London College of Music. He became friends with Gustav Holst at the Morley College Orchestra. He then went back to Scotland, studying at Edinburgh University, then won a composition scholarship to the Stuttgart Conservatory. He was appointed assistant conductor at Stuttgart Royal Opera.

He returned to the UK before the first world war broke out, joining the Queen Victoria Rifles. When the war did start he was immediately called into action on the Western Front.

Even here he tried to continue composing, sending manuscripts back to Gustav Holst, even when shelling destroyed his musical instruments and some of his manuscripts. Holst presumed that 2 movements of his Behind the Lines were also destroyed by shelling.

Eventually though his luck ran out. He was heroically retrieving wounded from the battlefield when he was killed by a German sniper near the Somme. It was the 26th April 1918, and the young composer was only 29. He was buried in Crouy in Picardy, France.

After many years, the family of Coles rediscovered their father’s ‘lost’ manuscripts, still bloodied and shrapnelled, and it was eventually performed by the BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins.

His music was used fittingly for the opening and closing credits for the documentary The First World War shown on Channel 4 in 2003.

Most of his surviving music can be found on the CD, Music From Behind the Lines :


Francis George Scott

August 9, 2010

Francis George Scott was born in Hawick, on 25th January, Burns Day in 1880. That seems fitting for a man that set many of Robert Burns poems to music.

He became one of the main exponents of the movement called the Scottish Renaissance, a flowering of Scotland’s creative talent in the inter-war years of the twentieth century, showcasing Scotland on the world stage.

As a young composer his songs were compared favourably to German lieder, he was hailed as a young Mussorgsky, and he was later enticed to France where he received instruction from Jean Roger-Ducasse in 1921 but he declined his subsequent offer to stay in Paris and learn at the Paris Conservatoire, preferring instead to return to Scotland.

He was a friend, teacher and mentor to Hugh MacDiarmid and helped MacDiarmid shape his masterpiece poem ‘A drunk man looks at the thistle’. Like MacDiarmid he was passionate about Scotland and he gave to the SNP his manuscript of his setting of ‘Scots wha hae’. He also set many of MacDiarmid’s poems to song.

The friendship with MacDiarmid was to be a double edged sword. MacDiarmid’s frequent eulogising of Scott as one of the best composers in the world made Scott reluctant to promote his own work.

He became Lecturer in Music at Jordanhill College in Glasgow in 1925 and remained there for 25 years.

Towards the end of his life in the 1950s, Scott, like many older people, developed senility. Nevertheless he was given a honorary degree by Glasgow University in 1957. He died in 1958, November 6th.

After years of neglect, Scott is today regarded as one of the most remarkable song composers of the twentieth century. See here.

There are only 2 current CDs of his work. Moonstruck is a CD of his songs featuring many Burns and MacDiarmid settings as well as settings of other poets like William Dunbar and William Soutar :

A superb account by Murray Mclachlan of some of his songs, transcribed by Ronald Stevenson for piano, is also found on Piano Music from Scotland :

There is a biography of the man by Maurice Lindsay : Francis George Scott and the Scottish Renaissance.

A portrait of F.G. Scott is in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh (closed for refurbishment till Autumn 2011). Its was painted by William Johnstone c. 1933. See here


Ernest Bryson

August 9, 2010

Robert Ernest Bryson was born in 1867 on the 30th March in Milton, Glasgow.

He was a composer who wrote symphonies, his first in 1908, and a 1926 opera The Leper’s Flute, with words by Ian Colvin, among various other works. Harvard Library has the vocal score of this Opera.┬áHe frequently set poems by Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats and Robert Browning to music, and was also known for organ works.

Yet today he is primarily remembered due to a spat he had with Elgar in 1924. More here.

Elgar was invited to be the President of the Rodewald chamber music society, an organisation founded in memory of businessman Alfred Rodewald, who also founded the Liverpool Orchestral Society.

Elgar however declined the offer stating he preferred Orchestral works to Chamber works: “Chamber music, in this case, is inadequate and it is a reproach to the musical taste of Liverpool that the orchestral concerts should have been allowed to disappear.”

Spurned, the Society then turned to Bryson who accepted their offer.

Bryson returned Elgar’s letter and noted: “I return Sir Edward Elgar’s letter and do not understand why he should have seen fit to combine stupidity and impertinence in his reply to the society.”

He died in 1942, 20th April in Gloucester.

I could not find any discography of any of Bryson’s works. There is however a pdf of the score of his 1921 work Fanfare for an Adventure at this site.