By Jennifer Oates

Music and all things Scottish have been two of my lifelong passions. When I stumbled upon a Hyperion CD of the music of Hamish MacCunn as a young graduate student, I was entranced by the excerpts from his first opera, Jeanie Deans. The combination of folk-like music evoking the Scottish countryside, juxtaposed with the surprisingly modern sounding arias for the two female leads (Jeanie and her sister, Effie), suggested a composer with great range and depth. I was hooked; I had found my dissertation topic!

Like Hyperion’s CD, most of what had been written about MacCunn and his music has focused on his Scottish artistic persona from 1887 through 1894 and on the Scottish-styled compositions that had cemented this persona and established his career: the concert overtures The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, The Ship o’ the Fiend, and The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow; the choral-orchestral works Bonny Kilmeny, Lord Ullin’s Daughter, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, The Cameronian’s Dream, and Queen Hynde of Caledon; and Jeanie Deans. MacCunn’s reputation as a “Scottish” composer is well founded. As a student at the Royal College of Music (RCM), he changed his name from James to the Scottish Gaelic Hamish and played up his Caledonian roots all throughout his career. Alongside Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie, and others, he was among the first composers in Britain to explore national identity in music. With Mackenzie, he was one of the first Scottish composers to make a name for himself in London and throughout the British Isles. Calling him “one of the rising Scottish composers,” whose “music, which breathes of the Highlands, is both full of proper character and dramatic power” (Musical Times, 1 January 1888, 46), critics of his day proclaimed him the next big thing in British music:

. . . since Sir Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Tempest’ music at the Crystal Palace laid the foundation of his fame more than a quarter of a century ago, we can recall no native composer whose first efforts have shown such remarkable promise, and Mr. MacCunn’s career will be watched by all who have the interests of music in this country at heart (Athenaeum, 25 February 1888, 253).

The press’s enthusiastic support, however, gave way to complaints that MacCunn’s music was one-dimensional, along with pleas for him to abandon his Caledonian musical guise. While expressions of national identity were encouraged, national compositions were excepted to be only one aspect of a composer’s diverse output, particularly for composers exploring “Irish” or “Scottish” identities. MacCunn—unlike Sullivan, Stanford, and Mackenzie—thus was considered to have failed to rise above his limiting reputation as a “Scottish” composer.

While I enjoyed MacCunn’s overtly Scottish compositions, they did not have the range and emotional depth of Jeanie Deans. Where, I wondered as I studied those works, was the dynamic musical style of Jeanie Deans that had so vividly captured my attention? When I began work on my monograph Hamish MacCunn (1868–1916): A Musical Life (Routledge, 2013), I attempted to address this and other questions. In doing so, I found the MacCunn of Jeanie Deans in his works for solo instruments (particularly those for piano, cello, and violin), partsongs, and songs. His song output provides a unique glimpse into his cosmopolitan upbringing and musical style. For example, his choice of texts, though largely limited to poets from the British Isles and America, goes beyond the narrow selection of Scottish texts used in his choral-orchestral works and operas, and thus his songs are perhaps a better representation of his personal literary preferences. My two-volume edition for A-R (N068 and N069) includes all 102 of his extant songs, which span his entire compositional career, from his earliest surviving song from his teenage years prior to attending the Royal College of Music (“I saw thee weep,” 1882) to two songs from 1914 that are among the last works he composed (“With Thee,” setting a poem by his son, Fergus; and “There’s a wee, wee glen in the Heilan’s,” composed for a friend in Edinburgh).

N068     N069

MacCunn goes beyond the Schubert and Brahms influences of his teachers, Sir Hubert H. Parry and Stanford, suffusing his songs with the harmonies of Richard Strauss and the influences of the French mélodie. He takes the striking contrasts, abrupt transitions, adventurous harmonies, and descriptive music so typical of his Scottish style and strips them of their Caledonian meaning to evoke the imagery and emotions of the texts he sets. His songs range from simple, folk-like settings to the extensive “I’ve Found My Mountain Lyre Again” (N068, no. 18) a scena commissioned for the concert hall by the celebrated English tenor Sims Reeves. The latter is divided into three distinct sections; the first two consist of descriptive music depicting the weather and protagonist’s inner turmoil, respectively, while the third portrays a lyrical love song to the lyre, which is effectively mimicked in the piano accompaniment. MacCunn’s adventurous harmonies can be seen in “To Julia Weeping” (N069, Album of Six Songs, no. 3), a thirty-six-bar song that goes through five tonal centers to highlight the facetious nature of the text (and alludes to the prelude of Tristan und Isolde), and “Her Suffering Ended” (N069, Album of Ten Songs, no. 8), where the unstable harmonies underscore the death of a young girl. His use of form illustrates his sensitivity to the text, as seen in his charming, strophic, folk-like “The Ash Tree” (N069, Album of Six Songs, no. 6) and his three-verse, ternary “One lone star” (N068, no. 44), where the sparse accompaniment of the opening verse is replaced with rising octave leaps in the final verse to suggest the lovers’ starward gaze. While many of the same elements appear in his specifically Caledonian works, his songs exhibit a much broader range of musical styles, topics, and emotions.

MacCunn’s attempts to move beyond his restrictive reputation as a Scottish composer ultimately failed, and even today his Scottish compositions, mostly The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, remain his best-known works. Yet, as Arthur M. Thomas noted over a decade after MacCunn’s death, the composer left behind “many beautiful songs to show that the hopes for his future had not been formed without cause” (Arthur M. Thomas, “Some Neglected English Songs,” Sackbut 9 [August 1928]: 23). As Thomas’s quote suggests, MacCunn’s songs offer another view of this reputedly one-dimensional composer. Taken together with those of his contemporaries, they provide a link between his Royal College of Music teachers—Parry and Stanford, both of whom were integral to reviving the genre—to the vocal music of the following generations, including that of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sir Edward Elgar, Ivor Gurney, John Ireland, and Benjamin Britten. Although MacCunn was proud of his Scottish heritage and culture, his songs illustrate a cosmopolitan composer with a nuanced musical style whose output is more diverse than his one-trick-pony reputation might suggest.


Jennifer Oates

Jennifer Oates is Associate Professor and Head of the Music Library at Queens College and Associate Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century British music, and she has published essays and articles on this topic as well as on information literacy and music librarianship. In addition to her composer-centered studies of Hamish MacCunn (including her 2013 biography in Routledge’s series Nineteenth-Century British Music) and Sir Granville Bantock, her work has covered such diverse topics as depictions of Scotland in nineteenth-century art music, Brigadoon, and modernism in music in the British Isles. She has edited a critical edition of MacCunn’s overtures (Three Overtures of Hamish MacCunn (1868–1916): The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, Land of the Mountain and the Flood, and The Ship o’ the Fiend, N053) and a complete edition of his songs (N068 and N069) for A-R’s series Recent Researches in the Music of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, as well as performance editions of selected MacCunn partsongs with Yelton Rhodes Music. In 2016 Oates received the Music Library Association’s Richard S. Hill Award for best essay or article on library instruction/pedagogy for her article “Engaging with Research and Resources in Music History Courses” in the spring 2014 issue of The Journal of Music History Pedagogy. She is also one of the founders of the North American British Music Association.