By Jennifer Oates
The centenary of Hamish MacCunn’s death offers the opportunity to reflect on his fraught career and subsequent reception as well as to assess his place in the flourishing scholarship on music in Britain that has occurred over the past few decades. MacCunn’s career illustrates many of the challenges facing British composers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: mounting a successful career in their homeland, issues of identity in British music (which includes British, English, Scottish, pan-Celtic, etc.), music in and composers from the provinces, and the exploration of music throughout the British Isles.
At the age of fifteen, MacCunn entered the Royal College of Music on a composition scholarship in the fall of 1883, the inaugural term of the institution. He later, rather foolishly, declined his degree in 1887 complaining at the time that: “[t]he professors [at the RCM] seem to teach at the lectures a form of musical gymnastics! Dry bones! Never once did they speak of the ideal of art. I have, therefore, resigned my scholarship.” (In later years, he attempted to downplay his departure noting, “I held my scholarship at the R.C.M. for four years and then, having already received some encouragement from the public, ‘pushed off’ into the stream ‘on my own.’”) By the late 1880s MacCunn’s three “Scottish” overtures (The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, 1887; The Ship o’ the Fiend, 1888; and The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, 1888) and four choral-orchestral works (Bonny Kilmeny, 1888; Lord Ullin’s Daughter, 1888; The Lay of the Last Minstrel, 1888; and The Cameronian’s Dream, 1890) clearly placed him among the rising stars of British composition at the time. All of these works, written in what could be characterized as a later nineteenth-century style in the vein of Mendelssohn and Schumann, were featured at the Crystal Palace, thanks to Sir August Manns and Sir George Grove, and also regularly performed by provincial choral and orchestral societies. For the rest of his life, these early successes tended to eclipse his later efforts as a composer of both serious and popular music, while his difficult personality won him few allies and limited his opportunities. With the dawn of the new century, he saw his popularity fade as his name appeared less frequently in the press and on concert programs. When his works were performed, it was the earlier works rather than more recent compositions that were featured. In 1915, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and his health forced him to reduce all of his activities. His music suffered a further decline in popularity after his death in 1916.
In many respects, MacCunn’s career illustrates some of the typical paths available for native composers. He benefitted from increased educational opportunities in London, had the support of major figures in the musical world (particularly Manns, Grove, and Sir Hubert H. Parry), and received commissions for major works: a cantata for the 1890 Norwich Festival and the Carl Rosa Opera Company commissioned his first opera. (The cantata, Queen Hynde of Caledon, was not completed until 1892; the festival featured his overture The Ship o’ the Fiend instead. One of the last commissions from Rosa himself, MacCunn’s opera Jeanie Deans was contracted in 1889 but not finished until 1894 due to changes of librettists and topics.) In many respects, MacCunn sabotaged his own success: arrogantly declining his degree, failing to fulfill commissions in a timely manner, relying on operas produced solely in Britain to further his career, and burning bridges with his hot-headed actions. It would seem in considering his biography that MacCunn had all the elements available for a successful career, but, as he aged, his personality and actions seem to have worn down the goodwill of his peers and his unprofessionalism closed doors to opportunity.
One factor in both MacCunn’s rise to fame and fall was his devotion to his homeland. The question of what was “British” was a challenge for all interested and resulted in a panoply of burgeoning musical styles focused on aspects of Great Britain—such as Ireland, Scotland, the “Celtic North,” and, in England, Tudor, pastoral, or folksong-influenced music—rather than any sense of unity. With fewer opportunities for musicians, particularly composers, outside of the metropolis, British composers tended to flock to the capital and write music that catered to the London public. While some, such as Charles Villiers Stanford, Arthur Sullivan, and fellow Scot Alexander Campbell Mackenzie, explored their homelands within a more diverse musical output, MacCunn distinguished himself with an unique, and, it could be said in this context, exotic artistic persona. In 1885, while at the Royal College of Music, he changed his name to Hamish, the Scots Gaelic form of his birth name James, and his compositions for major venues, like the Crystal Palace and major concert halls, were devoted almost exclusively to Scottish topics. Though he claimed his name change was to avoid being confused with his father James, he was clearly distinguishing himself as a Scottish composer, as he confirmed in an 1893 interview: “the more I look into the large and interesting tradition of [Scottish] ballad music and ballad literature that has been bequeathed to us, the more I feel that here there is plenty of material for the work of more than one life. I really feel no interest in foreign subjects—not doubt because I am a Scotsman.” Though initially viewed as novel and refreshing, critics soon tired of MacCunn’s Scottish topics and what they perceived as his unwillingness or inability to grow as a composer.
MacCunn succeeded in establishing himself as a “Scottish” composer; yet, this label only reflects one aspect of his music. There is little to no trace of his homeland in a significant proportion of his music, including most of his compositions from after 1900. These works—particularly his songs, partsongs, and works for cello and piano—are some of his most sophisticated efforts. As Arthur M. Thomas noted in 1928: “About thirty years ago great things were expected of Hamish MacCunn. He disappointed the expectations he had aroused; but he left behind him many beautiful songs to show that the hopes for his future had not been formed without cause.”
Remarkably, events marking the centenary of MacCunn’s death have gone beyond his Scottish legacy, instead focusing on his music for popular venues or his more intimate, urbane works:
Why this interest in MacCunn’s cosmopolitan works? These compositions, particularly his songs and partsongs, are among his most refined pieces featuring some of his most inventive harmonies and voice leading as well as witty and sensitive text settings. All of these features transcend his Scottish label and his fraught career. Ironically, it is those two factors that have long kept performers and listeners from considering his later compositions. The shift from focusing on his self-sabotaged career to his music and how it speaks to us today is a welcome change. It invites us to rethink the place of MacCunn’s music outside of his limiting Scottish guise and celebrate his unique and, at times, vibrant compositional voice without reference to tired cliché. Doing so will take more than writing about MacCunn, we need well-prepared and thoughtful performances of his works—and not just his “big hit” The Land of the Mountain of the Flood. Only then can we understand MacCunn’s compositional achievements and see what place his music has in our contemporary musical culture.
(A selection of MacCunn’s part songs can be heard here.)
“Hamish MacCunn,” MM (Mar. 1888): p. 55.
MS Farmer 264 quoted by kind permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
MacCunn as quoted in James Cuthbert Hadden, “Scottish Composers and Musicians: Hamish MacCunn,” Scottish Musical Monthly 1/3 (December 1893): 54.
Arthur M. Thomas, “Some Neglected English Songs,” Sackbut 9 (August 1928): 23.
By Nicholas Temperley
This year we commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of William Sterndale Bennett (1816–1875). He was one of three early Victorian performer-composers who managed to overcome the British establishment’s preference for music of foreign origin, and even to enjoy a commanding position and reputation in their time. The others were Michael William Balfe (1808–1879) and Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810–1876).
There is surprisingly little overlap between the musical domains occupied by these three men. Balfe managed to achieve success in the financially hazardous field of opera, not only in Britain but on the Continent as well, first as a singer and then as a composer; public taste would not let him stray far from Italian models and the Anglo-Irish ballad. Wesley, after youthful exploration of several different fields, settled for the comparatively safe and insular world of the Church of England, where his bold challenges to convention both in organ playing and composition were made possible by the security of his appointments.
Bennett chose instrumental music as his main field of activity, with concentration on the piano. In the time of his youth the instrument was nearing the summit of its growth and development, and was a focus of innovation, excitement, and enormous popularity, both in the concert hall and in the home. Competition was fierce for the primary positions of fame in the role of pianist-composer, dominated by Liszt, Chopin, and Thalberg. But Bennett, for whatever reason, refused to follow the lead of these men, seeing himself as a defender of the classical tradition against mounting threats of commercialism, vulgarity, and virtuosity.
Orphaned in early life, he was raised at Cambridge, where for a while he and his grandfather were both singing in the King’s College Chapel choir. Soon recognized as a child prodigy, William was admitted before his tenth birthday to the recently founded Royal Academy of Music (RAM). His most important teacher there was Cipriani Potter (1792–1871). A pioneer in teaching the principles of musical form, Potter treated Mozart as the best model for composition students, a view that Bennett maintained throughout his career. His first piano concerto (1832) attracted the attention of Mendelssohn, who promptly invited Bennett to visit him in Germany. With this encouragement Bennett produced in the next decade an astonishing group of symphonies, piano concertos, and overtures on classical models. They include his overture The Naiades (1837), which became his most popular orchestral work. At the same time he developed for domestic use a more intimately original style in a series of piano pieces and songs. He began to be influenced by the manner of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” though never at the cost of his own, often more intense, musical personality.
In the course of his visits to Leipzig that followed, Bennett found that he was treated as a leading member of the famous circle of musicians there, earning extravagant praise from both Mendelssohn (“I am convinced if he does not become a very great musician, it is not God’s will, but his own”) and Schumann (“Were there many artists like Sterndale Bennett, all fears for the future progress of our art would be silenced”). Greatly encouraged, he produced more ambitious piano works, including a sonata dedicated to Mendelssohn and a fantasia dedicated to Schumann. He gained an enviably high reputation in Germany, which led to the publication there of most of his compositions—an unusual privilege for a British composer at the time—and, eventually, to the offer of the conductorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts for the 1853–4 season. He could surely have found a way of rearranging his obligations in England so that he could accept this signal honor. The fact that he turned it down is an indication of the self-doubt that seems to have troubled him through much of his life.
Back in England, Bennett found he had to concentrate on making a living, especially after his marriage in 1844, soon to be followed by the birth of three children. Many of his equally needy contemporaries, such as Edward Loder, had to publish popular ballads, or facile piano pieces based on currently fashionable songs, for ready money. As a matter of principle Bennett refused to descend to this level. He also seems to have disapproved of the theatre. He earned what he could from more high-minded performing or composing opportunities.
But most of his income had to come from teaching. He had taught at the RAM since 1837, and took private pupils as well, but he failed to secure any other position until 1855, when he was appointed conductor of the Philharmonic Society, and professor of music at Cambridge the following year. These appointments gave belated recognition to his standing in the profession, but added little to his income. After his Suite de Pièces (1842) his output of compositions for the next fifteen years was disappointingly meager. He failed to complete commissions for several large works, including an opera and an oratorio, and only occasionally published a modest piano piece or set of songs, and a single sonata for cello and piano in 1852. His life seems to have become a ceaseless round of playing and teaching. With only mild exaggeration, Geoffrey Bush fifty years ago asked “Why did Bennett give up being a composer at the age of twenty-eight?”
Some writers have simply put down his low output to overwork. But Bennett did find time for a substantial amount of valuable scholarly work. He founded the Bach Society in 1849, and was responsible for the first English edition and public performance of the St. Matthew Passion. With Otto Goldschmidt he edited The Chorale Book for England (published in 1863), consisting of German chorales with English texts. He also produced an edition of classical piano sonatas and gave two series of historical lectures at the London Institution.
What was needed to revive his career as a composer was a strong external stimulus. This came in later years in the form of several commissions. A cantata, The May-Queen, was written for the Leeds Festival of 1858. Two choral odes were ordered in 1862—one for the International Exhibition, with words by Tennyson, the other for the installation of the Duke of Devonshire as chancellor of Cambridge University, with words by Kingsley. He provided a Symphony in G minor, for both the Gewandhaus and the Philharmonic Society, in 1863–4, and an oratorio, The Woman of Samaria, for the Birmingham Festival of 1867. The overture to Ajax followed in 1872. One of his last works was more spontaneous, and certainly surprising: a programmatic piano sonata, Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1873).
It is generally agreed that these late works, though they show a composer in full command of his medium and contain occasional touches of brilliance, mostly lack the inspiration and originality of Bennett’s youthful period. As I have speculated elsewhere, the early loss of both parents may have left him with a profound need for reassurance and encouragement, which England could not provide for a native composer in his time. As a young man he responded to the admiration of his English and German colleagues, above all Mendelssohn and Schumann. But this did not lead to appropriate recognition in England until many years later. When the opportunity arrived to claim his earned place as a leader in German music, he was not quite bold enough to grasp it.
Bennett and his English contemporaries have not been treated well by music historians, who long ago placed them in a Dark Age preceding the “English Musical Renaissance” and dismissed Bennett as an imitator of Mendelssohn. Although that judgment has been challenged for some time, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to give it a more comprehensive review, and in this year above all, to get to know Bennett’s music well enough to appreciate its individual virtues. An amazingly large proportion of it is now freely available in high-quality recordings through YouTube and other sources. Rosemary Williamson’s comprehensive thematic catalogue of his works was published by Oxford University Press in 1996. Several essays of a re-evaluating character have been issued by Larry Todd, Peter Horton, and others. This year’s NABMSA conference will include a session on Bennett, with papers by Therese Ellsworth on his reputation in America and by Linda Shaver-Gleason on the reasons for his dismissal as a Mendelssohn imitator. A special issue of Nineteenth-Century Music Review, edited by Jeremy Dibble, will also commemorate the bicentenary; it includes an essay by me on Bennett’s stylistic originality. And Dr Horton is preparing a full-length book study.
Perhaps at last Sterndale Bennett will get his due.
by Samantha Barnsfather
Martin Anderson, Scottish writer and founder of Toccata Press and Toccata Classics, referred to Stevenson as “the arch-internationalist who embraced ‘world music’ in his own compositions long before the term became fashionable.” Stevenson’s unique musicianship, his brilliant pianistic virtuosity, compositional abundance, socio-political consciousness, and his lifelong fascinations with fellow composer-pianists such as Ferruccio Busoni, Percy Grainger, Ignacy Paderewski, and Kaikhosru Sorabji may appear to be on the peripheries of conventional musical canons and repertoires. For Stevenson, these gentlemen were the inspirations that prompted one of the most intriguing musical lives of the late 20th century.
His exceptional musicality as well as his dashing good looks and flashy fashion sense seemed out of place within the postwar world. He wore an eagle pendant round his neck in place of a tie, maintained an elegant goatee beard, and composed using a quill in his “den of musiquity.” He incorporated world music in his orchestral works, such as his Violin Concerto “The Gypsy” (1977-1979) and his Second Piano Concerto, “The Continents” (1970-1972). In the latter work, he combined musical ideas from five continents while playfully paying homage to Ché Guevara. His strong sense of his adopted Scottish identity and an appetency to connect his music with intensely held political beliefs were innovative for his time.
In addition, Stevenson was also a political artist in the way of Alan Bush and Michael Tippett. As a pacifist, he was imprisoned for two years for refusing to go into the National Service. He spent two years as a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Cape Town (1963-65) where he found the apartheid regime unconscionable. During his time in South Africa, he composed a short piano piece merging the liberation hymn “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika” and the national anthem, “Die Stem”. While lecturing at the same university, he stressed how his Passacaglia on DSCH (1960-1962) included a tribute to Lenin and the South African police came calling soon after the presentation. In December 1968, he was a guest at the fourth Congress of Soviet Composers in Moscow. In 1985, he spent several months as a visiting lecturer at Shanghai Conservatoire and saw the effects of Marxism put into practice. As a result, its arguments vanished from his intellectual arsenal.
While Stevenson had a busy and successful career, there was a more private side to the man, especially later in his life, which kept him out of the limelight and denied him some of the acclaim his admirers felt was due. Stevenson worked outside the confines of the London musical world in his tiny cottage in West Linton, south of Edinburgh, surrounded by his beloved family. He and his Marjorie had one son, Gordon (a luthier), and two daughters, Gerda (an actress) and Savourna (a clarsair). His granddaughter Anna Wendy Stevenson continues the family’s traditions by being an outstanding folk fiddler, lecturer, and composer. Students and friends from all over the world visited their home, while local children took piano lessons there.
Stevenson also had an innate affinity for other dissident composers by advocating for such figures as Havergal Brian, Nathaniel Dett, John Foulds, Leopold Godowsky, Bernard Stevens (a personal friend and fellow Marxist) and numerous others in concert, on air and in print. For example, Stevenson was one of the first to take a genuine interest in the music of Percy Grainger. Even though they never met, they exchanged letters for the last three years of Grainger’s life (Their correspondence was published in 2010 under the title Comrades in Art by Toccata Press).
Stevenson was a renowned musicologist, writer, and lecturer. He held senior lecturing posts at the University of Cape Town, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, at the Juilliard School, New York and at Melbourne University. The Edinburgh-born concert pianist, Susan Tomes, told The Scotsman how much, as a teenager, she valued Stevenson’s “inspirational lectures”. She said: “Using wide-ranging examples from music, poetry, philosophy and politics he drew our attention to many valuable and perhaps under-acknowledged ways of looking at music.” He also wrote for Musical Times, Tempo and The Listener. In the 1970s, he was heard on the radio, both in recital and discussing the music of Busoni, about whom he also made a BBC documentary. During this time period, he also presented a series of programs on Radio 3 on Busoni’s music and a BBC2 documentary soon followed. In 1981, Stevenson wrote an extended series for BBC Radio Scotland on the bagpipe, clarsach, and fiddle music of Scotland.
Until a series of strokes in his mid-sixties, Stevenson was consistently giving public performances and lectures. He was a loyal patron of local music events, amateur and professional. Stevenson was the Vice-President of the Workers’ Music Association, which supported internationalism, peace, and social justice. In 2008, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of his choral symphony, Praise of Ben Dorain, based on a Gaelic poem by Scottish poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre. It had taken Stevenson more than 20 years to compose. It was scored for two choirs and two orchestras featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a chamber orchestra, the chorus of Scottish Opera, the Edinburgh Singers– all conducted by James Grossmith. The Scotsman critic wrote that there were “unquestionable flashes of keen perception.” At the conclusion of the performance, the 80-year-old Stevenson was “cheered to the rafters.”
Despite the extent of his output – more than 500 works – and the occasional recordings for Hyperion, Toccata and Altarus, he was basically untouched by promoters, orchestras and audiences. If the scope of his work is hard to encapsulate, the style of his composition is even more difficult to define which may have contributed to his music’s neglect. He composed a number of large-scale orchestral works, chamber music, and hundreds of piano pieces and songs. His most famous composition, the epic Passacaglia on DSCH, is thought to be the longest single-movement work in the piano literature. It uses Dmitri Shostakovich’s musical initials to build up a monumental 80-minute structure. He presented the score to the Russian composer at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival and four years later performed it himself at the Aldeburgh Festival.
His 300 settings of verse by such poets as William Blake, Robert Burns, Alan Bold, George Buchanan, Hugh MacDiarmid, Walter Scott, James Joyce, Tagore and Ho Chi Minh show a vast array of influences. Poetry by German and Italian writers have also been set along with texts in Lancashire and Aberdeen, and Scots Gaelic dialects. His regard for the human voice and lyric melody stemmed from recollections of his father’s tenor singing voice.
His vocal music falls under the broad headings of eclecticism and nationalism. His self-confessed aim is for an “epic” music, which absorbs elements from the East and from Africa, along with Western culture. Stevenson simultaneously draws inspiration from the folk music of many countries and uses the most sophisticated Western techniques, such as in his Asian-inspired song cycles, Four Vietnamese Miniatures (1965) and Nine Haikus (1971), and in his Scottish inspired song cycles, Songs from Factories and Fields (1977) and Hills of Home (1974). Stevenson’s nationalistic impulse was brought about by his studies of the songs by Scottish composer Frances George Scott (1880-1958). Scott had served as mentor to his former pupil and poet Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1972) who also influenced Stevenson. Scott and MacDiarmid fronted the music-literary movement of the 1920s, known as the Scottish Renaissance. Stevenson is considered their successor. His study of Scottish folk dance, poetry, and song gave his work a distinctive national point of reference.
My research explores whether Stevenson’s political leanings factor into his compositions, taking into account whether historical and cultural events of 20th– and 21st– century Scotland shaped Stevenson’s long held beliefs including socialism and pacifism. It also addresses the issues surrounding Stevenson’s lack of major recognition outside the United Kingdom. Publication of his songs is a crucial step towards their wider performance, and in turn, a major step toward deserved recordings. The Ronald Stevenson Society is making commendable progress in this direction. It was founded in 1993 in Edinburgh to disseminate the music of Stevenson through performance, recording, and the publication of Stevenson scores. In addition, more scholarly work on the history of Scottish art music and rediscovery of its composers will likely result in modern performances of these works. This writer believes that a broad distribution of Stevenson’s music will result in a favorable reception from history, the final arbiter in all human endeavors.
“Nettle Tea and a Trunk Full of Documents” by Christina Bashford (below) was first published in January 2008 on the Boydell and Brewer blog, following the publication of her monograph, The Pursuit of High Culture: John Ella and Chamber Music in Victorian London. I thank her for suggesting this article for the NABMSA blog’s new series “Stories from the Archives” and for allowing NABMSA to re-post the story. If you have archival stories of your own that you would like to share, please send them my way.
Meanwhile John Ravell became thrilled that I was pursuing this line of research, the more so when I told him I had decided to write a definitive biography of Ella once my PhD was completed. A book on Ella had been something he had always wanted to see – the true recognition of Ella’s importance – but he had latterly come to realize he would never write it himself. Now, nearly twenty years later the Ella papers are safely housed in Oxford University libraries and I have finally finished the book I promised John Ravell such a long while ago. Unfortunately, Mr Ravell has not lived to see the completed product. I regret that intensely, because it would have given him great pleasure to see John Ella’s significance recognized on the bookshelf. For like John Ella, John Ravell was a quite exceptional and visionary man.
During the latter half of the 1950s young musicians were influenced by Lonnie Donegan and the idea that bands with guitars, drums, a washboard and a tea-chest bass could find chart success. With American roots in blues and folk hundreds of amateur skiffle groups formed across England. Like many of their peers the Quarry Men were looking for fun, fame, and fortune. Their love of rock ‘n’ roll and their pursuit of musical knowledge transformed a fledging skiffle group into the Beatles. Five decades after the fab four made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show we have yet to hear or see another musical group that arrives on the national scene fully developed or one whose music evolves at such an amazing pace as the Beatles did. Their ability to mesmerize or inspire listeners can be found in a myriad of ways. In the early music their raw energy is heard in moments such as the drum roll that launches “She Loves You,” the throat wrenching power scream of “Twist and Shout,” and even the flawless vocal harmonies of “This Boy.” Live performances at the height of Beatlemania illustrated the fab four’s ability to create a flawless musical show while steadfastly holding their audience’s attention in the palm of their hands. As a studio band their albums changed the way we listened to music and oftentimes their songs opened up hidden meanings to our own lives. Revolver challenged our definition of popular music. When before had we heard pop songs that featured drones, tape loops, or a sitar to enhance lyrical meaning? Sgt. Pepper provided a unique, private Beatles performance that called attention to the unsettled nature of our own world, and with Abbey Road we heard the means by which symphonic form was melded to rocker mentality. However, it was more than the sublime construction of an album that held our attention. The Beatles’ quest for artistic perfection and their creation of hypnotic soundscapes challenged musicians and listeners alike to match their criterion.
Where else can we find such a tantalizing example of excellence? An obvious place to look is in the field of sports. Such moments arose when we watched Mariano Rivera closing a Yankees game, Michael Phelps swimming to a record 8 gold medals, or Shaun White flawlessly executing a Double McTwist 1260. Just as the Beatles blew their competitors out of the water so too has another elite athlete. In collegiate wrestling all roads lead to Dan Gable who defined perfection as a collegiate and world wrestler and then redefined it as a coach at the University of Iowa. As a wrestler Gable laid the foundation for an aggressive style that drove him to build records of 64-0 in high school and 118-1 in college, win several world titles, an Olympic gold medal, and leave an imprint on the sport of wrestling that has not been matched or surpassed. Wrestling for Harold Nichols at Iowa State University, Gable’s dedication to training and his relentless intensity led to his entering the 1970 NCAA tournament his senior year undefeated. When he lost his final match to the unknown Larry Owings, the wrestling world was stunned. The Russians believed that a flaw in Gable’s style had been exposed which would make him more vulnerable during the 72 Olympics in Munich. They were wrong. Just as the Beatles realized in 1966 that there were no more musical idols to seek for inspiration or to unseat, Gable looked within and raised the bar. Because he was so focused and motivated, not a single takedown or even a point was scored against him in the Olympics. Gable’s superbly focused concentration and aggressive style made him invincible. Like the Beatles Gable stayed true to himself and never backed down or turned away from a challenge. As a wrestler he had the drive, desire, and determination that propelled his achievements to what others had once believed were unimaginable heights.
It is rather uncanny to contemplate traits shared by two seemingly disparate entities. However, the most common attribute between the Beatles and Dan Gable is that all roads in their respective domain lead to them. Let me explain. The Beatles are still considered the most influential band in popular music history. As they rise in popularity during the 1960s they change where and how we listen to music. Their concerts move from small clubs to theatres, from television sets to boxing arenas and baseball stadiums, and finally to the rooftop of their studio and business, Apple Corps at 3 Savile Row. During the early sixties aspiring British musicians launch their careers by performing covers of American rock ‘n’ roll. The Beatles change our musical expectations. With the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership we find a competitive duo who seeks to write songs on par with Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, and Brian Wilson. It is a duo that utilizes their competitive tension to elevate the craftsmanship of songs as well as define their function in a fractious society. The Beatles’ work in the recording studio changes the dynamics of recording forever. While George Martin shaped their early output, he also had a deep understanding of and respect for their creativity. He and his engineers acted as partners in the Beatles’ sonic exploration which led to singles such as “Rain,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” as well as set the standard of artistic perfection with the release of albums from Rubber Soul to Abbey Road.
Dan Gable is the rock superstar of the wrestling world. Even after he stopped wrestling competitively in 1976 and retired from coaching in 1997, his eminence has not diminished. Like Lennon during his New York City years, Gable walks freely around Iowa City and is approachable. The first time you see him outside the wrestling arena you wonder what all the fuss is about. The man is so low key, nonchalant and gracious that first looks lead you to believe he is a computer programming wizard rather than a ferocious athletic competitor. You wonder what he did that still brings USA Today, the New York Times and Sports Illustrated to Iowa City repeatedly to write about his accomplishments. It is only when you look him straight in the eye that you see the competitor – the man who won Olympic gold and who built a powerhouse wrestling program at the University of Iowa. Once your eyes meet, the man’s genius is revealed. Gable’s laser eyes lock on you and in a split second size up your strengths and your vulnerabilities. Mentally, he will always be several steps ahead of you, and he will know your next move before you have even made the gesture. Before Mariano Rivera, Michael Phelps or Shaun White, there was Daniel Mack Gable. He is an institution in the sport of wrestling and is regularly called its greatest ambassador. Not only is Gable the most celebrated wrestler of his time, he is the one who set the standard wrestlers across the world still strive to meet.
Just as today’s youth are mesmerized by the Beatles, young wrestlers are drawn to Gable. His aura among wrestlers who had yet to be born when he won Olympic gold or coached the Iowa Hawkeyes beams brightly. During home dual meets at Carver Hawkeye Arena aspiring wrestlers always know where Gable is. One of their eyes focuses intently on the action at hand and the other on him. If Dan is not doing color commentary for Iowa Public Television, he will be sitting in the stands with his family; that is, if the Hawkeyes are performing to his standard. If things are not going well in an individual match or it is hard fought, then Gable moves closer to the action. If he is disgusted with what he sees, he will head for the tunnel. The eyes never lose sight of him and when he pauses in his walk around the arena – then it happens. Gable finds himself surrounded by at least half a dozen boys who want to talk wrestling or get his autograph. He is a true champion because he stops and talks with every single boy. He may ask them to crouch a little so that he can keep an eye on the current action, but he never turns them away. Gable takes care of his fans just as the Beatles had taken care of their devout followers in Liverpool.
Attaining perfection in any discipline is filled with years of hard work, sacrifice, and even tragedy. When Paul McCartney’s mother died from breast cancer in 1956, Paul turned to music. It became his sanctuary and his public way of coping with a very private loss. In many ways Lennon’s life was marked by death. His uncle George Smith, a father figure, died in 1955, his close friend Stuart Sutcliffe died at the age of 21 in 1962, and Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager and another father figure, died from a drug overdose in 1967. As horrifying as these deaths were, it was the untimely death of his mother Julia in 1958 that irrevocably altered his life. Julia became John’s muse, and music was his way of trying to reach and communicate with her as well as coping with his pain and the uncertainty of living in a cruel world.
Gable’s road to becoming an elite athlete was also shaped by tragedy. Just after his sophomore year of high school his 19 year old sister Diane was murdered in the family home. It was Gable who summoned the strength to show his parents that life moved forward rather than standing still. Like McCartney, Dan turned to wrestling to work out his pain and like Julia, Diane became his muse. He trained with single-minded devotion until he became one of the best wrestlers in the country. Then he trained some more and turned himself into the most dominant wrestler in history. Just as the Beatles’ work ethic set them apart from their peers, so too did Gable’s. He trained longer and harder than his teammates or any other wrestler in the world. Losing his last collegiate match in 1970 gave Dan added motivation for his work-outs and ultimately helped him forge the path toward an Olympic gold medal. There were no shortcuts to the medal stand especially when the competition believed you were within their reach.
What made Gable so unique was that his legacy extended far beyond his accomplishments as a collegiate wrestler and an Olympian. His work as a collegiate coach defined the parameters used to judge all who followed. Gable was the head coach at the University of Iowa from 1976 to 1997. In 21 years his teams won an unprecedented 21 Big Ten titles and 15 NCAA titles. As a head coach Gable became an amalgamation of George Martin and his engineers as he molded his team to get the best out of each wrestler. Gable’s foundation was built on fundamentals, work ethic, and honor. From the moment a match began until its conclusion Iowa wrestlers were known for their ability to wear down their opponents and cast them aside in pursuit of the next great challenge. During their seven minute matches many were relentless, merciless and methodical in the way they demoralized their opposition. The Iowa way of wrestling was known for its action in the center of the mat and with a focus on take downs, back points, and pins. Yet, Gable never put his wrestlers on a pedestal. He knew what it took to perform at an elite level, but he also knew that his wrestlers were unique young men who had their own personalities and different training methods that helped them reach their peak. Gable never denied his wrestlers’ individuality or their style of wrestling. He was the master psychologist who tweaked each athlete’s style to perfection. Because he got to know his wrestlers’ mindsets so well, he knew how far he could push them and when to ease the intensity of that push. Gable built the top wrestling program in the country because he had All-Americans and soon-to-be All-Americans wrestling each other every day in practice. When a wrestler graduated or was withheld from competition due to injury, his heir stepped onto the mat without losing a step. If your goal was to win a national title and a gold medal, then you came to Iowa. Gable’s coaching tree offered yet another testimony to his impact on the sport. Just consider the number of former assistants and wrestlers who have gone on to coach at the collegiate level: Tom Brands (Iowa), Barry Davis (Wisconsin), Jim Heffernan (Illinois), J Robinson (Minnesota) and Tom Ryan (Ohio State University). While each program has its own personality and style, Gable’s imprint is firmly implanted in their foundation.
Whether attending a sporting event or a concert we are all spectators who are inspired by perfection or by seeing the impossible attained. It does not matter whether we are listening to our favorite Beatles’ album or watching a wrestling meet. The inner strength and determination we hear in vocal and instrumental lines and see in an individual wrestler provides motivation as we attempt to achieve our own impossible – to break through personal barriers as we pursue our dreams. That is the legacy of the Beatles and Dan Gable.