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.