> Music and social history
Hamish MacCunn. After a charcoal drawing by John Pettie, 1886. Pettie produced a number of portraits of MacCunn, who became his son-in-law in 1889.
MacCunn was arguably the brightest shooting star in the first four years of London's Royal College of Music. Coming from a musical family - his father was amateur cellist and his mother a former piano pupil of Sterndale Bennett - MacCunn entered the RCM on an Open Scholarship on its foundation in 1883 and quickly attracted public as well as institutional notice. An overture, Cior Mhor, first performed by the College Orchestra, was repeated under August Manns at the Crystal Palace on 27 October 1885 and thereafter powerful support was given to the young composer by figures as influential as Manns, Henschel, Grove and Parry (respectively his Director and Composition Professor at the College).
Opening doors and increasing professional opportunities induced what might with hindsight be called over-confidence; in April 1887, against the advice of his professors, MacCunn left the College. As he later wrote, "I held my scholarship at the RCM for four years and then, having already received some encouragement from the public, 'pushed off' into the stream 'on my own'". He had already joined a wider artistic circle, notably through friendship with the distinguished Scottish painter John Pettie (1839-1893), in whose capacious Hampstead studio he conducted orchestral concerts in 1888; in 1889 he married Pettie's daughter Alison.
(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)
Manns's patronage led to a series of Crystal Palace premieres of orchestral and choral works written during MacCunn's last years at the RCM and shortly afterwards. Critical response to the first of these, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, a concert overture taking its title from Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel referred to the work's 'strength and felicity of expression', to bold conception and brilliant scoring and to its being 'the most promising maiden effort by a British-born musician we have heard for some time'. The piece has never quite fallen out of the British repertoire and received a new lease-of-life in the 1970s as signature tune to to the popular TV series Sutherland's Law. Two more orchestral 'ballads' followed and four cantatas to Scottish texts. Writing of the first of these, Lord Ullin's Daughter, in March 1888, the Musical Times referred to the music's 'distinct Highland character, which largely augments its poetical colouring and earns . . . the attention which the work of genius should excite'.
A commission from the Glasgow Choral Union resulted in MacCunn's most substantial work to date - an actual setting of The Lay of the Last Minstrel. However in a fourth Scottish cantata in 1890 his attractively individual style was thought by some to be losing its freshness.
Two prestigious commissions from the Carl Rosa Opera Company were to occupy MacCunn for much of the 1890s. Jeanie Deans (after Scott's The Heart of Midlothian) was premiered at Edinburg's Lyceum Theatre in 1894 and Diarmid (to a libretto by Queen Victoria's son-in-law the Marquis of Lorne) at Covent Garden in 1897. Both were well received at the time, Diarmid in particular benefitting from a spectacular production. More recently they have been described respectively as 'the finest serious opera of the late Victorian period' and 'a staggering piece of work for a British composer of only twenty-nine writing in 1897'.
Yet sadly these were to be MacCunn's last major works. Apart from one further cantata and a light opera, his later compositions are confined to occasional works, salon pieces and songs. (Of the latter however he wrote more than 100 examples, some of which are of haunting beauty and deserve to be much more widely known.) After conducting the premiere of Diarmid he worked extensively as an opera conductor for the Carl Rosa, Moody-Manners and Beecham Opera companies and succeeded Sullivan at the Savoy Theatre. His conducting repertoire ranged widely from Siegfried, Tristan and Elektra to the premiere of Edward German's Merrie England and the English premiere of A Waltz Dream by Oscar Straus. He also held teaching posts successively at the Royal Academy of Music, Hampstead Conservatoire and Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
After a long and distressing illness MacCunn died at his home in St John's Wood one hundred years ago this month. Further information on his life and works can be obtained from Jennifer L. Oates : Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916), A Musical Life (Ashgate, 2014), to which we are indebted for many of the facts quoted here.